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Menendez Lays Out 2010 Map

While acknowledging the challenging political and economic environments surrounding the midterm elections, Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (N.J.) said Wednesday he sees many reasons for his party to be optimistic about the 2010 Senate battleground.

“I know how the wind blows historically,— Menendez said, referencing the fact that the president’s party usually loses seats in Congress in the first midterm election of a new administration.

But the chairman said he is encouraged by Democrats’ strong early recruiting effort, a rash of retirements on the other side of the aisle and a Republican political strategy that he said is built on obstruction and “betting on failure.— That strategy, he argued, will backfire at the ballot box next year.

In the meantime, Menendez offered a few insights into the committee’s strategy.

While the DSCC as a practice does not endorse candidates in contested primaries, Menendez said the committee is doing all it can to put appointed Sens. Michael Bennet (Colo.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.) in a strong position to hold their seats in 2010. Although both Senators face a possible primary, Menendez said at the end of the day he doesn’t think an intraparty challenge to either will ultimately materialize.

One of the chamber’s other appointed Senators, Roland Burris (Ill.), has not made his 2010 plans known to the committee nor has he reached out to Menendez. Burris will certainly face a primary if he does run, but regardless of who their nominee is, Menendez said, a Senate seat in Illinois “will be incredibly hard for us to lose.—

The chairman also said a few states offer “an embarrassment of riches— when it comes to Democratic candidate interest in Senate races and left open the possibility that the committee would get involved in crowded primaries when it is in the best interest of the party. Menendez’s predecessor, Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), was known for his ability to help weed out primaries so that the party’s strongest possible nominee emerged.

Finally, Menendez defended continued efforts to tie some 2010 GOP candidates back to the Bush administration.

While Republicans have made much of their opportunities in New York and Colorado, where two appointed Democrats are working to keep their seats in 2010, Menendez offered high praise for the efforts he’s seen from Bennet and Gillibrand.

Menendez, who was himself appointed to the Senate in 2006 before winning a full term later that year, said the committee is working with Bennet and Gillibrand “to help ensure their positions are strong, to ensure they hopefully avoid a primary and achieve success in the general elections. … We obviously have opened our doors here at the DSCC to help them in terms of their financial abilities.—

As if to highlight that point, Gillibrand was seen walking into the DSCC’s Capitol Hill headquarters Wednesday as Menendez was being interviewed.

When it comes to Burris, Menendez said the Illinois Democrat “has just not decided what he’s gonna do so he’s not sought engagement from the committee.—

Menendez wouldn’t rule out the possibility of Burris being the Senate candidate in 2010 but said the Democratic field in that race continues to be fluid.

Other states where the Democratic field remains in flux include Ohio, Kentucky and Florida.

In the Buckeye State, Sen. George Voinovich’s (R) retirement has set off what should be one of the most competitive Senate races of the cycle.

Republicans are almost certain to nominate former Rep. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who also served as trade representative and office of management and budget director under President George W. Bush, a fact Democrats have been more than eager to highlight.

Republicans have complained that Democrats are trying to rerun the 2008 cycle by continuing to harp on Bush this cycle.

“Senate Democrats are missing the memo on two key differences between 2010 and the last two election cycles — George Bush isn’t president anymore and they are now the party totally in charge, meaning their days of finger-pointing are over,— National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman Brian Walsh said. “On a range of issues, the Democrats are going to have to answer a lot of tough questions when confronted by voters next year. They can’t continue to duck, dodge and blame George Bush.—

Menendez defended the attacks from his committee on Republicans’ ties to the previous administration.

“It’s clearly legitimate— to bring up Republican candidates’ ties to Bush, he said. “Especially when people were intimate architects of the disaster we are facing today. The reality is we didn’t get into the economic challenges that we are in today overnight. … And I think it’s totally legitimate to raise questions of candidates who were the architects or enforcers of the Bush policy.—

But the DSCC faces a contested primary in the Buckeye State, where Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner and Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher are the top-tier candidates running. State Rep. Tyrone Yates (D) has formed an exploratory committee, and a few other Democrats continue to eye the race.

Democrats could also face a multi-candidate field of well-qualified contenders in Kentucky.

In the Bluegrass State, Sen. Jim Bunning (R) is considered the most vulnerable GOP incumbent this cycle, and Lt. Gov. Dan Mongiardo (D) is already seeking a rematch of their close 2004 contest. But several other top-tier Democrats including Rep. Ben Chandler, state Auditor Crit Luallen and state Attorney General Jack Conway continue to mull bids.

“In several of these states … we have an embarrassment of riches, but that doesn’t mean that won’t narrow down to having one very fine diamond in each race,— Menendez said. “If there is a candidate that would be uniquely the best candidate to win in that state, we’ll work to try to ensure that candidate is the candidate. But I’m realistic that Senate seats don’t come open that often, that people have aspirations and that sometimes those aspirations are more compelling than anything we might be able to say about winning.—

But in two other open-seat races, Missouri and New Hampshire, Democrats clearly have gotten their preferred candidates — Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan and Rep. Paul Hodes (N.H.), neither of whom at this point appear likely to face a primary.

Historically, midterm elections have not been good to the party in control of the White House. Menendez noted the party in power lost Senate seats in the first midterm elections of the presidencies of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.

The one recent exception to that was in 2002, when Republicans gained seats in both houses in President George W. Bush’s first term.

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