Strong Brown rival is seen as critical for Democrats

Senate control may hinge on Bay State, Nev. races

By Mark Arsenault
Globe Staff / April 23, 2011

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WASHINGTON — Democratic Party officials consider the defeat of Scott Brown of Massachusetts in next year’s election a cornerstone of their strategy to keep control of the Senate, yet the party’s inability to enlist a well-known, well-financed challenger has confounded political analysts.

“The Democrats should be absolutely obsessed with this race,’’ said Jeffrey Berry, Tufts University political scientist. “Yet there doesn’t seem to be a national urgency.’’

Brown’s seat is one of just two held by Republicans that appear to be vulnerable in 2012, election specialists say. Scandal-tainted Senator John Ensign, who had said in March he would not seek reelection in Nevada, announced on Thursday he will resign on May 3. His seat is expected to be hotly contested.

Democrats, however, are expected to face stiff challenges for at least seven seats they hold.

But if Democrats take both Nevada and the Bay State, Republicans would need to practically run the table in other close races to win a Senate majority, a steep, uphill path to power. Senate Democrats hold a 53-to-47 advantage over Republicans, including the two independents who caucus with the Democrats.

“Massachusetts and Nevada . . . are the two important places where they absolutely must put the seats in play,’’ said Stuart Rothenberg, publisher of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report, which tracks political races. “Democratic insiders know if they can play offense in some places and pick off one or two Republican seats that just makes it a whole lot easier to hold the Senate.’’

That message is being heard in Nevada. The Democratic establishment is beginning to line up behind US Representative Shelley Berkley, a seven-term congresswoman from Las Vegas. US Representative Dean Heller, a Republican who was already running to replace Ensign, is expected to be appointed to fill the remainder of the term.

Local and national Democratic Party officials insist that the Bay State race remains a priority and that a top-tier candidate will emerge.

“Each state has a way of developing its own race,’’ said Guy Cecil, executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which is responsible for recruiting and supporting candidates.

Brown reshaped the political landscape last year by defeating Democrat Martha Coakley to win the seat held for almost 50 years by Senator Edward M. Kennedy, a Democrat, until Kennedy’s death in 2009.

After barely a year in office, Brown appears well-positioned to run for reelection to a full term. He has amassed an $8.3 million campaign war chest and ha garnered a favorable rating from 58 percent of voters in a recent Suffolk University/7 News poll.

A Republican in a mostly liberal state, Brown has broken with conservative GOP leadership on several high-profile votes, including his support for repealing the “don’t ask, don’t tell’’ policy that banned openly gay members of the military.

Brown has also toed the Republican line at times. He voted last month in favor of a House Republican budget that sought to slash federal aid to cities and towns and proposed deep cuts to family planning, early education, and college grant programs.

Despite Brown’s strengths, the state still tilts heavily toward Democrats, especially in presidential years, making the lack of big-name candidates unusual.

Said Rothenberg: “You have a Republican incumbent elected in a special election, who never faced voters in a normal environment, who voted with his party on some controversial things — you would think that would bring Democrats out of the woodwork very early.’’

Several high-profile Democrats, including Vicki Kennedy, the late senator’s wife, and Governor Deval Patrick, have said they will not run next year for Senate. Kennedy said she could not imagine seeking elective office without her husband at her side; Patrick insists he has the job he wants.

Two Democrats who have jumped into the race — Bob Massie, a former lieutenant governor nominee, and Marisa DeFranco, a Salem immigration lawyer — trail Brown considerably in name recognition, resources, and political resume.

Other Democrats are said to be considering a run, including Congressman Michael Capuano, a Somerville Democrat who was second to Coakley in the Democratic primary that preceded the special election won by Brown; Representative Stephen Lynch of South Boston; and Alan Khazei, who finished behind Capuano and Coakley in the primary.

“Maybe one of the reasons no [well-known Democrat] is challenging Senator Brown is that he’s doing what he said he would do: working with members of both parties to create jobs and holding the line on spending,’’ said Tim Buckley, communications manager for the Massachusetts GOP. “For incumbents, elections are a referendum on job performance. You can see in the poll numbers that people appreciate what Senator Brown has done.’’

Rather than trying to coax an anointed front-runner into the campaign, Bay State Democrats seem content to allow lesser-known candidates to build name-recognition and resiliency through a Democratic primary.

“I think there’s a way for us to run a good, heartfelt, solid, clean primary and get all of the benefits of that competition and really minimize the downsides that people worry about it,’’ said John Walsh, chairman of the Massachusetts Democratic Party. “I think that process will yield a good candidate for us.’’

Such a strategy depends on the primary candidates exercising restraint and resisting the temptation to permanently damage each other with attacks. It also depends on a relatively little-known candidate catching fire with voters.

Walsh said he is comfortable with his party’s position more than 18 months before the election. “I’m not really at a point where I feel that it’s late,’’ he said.

After strong years in 2006 and 2008, Democrats will be playing mostly defense in Senate races in 2012.

Of the 33 seats up for reelection, Democrats must defend 23 and Republicans 10. Due mostly to the power of incumbency, about half of those 33 seats are considered safe.

Of the seats most likely to change hands, Republicans are favored to win the seat in North Dakota being vacated by the retirement of Democrat Kent Conrad, according to Rothenberg. Four other Democratic-held seats — in Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, and Virginia — are seen as toss-ups.

Democrats hold small edges in what are expected to be tight races in Florida and New Mexico.

Another nonpartisan campaign tracker, The Cook Political Report, offers similar analysis, but puts a Democratic-held seat in West Virginia among the toss-ups.

Mark Arsenault can be reached at