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Moderate Democrats face peril

By Aaron Blake and Felicia Sonmez

1. If Democrats lose significant seats this year, as it appears they will, a large chunk of the losses will be socially conservative members.

A new poll set to be released Friday by the anti-abortion rights group Susan B. Anthony List shows a trio of such Democrats in real trouble in key races this year, including Indiana Senate candidate Rep. Brad Ellsworth and two Rust Belt freshmen.

The data show former Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.) leading Ellsworth 50 percent to 35 percent for the open seat being left by retiring Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.).

The group also polled districts held by three other anti-abortion rights Democrats who supported the health-care bill earlier this year -- Rep. Joe Donnelly (Ind.) and freshman Reps. Steve Driehaus (Ohio) and Kathy Dahlkemper (Pa.). While Donnelly appears to be in good position, Driehaus is trailing by 10 points and Dahlkemper leads within the margin of error.

Donnelly leads state Rep. Jackie Walorski (R) 52 percent to 35 percent and comes from a district where a majority of voters approve of the health-care bill.

Driehaus and Dahlkemper have tougher districts. Driehaus trails former Rep. Steve Chabot (R) 51 percent to 41 percent, and voters in his district favor a generic Republican by eight points. Dahlkemper leads car dealer Mike Kelly (R) 46 percent to 42 percent, but Republicans hold a two-point lead on the generic ballot.

Susan B. Anthony List will also be launching a bus tour next week through these and two other districts held by anti-abortion Democrats (Ohio Rep. Marcy Kaptur and Indiana Rep. Baron Hill), making the case that members should pay for voting for a bill that provides taxpayer funding for abortions. Democrats have denied the bill will fund abortions

In all four areas surveyed, polling shows voters are much less likely to support a candidate who votes for a health-care bill that funds abortion.

The polls were conducted by The Polling Company, with sample sizes of more than 300 in the House races and more than 500 in the Indiana Senate race.

2. Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) has a new set of problems in his primary next week, after the New York Times, in a story late Thursday, detailed a risky financial idea gone wrong during his time as superintendent of the Denver public school system.

The Times reports that Bennet personally advocated for an "exotic transaction" proposed by JP Morgan Chase bankers to help close a pension shortfall, and the seven-member school board agreed.

Instead of issuing a bond with a fixed interest rate, the city issued "so-called pension certificates with a derivative attached" -- which the report likens to the adjustable-rate mortgages that caused so many foreclosures in the housing industry after the recent economic crisis.

According to the report, since closing the deal in April 2008, the district has paid $115 million in interest and fees, which is about $25 million more than it intended to. What's more, it is considering renegotiating the deal, which would cost $81 million in termination fees -- an amount equal to nearly one-fifth of the district's payroll.

Multiple officials in the school system say the deal has cause plenty of trouble, but Bennet is standing by it.

In a statement to the Times, Bennet noted that the deal allowed the district to avoid continuing to pay 8.5 percent interest annually on its pension shortfall.

"Despite going through the worst recession since the Great Depression, we did that," Bennet said.

Bennet faces former state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff in a primary Tuesday. Recent polling shows the two men neck and neck.

3.It is just not the year to be a member of Congress running for governor.

For the fourth time in five races, a member of the House has launched a campaign for governor only to go on to a second-place finish. Joining the crowd Thursday was Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.).

Wamp finished a distant second to Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam, who will move on to a general election matchup with businessman Mike McWherter (D), the son of former Gov. Ned McWherter (D).

In his loss, Wamp joins Reps. Artur Davis (D-Ala.), J. Gresham Barrett (R-S.C.) and Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.), who finished second in his state's primary Tuesday.

In Georgia, recently resigned Rep. Nathan Deal finished second in the GOP primary and is trying to make up ground against former Secretary of State Karen Handel in a runoff Tuesday.

The only member of Congress to win thus far is Rep. Mary Fallin (R-Okla.), a two-term member better known for her 12 years as lieutenant governor of the state in the 1990s and early 2000s.

The prospects for the other member of Congress running for governor don't look great, either. Former Rep. Neil Abercrombie, who like Deal resigned to focus on his gubernatorial run, is at a sharp financial disadvantage in the Hawaii Democratic primary.

4. Rep. Kendrick Meek (D-Fla.) is in a dead heat with billionaire real estate developer Jeff Greene (D) in the Florida Senate primary, according to a new Mason-Dixon poll.

Meek takes 33 percent to Greene's 29 percent in the new poll, which had a margin of error of four percent.

Meanwhile, Meek's campaign released its own internal poll showing the Democratic congressman similarly tied with his big-spending rival.

The Feldman Group poll, which surveyed 800 registered Democrats and had a 3.5 percentage point margin of error, shows Meek taking 36 percent and Greene 35 percent, with 20 percent of voters undecided.

That Meek's campaign is releasing a poll showing him essentially running even with Greene is a testament to the dire straits that the Democratic congressman has found himself in less than three weeks out from the Aug. 24 primary. A late July Quinnipiac poll showed Meek trailing his opponent 33 percent to 23 percent, with 35 percent undecided.

Meek's campaign manager, Abe Dyk, contended in a polling memo that Greene is "in trouble, and he knows it."

Greene's campaign "has entered a toxic phase and the lies being spewed from his camp are wild and never ending," Dyke wrote. "Their statements are simultaneously unbelievable and not believable."

Meek has embarked on a 10-day statewide bus tour in an effort to fire up supporters; former President Bill Clinton, who has previously held several fundraisers for Meek, is also hitting the trail for him on Aug. 16.

In recent days, Greene has come under fire for a 2007 trip to Cuba. He had described the trip as a "Jewish mission," but former deckhands contend it was a party trip.

The race remains a tight one, and Greene has a vast personal fortune upon which to draw. But in the wake of last weekend's brutal St. Petersburg Times profile of Greene -- and the revelations that have followed it -- it appears that Meek may be turning the corner.

5. President Obama made his long-anticipated visit to Chicago on Thursday to campaign for state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias (D), who is seeking to keep the president's former Senate seat in the hands of Democrats this fall.

"Alexi is my friend. I know his character. I know how much he loves this country," Obama said in remarks to 400 supporters at Chicago's Palmer House Hilton.

In his remarks, Giannoulias tied his opponent, Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), to George W. Bush -- an indication that Democrats are ramping up their efforts this cycle to link Republican candidates to the unpopular former president.

Obama, Giannoulias said, is "fixing the mess he inherited from the Bush/Kirk crowd; making sure we avoided the second Great Depression; having the courage to enact fundamental Wall Street reform."

He also cast the race as "bigger than Democrats vs. Republicans -- this is a race about the future of this country, the future of the American story."

The event, which Democrats expected would raise $1 million for Giannoulias's campaign, was not the only excitement in the Illinois Senate race of late, however.

Appointed Sen. Roland Burris (D-Ill.), the seat's current occupant, is appealing a judge's ruling barring new candidates from filing in the special election for the seat. Burris would like the option to run for the remaining several weeks of Obama's term between the November election and January 2011. While the legal challenge remains up in the air, it potentially opens up a new can of worms for Democrats this fall.

By Aaron Blake and Felicia Sonmez  |  August 6, 2010; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  Morning Fix  
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