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Where the Power of Incumbency May Not Be Enough

By Chris Cillizza
Monday, April 27, 2009

Incumbency in politics is a very strong thing. Holding elective office means access to a skilled staff, a treasure trove of campaign cash and the sort of name identification that money can't buy.

And so it's remarkable that the three most vulnerable Senate races in the country feature incumbents. In two of the three cases, self-inflicted wounds are to blame.

Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) has been erratic, at best, over the past few months and seems far more interested in fighting with the Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell (Ky.), and the National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee chairman, John Cornyn (Tex.), than in raising the money he needs for reelection. In Connecticut, Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D) has been in free fall for the past year -- the result of a hopeless presidential bid (for which he moved his family to Iowa) as well as entanglements with scandal-tarred companies such as Countrywide and AIG.

The problem for Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) is not of his making, but rather the result of shifting demographics. The Obama campaign's massive voter registration in Pennsylvania last fall led many moderate Republican voters to re-register as Democrats, robbing Specter of a vital piece of his base and making him vulnerable to a primary challenge from conservative former congressman Pat Toomey.

Here's a look at the five Senate seats most likely to switch parties next November:

5. Missouri (Republican-controlled): Secretary of State Robin Carnahan (D) spent the first three months of the year fundraising, and it showed, as she brought in just over $1 million. Rep. Roy Blunt (R), on the other hand, spent more of his time making public appearances and putting his operation together, and it showed -- $560,000 raised. Former state treasurer Sarah Steelman (R) announced last Thursday that she is forming an exploratory committee for the race and is being advised by John Weaver and Ben Ginsberg -- two GOP heavyweights.

4. New Hampshire (R): This seems to be a seat no one really wants. Sen. Judd Gregg (R) has received entreaties to rethink his retirement decision but has demurred. Former senator John Sununu (R) and Rep. Carol Shea-Porter (D) have decided against running. And the only serious candidate in the race for either side -- Rep. Paul Hodes (D) -- raised a disappointing $265,000 from Jan. 1 to March 31. Despite his fundraising take, Hodes will be the Democratic nominee. Can Republicans persuade a top-tier candidate to enter the race?

3. Connecticut (Democratic-controlled): There are signs that Dodd has hit rock bottom and is starting the long climb back. Dodd brought in more than $1 million in the first quarter. Couple Dodd's money with the fact that Republicans are headed for a primary and things look slightly brighter for the Democrat. Still, when a poll shows an incumbent down by 16 points, it's never a good sign.

2. Pennsylvania (R): There are very few neutral observers of Pennsylvania politics who think Specter will beat Toomey in next year's Republican primary. While Specter has repeatedly proved political pundits wrong, it's hard to see how he has any better than a 50-50 shot at winning the nomination. The Democratic field is still unsettled. Former National Constitution Center head Joe Torsella raised a solid but not spectacular $600,000 in the first quarter, and Reps. Joe Sestak ($3 million on hand) and Allyson Schwartz ($2 million on hand) made sure they would be positioned to run if they decide to do so.

1. Kentucky (R): Bunning promised a "lousy" fundraising quarter, and he delivered. Bunning collected $263,000 in the first quarter and closed March with $376,000 on hand. Not good. It's likely that those numbers will further embolden Republicans weighing a primary challenge to Bunning, including state Senate President David Williams. Democrats are headed toward a primary fight between Lt. Gov. Dan Mongiardo and state Attorney General Jack Conway, a race that even partisans acknowledge is a tossup. If Bunning is the Republican nominee, Mongiardo or Conway will be heavily favored to return the seat to the Democrats.

DEATH AND WAR CHESTS

When members of Congress die, money is probably the last thing their families and aides want to think about. Perhaps they should, because under current law, when members pass away, control of any remaining campaign cash automatically transfers to the committee treasurers, who may or may not have any idea what the lawmakers' true wishes were.

Rep. Walter B. Jones Jr. (R-N.C.) has been looking to change that, and last week the House passed a bill that Jones had been pushing for more than a year. His measure, which now awaits action in the Senate, would let a congressional candidate designate two individuals -- one primary, and one backup if the first one can't or won't do it -- who would be authorized to hand out the remaining campaign funds if the candidate dies.

Jones explained when his bill was first percolating last year that he was inspired to push the legislation because of the circumstances surrounding the death of his father, Rep. Walter B. Jones Sr. (D-N.C.). When the elder Jones died in office in 1992, the $288,000 left in his account was transferred to the control of the campaign treasurer. The younger Jones said getting the money disbursed was difficult and complicated, and he has been thinking about how to change the system ever since.

If he "got killed Friday," Jones has said, he knows who he would want in charge of his campaign money -- his wife. If the North Carolinian's bill becomes law, he can make that official.

PLAYERS

When venture capitalist Scott Murphy comes to Washington this week to take the New York congressional seat vacated when fellow Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand was appointed to the Senate, Todd Schulte will be at his side. Schulte, who spent the last two elections at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, will be Murphy's chief of staff. He was one of three former DCCC staffers Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) sent to Upstate New York to help Murphy in the special election in New York's 20th District.

With Ben Pershing

TODAY: Reunited, and it feels so good! Bill Clinton campaigns in Virginia for Terence R. McAuliffe, the former Democratic National Committee chairman. The roles are reversed this time; the former president is seeking to rally support for McAuliffe, who is running for governor.

22 DAYS: The Washington Post hosts a debate at Northern Virginia Community College's Annandale campus between McAuliffe, former state delegate Brian Moran and state Sen. Creigh Deeds.

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