N.J. Senator Sizes Up Democrats' Election Chances

As soon as two Senate Democrats announced their retirements this past week, much attention focused on the man in charge of getting Democrats candidates elected to replace them: Sen. Robert Menendez, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Host Guy Raz talks with the New Jersey senator about the party's chances of retaining their majority in the midterm elections.

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GUY RAZ, host:

Now, once Chris Dodd and Byron Dorgan announced their retirements this week, many pundits were quick to declare the Democrats' filibuster-proof Senate majority doomed.

(Soundbite of Fox News' "Hannity")

Mr. SEAN HANNITY (Host, ): ...2010 prominent Democrats all around the country are running scared.

Unidentified Man #1: Keeping those 60 in November is going to be very tough.

Unidentified Woman: This really could endanger Democrats already endangered 60 vote majority.

Unidentified Man #2: Look, Democrats are not going to have 60 votes next year.

RAZ: New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez is the head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. I spoke with him yesterday and asked whether it's realistic to think the Democrats could actually hold on to 60 seats.

Senator ROBERT MENENDEZ (Democrat, New Jersey; Chairman, Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee): Midterm elections of the president's party, historically, is a challenge. But we believe that with an excellent group of incumbents who are up for reelection with six Republican retirements creating open seats, I think that we will be in a good position come November.

RAZ: But it sounds like you're setting your party up for lower expectations. I mean, saying things like midterms are traditionally a weak spot for the party in power.

Sen. MENENDEZ: Well, that's just a historical truth.

RAZ: So it's a...

Sen. MENENDEZ: Having said that, we're still seeking to defy that history and be as strong as possible this November.

RAZ: I mean, obviously, you're hoping to gain seats. But more importantly, I suspect you're hoping not to lose any seats. And there are some vulnerable places for the Democrats, there's just several vulnerable places, including Nevada, the home state of the majority leader Harry Reid. Surely, it would be embarrassing to Democrats if you lost that race.

Sen. MENENDEZ: Well, Harry Reid is going to win his reelection. He has built himself a very strong record, and that record is going to carry him through in this year's election.

RAZ: Let me ask you about some of the states where you think Democrats could actually pick seats up. Which states are you primarily focused on?

Sen. MENENDEZ: Well, in the six open seats, there's five very competitive races. We're certainly focused in Missouri. Robin Carnahan, the secretary of State, already a very popular statewide figure; Roy Blunt has a pretty tough history to carry into Missouri, having been a person who carried out President Bush's and Tom DeLay's work in the House of Representatives.

I look at Ohio and I see Lieutenant Governor Lee Fisher doing great efforts on jobs. And then compared to Rob Portman, Bush's trade ambassador and OMB director. And then I look at New Hampshire and Paul Hodes versus the candidates running on the Republican side.

And the other thing to note in all of these states, Republicans are having one bloody process in their primaries. And so, not only are they spending a lot of money, but even their, quote, unquote, "preferred candidate" is constantly being pushed by the right. They're moving outside of the center, which is where one would want to be when it comes to the general election.

RAZ: Mm-hmm. I mean, I understand that part of your job is to remain optimistic, of course, as the head of the Senatorial Campaign Committee, but you heard the clips we played earlier. Do you think that it's a media creation that the Democrats are concerned about losing seats in the Senate, or do you think that there's some basis in reality to that?

Sen. MENENDEZ: Well, I think certainly the two retirements is a bit of an overstatement in terms of the dire nature of the clips you played when Republicans have six incumbents that have announced their retirements. I mean, they have to run the entire table. They have to win each and every one of those seats just to stay even in their present minority status. So I'm not quite sure how the stories play the way they do.

RAZ: In your role running this committee to elect Democrats to the Senate, what race is keeping you up at night?

Sen. MENENDEZ: You know, I'm like a mother hen: every race keeps me up.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: That's New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez. He heads up the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Senator Menendez, thank you so much.

Sen. MENENDEZ: Thank you.

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