Down-the-ballot diary: Gov. Blunt unexpectedly retires, FL-21 gets competitive

Surprising news out of Missouri, where Republican Governor Matt Blunt, 37, has announced that he will not be seeking re-election next year. Blunt was serving his first-term as governor after a tight election in 2004, and he was preparing for another very tight battle against Attorney General Jay Nixon, who basically started running 3 years ago.

Blunt had already raised millions of dollars but he was plagued by low approval ratings and he trailed in most polls against Nixon. So it is unclear whether an open seat here is bad news for Republican. They have a fairly good bench in the state -- representatives and statewide officials -- and any one of them could mount a strong run against Nixon, potentially stronger than Blunt would have been able to. That said, surveys from Missouri all year have shown that the state is looking to move to the blue column as Democrats are being more competitive than usual; Nixon has won plenty of statewide elections himself and he has been running for a while now, so this should stay a very competitive race.

Given that there are almost no competitive governor's seats, most people will remain focused on this race (as well as North Carolina's which is much more competitive than expected with the entrance of Charlotte's GOP Mayor).

Meanwhile, in Oregon, Gordon Smith is continuing his efforts to appear bi-partisan and moderate in preparation for his re-election battle next year. After it became clear that Smith had a target on his back, he quickly embarked on this strategy, distancing himself from his party on the war. More recently, he introduced a bill to extend domestic partnerships to federal employees. Today, Smith has sent a letter to President Bush along with 7 Democratic Senators and no other Republican. The letter only asks the president to launch in investigation into Bhutto's death, but it is a rather transparent attempt at bi-partsanship, and one that is likely to start paying dividends. Smith is not particularly unpopular and the Democrats have not recruited a top-tier challenger against him. If Smith manages to distance himself from the R next to his name, it's going to be hard for the DSCC to make him vulnerable.

Finally, some House news from FL-21, where Democrat Raul Martinez, former mayor of Hialeah, is entering the race against GOP Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart in a Miami-area district that leans Republican. Martinez is a very well-known figure. It is worth noting that the DCCC is also looking to challenge other Republican Reps representing the Miami region, so this area could become the hottest battleground of the 2008 elections.

Diaz-Balart and Martinez will go all-out for the Cuban vote. They are already exchanging jabs as to who is tougher on Castro. Here's from the Miami Herald article I linked to above: "Díaz-Balart has told The Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald that Martinez's return is part of a ploy by Fidel Castro sympathizers to lift or weaken the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba." Another big topic in the campaign will likely be Martinez's 1990 indictment for extortion and racketeering. Martinez claims the charges were politically motivated and still has strong support among the state's Democratic Party but he remains a controversial figure.

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