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Turning Victory to Defeat? How Obama's Election Helped Put the Senate in Play

4 years ago
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Senate Democrats are in danger of losing their majority on Nov. 2, and two of the reasons go back to Barack Obama's own election as president: Illinois became vulnerable after he vacated the seat to move to the Oval Office, and the same thing happened in Colorado when he appointed the incumbent Democrat, Ken Salazar, to be his Interior Secretary.

It could have been worse. The Delaware seat, long held by Joseph Biden before he became vice president, looked to be in big jeopardy until the GOP primary yielded a wild-card candidate in the person of Tea Party favorite Christine O'Donnell. New York is not on the list because Republicans could not find a strong candidate to take on Kirsten Gillibrand, who was appointed to the Senate seat when Hillary Rodham Clinton became Secretary of State.

Michael Bennet and Alexi GiannouliasThe Obama team in 2008 and early 2009 just did not foresee the consequences the series of Obama-created Senate vacancies would have on the 2010 midterm elections.

Jennifer Duffy, who tracks Senate contests as a senior editor at the Cook Political Report, said, "They did not expect Illinois to be competitive." But Illinois Democrats started down what became a very rocky road when former Gov. Rod Blagojevich -- who had the sole power to fill the vacancy -- was arrested on Dec. 9 and charged with trying to sell Obama's seat.

Before Blagojevich was busted, Obama and Illinois Democrats assumed Blagojevich would use his Senate appointment to select someone to fill the vacancy who would have a relatively easy time winning election in November as an incumbent in the heavily Democratic state.

Blagojevich, even after his arrest -- and what turned out to be his impending impeachment -- insisted on replacing Obama on his watch. Most Democrats shunned his overtures, not wanting to take a tainted appointment, but Roland Burris, the former Illinois Attorney General, eagerly accepted Blagojevich's job offer.

When Burris joined the Senate, he anticipated Illinois Democrats clearing the way for him to run in 2010, but that was entirely unrealistic, especially after the controversy he stirred by being less than candid about his lobbying of Blagojevich to get the seat.

Given that Burris was unelectable -- he was way past his political prime and had no fund-raising ability -- Democrats, from the White House on down looked for an alternative. The most electable Illinois Democrat, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, rebuffed overtures from Obama, who was her seatmate when both served in the Illinois state senate.

Once Madigan was out of the picture, Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), seen as the Illinois GOP's strongest contender, finally jumped in the race and easily won the Republican primary last February.

Meanwhile, the Illinois Democratic primary produced Alexi Giannoulias, the state treasurer, a buddy of Obama but a candidate with baggage that he carried into the general election: money lost in the Illinois Bright Start college savings plan run by Giannoulias, and the failure of his family owned Broadway Bank, including loans the bank made to crime figures.

Heading into the final days of the campaign, the Illinois Senate race remains deadlocked, in part because the Kirk campaign has never figured out how to put behind them a series of stories about Kirk embellishing his resume, particularly about his military service.

Former President Bill Clinton returns to Chicago on Tuesday for a get-out-the vote rally at a hotel in the city's Loop. President Obama comes home on Saturday for a final weekend election push.

The Kirk-Giannoulias contest outcome depends on turning out the base vote.

"I think Illinois is the closest state in the country right now," Duffy said.

Delaware became another surprise problem for the Obama team. When Obama tapped Biden to be his running mate no one was figuring there was any chance Democrats could have trouble keeping the seat.

Delaware Gov. Ruth Ann Minner named Biden's top advisor Ted Kaufman to fill the vacancy, with Kaufman making clear he would not run for the seat in 2010. There was an assumption that Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden, the son of the vice president, would step up and run for his father's seat, but he took a pass.

Without Beau Biden, Delaware Democrats at first figured they were in trouble because the popular Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del.) was seen as a strong GOP contender. Democrats fielded New Castle County Executive Chris Coons and handicappers made Castle the strong favorite.

Then came the Tea Party surprise. Christine O'Donnell -- with the backing of Tea Party activists -- beat Castle. After the upset, O'Donnell skyrocketed to national attention, not always to good result for her candidacy. A 1999 video surfaced in which she acknowledged dabbling in witchcraft as a teenager, followed by what many considered an ill-advised campaign ad that began with her saying, "I am not a witch," and most recently, her wondering, during a debate with Coons, if the First Amendment really called for separation of church and state.

The attention O'Donnell is getting from her First Amendment and witch comments may be "enough to tank her," Duffy said. Coons, who acknowledges he would have been behind in the polls against Castle, seems headed to a win on Nov. 2.

Colorado is a state where the Obama team might have thought more strategically before yanking Salazar for the cabinet, although the state would likely have been competitive for Democrats even if Salazar had stayed put.

When Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter Jr. tapped Michael Bennet, superintendent of Denver public schools, to replace Salazar, Bennet and the Obama team did not foresee that the political environment would be as tough for Democrats as it is.

If they had, Ritter may have picked "a known Colorado politician, somebody who ran for office before," said Sandra Fish, who covers Colorado politics for Politics Daily. But "at the time, you did not have the Tea Party factor," Fish said.

Bennett survived a tough primary challenge from Andrew Romanoff. Obama backed Bennett and Bill Clinton supported Romanoff in the intra-party feud.

Republican Colorado Senate candidate Ken Buck is running a strong campaign against Bennet, whose incumbent status has given him little advantage in trying to contend with the strong Buck challenge.

First lady Michelle Obama hit suburban Denver on Oct. 14 to headline a fund-raiser for Bennet, the day after returning home to Chicago to help Giannoulias and cast her vote for him when she went to one of the early voting locations in the city. Last week, Clinton rallied Denver Democrats at a rally on the first day of early voting in Colorado.

"It's a close race and it is going to come down to the ground game," Fish said.

In New York, Gov. David Paterson appointed then-Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) to fill Hillary Rodham Clinton's Senate seat, passing over Caroline Kennedy who had hoped for the appointment. Especially after former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuiliani and former Gov. George Pataki chose not to run, Republicans could not find a strong Gillibrand challenger. Gillibrand is well ahead of former Rep. Joe DioGuardi (R-N.Y.) in the polls.

With control of the Senate hanging, perhaps on the Illinois and Colorado outcomes. Duffy notes, "it could have been so much worse, if the Republicans had come up with a candidate in New York."
Filed Under: Senate, 2010 Elections

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