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Democrats on Defensive for Former Obama, Biden Senate Seats

January 26, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Gwen Ifill speaks with experts about the Senate races in Delaware and Illinois, where Democrats are losing ground and Republicans are gaining in the polls.
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GWEN IFILL: That follows our look at two key Senate contests. If President Obama didn’t already have enough on his plate when it comes to policy issues, now the political ground is shifting under his feet as well, even on home turf.

In Delaware, the U.S. Senate seat Vice President Joe Biden held for 36 years is up for grabs. But Democratic Attorney General Joseph Beau Biden, the vice president’s son, announced this week he will not run to succeed his father. And the odds immediately shifted to favor Republican Mike Castle, an eight-term congressman who also served as the state’s governor from 1985 to 1993.

And, in Illinois, a strong Republican challenge is taking shape for the seat Mr. Obama vacated when he became president. A new Chicago Tribune poll has five-term Congressman Mark Kirk holding a strong lead in the Republican primary contest, and State Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias holding a narrower edge on the Democratic side. Illinois primary voters go to the polls next Tuesday.

Here to explain the choices those voters will face are Stuart Rothenberg, editor and publisher of The Rothenberg Political Report — he tracks congressional races across the nation — Michael Mezey, professor of political science at DePaul University in Chicago; and Joseph Pika, interim associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Delaware.

Welcome to you all.

Professor Pika, I want to start with you by bringing us up to date on what happened in Delaware.

Why didn’t Beau Biden run, as was so widely expected?

JOSEPH PIKA, University of Delaware: Well, as Attorney General Biden explained in his decision, he really felt he was committed to pursuing the attorney general’s office and particularly the prosecution of a very, very celebrated case in our southernmost county of a pediatrician who had abused patients, primarily young girls, who were in his care.

This has been such a horrendous case, where the allegations are just so outrageous, that he felt that it would be wrong for him to step down from the attorney general’s office, when he confronted this enormous challenge and on a case which is so high-profile here in the state.

GWEN IFILL: And it’s fair to say this puts Mike Castle, who is a popular former governor in a small state in the catbird seat.

JOSEPH PIKA: Absolutely. Castle has been one of the most successful politicians that Delaware has ever seen. He’s been in elected office since 1966, with the exception of three years, before he really moved in to the lieutenant governor’s office.

And, so, he has been returned to office repeatedly, and has won basically a dozen contests on statewide level. So, he’s a very, very successful politician here.

GWEN IFILL: So, that’s one Democratic seat that looks like it may be heading Republican. Let’s go over to Illinois.

Professor Mezey, what do we know about what happened in — what’s happening in Illinois, and do we see perhaps echoes of Massachusetts?

MICHAEL MEZEY, DePaul University: Well, Gwen, there are some echoes of Massachusetts here.

First of all, we have a Democratic candidate who, like the Democratic candidate in Massachusetts, may need a bit of a charisma transplant. Mr. Giannoulias, if he wins the primary, is not the most exciting candidate.

And, on the other hand, Mark Kirk is a — in some respects, the Democrats’ worst nightmare. You have a very moderate Republican, a person who is pro-choice, who has a D-rating from the National Rifle Association, so he’s not — he’s anti-gun. He has got a strong rating from the Human Rights Coalition, the — in terms of gay issues. He’s voted for cap-and-trade.

And, so, it’s going to be very difficult for any Democratic candidate to paint him as a far-right person.

GWEN IFILL: But…

MICHAEL MEZEY: And I think that creates, here in Illinois, a blue state — not quite as blue as Massachusetts, but certainly a blue state — it’s a Republican who has the best chance of winning — of beating a Democrat.

GWEN IFILL: But in a state where Barack Obama was so recently the senator and where there is some residual affection for the president, one presumes, why isn’t this seat a lock for the Democrats?

MICHAEL MEZEY: Well, I think the Republicans will likely, assuming Mark Kirk is nominated — and I think he will be — he’s a very strong candidate.

And I think the Democrats have not come up with a very strong list of candidates to oppose Kirk. In addition, given the problems of our ex-Governor Blagojevich, it’s not a particularly good year locally for Democrats. Governor Blagojevich is — or former Governor Blagojevich — is likely to be on trial in the middle of the race this fall. And that’s going to tar virtually any Democrat on the ballot.

So, that — that is a challenge for the Democrats. I don’t think it’s a slam-dunk for the Republicans, as Joe seems to think Delaware is, but it’s going to be a very competitive race.

GWEN IFILL: You know, and he might also be — Blagojevich may also turn up on “Celebrity Apprentice,” I gather, Stu.

Why is it that that — neither of these candidates, neither of these Republicans, anyway, are considered to be conservatives, in the way that Scott Brown was. The tea party movement is not embracing them. What is different here and what’s the same?

STUART ROTHENBERG, The Rothenberg Political Report: Well, these are both moderates.

