Democrats in the Senate were resigned to the news Wednesday that Minnesota Sen. Mark Dayton had decided not to run for re-election. Word coming out of Dayton's office in Washington and Minnesota was that his early polling numbers for re-election -- including favorables against a generic Republican and Independent -- as well as approval numbers were poor.
A Democratic National Committee staffer disputed the poor numbers, saying that no politician worth his salt would be treating numbers this early so seriously. "Taking into account survey exhaustion, Democratic disenchantment with the national party, and the quirkiness of Minnesota, I don't see how polling numbers this early could be the reason for scaring Dayton off. If that's the reason, then good riddance."
To be sure, Dayton scares easily -- take his run from Washington in the days prior to the November elections, for example. And in a Democratic caucus light on serious, younger talent, he was considered a lightweight and too lazy for his own good. But despite being on a Republican list of beatable Democratic incumbents, there was hope in some quarters of the Democratic Party that Dayton would make a fight of it.
However, according to a senior Senate Democratic source, Dayton had a conversation with Senate minority leader Harry Reid within the past week in which Reid made it clear that if rumors of Dayton's disenchantment with campaigning and fundraising and Washington were true, he should make the decision now for the good of the party. Dayton staffers have denied that a conversation with Reid had anything to do with the decision.
DAYTON'S DEPARTURE, SIMILARLY, is a slap at the prevailing Democratic model of finding deep pocketed self-financers to run for office. Dayton spent $12 million of his own money to run and win in 2000, similar to Sen. Jon Corzine, who could hardly wait to jump out of the Senate and back into the New Jersey political swamplands.
Now there is a mixture of relief that the party can find a strong replacement with time to clear the field. First on the wish list, apparently, is former Minnesota Viking Purple People Eater Alan Page, currently an elected member of the Minnesota Supreme Court. Page has been courted by the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party (DFL) in the past, and it isn't clear if he is interested.
Two other names generating the most heat are state Attorney General Mike Hatch, and third-term Rep. Betty McCollum, a liberal from the St. Paul area. McCollum has been increasingly identified by Democrats -- at least in the House -- as a potential rising star. If Hatch were to rule out a run completely, some Democrats believe McCollum would have the party and fundraising support to make a play.
But the DFL decisions really will be made on what the Republicans decide to do. The GOP was clearly cheered by the Dayton news. Already, the party believes it has lined up a strong candidate to challenge North Dakota Democrat Sen. Kent Conrad (sitting Gov. John Hoeven), and it expects to line up strong recruits to challenge Sens. Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Bill Nelson of Florida.
"If you count what we might be able to do in Minnesota, 2006 gives four highly competitive possible pickups," says a Senate GOP leadership staffer. "At the very least, we're looking at holding the current majority level, if not a slight gain."
That's because right now, Republicans expect they'll face three tough races: Sen. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and possibly Sen. Bill Frist should he decide to retire. Republicans in the Senate don't anticipate any surprise retirements in this election cycle.
IMMEDIATELY FOLLOWING THE DAYTON announcement, the name on many Republicans' lips was Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty. The popular first-term Republican is up for re-election in 2006, and has been identified by cultural conservatives as a possible dark horse presidential candidate in 2008. "But if he really wants to be in the presidential hunt, he isn't going to give up the governorship at this stage of the game," says a Republican National Committee staffer. "We're going to make a run at him, but we expect that he is going to want to run for re-election. If you buy into the strategy that you can't win the presidency from the Senate, you don't give up a good, fairly safe governorship for that, particularly in a battleground state like Minnesota."
A Pawlenty run, some believe, would scare off some DFL challengers, including Mike Hatch, who in turn might run for the open gubernatorial slot. Pawlenty would certainly fit the profile for the White House in recruiting candidates for Senate seats: seasoned politico, with good fundraising roots and current, statewide appeal.
Other Republicans mentioned are the man who lost to Dayton in 2000, Rod Grams, who was telling local media outlets that he was already in the race. Perhaps the favorite among serious Republicans is Rep. Mark Kennedy, a solid conservative from the St. Cloud area, who backed the Bush tax cuts, but worked to repeal the Bush steel tariffs.
In the end, Republicans anticipate having a cleaner, more unified search and clearing of the field than their DFL counterparts. "The DFL is still coming to grips with its Wellstone/Humphrey past," says the RNC staffer. "Do they go with the political 'progressive' or do they try find some middle ground? Either way, I think the GOP is in better shape."
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