Republicans optimistic on chances of taking Obama, Biden seats
President Obama and Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. won’t be on the midterm ballot next year, but their former Senate seats will be, and both races are now either tossups or leaning Republican in high-visibility contests.
Mr. Obama, who was a freshman senator from Illinois when he was elected president, and Mr. Biden, who was in his sixth term as a senator from Delaware, come from states that have been running strongly Democratic in past elections. No one doubts that Mr. Obama would have been a re-election shoo-in had he remained in the Senate and that Mr. Biden had his seat for the foreseeable future.
But in another sign of political winds that appear to be blowing against the Democrats in the 2010 cycle, Republicans and independent political analysts say the chances are at least even that their seats could be taken over by two strong Republican candidates next November, when the GOP is expected to make gains in Congress and in the state governorships.
“Not to steal one of President Obama’s favorite words, but in Illinois and Delaware, Republicans have a truly historic opportunity to win both the president and vice president’s Senate seats, and we’re fortunate to have the strongest possible candidates already in the race,” said Brian Walsh, chief spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
“There is still a long way to go until the election, and we certainly expect polls will fluctuate, but it’s clear that even in traditionally blue states, voters are demanding accountability and want to restore checks and balances in Washington,” Mr. Walsh said.
In Illinois, where Democrats are still reeling from an explosive “pay to play” corruption scandal that led to the arrest and impeachment of Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich, five-term Rep. Mark Steven Kirk, the expected Republican nominee, is running for Mr. Obama’s seat. The Democratic front-runner is state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, whom an opposing Democratic campaign adviser calls a “deeply flawed” candidate.
Illinois Republican leaders have been pounding Democrats for widespread corruption in the state’s government, noting Mr. Giannoulias’ ties to real estate developer and Democratic fundraiser Tony Rezko, who was convicted last year of fraud and money laundering.
“His family bank, where Alexi served as an officer, made loans to Tony Rezko, who is now sitting in a penitentiary,” Republican state chairman Pat Brady said.
But Democratic campaign strategists have been among Mr. Giannoulias’ critics, too.
“Alexi Giannoulias’ own vulnerabilities are so significant, and far more damning than Kirk’s among the electorate. [. . . ] His nomination would put Barack Obama’s former Senate seat in extreme jeopardy for the Democrats,” pollster Geoff Garin said last month in a widely distributed polling memo for Senate candidate David Hoffman, who is opposing Mr. Giannoulias for the Democratic nomination.
Mr. Biden’s seat in Delaware also appears vulnerable. Rep. Michael N. Castle, a Republican who has won nine statewide elections as the state’s only House member, has been leading state Attorney General Beau Biden in polls. Mr. Biden has delayed saying whether he will be a candidate for the remaining four years of his father’s term.
Mr. Castle, a 70-year-old former governor, is a moderate whose cross-party appeal has drawn support from Democrats and independents over a political career that spans more than 40 years. A recent head-to-head voter survey by Public Policy Polling, a Democratic polling firm, showed Mr. Castle leading the younger Mr. Biden by 45 percent to 39 percent.
A Public Policy Polling analysis of its findings pointed to two strong trends in Mr. Castle’s favor: a 52 percent to 23 percent lead among independent voters, and the fact that he draws far more support from Democrats than Mr. Biden does from Republicans. The analysis found that 48 percent of Democrats view the Republican lawmaker favorably, while 15 percent of Republicans have a positive view of the 40year-old Mr. Biden.
Independent analysts still think the vice president’s son will enter the race, but there has been growing speculation about why he has not revealed his intentions more than two months after Mr. Castle announced his candidacy. He returned home in October after a year’s tour of duty in Iraq and has been spending more time with his family while he considers his options.
Republicans have high hopes that Rep. Mark Steven Kirk of Illinois will be able to capture the Senate seat next year that had been held by President Obama.