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Should Democrats Beware Republicans Bearing Gifts?


There is a strong possibility that Barack Obama will ask Sen. Judd Gregg (R-NH) to serve as his Secretary of Commerce, Democratic Senate aides tell the Huffington Post.

The move would fill a vacancy that has lingered since Gov. Bill Richardson withdrew his nomination. And provided that Al Franken emerges victorious in the Minnesota recount, it would give Democrats in the Senate a 60th caucusing member, as New Hampshire’s Democratic governor John Lynch would appoint Gregg’s replacement.

Judd Gregg is up for re-election in 2010 and stands to face a vigorous challenge, most likely from 2nd District Congressman Paul Hodes, but remains reasonably popular and would be the favorite in that race. By Senate standards, he is a relative youngin’ at 61 years old, but he’s been in politics forever, having first been elected to the House of Representatives at age 33 in 1980. Joining the Obama cabinet, then, is probably not a matter of Gregg’s political survival, but more likely would represent a sort of early retirement.

Then again, retirement seems to be a fairly attractive option for a lot of Senate Republicans these days. The fact of the matter is that:

(i) The Republicans will be in the minority in the Senate for at least the next four years. It is close to mathematically impossible for them to re-gain the chamber in 2010 given the seats that are up for grabs in that cycle. There is considerably more upside in 2012, when a lot of freshman Democrats elected in the 2006 wave will be up for re-election, but 2012 is also a year when Obama and his massive turnout operation will be on the ballot. Realistically, the odds of Republicans re-gaining control of the chamber before 2014 are low.

(ii) The working assumption in Washington right now is that Barack Obama will be re-elected in 2012. This is arguably shortsighted — we know how much things can change in four years. But it’s the working assumption being made by both parties for the time being.

(iii) The Republican party establishment wants no part of its senators, instead looking toward its governors and to a much lesser extent the House Republicans as its future.

(iv) While I know nothing about what sort of company Gregg keeps, a lot of Republicans that are close to him ideologically have retired or are planning to do so.

All of this makes the Senate a lonely place to be. If Gregg runs for re-election in 2010 and wins, he is more likely than not facing another six years under a Democratic President, and another four to six years in the minority party.

At the same time, I’m not sure that the Republicans are all that screwed over if Gregg leaves the Senate and a Democrat is appointed in his stead. Yes, it gets the Democrats to their magic number of 60. But 60 is an overrated, fuzzy number given that Olympia Snowe has sided with the administration on 26 of 31 roll call votes so far, and that Susan Collins, Arlen Specter, Lisa Murkowski and George Voinovich aren’t far behind her. Moreover, if the Democrats actually get the 60th seat, it will be much harder for them to play the obstructionism card in 2010 — and much easier, conversely, for the Republicans to play the divided government card.

Now, let’s not be too contrarian here: if this happens, it is almost certainly a net gain for Democrats. But it might be relatively small one, given that:

1a) Gregg was voting with the Democrats reasonably often anyway;

1b) His replacement, conversely, would likely be someone fairly moderate who wouldn’t vote with the Democrats 100% of the time;

2) Gregg, who has been a pretty reliable fiscal conservative, would presumably have at least some influence shaping policy from the Commerce Department;

3) The perceived benefit to the Democrats from getting a 60th seat is greater than the real one, increasing the risk that they will be seen as overreaching by the time that 2010 rolls around.

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