Convention: One Candidate’s Path is Another Candidate’s Hurdle for Democrats in Senate

by Nathan L. Gonzales September 4, 2012 · 5:24 PM EDT

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Democratic strategists are cautiously optimistic that they will maintain their Senate majority, but, absent an unforeseen political wave, the party will do battle in a series of local contests where an asset in one state might be a hurdle in another.

“Voters of Wisconsin don’t have any idea what Thompson has been up to for the last 10 years,” Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Executive Director Guy Cecil said in a briefing with reporters at the Charlotte Convention Center about the race in the Badger State where Republicans nominated former Gov. Tommy Thompson in a crowded and competitive primary.

Thompson served as governor for 14 years and isn’t exactly a fresh face, he hasn’t been in office for over a decade and appears to be riding on a wave of residual goodwill. Instead of his political resume being a liability, Thompson has been absent from office long enough that voters in Wisconsin remember his tenure fondly. Democratic strategists are confident in their ability to sway Democratic voters back into their column by pointing out Thompson’s subsequent time as a lobbyist and a member of the Bush Administration, but there is no guarantee their strategy will work.

Republicans have been making the same argument against former state Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp (D) in North Dakota, but thus far with limited success.

Heitkamp held statewide office for 14 years but hasn’t appeared on the ballot since 2000, when she unsuccessfully ran for governor. Republicans believe that her subsequent support for President Obama and positive comments about his health care bill would be enough to make her unelectable in the Peace Garden State. But in the face of the negative ads, Heitkamp remains popular in her Senate race against Rep. Rick Berg (R), in part because people remember her fight with breast cancer in the final weeks of the gubernatorial race.

According to a late-July poll for the state Democratic Party, Heitkamp had 56 percent favorable/35 percent unfavorable ratings, compared to Berg’s 43 percent favorable/48 percent unfavorable. Thompson isn’t as well-liked as Heitkamp, but he’s still “right-side-up” (more people have a favorable opinion of him than unfavorable), particularly compared to his opponent, Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D), who is “upside down,” according to public polls.

Likeability is also a factor in two more close contests, Massachusetts and Montana.

“They are voting for Scott Brown because he’s a likable guy,” Cecil said about the Massachusetts senator. But Democrats believe the incumbent’s numbers won’t hold up in the face of a partisan election in state that President Obama will win handily.

A mid-August Public Policy Polling (D) (IVR) survey showed 53 percent of likely voters approved of the job he’s doing while 36 percent disapprove. Forty-six percent of likely voters had a favorable view of former Harvard professor Elizabeth Warren, who will speak before President Bill Clinton on Wednesday, while 43 percent had an unfavorable view of her. Brown will likely need to win at least a half a million Obama voters in order to win re-election.

Democrats are working the opposite popularity angle and relying on personality in Montana, where incumbent Sen. Jon Tester’s (D) entire campaign is about being “more Montana” than his opponent, Rep. Denny Rehberg (R). Cecil believes Republicans will be unable to link the seven-fingered farmer with a flat top to Obama in a state the president is likely to lose by at least a half-dozen points.