By Karen Tumulty
Thursday, April 29, 2010; A01
Every now and then, there comes a congressional race so fraught with history and symbolism that it becomes as much about sending a message as winning a seat.
This year, Republicans are looking to hit the trifecta in the Senate.
As things stand now, they are well within striking distance of winning President Obama's old seat in Illinois and Vice President Biden's former perch in Delaware, and of toppling Majority Leader Harry M. Reid in Nevada.
"I call them the trophy seats," said Sen. John Cornyn (Tex.), who heads the National Republican Senatorial Committee. Winning all three would affirm a GOP resurgence and announce -- as Scott Brown did, when he won a January special election for the late Edward M. Kennedy's Senate seat in Massachusetts -- that Democrats aren't safe anywhere anymore.
As is the case pretty much everywhere in the country, Republican candidates in Cornyn's three "trophy" races are the beneficiaries of a sour national mood. But Illinois, Delaware and Nevada also present unique sets of problems for the Democrats.
In Illinois, the seventh most heavily Democratic state in the nation, the party generally wins statewide races in a walk. But this year, it has picked a nominee whose background could hardly be less suited to the times. He is state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, whose failed family-owned bank was seized last Friday night by federal regulators. He is now running about even in the polls with moderate Republican Rep. Mark Kirk, who outraised him by $1 million in the first quarter of 2010.
All of this has created an awkward situation for the White House. That Team Obama seems incapable of arranging an orderly handoff in the president's home state has many in both parties wondering about the acumen of an operation whose top strategist, David Axelrod, was the premier Democratic political consultant there and whose chief of staff has designs on being mayor of Chicago. "Illinois is the political machine of Rahm Emanuel and company, and they couldn't get their act together to run a serious candidate?" said Republican activist Grover Norquist.
"We don't run the Democratic Party in Illinois," Axelrod insisted. "We don't designate the candidates." Nonetheless, the White House had tried last year to recruit popular Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan to run for the seat; she said no. A messy five-way primary in February delivered a 39 percent plurality to Giannoulias, whose star had seen a precipitous decline since the 2006 state treasurer campaign, in which Obama appeared in a television ad hailing his friend as "one of the most outstanding young men that I could ever hope to meet."
In happier times -- including on the day of the 2008 election -- Giannoulias was a regular companion of the future president on the basketball court. But the White House is now keeping its distance.
Despite Giannoulias's entreaties, Obama has not campaigned for him; he was at the president's town hall meeting in downstate Illinois on Wednesday, but only in his capacity as a state official.
If the problem for Democrats in Illinois is their own nominee, their obstacle in trying to hold onto Biden's old seat in Delaware is the likely Republican one. "Literally, there's one Republican in all of Delaware who could win a statewide race, and that's Mike Castle," said one Biden adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
When Biden loyalist Ted Kaufman was appointed to keep his former boss's seat warm until this year's special election, pretty much everyone assumed it eventually would go to Biden's son Beau, the state attorney general, who in the meantime was deploying to Iraq with the National Guard. But then Castle -- the state's lone congressman and a former governor -- announced he was running. The younger Biden, upon further consideration, took a pass, deciding he still had work to do in Delaware.
Democrats found a credible candidate in New Castle County Executive Chris Coons, who is casting himself as an outsider. He's also trying to convince Delawareans that their nine-term congressman is not the moderate they think he is, but rather someone who is "too often following the dictates of the Republican congressional leadership." Still, Coons acknowledged in an interview after his official announcement last week that he knows Republicans will be pushing hard for the bragging rights that would come with winning Biden's seat. "How'd I get so lucky?" he asked.
No one, however, will be feeling that pressure as strongly as the beleaguered Senate majority leader, the Republicans' top target this year. Polls show Reid running double digits behind his likely opponent, casino owner Sue Lowden, a former state GOP chairman, television newscaster and Miss America runner-up.
But Lowden is not the most disciplined of candidates, and Republicans are starting to worry that she might give the famously gaffe-prone Reid a run for his money in that department as well. She has suggested, for instance, that people might barter for their health care, saying: "In the olden days, our grandparents, they would bring a chicken to the doctor." Her idea has been mocked across the Internet and even by Jay Leno. "If that's how [Republicans] are going to get their trophies, they're in trouble," said Sen. Robert Menendez (N.J.), Cornyn's Democratic counterpart.
Reid is a tough campaigner, and his best hope may be to bring the focus of his race back to Nevada -- specifically, to what it means to be represented by the majority leader.
"You can't drive around any part of this state without seeing something Senator Reid has done for it," said Jon Summers, his spokesman.
This is not the first time individual races have taken on such national resonance, though it is difficult to recall when so many did so in a single election cycle. In 1994, Newt Gingrich (Ga.) and his fellow Republicans topped off their electoral triumph by defeating Thomas S. Foley in Washington state -- marking the first time that a House speaker had lost an election since the eve of the Civil War. A decade later, the giant slain was Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D), who lost his bid for a fourth term in South Dakota and became the first Senate leader in more than half a century to be turned out of office. With attention and resources pouring in from all over the country, "it has the feel of a presidential primary," Daschle says. "The stakes are high. The emotions run even higher."
Still, Republicans know they are unlikely to pick up the 10 seats they need to win back the chamber. As Cornyn notes, their strong position today may not last all the way to November. "The cautionary note for us is that while independents are listening again, they're not yet back in love with Republicans," he said. "So while this election will be in large part a referendum on the national scene and on unpopular policies coming from Washington, we've got a lot of work to do."