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August 23rd, 2010

CQ Politics Moves Iowa Senate Race to “Safe Republican”

It’s hit that point in the election cycle where the competitive nature of Congressional races are shifting rapidly. Unfortunately for Democrats, the overwhelming majority of those shifts are in favor of Republicans.

The latest Senate race rating changes by CQ Politics includes five changes — in California, Washington, Wisconsin, Georgia and Iowa — that benefit Republican candidates. And Democrats can’t even catch a break on the sixth change, which moves Florida’s Senate race from Leans Republican to the more competitive Tossup category based solely of the strength of the Independent campaign run by Gov. Charlie Crist .

When Crist announced this spring that he was abandoning the GOP primary to seek the Senate seat as an Independent, Democratic strategists saw real opportunity. Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (N.J.) went so far as to call the move a sign of “divided Republican Party cannibalizing itself.”

But in four months as an Independent candidate, Crist hasn’t tried to carve away conservative Republicans and instead focused on reaching out to Democratic voters. Crist has gone out of his way to block legislative priorities championed by state Republicans and has flirted with the idea of caucusing with Democrats if he is elected. On the financial front, Crist has made inroads in state and national Democratic circles as a way to make up for the fundraising avenues that were cut off after his decision to leave the GOP. Those efforts have kept him from being blown out in the money chase. As of early August Crist had raised a total of $12.5 million and had $8 million in cash on hand. Former state Speaker Marco Rubio, who chased Crist out of the GOP primary, had raised $12.8 million and had $4.5 million in the bank.

A poll from late July and another from August showed Crist with a slight lead in a three-way race against Rubio and Democratic Rep. Kendrick Meek. Two more recent polls showed Rubio ahead by a narrow margin. What’s clear is that Crist’s decision to leave the GOP has not been the political suicide that many Republicans thought it would be. Crist is now the biggest obstacle standing in the way of Republicans holding the Sunshine State seat this fall.

As Florida has becomes more of a headache for Senate Republicans three potential pick up opportunities are looking better and better for the GOP. CQ Politics is moving the Senate races in California, Washington and Wisconsin into the Tossup category from the less competitive category of Leans Democratic. All three seats are currently held by Democratic incumbents who weren’t even considered to be in any real danger at the beginning of the cycle.

In California, former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina has surged since winning the early June GOP primary, while Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) has watched her numbers steadily slip. Fiorina has built her campaign on an economic and job creation message in a state that has been particularly hard hit by the financial downturn. She has argued that Boxer’s support of President Barak Obama’s agenda has only made the financial situation in California worse. Meanwhile, the Senator has laid the blame for the state’s economic situation at the feet of former President George W. Bush and the corporate establishment that Fiorina represents.

In Washington, former state Sen. Dino Rossi’s (R) late entry into the Senate race is proving increasingly problematic for Sen. Patty Murray (D). Rossi, a two time GOP gubernatorial nominee in the state who had the unabashed support of the national Republican Party in his primary, easily emerged from that contest despite some push back in conservative tea party circles. Murray took less than 50 percent in the state’s non-partisan “top-two” primary, a sure sign, Republicans say, that she is in danger this fall. Murray is also already raising the specter of Bush in the race while Rossi is playing up his outsider image and painting Murray as beholden to the Democratic establishment in the nation’s capital.

Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold (D) has also found himself fending off an outsider campaign that has caught fire. Businessman Ron Johnson is a wealthy first-time candidate who is putting his record as a successful businessman and job creator up against Feingold’s support of controversial Democratic agenda items like the health care bill. Johnson may not be well known, but he has deep pockets and his lack of voting record will help Republicans keep the focus on Feingold, which is exactly what GOP strategists want.

Finally, CQ Politics is moving the Iowa and Georgia Senate races that feature GOP Sens. Chuck Grassley and Johnny Isakson from Likely Republican to the least competitive category of Safe Republican. Democrats may have once held dreams of challenging Isakson and Grassley but in a cycle where a dozen Democratic-held Senate seats are now in play the national party will be hard pressed to devote time and effort to longshots like Georgia and Iowa. What resources Democrats do have to go on the attack will likely be spent on four competitive GOP open seat contests in Kentucky, Missouri, New Hampshire and Ohio that represent their best chances of picking up seats this cycle — and possibly avoiding a Republican takeover of the Senate.

Photo by Dave Davidson

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The Iowa Republican

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