Both Sides Gain From Dorgan, Dodd Decisions

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In the spring of last year, as President Obama was basking in high approval ratings and the Republicans were being defined as the party of Limbaugh, Gingrich & Cheney, many saw the retirements of GOP Sens. Kit Bond (MO), Judd Gregg (NH) and George Voinovich (OH) as signs that the party was in disarray and in trouble.

That was then.

Now, with the retirements of Democratic Sens. Chris Dodd (CT) and Byron Dorgan (ND), as well as Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter, people are saying that they are signs that they are in disarray and in trouble.

It is the rapidly shifting political winds that make following politics so challenging and perplexing. It is a fair assumption that the political situation in April 2009 or January 2010 may look nothing like what ultimately will be the case this fall.

But here are some early observations about the past 12 hours.

The decision by North Dakota Sen. Byron Dorgan not to seek re-election is awful news for the Democrats, great news for the Republicans. No two ways about it. Yes, there have been polls showing Dorgan "in trouble" in a hypothetical campaign with popular GOP Gov. John Hoeven. But I'm not convinced Hoeven was going to run against Dorgan, and thus I saw Dorgan as a likely winner for a fourth term. The fact that Dorgan has decided to retire — and that the most obvious Democratic successor, Rep. Earl Pomeroy (perhaps fearing he'd get wiped out by Hoeven), announced today he will stay in the House — is a sign that North Dakota may elect its first Republican senator since 1980.

Democrats have mentioned the name of Heidi Heitkamp, the former state attorney general who lost to Hoeven by ten points in a 2000 gubernatorial race, as a potential Senate candidate. But it's hard to see her coming any closer this time against Hoeven. Dems are also said to have contacted MSNBC host Ed Schultz about coming home to run, which he has refused to rule out. But I suspect that his decision will be just like that of another MSNBC figure who was thought to be considering going home to run for office. As with Chris Matthews, who wisely realized that continuing his TV program was more feasible than winning a Pennsylvania Senate seat, I say Schultz stays put at MSNBC.

A lot of ink has been spilled — do people really spill ink anymore? — about today's announcement by Connecticut's Chris Dodd that 30 years in the Senate is enough. He played, and continues to play, a key role in the attempt to pass an overhaul of the nation's health care system and, as chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, he is involved in trying to "fix" the problems of the financial institutions. But his polling numbers have been dreadful, for an assortment of reasons, many of which were self-inflicted. He was perhaps the most vulnerable of any senator, of either party, seeking re-election this year.

But at the same time, he has denied, over and over, that he would drop his bid for a sixth term. He has been tirelessly raising funds, and has made sure to be in every photo op whenever there has been a hint of good news coming out of the Senate (which, quite honestly, has not been often). An unofficial poll run in this blog just over a month ago resulted in 79 percent of respondents expecting him to run again. I was among them.

But he's gone, and now Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, perhaps the state's most popular official, is in. And that's awful news for the Republicans, great news for the Democrats. (Most Dems expected the notoriously cautious Blumenthal to wait and challenge independent Sen. Joe Lieberman in 2012). Colin McEnroe, a host on member station WNPR in Hartford, had a great line during today's Political Junkie segment on Talk of the Nation. He said something like (the transcript will be available soon) yes, the Republicans wanted Dodd beaten up, but to remain standing; the fact that he indeed was knocked out was the last thing the GOP hoped for. Blumenthal is fresh, with little baggage, and likely to defeat whomever the Republicans put up, either former Rep. Rob Simmons or wrestling executive Linda McMahon.

Of course, "likely" is not the word that comes to mind in describing what is shaping up to be an unpredictable year.

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