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Can Dems tighten grip on Senate?

The 2010 Senate elections may seem far away, but candidates are already lining up and money is being raised for what will be an important test: Can Democrats get the 60 seats they need to keep Republicans from blocking legislation?

Mary Lazar hopes not.

“We need checks and balances,” said the 61-year-old teacher in Willoughby Heights, Ohio, a state that will be one of the battlegrounds in the Senate elections.

Sixty Democratic votes will give President Barack Obama “carte blanche,” Lazar said, to add to already “exorbitant” spending.

But in another key state, Missouri, Bridget Cromer hopes a Democrat wins the open Senate seat, now held by Republican Kit Bond, who is retiring.

“We need more Democrats,” said Cromer, 56, of Chesterfield, Mo., who just started a new job with a company that sells and leases ATM machines. “The Republicans had it and did nothing the last eight years.”

This will be an unusually active Senate cycle. Because of presidential appointments and temporary fill-ins, there will be 37 Senate seats up for grabs next year, three or four more than normal.

But the political geography will look very familiar.

Many of the closest races are likely to be in states that have been battlegrounds in recent presidential elections. They include perennial swing states Ohio, Missouri, and Florida, and newer battlegrounds like Colorado, New Hampshire, and Nevada, where Republicans hope to pick off Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid in a repeat of their 2004 defeat of then-Democratic Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota.

“A lot of it really depends on where the economy is headed and where the unemployment rate is in the late summer, and Labor Day, of 2010,” University of Florida political scientist Richard S. Conley said.

Twenty of the 37 seats up are held by Republicans. Of the 10 Senate races that look the closest, seven are held by Republicans.

Republican retirements in Florida (Mel Martinez), Ohio (George Voinovich), Missouri (Bond) and New Hampshire (Judd Gregg) give Democrats potential pickups. Political analyst Charlie Cook also says that Kentucky Sen. Jim Bunning is vulnerable if he seeks re-election.

Republican Sens. David Vitter of Louisiana and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania could also face tough re-election fights.

Cook says the most vulnerable Democratic seats are the Illinois seat vacated by Obama and now held by Roland Burris, and the Colorado seat held by Michael Bennet, who was appointed to replace Ken Salazar, now interior secretary.

Republicans also think they can beat Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., who faces questions about a loan from troubled lender Countrywide that Dodd obtained while chairing the Senate Banking Committee.

Dodd also helped write an amendment that allowed hundreds of millions in bonuses to go to executives at the bailed-out AIG insurance giant. Dodd is doing poorly in polls against his potential opponent, former GOP Rep. Rob Simmons.

Democrats have 56 senators, plus two independents who vote with them, and could get one more if Democrat Al Franken wins a court fight over Minnesota’s seat.

Sixty votes would give Democrats the power to break Republican filibusters, clearing the way for easier passage of Obama’s agenda in upcoming battles over energy and economic policy, entitlement and health care reform, and the course of the war in Afghanistan.

Specter and Republican moderates Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine used the threat of a filibuster to force modest changes in Obama’s nearly $800 billion stimulus bill earlier this year.

However, if Republicans gain seats, they will have not only the filibuster threat as a weapon, but could also attract moderate Democrats worried about the size and cost of Obama’s agenda.

Both sides are emphasizing 60.

“You know why your early support is so essential?” Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee director J.B. Poersch wrote to potential donors earlier this month. “Because we have an unbelievable opportunity to get that 60th seat on Election Day, and we need your help to recruit the best candidates and build the best campaign teams possible.”

Republicans believe outrage over million-dollar bonuses at AIG bolstered their argument that Obama needs to be checked.

“People want and expect (the government) to do something,” said National Republican Senatorial Committee communications director Brian Walsh. “That being said, there is growing anxiety over the amount of spending, and where it ends. And what is happening right now with AIG helps make that case.”

Chuck Raasch is political editor for Gannett News Service. E-mail: craasch@gns.gannett.com.


A look at 10 potential Senate battlegrounds in 2010:

COLORADO: It has been trending to the Democrats, but Republicans saw an opportunity after former Sen. Ken Salazar was tapped to be President Barack Obama’s interior secretary. Michael Bennet, the former Denver schools superintendent appointed to Salazar’s seat, has never run for office before. A host of Republicans may challenge.

CONNECTICUT: Veteran Sen. Chris Dodd is in trouble over an allegedly favorable mortgage from a troubled lender and for his role as Senate Banking Committee Chairman in the oversight of the AIG executive bonuses. Former Rep. Rob Simmons could be a formidable Republican opponent.

FLORIDA: Obama won the state in 2008. Democrats hope to repeat in a wide-open battle to replace Republican Mel Martinez, who isn’t running. Republicans haven’t been able to persuade former Gov. Jeb Bush to jump in.

ILLINOIS: Once considered safe for the Democrats, the controversial appointment of Roland Burris to replace Obama has put this state in play for Republicans. Burris was appointed by former Gov. Rod Blagojevich before the governor was impeached and removed from office.

KENTUCKY: Sen. Jim Bunning is often at odds with his own party. Democrats believe Bunning is vulnerable and easier to beat than possible GOP replacements.

MISSOURI: Republican Kit Bond is retiring, and the state of the economy could determine which party fills his seat. Familiar names have already announced they’re running: Republican Rep. Roy Blunt, whose son was governor, and Democratic Secretary of State Robin Carnahan, whose father was governor and mother was senator.

NEVADA: Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid is favored, but Republicans think he might be vulnerable if the public believes the party now in control hasn’t turned the economy around. But one potentially formidable GOP challenger, former Rep. Jon Porter, isn’t interested.

NEW HAMPSHIRE: The state has been swinging recently to the Democrats. With Republican Sen. Judd Gregg’s intentions to call it quits, the Granite State will be very much up for grabs.

OHIO: Republican George Voinovich is retiring. Former congressman and Bush Cabinet member Rob Portman is seeking the GOP nomination and may be challenged by State Auditor Mary Taylor. Democrats may have a more wide open primary with Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner and Lt. Gov. Lee Fischer in the mix.

PENNSYLVANIA: Moderate Republican Arlen Specter, who has twice battled Hodgkin’s lymphoma, had to battle a tough conservative opponent from his own party during the last election. Club for Growth President Pat Toomey has said he’s likely to try again.


Raasch’s blog

Get more behind-the-scenes reports, context and analysis about politicians and the political process in Raasch’s Furthermore blog. Look for it at http://gns.gannettonline.com/apps/pbcs.dll/section?Category=BLOGS03.

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