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Could 2010 be the Democrats' big year in the Senate?

December 2, 2008 | 12:50 pm

For Democrats, 60 is a magic number -- the number they need for a (theoretically) filibuster-proof majority in the U.S. Senate.

There's an outside chance the party can pick up the two seats needed to reach 60 before the new Congress convenes in January -- if Democrats prevail in today's Georgia runoff as well as the continuing recount battle in Minnesota. They've got 58 now.

More likely, however, 2010 looks to be Democrats' year; after gaining more than a dozen seats in the last two election cycles, the party heads into the next midterm election well positioned (at least on paper) to make additional pickups. (Two years being a lifetime in politics, etc., etc.)

Republicans will be defending 19 seats in 2010, compared with 15 for the Democrats.

Of those 34 states with Senate races, President-elect Barack Obama carried more than half -- including Florida, which has just become one of the key battlegrounds (a word that seems perpetually attached to the Sunshine State) two years from now.Florida's incumbent Republican Senator Mel Martinez decides not to seek re-election in 2010

Sen. Mel Martinez, who today announced plans to step down after serving a single term, figured to have a tough reelection fight. (We have the full text of Martinez' statement; click on the "Read more" line below.)

A Quinnipiac University poll last month showed just over one in three Floridians believed that Martinez, pictured here, deserved a second term.

Forty percent said they would support a Democrat, although that sort of generic number always needs to be taken advisedly.

The Cuban-born Martinez broke with others in his party by pushing an unpopular immigration reform bill; he spoke often of the party's need to broaden its appeal among Latinos and other ethnic groups, which was one major reason Pres. Bush had so strongly urged him to run in the first place..

But like so many other Republicans, his ties to President Bush -- who appointed Martinez as secretary of Housing and Urban Development in 2001-- were an anchor around the senator's neck.

An open Senate seat is a rarity, and there are more than a dozen prospective candidates already being mentioned, from both major parties.

Florida being Florida, "the potential for this becoming a nationalized race is very likely," said Susan MacManus, a political analyst at the University of South Florida in Tampa. "I expect we'll see a lot of outside-the-state contributions, presidential candidates and national party leaders coming here."

One possible 2012 candidate -- Florida's Republican Gov. Charlie Crist -- won't have to travel far. He was politically close to Martinez and figures to have an easier reelection campaign without having to fight to save his colleague's Senate seat as well.

-- Mark Z. Barabak

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Photo credit: Chris O'Meara / Associated Press

Statement by Florida Republican Sen. Mel Martinez, Dec. 2, 2008:

If there is one thing I have learned over the years, it is that life can have many wonderful detours from where you think you’re going.  These result from chance, adversity, and a call to duty.

As a teenager growing up in Cuba, I saw comfort and the rule of law replaced by tyranny and communist oppression. I saw people beaten for practicing their faith. I remember those who spoke out vanishing -– never to be seen again. 

My parents, with the help of the Catholic Church, sent me here, to the United States –- a place to be safe until we could be reunited.

It was here that I learned the greatness of this country -– and the genuine goodness of the American people. I lived with two foster families –- good, decent, loving people who answered a call from the pulpit one Sunday to take in a boy they did not know, from a country they had never seen, who spoke a language they did not understand.

I thank God for the Young and Berkmeyer families. They helped me understand what it means to be American –- what it is to aspire to live the American dream -– and the profound virtue of giving back to your community.

After four years I was reunited with my family. I went to college and law school. I met the woman who would become my best friend, my partner and counsel. Kitty and I settled in Orlando – my only true home after I left Cuba.

We started a family, sent our two older children, Lauren and John, to Bishop Moore High School –- the same school I attended –- and where our younger son, Andrew, started as a freshman this year. Orlando is where I built a law practice, and where I was encouraged to become an active member of this vibrant and growing community.

After years of involvement in numerous community organizations and boards and with encouragement from many friends, I threw my hat into the political ring, running for Orange County Mayor.

"What an honor it would be,” I thought, “to serve as Mayor of the community that took me in.” It was a race where I started in last place. Pundits openly wondered whether a Hispanic could be elected Orange County Mayor at a time when only 5% of the registered voters in our county were Hispanic.

So in November of 1998 I began my term believing that after four -– or maybe eight years at most –- I would return to the private sector. Neither my family nor I had planned or hoped for anything different.

You all know that one thing led to another. From Mayor, I went to serve in the President’s Cabinet. From there, I made the run for U.S. Senate. Again, I started in last place, ran against an impressive field of candidates who had the resources and statewide recognition that should have ended my run early on. 

Those who volunteered with me knew the odds were against us; no other office holder had been elected on their first statewide run.

But we persevered. We proved the American Dream is alive and well, especially when an immigrant arriving here with nothing can one day be elected to serve in the United States Senate.

The Senate is the only federal office carrying a six-year term, so a decision about whether to run for re-election is one that my family and I have carefully considered over the past year.

It was a question that came to mind as I wrote my book –- causing me to reflect on the path I’ve chosen, and to think about, with love and gratitude, those who’ve traveled with me.

The inescapable truth, for me, is that the call to public service is strong, but the call to home, family and lifelong friends is even stronger.

So today, with deep love for this country and with sincere gratitude to the people who placed their trust in me, I announce that I will not run for reelection to the United States Senate.

I thank all of those who helped me reach the highest elected office that an immigrant can hold in this great country. And I especially thank my family, who has supported me every step of the way -– especially Kitty, who has sacrificed much more than me and without whom none of this would have been possible.

Some might try to characterize this decision in terms of political affairs.  Some will say a re-election campaign would have been too difficult. But I’ve faced much tougher odds in political campaigns and in life. 

My decision was not based on reelection prospects, but on what I want to do with the next eight years of my life.

The thought of devoting more time to my roles as husband, dad, granddad, brother and son to the family I love and cherish, and to be “Mel” to the friends I miss -– makes this decision far easier than one might think.

So with two years left in my term, I make this announcement today in order to give the many qualified individuals who might choose to try to succeed me an opportunity to organize and gather support.

I look forward to serving out these next two years. There are big problems facing Florida and the nation, and I will continue to do what I think is in the best interests of the people whom I represent.

Thank you; God bless you; and God Bless the United States of America.”  ###

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