Democrats look to stretch the Senate map in Arizona and Indiana

at 03:05 PM ET, 03/28/2012

Senate Democrats looking to expand the 2012 Senate playing field have gotten a boost in recent weeks, with Sen. Richard Lugar’s (R-Ind.)
Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Richard Lugar (R-Ind.). (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
problems snowballing and today in Arizona when the primary field cleared for former U.S. surgeon general Richard Carmona.

The Indiana and Arizona races stand out as the two second-tier targets for Democrats this year — after top-targeted seats in Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada — and if they can push them on to the playing field, it will be much harder for Republicans to secure a majority in November’s election.

But just how competitive are those two states?

There is certainly a case to be made in each state that the race is winnable for Democrats.

In Arizona, for instance, Democrats have made strides in recent years, and the Obama campaign has even talked about making it a targeted state in the presidential race this year. In addition, it’s an open seat where basically anything can happen.

In Indiana, meanwhile, it’s looking more and more like Lugar might lose his primary to state Treasurer Richard Mourdock. If that’s the case, this is an open-seat contest in a state that — don’t forget — President Obama actually carried in 2008.

Both are certainly within the realm of possibility, but it’s also clear that a few things need to happen in order for Democrats to make them competitive.

And in the end, both states boil down to some of the same questions:

1. Does the Obama campaign set up shop?

Despite Obama’s win in Indiana in 2008, nobody’s counting on him to pull a repeat in a pretty conservative state, and Arizona is similarly a pretty tough slog despite its ongoing political evolution.

Republicans currently hold all statewide offices in both states. They reclaimed a Senate seat in Indiana by double digits in 2010, and Arizona’s government is one of the most conservative in the country.

Winning either state would probably be the icing on Obama’s reelection cake rather than the deciding factor in returning him to the White House. There are many more swingy states where the Obama campaign’s money could be better spent, including Virginia, North Carolina, Ohio and Florida, to name just a few.

That said, Obama’s campaign has shown a desire to stretch the map, and Arizona and Indiana have been states that they’ve focused on.

If they do set up shop in either or both states, it will be a big boon do the Democratic candidates there.

2. Who’s the GOP nominee?

This is a fair question in both states. Lugar and Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) are the establishment picks, and if they win their primaries, they should be solid favorites to win in November.

A recent Democratic poll showed Lugar leading Rep. Joe Donnelly (D) in the general election by 13 percent, but Mourdock trailing Donnelly by 6 percent. Meanwhile, an Arizona poll from Democratic-leaning automated pollster Public Policy Polling showed Carmona trailing Flake by 11 percent and trailing businessman Wil Cardon (R) by just 4 percent.

But even if Lugar and Flake do survive, the argument goes, they might be battered and poor.

Lugar’s problems — from his residency issues to the recent report that he incorrectly expensed stays at a hotel in Indianapolis — could hurt in both the primary and general election. And while both Lugar ($4 million in cash on hand at the end of the year) and Flake ($2.6 million) start off with sizeable war chests, they may have to spend them down quite a bit.

The Club for Growth is already advertising heavily against Lugar, and Cardon is a self-funder who has already plugged in $1.3 million of his personal money and says he can spend more. He’s also on the air and is going after Flake on perhaps his most vulnerable issue: illegal immigration.

And if Lugar or Flake lose, of course, it’s a whole new ballgame.

3. Can the Democratic candidate match the hype?

Democrats feel strongly about their candidates in both races. But Carmona is a total newcomer to elective politics with a pretty non-traditional background. And you don’t have to look far in Indiana to find the last moderate Democrat who failed to live up to high expectations.

That was then-Rep. Brad Ellsworth, who got swamped by 15 points against Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.) in an open-seat race in 2010 despite being pitched as a recruiting coup for Democrats. Like Donnelly, Ellsworth faced a Republican nominee who, like Lugar, weathered both a tough primary and questions about his ties to the state.

“Remember when ‘Blue Dog’ Brad Ellsworth was supposed to be the next Evan Bayh and take Indiana by storm?” said Indiana GOP operative Pete Seat, who worked on Coats’s campaign. “Joe Donnelly is in the same boat.”

Even moreso than Ellsworth, though, Donnelly has struggled to raise money early in his campaign, pulling in a meager $223,000 in the fourth quarter — a number about on par with what he raised in the same quarter heading into his 2010 reelection campaign in the House.

That campaign, on the other hand, showed why Democrats believe in Donnelly. He was one of relatively few Democratic survivors in conservative-leaning districts — a testament to his campaigning skills.

Carmona had a pretty solid start in his first quarter of fundraising at the end of the year, pulling in $550,000. But he’ll need to increase that pace and sustain it, and that can be difficult for a first-time candidate once he’s plucked all the low-hanging fruit.

A lot is riding on these two races, and a lot of pieces will fall into place over the next few months.

 
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