Now, in the case of Mark Kirk, he has a primary in Illinois where conservatives have the long knives out there, are after him. But, in Delaware, Republicans have rallied behind Mike Castle, basically because there isn’t not much of a Republican Party left, and he’s the only guy in town.

Gwen, what I would say is that these — these races — you have to evaluate races on two levels, the local circumstances and then the national dynamics. And in the case of the local circumstances in both places, Republicans have unusually strong candidates who can appeal to independent voters and swing voters, and the Democratic field in one state is nonexistent, and, in the other, it’s not what Democrats were hoping for.

They wanted Lisa Madigan, a statewide elected official, to be the nominee. She probably would be the favorite. That didn’t happen. So, the candidate recruitment was critical and on the ground. And then the national dynamics are just dramatically reversed from two years ago.

GWEN IFILL: Let’s talk about it a little bit. The national mood is generally considered to be cranky right now.

STUART ROTHENBERG: Yes. Yes.

GWEN IFILL: So, does that translate in races like this or in other races around country that you’re watching?

STUART ROTHENBERG: Absolutely. There are two things involved.

First of all, people think that the country is headed off on the wrong track. So, if you look at any of the national polls, is the country headed in the right direction or is it off on the right direction, the right direction numbers are anywhere usually in the mid-30s, while the wrong track goes from 55 to in the low 60s. So, almost six out of 10 Americans think that things need to be changed, we are going in the wrong direction.

That benefits the out party. And, second of all, there’s this check argument about the check on Democrats in Washington. CNN has asked this question, do you think it’s good for the country or bad for the country that the Democratic Party is in control of Congress?

In June of 2007, the Democrats had taken over Congress, but the Republicans still had the White House, George W. Bush unpopular — 57 percent of Americans said it’s good that the Democrats party is in control of Congress. In June of this year, when the Democrats controlled everything, that number was down to 50. And, last week, in the most recent CNN numbers, good for the country, 45, bad for the country, 48.

GWEN IFILL: Sinking like a stone.

Does this all blow back on President Obama, or are these, primarily — I’m thinking also of Florida, and I’m thinking of other states, Nevada, where Harry Reid has got a tough go of it, and Pennsylvania, where Arlen Specter has a tough go of it — does this also reflect back on President Obama? The White House seems a little alarmed.

STUART ROTHENBERG: Oh, no question about it. There is — it’s a combination again, pretty good Republican recruiting, and an environment that’s fundamentally shifted, as voters say, wait a minute, we’re unhappy, too far too fast, some Democratic voters saying, we’re not going far enough fast enough, but, generally, dissatisfaction, fear, worry, concern, anger, all those emotions all benefiting the out party, the guys talking about change.

It’s — it’s just like two years ago and four years ago, Gwen. It’s just it’s a different — different party is benefiting.

GWEN IFILL: The change goes the other way this time.

STUART ROTHENBERG: Exactly.

GWEN IFILL: Professor Pika, in Delaware, what are the issues which are driving people to the polls, keeping them home from the polls, making them content, discontent?

JOSEPH PIKA: I think the biggest issue coming up is going to be jobs. Delaware has lost a significant number of jobs, particularly blue-collar jobs in Northern Delaware.

The economy really hasn’t bounced back at all. The concern is, I think, about continued budget stringency in the state. So, I think that there will be a lot of concern about the potential for increased taxes and resistance to that.

I think further down the list, there will be some concern about health care. And, certainly, education is an issue area that remains very important to Delawareans. But I think, in general, there’s a growing sense of impatience. I think the term cranky is — is right. I think it captures the mood here. And I think there’s a feeling that — that we really need to get back on firm footing and kind of move this forward.

GWEN IFILL: Professor Mezey, are they cranky in Illinois, too?

MICHAEL MEZEY: Just as cranky as they are in Delaware, perhaps more so.

I think that — I think we — to just lend a little perspective, though — and I obviously agree with much of what Stuart said — we still are a good 10 months away from Election Day. If the economy turns a bit, if there’s some improvement in unemployment, I think some of that mood may dissipate a little bit.

Another perspective one can argue is that, while certainly there’s an antipathy to the Democratic Party, there may also be an antipathy to incumbents in general. And Mark Kirk and Mike Castle both have been incumbents. And it’s going to be a little bit difficult for each one to run saying they’re going to clean up the mess in Washington, when they have each been part of Washington for such a long time.

Giannoulias will run or the Democrat — whoever the Democratic candidate is — as an outsider who may be able to make a credible, a credible campaign promise that he is not part of the mess and will be — go to Washington to clean things up.

GWEN IFILL: Professor Michael Mezey, Professor Joe Pika, and the non-cranky Stuart Rothenberg…

STUART ROTHENBERG: I can be cranky.

GWEN IFILL: … thank you all very much.