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Should the Democrats Primary Chris Dodd?

The news is bad — very bad — for Senator Chris Dodd:

Connecticut Sen. Christopher Dodd trails former U.S. Rep. Rob Simmons, a possible Republican challenger, 50 – 34 percent in the 2010 Senate race, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released today, as voters disapprove 58 – 33 percent of the job the Democratic incumbent is doing, his lowest approval rating ever.

Matched against two other possible Republican challengers, Sen. Dodd trails both State Sen. Sam Caligiuri 41 – 37 percent and former ambassador Tom Foley 43 – 35 percent, the independent Quinnipiac (KWIN-uh-pe-ack) University poll finds.

In the Dodd-Simmons matchup, Democrats back Dodd by only 58 – 27 percent while Simmons leads 87 – 6 percent among Republicans and 56 – 25 percent among independent voters.

The incumbent’s approval is down from 49 – 44 percent March 10.

While we have a long way to go until November 2010, it’s fairly startling to see a four-term Democratic incumbent down by 16 points in a deeply blue state. And make no mistake: this is all about Dodd’s negatives, rather than anything in particular that former U.S. Rep. Rob Simmons, the declared Republican challenger, is doing. Almost half (47 percent) of Connecticutians have yet to form an opinion about Simmons, and yet, he’s leading Dodd among independent voters by better than 2:1, and even picking off 27 percent of Democrats.

It’s somewhat likely that this will turn out to be Dodd’s low-water mark. The AIG story, for which deservedly or not, Dodd took a lot of lumps, is very fresh in the minds of voters, and the outrage will probably fade some. Even before the AIG bonus story broke, however, Dodd was underperforming, already tied with Simmons in some polls and barely ahead of him in others; the combination of his ties to Countrywide and a presidential campaign that might have seemed pointless to his local constituents was evidently already doing damage. In any event, a seat that would ordinarily be relatively safe for Democrats now appears as likely as not to be picked off by the Republicans.

…Unless, perhaps, their nominee is someone other than Chris Dodd. Dodd has swatted away rumors of retirement (although one wonders whether polling numbers like these could give him second thoughts). But, somewhat as the Republicans seem poised to do in Kentucky with Jim Bunning, the Democrats could also attempt to force Dodd’s hand by giving him a primary challenger.

Although wealthy Connecticut is not exactly ground zero for populism — quite the opposite really — the ideal challenger would presumably be someone who keeps the financial services industry at arm’s-length, which is something easier said than done in the Nutmeg State. Someone like Ned Lamont, for instance, who is extremely wealthy and an heir to the J.P. Morgan fortune, would probably have trouble pivoting against Dodd. The same goes for Jim Himes, a former partner at Goldman Sachs.

On paper, the most compelling alternative is probably Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro, a longtime champion for working class interests. But DeLauro was Dodd’s former chief of staff, and it’s hard to envision her running against her old boss. Chris Murphy, however, could present a compelling alternative, as could potentially Joe Courtney.

The real question may be whether certain parts of the Democratic nerve center — and particularly the blogosphere — might throw their weight behind someone like Murphy. Dodd is quite popular with parts of the left for his vigorous challenge to FISA, and he is relatively liberal on most other issues. Unless the alternative were DeLauro, who is one of the couple dozen most liberal members of the Congress, this would not be a challenge on ideological grounds.

Nevertheless, politics ain’t beanbag, and if the Democrats want to have any realistic hopes of picking up a 60-seat majority in 2010, they can’t afford to be underdogs in states like Connecticut.

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