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Dodd Vulnerable to Primary Challenge

Embattled incumbent Senator Chris Dodd has made a bit of progress in his prospective 2010 contest against Republican Rob Simmons, a former Congressman who has already declared his interest in the seat. Dodd now trails Simmons 45-39 according to the latest Quinnipiac polling, after having been down 34-50 seven weeks ago. Since proportionately more of the undecided voters are Democrats and since Simmons has struggled to raise funds (bringing in literally just $20) in the first quarter, this race can probably be considered a toss-up. Gun to my head, indeed, I’d probably project that Dodd wins by the skin of his teeth.

Nevertheless, this is a predicament that Democrats shouldn’t really be finding themselves in at all, not in deeply blue Connecticut, and not against a relatively generic GOP challenger like Simmons. And as it turns out, they might not have to. Dodd has a declared primary challenger in the form of Hartford native Merrick Alpert, a small business owner and Air Force veteran with an attractive family looks like it came right from the pages of Better Homes & Gardens catalog.

The Quinnipiac poll has Alpert trailing Dodd 44-24 in the Democratic primary, with 30 percent of voters undecided. What’s remarkable about these numbers is that Alpert has 24 percent of the vote even though 91 percent of Democrats, and 93 percent of all Connecticutians, have no idea who he is, telling Quinnipiac they hadn’t heard enough about him to form an opinion.

Although much of the undecided vote is likely to flow to Alpert as he improves his name recognition, he may not get much help from institutional sources. The White House has already begun to rally on behalf of Dodd, someone to whom they owe at least two favors: firstly, for Dodd’s endorsement of Obama during the primaries, and secondly, for his taking some of the heat off the Administration’s shoulders (with quite a bit of collateral damage) on the AIG bonus brushfire. The netroots, meanwhile, tend to be quite supportive of Dodd; he also has a strong, pro-union voting record, and is likely to win their endorsements.

Alpert, for his part, is not perceived as being especially politically progressive. His list of donations includes some progressives like Ned Lamont and Rosa DeLauro (as well as Dodd himself), but also some more centrist Democrats like Solomon Ortiz, Joe Baca, and Steny Hoyer’s Ameripac. Still, his somewhat wishy-washy politics could prove to be beneficial in both the primary and the general election; faced with two equally bland alternatives in Alpert and Simmons, Connecticutians would presumably vote their party ID and go with the Democrat.

The only way for progressives to have their cake and eat it too would be to rally behind some kind of liberal challenger to Dodd, but so far they don’t seem inclined to do so.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.