Republicans target Obama's former Senate seat

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republicans are eyeing U.S. President-elect Barack Obama’s former Senate seat from Illinois for the 2010 election, seeing it as a surprise opportunity to help reverse a string of electoral losses.

Democrat Roland Burris is due to be sworn in as Obama’s replacement on Thursday. But Senate Republican campaign chairman John Cornyn said the scandal over the seat, which saw the Illinois governor accused of having earlier tried to sell it, had given his party a chance to win it in the 2010 election.

“Who would have figured that Republicans might have a shot (in the Illinois Senate election) in 2010?” Cornyn told reporters in an early preview of next year’s contests. Burris will have to decide if he will run next year for a full six-year term.

Republicans lost control of the Senate and House of Representatives to Democrats in 2006 and saw their numbers shrink further in the 2008 election to 41 members in the 100-seat Senate. Burris will give Democrats 58 seats, their biggest Senate majority since 1981. The Minnesota race is still unresolved.

Democrats did an about-face this week and agreed to permit the swearing-in of Burris, a former Illinois attorney general, appointed by Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich. The Illinois House impeached Blagojevich last week.

Obama and fellow Democrats initially denounced the appointment as tainted, but agreed to allow Burris to take the oath after a dispute over paperwork was resolved.

“As a result of the national embarrassment that has occurred here in Washington with regard to the Roland Burris affair and the cloud that will invariably follow Mr. Burris’ tenure as U.S. senator -- being appointed by a soon-to-be indicted governor for corruption -- that is an opportunity for us,” Cornyn said.

“It is a key target,” a senior Republican aide said.

Cornyn said a big difference next year from recent elections will be that George W. Bush, whose unpopular presidency was a drag on the party, “will no longer be in office.”

The Texas Republican noted that nearly half the attack ads against Republican congressional candidates last year sought to tie them to Bush.

Cornyn voiced delight at what Democrats have privately griped about -- that Obama’s picks for his Cabinet have taken away two potential 2010 Senate Democratic contenders and are about to remove two popular Senate Democrats.

Obama picked Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano to head the Department of Homeland Security and former Iowa Gov. Thomas Vilsack to head the Agriculture Department. Both were seen as potential Senate contenders in 2010.

Obama also selected Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York as his secretary of state and Colorado Sen. Ken Salazar as interior secretary. Both will resign from Congress after their anticipated Senate confirmations.

“President-elect Barack Obama has given us some opportunities,” Cornyn said.

Editing by Peter Cooney