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Why Senator Christopher Dodd Will Win Re-Election

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{Originally posted at my blog Senate Guru.}

It is seemingly unanimous among observers of the 2010 Senate races that the most vulnerable incumbent Democratic Senator up for re-election next year is Senator Christopher Dodd. Due to sensationalized stories about his mortgage and misinformation about his role in working to prevent AIG from doling out undeserved multi-million-dollar bonuses using taxpayer dollars, Senator Dodd's poll numbers have significantly dipped in 2009.

With Connecticut voters' perception of Senator Dodd having been damaged, why the certainty over his re-election? I'll lay out the six reasons explaining why Senator Chris Dodd will win re-election.

Setting the Record Straight on Bonuses (or: President Obama Has Senator Dodd's Back)

Senator Dodd's two (not-really-) scandals that caused the drop in his poll numbers have been his mortgage situation (which will be addressed in the next section) and the AIG bonus situation. The myth of the AIG bonus situation is that Senator Dodd removed language from the economic stimulus bill that would have prevented AIG from using bailout dollars to pay its executives exorbitant and undeserved bonuses. However:

That is simply not what happened. What actually happened is the opposite. It was Dodd who did everything possible -- including writing and advocating for an amendment -- which would have applied the limitations on executive compensation to all bailout-receiving firms, including AIG, and applied it to all future bonus payments without regard to when those payments were promised. But it was Tim Geithner and Larry Summers who openly criticized Dodd's proposal at the time and insisted that those limitations should apply only to future compensation contracts, not ones that already existed. The exemption for already existing compensation agreements -- the exact provision that is now protecting the AIG bonus payments -- was inserted at the White House's insistence and over Dodd's objections.

After President Obama's economic team irresponsibly let Senator Dodd take the heat for this policy failure, President Obama seemed to make a commitment to doing whatever he could to aid Senator Dodd in his re-election effort as an apology. Subsequently, Senator Dodd's first campaign ad heavily featured President Obama:

President Obama took 61% of the vote in Connecticut, so his vocal support for Senator Dodd should carry plenty of sway with Connecticut voters (particularly when it comes to repeatedly refuting the AIG bonus myth, if necessary in the future). I would be shocked if the president's support didn't include headlining at least one fundraiser. Additionally, I'd expect President Obama's presence in the race to increase further if Senator Dodd's eventual Republican opponent tried to make this an issue, discouraging Republicans from trying to make political hay out of this myth.

Exoneration of Any Unethical Behavior Over the Mortgage (or: Even a Hostile Media Lays It Plain)

While Senator Dodd's political opponents may have tried to mislead voters using misinformation on the AIG bonuses situation, a situation that even President Obama himself has worked to straighten out, the other item on which Republicans may attempt to dishonestly gain traction is the sensationalized story about Senator Dodd's mortgage. In short, the story arose, which Senator Dodd immediately and vociferously denied, that Senator Dodd received special treatment when setting his mortgage, including a low interest rate not available to the public. Such a scenario would have indeed been an ethical violation, but that it never happened.

The Hartford Courant, never a sycophant of Senator Dodd's, found the following, from a July 31 editorial:

No matter how badly Mr. Dodd mishandled this long-running issue from the get-go, especially by waiting too long to release his mortgage documents, the evidence supports him. The senator and his wife, Jackie Clegg Dodd, negotiated interest rates and terms widely available in the marketplace when they refinanced the two homes. That's not special treatment.

A week later, the Senate Ethics Committee concluded its year-long investigation of Senator Dodd's mortgage:

Senator Chris Dodd's reelection bid received a boost today with word that the Senate ethics committee has cleared him of breaking rules in receiving VIP mortgages from Countrywide.

The Select Committee on Ethics told the Connecticut Democrat in a letter that after a yearlong investigation, it found "no substantial credible evidence" that his Countrywide mortgages in 2003, refinancing his home in Connecticut and another residence in Washington, broke Senate gift rules, the Associated Press reports.

The Hartford Courant followed with this editorial (emphasis added by me):

The Senate Ethics Committee took its time, but its exoneration of Sen. Christopher J. Dodd on Friday put his mortgage deals in proper perspective: He didn't violate the rules, but should have paid more attention to appearances.

He could have exercised better judgment when the now-defunct mortgage giant Countrywide Financial put him in a "VIP" mortgage program, the committee rightly said. The chairman of the Senate banking committee, which oversees mortgage regulation, has to be hyper-vigilant about any hint of favoritism, real or perceived, from a lender.

Yet the ethics panel acknowledged that Mr. Dodd didn't ask for preferential treatment or even get the best deal Countrywide had to offer.

It took more than a year for the Senate panel to investigate the matter, and Mr. Dodd's poll numbers suffered during the wait. But the ruling has to be a bright spot in a dark summer in which he saw his sister die from lung cancer and got his own prostate cancer diagnosis.

The committee's finding validates the faith President Barack Obama placed in him. It should restores constituents' faith as well.

Such definitive "case closed" status at this point should finally put this matter to rest.

Poll Numbers Have Bottomed Out (or: Nowhere to Go but Up)

Both the AIG bonuses myth and the mortgage sensationalism have been put on ice. However, while both stories festered, they harmed Senator Dodd's poll numbers. At this point, though, Senator Dodd's numbers have bottomed out. With all controversies behind him, his poll numbers have nowhere to go but up, and they have begun creeping in that direction. I have seen six non-partisan, independent polls on CT-Sen, five by Quinnipiac and one by Research 2000.

