Saturday, September 1, 2007

First Senate rankings: How high can Democrats rise?

It’s the first of the month! That means it’s time for our (first) Senate rankings.

It has been obvious for months that the 2008 Senate cycle would favor Democrats. Even before taking into account the anti-GOP national mood that allowed Democrats to prevail in every close Senate race in 2006 but Tennessee, the raw numbers tell the story: the GOP is defending 22 seats, and the Dems only 12. Add to this the continually deteriorating atmosphere for Republicans, and you get poor fundraising for the NRSC, recruitment failures, and pessimist Republican operatives. The DSCC has been moving aggressively to press its advantage and to expand the playing field to new states. For now, NRSC Chairman Ensign is doing an even worst job than Sen. Dole did in 2005-2006. His fundraising is even worse, and he has failed to recruit top-tier Republican challengers – something Dole had at least done a good job at (Kean in NJ and Steele in MD, who could both have won in an other election cycle).

The rankings reflect this state of affair. The races are ranked from most vulnerable to take-over to safest to the incumbent party – and the top 6 seats are Republican. In fact, there are only 2 Democratic seats (Louisiana and South Dakota) in this list of 15 races! The WaPo quotes a GOP pollster as saying, "It's always darkest right before you get clobbered over the head with a pipe wrench. But then it actually does get darker.”

It is now too late for Republicans to reverse the situation – their endangered seats can no longer be made safe – but they can still hope to save face if they expand the playing field a bit: Democratic seats in Iowa and Montana have the potential of being competitive, but Republicans have barely made a move to challenge them yet. But this is one of the most important challenges facing the GOP in 2008: It is playing defense in so many states it can afford neither the time nor the money to go on the offensive against Democratic incumbents to at least test their vulnerability, and the NRSC is likely to settle on only challenging Landrieu in Louisiana.

Outlook: Democratic pick-up of 3-6 seats

Prediction: Democrats pick-up a net 5 seats, for a 56-44 majority.

Lean Takeover (3 Republican Seats, 0 Democratic Seats)

1. New Hampshire (Incumbent: John Sununu)

The Pennsylvania of the 2008 cycle. Sen. Sununu, preparing for his first re-election race, finds himself in a huge hole. If former Governor Shaheen enters the race in September (there hasn’t been much news from her since Robert Novak reported a few months back that her husband was saying there was a 70% she would run), she will start with a double-digit lead. A few polls already released have her 20% ahead. Casey was in a similar position against then Senator Santorum starting in the summer of 2005 – and he never looked back.

New Hampshire’s monumental swing to the Democrats in 2006 (they pulled two upsets to grab both the House seats and posted huge gains in the state house and in the state senate to take control of both) makes it that much harder for Sununu to hold on in a state that is clearly trending blue. And it also guarantees that the race stays competitive even if Shaheen takes a pass. The race will then undoubtedly be much closer, but the Democrats have other candidates that would make Sununu sweat it out. There are three candidates vying for the Democratic nod for now: Portsmouth Mayor Steve Marchand, Katrina Swett and Jay Buckey. Swett has been painted by the netroots as a Lieberman-type moderate (she did support Lieberman’s independant campaign in 06) who has to be stopped at all costs in the primary, so things could get ugly pretty fast.

The safest bet is that they will all withdraw if Shaheen gets in, but they seem to be increasingly annoyed at the way they are being treated, so some of them might end up staying in. They were in particular annoyed at a DSCC release in early August that argued for the competitiveness of the NH race by touting Shaheen’s candidacy, but there were no mention of the other candidates.

2. Colorado (Open)

Senator Allard had come from behind to win re-election in 2002. But he clearly did not relish the thought of another close election, and he chose to call it quits early in the cycle. The Democratic field has quickly unified behind Rep. Udall, who has been preparing to run for years now. He has been raising a lot of money, and hoping to capitalize on the state’s blue trend: Salazar’s victory in 2004, two House seats picked-up in 2004 and 2006 and the 2006 take-over of the governorship.

Udall seemed to have closed the deal a few months ago when the Republican front-runner suddenly withdrew, leaving the Republicans without a strong candidate. But they quickly found former Rep. Bob Shaffer, who lost the 2004 Senate Republican primary. Shaffer is strongly conservative, and the Democrats will paint him as too far to the right. But Republicans will strike right back, charging Udall is too liberal for the state (it is true that Udall represents one of the more Democratic districts in the state, and that his voting record has put him in the liberal wing of the House).

