Senior Senators Face Serious 2010 Challenges

| Mon Mar. 16, 2009 1:34 PM EDT

Former Rep. Rob Simmons, a Republican who represented Connecticut's very blue (it went for Obama by 19 points) second congressional district from 2000 to 2006, announced on Sunday that he will challenge Sen. Chris Dodd in 2010. Despite the (R) next to his name, Simmons stands a chance: a recent poll showed him ahead of the once-popular incumbent.

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Dodd is the victim of a series of largely self-inflicted wounds—he received a "VIP" loan from Countrywide, the disgraced mortgage lender, and has faced questions over his 1994 purchase of an Irish cottage with a man who was the business partner of an investor who received a presidential pardon with Dodd's help. Still, Simmons has weaknesses: he's tied to the very unpopular era of Bush-Republican rule, and he has some minor ties to Jack Abramoff (as the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is already pointing out). But with all that in mind, DSCC chair Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) can't be happy about having to spend money in 2010 defending a five-term incumbent in dark-blue Connecticut. Even if Dodd manages to move the focus away from his controversies and survives, the money and resources spent defending him will cost Democrats trying to pick up seats elsewhere.

One of those places is Pennsylvania, where Dodd's fellow five-term incumbent Sen. Arlen Specter, a Republican, is caught between a rock and a hard place. Specter's moderate-Republican voting record (he was one of three GOPers to vote for President Obama's economic stimulus package) has made him a favorite whipping boy of the right-wing, and he faces a very serious primary challenge from Pat Toomey, who he barely beat in a 2004 primary contest. But that same voting record also makes Specter electable in increasingly blue Pennsylvania, where he's consistently received votes from Democrats and union members. If Specter moves to the right, and votes against the Employee Free Choice Act, which makes it easier for unions to organize, he'll probably have less trouble in the primary. But then he'd have to face the wrath of the unions in a general election, which have promised to support Specter if he votes for EFCA. The most logical solution, as Matt Yglesias has suggested, would be for Specter to switch parties, avoiding the primary. Ed Rendell, Pennsylvania's Democratic governor, and Vice President Joe Biden have apparently already asked, but Specter doesn't seem willing to budge.

Between the Dodd and Specter situations, it's quite likely that the Senate will look very, very different in 2010. Dodd and Specter are the 10th and 12th most-senior Senators, respectively. They are incredibly powerful—Dodd chairs the banking committee, and Specter is the ranking member on the judiciary committee and a crucial swing vote on many issues (the stimulus, for one). Since they're both vulnerable, now seems as good of a time as any for some popular, bi-partisan legislation to boost their approval ratings. Steve Benen notes that denying the incompetent jerks at AIG their hundreds of millions of dollars in bonuses has already brought together Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Al.) and Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), Dodd's banking committee counterpart in the House, in "common revulsion." But AIG's lawyers are insisting that the company is legally required to pay the bonuses. Perhaps Dodd and Specter can write some well-timed legislation to make sure that doesn't happen.