DatePollsterDodd Approve-DisapproveDodd Fav-UnfavDodd v. SimmonsDodd v. CaligiuriDodd v. FoleyDodd v. Schiff
Feb. 10Quinnipiac

41-48

Mar. 10Quinnipiac

49-44

46-45

42-43

47-34

Mar. 25Research 2000

47-40

45-40

51-30

April 2Quinnipiac

33-58

30-58

34-50

37-41

35-43

May 27Quinnipiac

38-53

37-51

39-45

41-39

July 23Quinnipiac

42-52

40-50

39-48

42-40

42-42

43-38

In a nutshell, we see Senator Dodd's number bottoming out in April as a direct result of the AIG bonus myth hitting its media peak. Since April, Dodd's approval and favorability have both clawed back some, and his deficit against Rob Simmons has come back to single digits. One would imagine that Senator Dodd's exoneration of any unethical behavior regarding his mortgage would also bolster his poll numbers among Connecticut voters still wary about that issue.

Senator Dodd has weathered the worst stories possible, including misinformation and sensationalism, and has come out the other side with poll numbers still in the 40's. He has well over a year to get those poll numbers back over 50, and it appears that the numbers have begun inching in the right direction. Numbers later this Fall will be highly informative, and there's no reason to think that Senator Dodd's numbers won't continue trending in the right direction.

Campaign Fundraising (or: Senator Dodd Will Have Ample Resources to Withstand GOP Attacks)

Senator Dodd raised just over a million dollars in the first three months of 2009, but then his poll numbers bottomed out. You'd think that contributions to Senator Dodd would dry up. Nope. In the second fundraising quarter of 2009, Senator Dodd raised over $1.2 million, bringing his cash-on-hand at the end of June to over $1.84 million. With his poll numbers headed back in the right direction, his controversies behind him, and President Obama helping him out, there's no reason to expect that Senator Dodd's fundraising won't continue to move along steadily.

In his 2004 re-election, Senator Dodd raised just over $7 million and spent $5.67 million. No doubt he'll need to spend much more than he did in 2004 - maybe as much as double. In other words, he'll probably need to raise around $10 million between Q3 2009 and Election Day. Can Senator Dodd raise $10 million in the sixteen months between July 1, 2009 and November 2, 2010? Senator Dodd needs to average between $1.75 and $2 million per fundraising quarter, certainly an attainable goal. A $1.5 million Q3 would be a good start. We'll see in October.

A Divisive Republican Primary (or: Four Cooks Are Ruining the Republican Broth)

While Senator Dodd spends the next year repairing his image with Connecticut voters and raising the funds necessary for a strong general election period, Connecticut Republicans will be focused on their primary, and the Republican candidates will be focused on each other rather than Senator Dodd. It looks like there will be four noteworthy Republicans vying for the nomination for Senate, each with his own niche: former Rep. Rob Simmons (the Washington establishment candidate), State Senator Sam Caligiuri (the movement conservative), former Ambassador Tom Foley (the Prescott Bush Republican), and economist Peter Schiff (the Ron Paul Libertarian Republican). All four have been relatively successful in early fundraising to give themselves credibility toward the nomination. Further, the more early funds they raise, the more ammo they'll have to use against one another as they fight for the nomination. Anyone want to take bets on how often Rob Simmons will be described as a Washington insider by the other three Republican campaigns?

Caligiuri raised over $126,000 in Q2 and enjoyed a cash-on-hand at the end of June approaching $100,000. Simmons topped that with a $750,000+ Q2, bringing his cash-on-hand to almost $560,000. But then, Foley raised eyebrows by bringing in more than $530,000 in just one month since his late entry toward the end of Q2. But then Peter Schiff raised even more eyebrows as his national Libertarian base came through with over half a million dollars in a very short time since Schiff announced his exploratory effort. In fact, Schiff's website reports that Schiff's fundraising has topped $800,000. In short, the Republicans are not outraising Senator Dodd, but they are raising enough (and at comparable levels with one another) to inflict much political damage on each other during their long and contentious primary.

Connecticut Voters' Partisan Breakdown (or: Hey, Connecticut's a Really Blue State)

At this point, I'll remind you of Connecticut's voter enrollment statistics (as of October 2008, in PDF): 939,282 total unaffiliated voters; 817,435 Democratic voters; 445,658 Republican voters, 8,059 minor Party voters. Though a plurality of voters are independent, the GOP bloc is only 54.5% of the Democratic bloc. Hypothetically, if Senator Dodd held 90% of Democratic voters, and the Republican nominee got 100% of GOP voters and 10% of Democratic voters, Senator Dodd would only need 39% of independent and minor Party voters to win re-election. Considering Connecticut's strongly blue-state status and President Obama's emphatic presence, with Senator Dodd having refuted the controversies surrounding him and having raised the resources necessary to spread his message, Senator Dodd should be able to hold 90% of Democrats and 40% of independents, winning re-election.

The election may come down to whether or not independent Connecticut voters who have backed Senator Dodd in the past are willing to accept the facts that Senator Dodd fought to limit AIG bonuses and that Senator Dodd did not act unethically in procuring his mortgage. Once voters get past those two non-scandals, the race simply becomes a matter of whether Connecticut wants a Democratic Senator who will work to support President Obama's agenda or a Republican Senator who will work to obstruct progress in the Senate. Connecticut's recent political history strongly suggests the former, and Senator Chris Dodd will win re-election.