The race has not been particularly eventful for now – except for recent allegations that Shaffer has engaged in some unethical conduct, a story to be followed for sure.

3. Virginia (Open seat)

Sen. John Warner announced on Friday, August 31st that he will not run for a sixth term. Virginia thus became a huge opportunity for Democrats. But to capitalize on the state’s recent move towards the Democratic Party (the Democrats need popular former Governor Mark Warner to jump in the race for the Democrats. This would make it very difficult for Republicans to keep the seat.

Yes, Virginia remains a Republican state – and the GOP nominee will be strongly favored in the presidential election. But the Democrats are on a roll in the state with the back-to-back victories of Gov. Kaine in 2005 and Sen. Webb in 2006. And Mark Warner left office immensely popular, which probably is what got Kaine elected in the first place. To make matters worse, the Republicans are likely to break in a bitter fight, with conservatives already lining up behind former Governor (and brief presidential candidate) Gilmore to block Rep. Tom Davis, a moderate Republican who has been raising a lot of money (and who was all but endorsed today by John Warner).

This would not, however, be a blowout for Democrats. Virginia is still a Republican state – and the increased turnout of a presidential year would guarantee that the race stays close. Also, if the Republican candidate is Davis, he could neutralize some of the Democratic advantage in Fairfax, since he represents the Northern part of the state in Congress. And if Mark Warner takes a pass (and he certainly could, either because he wants to run for Governor again in 2009 or because he wants to stay in contention to be the vice-presidential pick next summer), Republicans would be once again favored to hold on to this seat.

Toss-up (3 R, 1 D)

4. Oregon (Incumbent: Gordon Smith)

Gordon Smith has known he has a target on his back for a while now, and he has taken steps accordingly. He has been the first Republican Senator to break with Bush on the War – but is that too little too late? Like all Republican defectors, Smith has never voted against the Administration on war-related issues, and Democrats are poised to use this to attack him. Oregon is a blue state – albeit by the smallest of margins – and the Democrat will benefit from presidential coattails. Until recently, Democrats did not have a candidate, as their top choices passed on the race one after the other. But they suddenly got two! The favorite is shaping to be Jeff Merkley, the Speaker of the Oregon House – widely credited for organizing the Democratic take-over of that chamber last year, and for going forward with a progressive agenda since then.

5. Maine (Incumbent: Susan Collins)

If New Hampshire is this cycle’s Pennsylvania, Maine could be its Rhode Island. A popular Republican incumbent in a very blue state facing a Democrat who does his best to tie him to the Bush Administration and the Iraq War. Olympia Snowe got a pass in 2006, but Sen. Susan Collins is getting no such thing. Rep. Tom Allen has already started running against her, and the race is heating up.

But Collins is no Chaffee. Chaffee committed mistake after mistake, falling behind early in the fall of 2006. He also faced a significant challenge on the Right, only surviving his primary 54% to 46%. Collins faces no such hurdle, and has already set her sight on Allen. Democratic operatives have realized how hard it will to drive Collins down, and it is no coincidence that the blogosphere is going after her the hardest: DailyKos and other progressive blogs have been pouncing on Collins for her demand that Allen stop sending people to film her, and state papers are jumping in the fray – mostly against Collins.

6. Minnesota (Incumbent: Norm Coleman)

Yes, Al Franken appears to be for real. He has raised millions of dollars, and is attacking Senator Coleman from all directions. But he will first have to survive the primary against very wealthy businessman Mike Ciresi, who is willing to spend his own money to win the race. The big question for now is whether Al Franken is electable – the answer could very well be that this is the state that made Jesse Ventura governor. Coleman is definitely vulnerable, and early polls show him winning against Franken and Ciresi by about 7%. The tragic end of the 2002 campaign – in which Coleman defeated Mondale after Senator Wellstone’s late October death – has made this seat a top Democratic target for five years now.

7. Louisiana (Incumbent: Mary Landrieu)

Mary Landrieu is on everyone’s list of the most endangered incumbents. Louisiana is trending red, and Rep. Jindal will likely cruise to taking over the governor mansion this fall. To make matters worse, Landrieu won re-election with a pale 52% by in 2002 and that was before Katrina changed the state’s demographics to the GOP’s advantage.

