When he met in early February with Sen. John Cornyn, chairman of the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, about possibly challenging Sen. Christopher Dodd in Connecticut, Rob Simmons was a little skeptical about his chances against the five-term senator in a Democratic state. But then an RSCC poll showed him running competitively. And, by March 10, a Quinnipiac University poll showed Simmons with a 43-42 lead over Dodd and a 49-32 advantage among independents, the state's largest voting bloc. On March 15, Simmons announced that he would run against Dodd.
These polls were conducted before anyone had heard of the so-called Dodd amendment allowing the hugely unpopular AIG bonuses.
On March 16, after initial reports that AIG executives had received $165 million in bonuses, the chairman of the Senate banking committee joined the chorus of outrage. "A car mechanic or teacher in Connecticut shouldn't have to subsidize the bad decisions of these executives," Dodd said.
When CNN asked Dodd the next day about a loophole in the stimulus bill that allowed the bonuses, Dodd answered: "When that language left the Senate that I wrote, that was not included." A day later, Dodd said the language had in fact been there, but only because the Treasury Department asked for it. The Hartford Courant ran a giant front-page headline: "Dodd's flip-flop," while a New Haven Register editorial called Dodd a "lying weasel."
Dodd was the second largest recipient of cash from AIG donors in the 2008 election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. But the troubles for the Connecticut senior senator didn't start with AIG.
The Senate Ethics Committee is still probing whether he received a sweetheart deal on two mortgages, and the Hartford Courant recently reported another questionable real estate transaction regarding an Irish cottage.
"People who are struggling to keep their job or to pay their mortgage because they lost their job or face foreclosure are very upset that the chairman of the committee that oversees these activities apparently is benefiting directly from contributions and special mortgages from the very people he oversees," Simmons said. "This has the appearance of a conflict of interest."
For Simmons, the only downside of Dodd's apparent weakness is that other Republicans--such as state Senator Sam Caligiuri--have now expressed interest in entering the race, which could force a primary and weaken a Republican challenger.
After winning two consecutive landslides, Dodd may be a little rusty when it comes to campaign skills. Simmons on the other hand knows all about rough contests. The former three-term House member lost his last race in the state by just 83 votes in a heavily Democratic district. But that was in 2006, a terrible year for Republicans.
In 2000, Simmons beat 10-term incumbent Democrat Sam Gejdenson in the same heavily Democratic eastern Connecticut district that Al Gore (running with home state Sen. Joe Lieberman) carried by 14 points. In 2002 and again in 2004 (when John Kerry carried the district by 10 points) Simmons won decisive victories over his Democratic opponents.
So it's increasingly plausible Simmons could become the first Republican senator from Connecticut since Lowell Weicker, a name that still makes many conservatives cringe. On social issues, Simmons is a typical New England moderate, but as a Vietnam veteran and former CIA officer, he has stood firm on national security issues, and has a 53 percent lifetime rating with the American Conservative Union. Simmons worked in the 1970s as a Senate staffer for both Barry Goldwater and John Chafee and thinks the GOP's conservative-moderate gap isn't so wide.
"If you look more carefully, you'll see some of these labels don't really describe these two great senators adequately," Simmons said of his former Senate bosses. "Both believed in having a strong defense, and both believed a fundamental responsibility of our Congress under the Constitution was to provide for the common defense. Both Senators Goldwater and Chafee were fiscal conservatives. They believed citizens had the first claim on their dollars and that the government should only take their dollars for necessary priorities."
Weicker, those with long memories may recall, won his first Senate bid over another scandal-plagued Dodd. Sen. Thomas Dodd, the current senator's father, lost his 1970 reelection bid despite a distinguished reputation as an assistant to five U.S. attorney generals and a prosecutor of Nazi war criminals in Nuremberg. The Senate voted on June 23, 1967, to censure the elder Dodd for diverting $116,000 in campaign contributions to personal use. While he did not directly violate any law or Senate rule, his colleagues decided Dodd's conduct was "contrary to accepted morals, derogates from the public trust expected of a Senator, and tends to bring the Senate into dishonor and disrepute."
It remains to be seen when the plodding ethics committee will release its findings on the current Sen. Dodd's dealings with Countrywide Mortgage. After Portfolio magazine reported last summer that Dodd was a beneficiary of the "Friend of Angelo" program, named for the mortgage giant's CEO Angelo Mozilo, and saved $75,000 over the life of two loans he refinanced in 2003, he did the same thing he did with the AIG flap. He first denied it then conceded the point, but said he believed the treatment was "more of a courtesy" than a sweetheart deal.
After nearly six months of silence, Dodd met with a select group of Connecticut reporters who were allowed to review the mortgage documents, but not to make any copies. "Jackie and I acted properly in our mortgage refinancing negotiations," Dodd said, referring to himself and his wife. "We did not seek or expect any special rates or terms in our loans and we never received any."
More recently, the Courant has reported on the convoluted real estate deal in Ireland, in which Dodd was able to purchase an Irish cottage for well below market value. The deal involved his friend Edward Downe Jr. Downe was convicted of insider trading and securities fraud in 1993, but benefited from one of the infamous Clinton pardons in early 2001 after Dodd lobbied for the clemency. It was in the following year that Dodd got his great deal on the Irish property.
The ethics theme will resonate with voters, predicts Gary Rose, chairman of the government and politics department at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut. "Voters in Connecticut are pretty discerning, and they don't like it when politicians have a sense of entitlement." The question is: Will it be enough to overcome Dodd's advantage as an incumbent? In a Siena poll released March 27, Dodd is up 45-40 over Simmons, but 40 percent have an unfavorable view of the incumbent.
"There's a negative reaction to Dodd," Rose says. "The people are looking for something new. But Dodd is formidable. He has a huge war chest. He's already running ads on TV . . . about what he's doing in the Senate." Simmons's hope is that voters will weigh the full story of what Dodd has done in the Senate, and recoil.
Fred Lucas is the White House correspondent for CNSNews.com. He was formerly a political reporter for the News-Times in Danbury, Connecticut.