Senate races

Senate races

DeMint 'impressed' by Missouri Republican Steelman

Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) offered some praise Wednesday for Missouri Senate hopeful Sarah Steelman, who's courting grassroots conservatives ahead of a likely GOP Senate primary in that state.

"I was really impressed," DeMint told The Ballot Box of his meeting with Steelman, who recently jumped into the race against Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.). "She seems to be right down the line of where we are. She gets the need to roll back government spending and debt, so I was impressed." 

Steelman, the former Missouri state treasurer, is staring down the prospect of a primary challenge from former Sen. Jim Talent (R-Mo.) and is working to position herself to Talent's right. 

Given his high name ID, Talent would likely be the immediate front-runner in a GOP primary. A recent poll showed Talent far ahead of Steelman in a primary contest.  

Of the former senator's potential entry into the race, DeMint said, "I haven't heard anything about him running."  

The South Carolina Republican said it's too early for an endorsement in the race just yet, but "we're going to follow [Steelman] and see how her campaign goes." 

Republican Senate hopefuls are already lining up to court DeMint, working to secure the now-coveted endorsement of his Senate Conservatives Fund, which spent close to $6 million backing GOP Senate challengers this past cycle. 

DeMint made high-profile endorsements in a number of Senate primaries during the 2010 cycle, backing Marco Rubio (Fla.), Rand Paul (Ky.), Ken Buck (Colo.) and Sharron Angle (Nev.).  

DeMint said he plans on meeting with a number of candidates in the coming months, but he reiterated his commitment not to endorse against any incumbent Republican senators in 2012. That precludes DeMint from supporting Tea Party-backed challengers to centrist Republicans like Sens. Olympia Snowe (Maine) and Dick Lugar (Ind.).     

"I will certainly endorse against incumbent Democrats, but no incumbent Republicans," said DeMint. "But we are looking at a lot of races where we'll get involved in primaries when we see a solid conservative." 

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Alaska judge to decide Miller suit by Friday

Tea Party-backed Republican Joe Miller could know his fate by the end of the week. 

A state judge in Alaska heard arguments Wednesday in Miller's legal challenge to the legitimacy of thousands of write-in ballots counted for Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska). 

The judge said he will make a decision in the case by Friday. 

Murkowski was declared the winner last month and her attorneys, along with lawyers for the state, have argued the lawsuit should be expedited citing concerns that a drawn out legal battle could result in the state being without full representation in Congress come January. 

Murkowsi currently holds a lead of more than 10,000 votes, but if a judge rules in Miller's favor, some 8,000 write-in votes could be thrown out and the race might head to a recount. 

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Sen. Hatch: 'I intend to run, and I intend to win'

Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) isn't entertaining questions about a possible primary challenge from Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah).

"I don't even talk about that," he told The Ballot Box during an exchange with reporters outside the Senate chamber. Hatch then turned to answer a question about ethanol tax credits, but felt compelled to indicate he wasn't afraid of losing next cycle.

"I intend to run, and I intend to win, and that's as [much] as I'll say," Hatch added.

After Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah) lost his party's nomination to Mike Lee in 2010, attention shifted to Hatch. Some observers believe the 76-year-old Hatch could also be vulnerable to a challenge.

Chaffetz recently formed a new leadership PAC to help him raise campaign cash, which he certainly will need if he's going to make a Senate bid. The congressman had $178,536 in the bank as of Nov. 22, according to his post-election Federal Election Commission report.

Hatch had about $2.32 million in the bank and was some $75,000 in debt at the end of September, according to his last available FEC report.

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Sen.-elect Johnson to hold D.C. fundraiser to retire debt

Sen.-elect Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) is holding a Washington, D.C., event to help retire his debt after defeating longtime Sen. Russ Feingold (D) last month.

Johnson — who spent $14.4 million to defeat the three-term senator — will hold a "Debt Retirement Lunch" Thursday at the National Republican Senatorial Committee, according to Gannett. Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) will also appear at the event.

Donors are encouraged to contribute between $500 and $5,000. Johnson loaned himself nearly $8.7 million over the course of the campaign.

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Sen. Bill Nelson on board with tax cut deal

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), who's in the crosshairs of national Republicans ahead of 2012, said Tuesday that President Obama's compromise with Republicans on the extension of Bush-era tax cuts is "the right thing to do."

Nelson told reporters that he supports the bipartisan compromise, saying it will stimulate the economy and help bring down unemployment. 

The Florida Democrat's approval ratings are below 50 percent, putting him high on the list of GOP Senate targets in 2012 and he's been taking flak from both sides on the tax cut issue. 

The left has been pressuring Nelson to reject an extension of tax cuts for the wealthy. MoveOn.org led a protest in front of the Democrat's Florida office last week. 

His potential Republican opponents in 2012 are also applying the pressure. Rep. Connie Mack IV (R-Fla.) a rumored contender for the Senate seat, penned a recent column in the Orlando Sentinel calling on Nelson to admit that his previous Senate votes in opposition to the cuts were wrong. 

"Admitting he was wrong to oppose the Bush tax cuts in 2001 and 2003 would be a first step for U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson to signal he 'got the message' in the recent citizen revolt," Mack wrote. 

