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Cornyn and Dole: Two (Vulnerable) Peas in a Pod?

Democrats are not so quietly passing the word: Republican Sens. John Cornyn (Texas) and Elizabeth Dole (N.C.) are vulnerable in 2008. Should we believe them, or are the two GOP incumbents so safe that they aren’t really worth watching? [IMGCAP(1)]

Cornyn was elected to the Senate a little more than four years ago, obliterating Democrat Ron Kirk by a dozen points, 55 percent to 43 percent. The Republican had been elected twice to the Texas Supreme Court before he was elected the first Republican state attorney general since Reconstruction.

Dole defeated Clinton White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles (D) by 9 points, 54 percent to 45 percent in 2002. Dole’s previous bid for elective office had been as a candidate in the 2000 Republican presidential race, which she exited months before the Iowa caucuses.

On the basis of their previous races, neither Dole nor Cornyn automatically seem to be prime targets. In other words, we aren’t talking former Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) here, a veteran who has flirted with defeat in the past and automatically could face a stiff test against a top-tier challenger.

Both Kirk and Bowles were treated as top-tier candidates who could appeal to ticket-splitters and raise the necessary money to compete. Both were running in open seats. The scenario for a Kirk win was enhanced, according to Democratic strategists at the time, by the fact that the party’s “dream ticket” for Texas’ top three races included a mega-wealthy Hispanic businessman for governor (Tony Sanchez), a politically moderate and popular Anglo former state comptroller for lieutenant governor (John Sharp), and a black mayor with strong ties to the Dallas business community for Senate (Kirk).

But this time, the Democratic case in both states is based on polling that undoubtedly was intended to recruit challengers against the two Republicans.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has noted that a recent Survey USA poll showed Cornyn’s job approval rating sitting at 43 percent, while 40 percent disapproved of his performance. Moreover, a Hamilton Beattie & Staff survey conducted in mid-April for the DSCC found Cornyn leading a generic Democratic opponent by only 9 points, 47 percent to 38 percent.

In the North Carolina race, a February Garin-Hart-Yang Research Group survey for the DSCC showed Dole’s job rating at 49 percent excellent or good and 46 percent fair or poor. Only 35 percent of those surveyed said she should be re-elected, while 23 percent said she should be replaced.

So who is vulnerable?

Under the right circumstances, Dole might be at risk, but it’s impossible to take the Cornyn stuff seriously at this point.

Although the two states are similar in that neither one has been carried by a Democratic presidential nominee since Jimmy Carter in 1976, there is a world of difference, politically, between Texas and North Carolina.

While Matt Angle, a savvy political operative and former executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee under then-Rep. Martin Frost (Texas), has tried to resuscitate the Texas Democratic Party and lob grenades at the state GOP, Texas Democrats still have a long way to go before they can hope to knock off a sitting Republican Senator.

Saying the party’s bench for a high-profile statewide race is thin is an understatement. In 2006, the Texas Democratic gubernatorial nominee was Chris Bell, a former one-term Congressman who lost a bid for renomination and whose underfunded gubernatorial campaign drew 30 percent of the vote in a four-way race.

The last Democrat to win a statewide federal race in Texas was Lloyd Bentsen, who won his last Senate re-election in 1988. The state’s last Democratic governor was Ann Richards, who was elected in 1990 and was defeated four years later when she sought a second term.

In contrast, Democrats have won the past four gubernatorial elections in North Carolina, and the party last won a Senate seat in 1998. While Republicans hold all of the most high-profile statewide offices in Texas, Democrats hold the top offices in North Carolina. And while Republicans hold both chambers of the Texas state Legislature, Democrats have solid majorities in both chambers of the North Carolina Legislature.

Not surprisingly, there are no top-tier Democratic challengers mentioned as possible opponents for Cornyn. The names being floated include Rep. Nick Lampson, who was elected in 2006 when Republican Tom DeLay resigned his seat late in the election cycle and Republicans were unable to put another name on the ballot. Lampson is mentioned primarily because few insiders believe that he will be able to hold the very Republican seat in next year’s Congressional elections.

Houston state Rep. Rick Noriega and San Antonio trial lawyer Mikal Watts also are mentioned as possible candidates, which gives you a general idea about the Democrats’ chances of knocking off Cornyn.

On the other hand, Rep. Brad Miller and North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper reportedly are considering a challenge to Dole, and Tar Heel State Democrats are in a far stronger position to recruit a candidate against the Republican Senator.

Democrats can huff and puff all they want about giving Cornyn a run for his money, but they don’t have a realistic chance yet of knocking him off. Dole isn’t much more vulnerable until Democrats get a formidable candidate in the race, but if and when they do, the state’s dynamics, at the very least, offer them a scenario for success.

North Carolina, therefore, bears watching. Texas, barring a macaca-like blunder, doesn’t.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

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