Republicans have not as of yet filed a strong candidate to take on Landrieu. But they are getting closer. They tried for months to get state Treasurer John Kennedy – a conservative Democrat – to switch parties and run against Landrieu. Rove personally headed this effort. And it paid off a week ago, when Kennedy became a Republican, fueling speculation that he would jump in the Senate race.

Until he does, Landrieu is getting a head start. She is raising a lot of money, fully aware she is vulnerable. And she is in a stronger position today than many expected she would be. With the 08 climate damaging Republican chances everywhere, Landrieu has at worse a 50-50 chance of returning to the Senate.

Lean Retention (1 R, 1 D)

8. Nebraska (Incumbent: Chuck Hagel)

Chuck Hagel has announced nothing for now – and he actually called a press conference back last spring to announce that he had nothing to announce. In front of dozens of reporters ready to cover a major announcement, Hagel declared: "I'm here today to announce that my family and I will make a decision on my political future later this year." NPR’s Ken Rudin wrote, “Nothing happened. Nothing other than Hagel saying that any announcement will come later in the year. It was the oddest sensation, as the realization settled in that a complete non-announcement announcement was at hand.”

But with the campaign season gearing up, Hagel will have to soon make up his mind. Will he run for president, will he run for re-election or will he retire from politics all together? If he ends up running, he will face a bruising Republican primary against Attorney General Joe Runing, angry over Hagel’s anti-war rhetoric. But the winner of the primary would be favored, as it seems unlikely major Democrats would jump in if Hagel is running.

But if Hagel retires, Democrats are sure to make this a very competitive open seat. Former Senator Bob Kerrey is eyeing a return to the Senate – and he would make the race extremely competitive. Many Democrats would prefer Omaha Mayor Mike Fahey to be their candidate. Republicans would probably try to get former Gov Johanns in the race. In a presidential year with increased turnout, Republicans would start slightly favored.

9. South Dakota (Incumbent: Tim Johnson)

I am the first to admit the Democrats are being a bit hypocritical in South Dakota. Democrats are busy fundraising for Johnson, while blasting Republicans whenever they mention that they are planning on competing in the state (witness Dashle’s reaction when Ensign said the NRSC was gearing for a run).

Johnson made his first public appearance since December on August 28th, in a highly choreographed event where he proclaimed “I am back!” In an interview on Nightline, he announced he plans to run for re-election, and he expects to win! If Johnson does not change his mind in the next few weeks, it does seem that he is appears healthy enough for voters to be willing to give him a second chance. And Republicans are unlikely to mount a strong challenge against Johnson, despite the fact that Johnson only survived by 540 votes in 2002.

But if Johnson announces retirement, the open seat would probably lean Republican, as Governor Rounds would probably jump in for the GOP. The Democrats would maybe field Rep. Herseth, the most popular Democrat in the state. But then who would they have left to run for the House? Do they really want to give up a House seat that looks as safe as a Democrat can ever be in SD to compete in a difficult Senate race?

Likely retention (6 R)

10. New Mexico (Incumbent: Pete Domenici)

This race entirely depends on what the incumbent decides to do. If Domenici retires, the state will become one of the most competitive. But we are betting the seat will not open up, and are ranking it accordingly. In fact, Bush raised money for Domenici at the end of August, which would seem to indicate Domenici has no plans of retiring.

Domenici has always been a popular incumbent, but he has taken a direct hit from the attorney firing scandal. He has been accused of interfering with the judicial system, trying to pressure a prosecutor and working to get him fired. That has hurt him badly – but it has not been fatal. The Democrats have no candidate for now, but a strong contender could put the seat in play.

11. North Carolina (Incumbent: Elizabeth Dole)

Democrats love attacking Elizabeth Dole for her terrible tenure as NRSC chairman in the 2006 cycle. They delight in her weak poll numbers and low approval ratings. They view her as very beatable. After all, Dole did not win by much against Bowles in 2002 – and that was in a very Republican year. But North Carolina is for now one of the Democrats’ biggest recruiting failures. Governor Easley and other major Democrats have announced they will not run, and Democrats are still looking. Polls show that Dole wins by healthy margins against very little-known Democrats, but she stays way under 50% - putting her in very vulnerable territory. We should better know what to expect from this race in the next few months.