Nelson also said Tuesday he intends to lobby skeptical Senate Democratic colleagues to support the compromise. 

According to Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling, Nelson's approval stands at just 37 percent positive. But he has traditionally polled better than most with Republicans and independent voters, which could make him a tougher target in 2012. 

Florida state Senate President Mike Haridopolos (R) has all but officially jumped in the race and along with Mack, Sen. George LeMieux (R-Fla.) is also mulling a bid. 

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Sen. Lieberman: Tax deal 'very easy to defend'

Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman said voting for the tax deal is a political winner for Democrats.

"Everybody's going to make their own political judgments, but to me there's so much good in here for working families — middle-class families — that voting for this package is very easy to defend," he told reporters at the Capitol on Tuesday.

Lieberman, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, is up for reelection in 2012. He said Democrats didn't have the votes to sunset the tax cuts for wealthy Americans.

"What’s the alternative? To have gridlock, which means that everybody's taxes go up on Jan. 1, including middle-class, lower-income people?" he said. "In a bipartisan agreement, you never get everything you want."

Lieberman noted that as part of the deal that extends the Bush-era tax rates for all income brackets, Democrats got a 13-month extension of unemployment benefits, a payroll tax cut and extensions of the childcare tax credit and the college tuition tax credit.

"I think the benefits are very strong in this package," he said. "I think the alternative was for the economy to go deeper into recession."

More than half the Senate Democrats will vote for the deal, Lieberman predicted.

Senate Democrats heard about the deal from Vice President Joe Biden during their weekly lunch at the Capitol on Tuesday.

"There was emotion" during the meeting, said Lieberman.

"There were a couple who were asking, shall I say, vigorous questions about it, but I thought the vice president handled it well," he said. 

Lieberman also praised President Obama's handling of the negotiations, telling MSNBC on Tuesday the president "negotiated a good agreement."

—This post was updated at 3:36 p.m.

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Sen. Nelson said he didn't make 'any campaign promises' about taxes

Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson (Neb.) said he isn't worried about blowback from activists if he votes to extend the Bush-era tax cuts because he didn't make "any campaign promises" about it.

Nelson indicated he would support a bill brokered with Republicans that extends the tax rates for all income brackets. On Saturday, he voted against the Democratic proposal that only kept the cuts for the middle class.

"I've made it clear, I didn't make any campaign promises about this, so I'm only focused on my end," Nelson told reporters before joining his Senate colleagues for their weekly lunch at the Capitol. "I've said that I thought that the debate shouldn't be about whether [the tax cuts] go to everybody, but for how long. And it looks to me like that that's the approach that the president and the negotiators have taken. Now, not everybody’s going to be happy with that.”

Nelson, who is up for reelection in 2012, has said on previous occasions he thinks the Bush-era tax cuts should be extended for all incomes. He noted Tuesday that voters want the parties to compromise.

"I think this last election made it clear, as previous elections have, that we have to do things in a bipartisan basis," said the two-term Democrat. "The closer the vote, the closer the ratio in the Senate."

Some liberal groups are outraged by what they perceived as the Democrats' willingness to cave on a multi-cycle campaign promise — to sunset the Bush-era tax rates on the highest income earners.

Adam Green, a leader of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, said this vote could prompt primary challenges to Nelson and other Democrats.

"There's already an appetite for primarying someone like Ben Nelson, who is consistently scared of his own shadow and sides with corporations and special interests against his own constituents," said Green, whose group helped fund an unsuccessful primary challenge to Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) last cycle.

"Does voting to borrow billions of dollars to fund tax cuts for the rich stoke the fire even more? Sure. Voters will not forget this vote."

—This post was updated at 1:56 p.m.

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Cornyn: Obama caved on taxes thanks to GOP midterm gains

The GOP's Senate campaign chief John Cornyn (Texas) said in a fundraising e-mail Tuesday that President Obama's decision to compromise with Republicans on tax cuts was a direct result of GOP Senate gains in November's midterm elections. 

"President Obama's decision yesterday to join with Republicans in opposing the largest tax increase in American history was made not because he had a sudden change in political or economic philosophy," Cornyn wrote in an e-mail that will go out to supporters of the National Republican Senatorial Committee on Tuesday afternoon. 

Cornyn thanks donors and makes the pitch for 2012 cash with the party well within reach of the Senate majority in 2012. 

The Republican said now that Senate Democrats no longer have as many votes to help push their legislative agenda through the Senate, the election results have forced compromise.      

"With a much slimmer Senate Democrat majority, Republicans now have a very important seat at the negotiating table, and because of the pressure you brought to bear on many Democrats, there is growing bipartisan opposition to raising taxes, particularly in this time of economic recovery," wrote Cornyn. 

The deal would temporarily extend the Bush-era tax cuts across the board along with extending unemployment benefits for another 13 months. 

Cornyn said Democrats "are in disarray," pointing to party infighting over Obama's decision to compromise and said the committee has already turned to 2012 when 23 Democratic Senate seats are up. 

Many on the left are in revolt over the president's compromise, with liberals already warning the decision could cripple the president's reelection bid.

A number of House and Senate Democrats have also slammed the decision. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who's likely to be a top Republican target in 2012, said he's "very unhappy" with the deal and called it "bad economic policy."

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