Polls suggest healthcare debate a boon to GOP candidates running for Senate

The healthcare battle appears to be helping Republicans running for the Senate.

Two Quinnipiac polls released Thursday show the leading GOP candidates in Connecticut and Ohio growing their leads.

Former Rep. Rob Simmons (R-Conn.) leads Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), 49-38, and former Rep. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) has opened his first leads over two potential Democratic opponents.

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The surveys are the first major Senate polls since the House passed its healthcare bill on Saturday.

President Barack Obama’s approval on the healthcare issue has slipped in Ohio from 44 percent to 36 percent in the last two months, and now 57 percent of voters disapprove of his handling of it. Voters also by a wide margin say they oppose the healthcare bill, 55-36, after they were evenly divided, 44-44, in September.

In Connecticut, the drop is less drastic, and voters still support the bill by a 47-42 margin. But the all-important independent voters disapprove of Obama’s handling of the issue, 55-36. Two months ago, they disapproved by a six-point margin.

The more troubling numbers are in Ohio, mostly because the dropoff is bigger, but also because it is often seen as an electoral harbinger for the rest of the country.

Quinnipiac polling institute assistant director Peter Brown pointed out that Ohio was ahead of the curve when Obama’s approval ratings began to decline.

"In July, when the president's job approval began falling nationally from the high 50s and low 60s into the low 50s, Ohio was the first place it showed up in the polls," Brown said.

On the economy, Ohio voters disapprove of Obama’s performance 53-42, after approving of him 48-46 in September.

“Two things happened in the last week while we were polling: Unemployment topped 10 percent, and the House passed the health care bill,” Brown said, adding: "He’s beginning to own the economy; it’s taken a while."

The shift in the Senate race is also stark.

Portman trailed Lt . Gov. Lee Fisher (D) by double-digits in Quinnipiac’s September poll, but he has now taken a 39-36 lead. Portman also leads Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner for the first time, 38-34.

"Ohio voters are not happy with the president's handling of healthcare and the economy,” Brown added. “The fact that they now are split whether he or the Republicans in Congress are better able to handle healthcare should be a very worrisome number at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., since the GOP is still pretty much a four-letter word in most of America."

In Connecticut, Simmons had seen his lead over Dodd decline in recent months, as Dodd put some personal troubles behind him. Now, though, Simmons is registering his biggest lead in the poll since March, when Dodd first got into trouble for inserting a provision in the bailout bill that allowed large bonuses for AIG executives.

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Dodd is also trailing lesser-known GOP candidates in the poll, but state Democratic Party spokeswoman Colleen Flanagan said the campaign isn’t putting much stock in the numbers.

She said Dodd’s work on healthcare and other issues is making him stronger.

“In truth, we have a hard time believing Chris Dodd has done anything but strengthen his political position based on his well-publicized and heroic work on healthcare reform, tightening our country’s financial regulations and protecting consumers; coverage that contrasts starkly with the Jerry Springer-like atmosphere of the Republican Senate Primary,” Flanagan said.

A Gallup poll this week showed 38 percent of Americans favor the current healthcare bill, while 47 percent oppose it.

That poll raised eyebrows for showing Republicans ahead on the generic ballot for the first time in a while. Other polling still has Democrats with a generic ballot lead.

An AP-GfK poll that was conducted before, during and after the healthcare vote Saturday showed 39 percent of Americans supporting the bill, while 45 percent opposed it.