Endangered Incumbent Smackdown: Bunning vs. Dodd

HOWARD MEGDAL: At first glance, it would appear that either Arlen Specter, R-PA or Jim Bunning, R-KY is the most vulnerable U.S. Senator facing re-election in 2010. I think ultimately, the deck is most fatefully stacked against Senator Christopher Dodd, D-CT.

Let’s start with the obvious one- Chris Dodd is wretchedly unpopular right now in his home state. A Quinnipiac poll from earlier this month had him at 33 percent approval, 58 percent disapproval. For a state that voted for Barack Obama last November with 61 percent of the vote, that is an astoundingly poor showing.

Bunning is in similarly dire straits, with just 28 percent approving of his job performance in Kentucky, 54 percent opposed as of April 8. He’s similarly situated to Dodd- what he lacks in Senatorial experience (elected in 1998) he makes up for in age. And as Dodd is a Democrat in a Democratic state, Bunning is a Republican in a state that voted for McCain with 58 percent of the vote.

But let’s unpack all this a bit. If the two polls are to be believed, Bunning still has 18 percent of Kentucky undecided on his job peformance. His strongest would-be challenger, Ben Chandler, didn’t run- instead, he endorsed Attorney General Jack Conway, who gets just 42 percent of the vote in a trial heat against Bunning. By contrast, Dodd’s strongest challenger, former Rep. Rob Simmons, would defeat Dodd 50-34 percent, according to Quinnipiac.

So in addition to higher negatives and a stronger challenger, Dodd will be facing 2010 as a member of the incumbent president’s party for a mid-term election. Nearly every instance of this phenemenon results in the wind at the backs of the party out of power. This trend would only be exacerbated should the economy fail to turn around in time for November, 2010.

But while a sagging economy will hurt any Democrat, no Democrat will be hurt more than Chris Dodd. The two biggest reasons for his steep decline in popularity are the perception that he was behind AIG executives getting to keep massive bonuses, and that he received favorable treatment from Countrywide Financial for a pair of mortgages. Never mind that he eventually got around to disclosing his mortgage information, nearly a year after the story, or that the Obama administration eventually copped to asking Dodd to intervene on behalf of AIG. In both cases, the perception hardened that Dodd was interested in helping large corporations at the expense of ordinary citizens of Connecticut.

Add the fact that Dodd receives a ton of financial support from both the insurance and financial services industries, and the negative ads more or less write themselves. The state itself is made up largely of the very rich- who will be angry at Dodd’s party for tax increases on those making more than $250,000- and the very poor, who will be angry for both of his seeming coddling of the very rich.

I take no pleasure from seeing Chris Dodd in trouble- the irony is he has been a good Senator, looked out for the middle class, and both these political problems are far more optical than unethical. But he has put himself in a very difficult situation. How difficult? He’s in bigger trouble than Jim Bunning. Now that’s saying something.

CHRIS PUMMER: Chris Dodd might be in serious trouble, as Howard points out. But I don’t think his situation is as desperate as Bunning’s.

For starters, Dodd’s approval ratings have only recently dipped as anger has risen over the five-term senator’s ties to the federal bank bailout. For a politician who has been re-elected four times with with nothing less than 58 percent of the vote, and who 18 months ago was a serious presidential candidate — even if that candidacy was a longshot — there remains plenty of time for the voters of Connecticut to forgive a favorite son.

Dodd will also benefit from the support of the President, and his ability to raise money — even if it isn’t coming from his home state (though that tally probably comes with caveats not mentioned in news articles).

Bunning, though, faces many more challenges.

For starters, he’s been unable to raise money from anybody. With barely a quarter million dollars, Bunning won’t be able to survive a competitive race. And every indication is it will be.

Bunning snuck into the senate in 1998 by only a few thousand votes. Even after the best Democratic candidate imploded with the revelation that he’d had an extramarital affair, Bunning still struggled to win re-election in 2004 against Daniel Mongiardo (51 percent to 49, while George W. Bush carried the presidential vote 60-40).

Mongiardo is running again, this time with better name recognition following his 2004 senate run and his current stint as Lieutenant Governor of Kentucky. Both he and the state’s attorney general Jack Conway both look more capable of raising money than Bunning, and either one would likely enjoy support — financial or otherwise — from the national Democratic party.

Giving Bunning’s contentious relationship with his party, it’s an open question as to how much support the embattled senator will receive from other Republicans.

Ultimately, Bunning’s biggest disadvantage will likely be himself. He’s never been as popular with voters as Dodd has been. He doesn’t have a record of legislative achievements to fall back on like Dodd does. And while Dodd is trying to rehab his image, Bunning acts like he just doesn’t care, and he keeps finding news ways to put his foot in his mouth.

Dodd may or may not be able to weather the storm he’s in, and it could come down to factors that are entirely out of his control, such as the state of the economy. But Bunning’s goose looks cooked no matter what.

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