12. Texas (Incumbent: John Cornyn)

Cornyn is an unpopular incumbent, with widely documented problems. But he comfortably won his seat in 2002 in what was supposed to be a competitive open seat, and Texas has hardly gotten bluer since then. Yet Democrat Mikal Carter Watts has announced his intention of spending millions of his own money to beat Cornyn. Democrats are also looking at the candidacy of state Rep. Rick Noriega. This at least guaranteeing that Democrats will have a fighting chance if Cornyn has an Allen-like meltdown.

13. Kentucky (Incumbent: Mitch McConnell)

Democrats are dreaming to oust Senate Majority Leader McConnell – payback for Dashle’s defeat in 2004. They almost have a candidate: Kentucky Attorney General Gregory Stumbo has formed an explanatory committee. But a lot of things will have to break their way for the seat to become competitive. Their first hope is that the corruption scandals that are driving Kentucky Republicans down will hurt McConnell as well. Democrats are poised to win the governor’s mansion by defeating the incumbent Fletcher this November – but McConnell is no Fletcher. The race will only heat up after the governor’s race is resolved.

14. Alaska (Incumbent: Ted Stevens)

Stevens has been serving in the Senate longer than anyone can remember. He hinted he would retire two years ago, when Democrats frustrated his efforts to implement drilling in Alaska. But he has given no further indication of going anywhere. And he was expected to sail through re-election (Democrats got burned the past two cycles when popular former Gov. Knowles failed to win the 2004 Senate race and the 2006 Governor’s race, so they were hardly expected to even try against the veteran Stevens) but that was before the FBI raided Stevens’ house looking. The entire Alaska delegation is now embroiled in a corruption scandal, and Democrats are looking to make that an issue.

Dems are trying to entice Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich in the race. If he declines, Stevens won’t have much difficulty coming back to the Senate. But if Begich announces his candidacy, this race will likely go up in the rankings.

15. Idaho (Incumbent: Will be appointed by Gov. Otter soon)

This race was nowhere on the radar screen until all hell broke loose for Sen. Craig on the 27th of August. His June guilty plea to lewd behavior charges (which were not that huge a surprise, since rumors that he is gay have been going around for months) almost eclipsed news of Gonzales’s resignation, and took the standards of Republican hypocrisy to a whole new level. For six days, Republicans piled on Craig, pressuring him to resign. He finally agreed on Saturday the 1st, which is going to allow Governor Otter - a Republican - to pick his replacement. Given Idaho's strong Republican roots, and given that Craig's replacement will have more than a year to build up his incumbency, Democrats would need a second miracle to make this seat really competitive.

Almost Safe

All these states could become competitive under the right set of circumstances. But recruiting for now has not gotten the opposition party as far as they would like – and even if a major candidate were to emerge, the incumbent would likely need a “macaca”-like moment to end up losing the election. Don’t hold your breath, but something could happen.

16. Oklahoma
17. Montana (Incumbent: Baucus)
18. Iowa (Incumbent: Harkin)
19. Tennessee (Incumbent: Alexander)

This seat would dramatically move up if Sen. Alexander was to retire. Would Ford then enter the race?
20. New Jersey (Incumbent: Lautenberg)
Lautenberg is very unpopular and has low approval ratings. But so do all New Jersey Democrats. Their saving grace is that the New Jersey GOP is even more unpopular.
21. Alabama (Senator Sessions)
22. Arkansas (Incumbent: Pryor)

Arkansas is deemed "almost" safe only because of the extremely small possibility that Huckabee drops out of running for President and goes for Senate.

Safe

Unless a Craig-like scandal erupts for incumbents in these states, don't expect these seats to switch. These seats are listed in some very loose order of potential and marginal vulnerability.
23. Georgia (Incumbent: Chambliss)
24. Illinois (Incumbent: Durbin)
25. Kansas (Incumbent: Roberts)
26. Delaware (Incumbent: Biden)

This race would be more competitive if it opened up, i.e. if Biden won the Democratic nomination for President and did not run for re-election as a result. Decide on the odds of that happening yourself.
27. Wyoming (Incumbent: Barrasso)
28. South Carolina (Incumbent: Graham)

Graham doesn't have much to fear from Democrats, but the conservative base would love a primary challenge against him).
29. West Virginia (Incumbent: Rockefeller)
30. Mississippi (Incumbent: Cochran)
31. Massachussets (Incumbent: Kerry)
31. Michigan (Incumbent: Levin)
32. Wyoming (Enzi)
33. Rhode Island (Incumbent: Reed)

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