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GOP has opportunities to break negative cycle

Despite recent Senate retirements, incoming NRSC chairman John Cornyn has some reasons for optimism in 2010.
Senator John Cornyn (L), Republican from
Sen. John Cornyn, left, Republican from Texas, and Sen. John Thune, right, Republican from South Dakota, speak to the media in Washington, D.C. on June 6, 2007.Saul Loeb / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: National Journal

How's this for a welcome present? National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn, R-Texas, has been in his new job for just a few weeks and already four GOP incumbents -- Christopher "Kit" Bond (Mo.), Sam Brownback (Kan.), Mel Martinez (Fla.) and George Voinovich (Ohio) have decided to call it quits. This comes on the heels of two difficult election cycles where Republicans have lost 13 seats -- 14 if you count Norm Coleman (Minn.). Are Republicans doomed to another losing cycle? Or does the earliness of these retirements mean Republicans will have the time they need to raise money and recruit the strong candidates?

There's nothing particularly ominous or odd about the fact that these four are leaving the Senate. Bond is 69 years old; Voinovich is 72; Brownback has a term-limits pledge; and Martinez didn't seem all that happy in his current job. But the fact that this happened before the new president has even been sworn in is unusual and potentially dangerous. Once other Republicans see their colleagues heading for the exits, it gets them to think twice about their own re-election decisions. Ultimately, it creates a negative feedback loop. As the retirements start to pile up, pessimism grows stronger among the rank and file about their party's chances in 2010. This, in turn, makes it harder to recruit challengers and raise money.

Even so, Republicans do have some opportunities to break the negative cycle.

First, get a couple of strong challengers to Democratic incumbents. Democrats have fewer seats up than Republicans do (17 to 19), but the GOP should not let any potentially vulnerable seat go untested. Arkansas, for instance, was one of the few bright spots for John McCain in 2008, as he outperformed President Bush's 2004 showing by 5 points, although a thin bench there makes recruiting against Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D) a challenge.

Colorado Democrats were surprised by Gov. Bill Ritter's decision to go with an untested pick, Denver Schools Superintendent Michael Bennet, to serve out Interior Secretary-designate Ken Salazar's tenure. Bennet starts off with zero name ID, a blank slate on issues, and no proven fundraising base. Even so, the GOP has struggled lately to win statewide office. Their best bet is that state Attorney General John Suthers decides to run. Suthers took 53 percent of the vote in his 2006 election, the highest showing by any statewide Republican candidate. Suthers has said he'll make his decision known by the end of the month.

In Illinois, Democrats worry that (likely) Sen. Roland Burris' ties to embattled Gov. Rod Blagojevich and his own lackluster past election performances could threaten their 2010 chances. Even so, it's unclear whether GOP Reps. Mark Kirk or Peter Roskam, two suburban candidates who are proven money-raisers, would give up safe seats in a state that hasn't elected a Republican senator since 1998.

There's nothing Republicans would love more than to see Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., defeated in 2010. And early polling shows that he's indeed vulnerable. Even so, the only potential candidates on the radar screen are Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki, who was recently indicted on charges of mismanagement while serving as state treasurer, and former Rep. Jon Porter, who lost his suburban Las Vegas seat last year by 5 percentage points.

Second, quickly decide on a policy for thinning crowded primaries. The good news for Republicans is that they already have lots of potential candidates looking in places like Missouri and Florida. The bad news is that crowded primaries, especially in states like Florida that have late primary dates, can often produce the wrong candidate. In Ohio, former congressman and Office of Management and Budget Director Rob Portman will reportedly announce his bid on Wednesday. With over $1.5 million in the bank, he may be able to scare off other potential bidders.

Finally, count on history. Midterm elections are traditionally dangerous for the party in the White House. And given the terrible head wind that Republicans have been running into these last four years, it's not hard to believe that they'll have a more favorable environment a year from now. In Missouri, for example, Democrats are bullish on popular Secretary of State Robin Carnahan. Even so, can Democrats win statewide without the strong tail wind they had these last two cycles? Newly elected Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon had the benefit in 2008 of an unpopular Republican governor, while Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill benefited in 2006 from the fact that an unpopular Republican Party was in charge of the White House and Congress. This time around, it's the Democrats who are in charge.

There's no doubt that 2010 is shaping up to be a tough year for Senate Republicans. In fact, we haven't even talked about other potentially vulnerable incumbents like Sens. David Vitter (La.), Arlen Specter (Pa.) and Jim Bunning (Ky.). And, if Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison resigns and runs for governor, there would be a special election to fill her seat. Already, a number of top-notch Democrats, including Houston Mayor Bill White, appear likely to get into that race.

Even so, it's interesting to note that in the last two cycles, incumbents were more problematic for Republicans than open seats. In 2006, Republicans had just one retirement -- then-Majority Leader Bill Frist in Tennessee, whose seat they retained -- but lost six incumbents. In 2008, Republicans held onto two of their five open seats, but lost at least four incumbents (five if Coleman loses his legal challenges).

This isn't to say that having four open seats (and the potential for more) is a good thing. But it does seem that the best candidates are usually the ones who fit not only the state but the times. In 2006-2008, outsiders were the preferred picks. And in a year when Democrats and Republicans are likely to have to make a lot of tough votes, running from outside Washington is likely to be an asset once again.