Sunday, September 30, 2007

October rankings: Everything breaks for Democrats

September was a great month for Senate Democrats. It started with news that John Warner was retiring, featured the endless saga of Larry Craig's guilty plea to lewd behavior, saw another crucial GOP seat open up in Nebraska and was marked with recruitment coups with the candidacies of Mark Warner in VA and Jeanne Shaheen in NH. In fact, the only bad news Democrats are fearing now is that Bob Kerrey might end up taking a pass in Nebraska -- but even there, the fat lady hasn't yet sung.

All of this is really icing on the cake for Democrats, who already felt great before Labor Day. Not only is the GOP is defending 22 seats, and the Dems only 12, but the NRSC has been doing poorly in fundraising and recruitment, failing to move to target states beyond... the one state of Louisiana. Democrats, on the other hand, are expanding the map left and right: While they are huge underdogs in TN, KY, NM, TX, and ID, odds are they will at least put one of those in play (just like VA in 2006 and KY in 2004 became competitive only in the last stretch). And the most problematic second-tier seat is turning to be Alaska, where incumbent Ted Stevens is facing significant bribery allegations.

The coming weeks are likely to bring more news that will determine how some of these races shape up. Bob Kerrey's decision is obviously what everyone is waiting for, but there are other important questions: Will Craig retire as he had promised? Will there be more open seats, with all eyes turned towards SD's Tim Johnson, AK's Stevens, and NM's Pete Domenici? Will Democrats find candidates to run against Dole in NC, Domenici in NM, Stevens in AK, McConnell in KY? All of these races could end up on the map, but Democrats have to succeed in their recruitment efforts first.

Check the September rankings here.

Outlook: Democratic pick-up 4-7 seats.

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

Likely Takeover (1 Republican seat, 0 Democratic seats)

1. Virginia (Open seat; Previous Ranking: 3)

Virginia inaugurates the "Likely Takeover" category. When John Warner announced he was retiring at the end of August, Virginia immediately became a top pick-up opportunity for Democrats. And events in September certainly didn't help dispel the notion that this is their race to lose: Very popular former Governor Mark Warner entered the race on their behalf, while the GOP is showing every indication that it is heading towards a divisive primary between moderate Rep. Tom Davis and conservative former Governor Jim Gilmore. To make matters much worse for Republicans, a few polls taken this month show Warner with massive leads of about 25% or more against both Davis and Gilmore.

Republicans argue that Warner has never been fully tested, and that they can lower his ratings by finally going on the offensive against him. While this may be true, Democrats can rest in peace (for now) for two simple reasons: (1) Warner has a lot of room to give before being truly threatened given the massive nature of his lead, and (2) Warner will have plenty of time to re-introduce himself to voters and strengthen their good impression of him.

That said, Tom Davis could make the race more competitive. He represents Northern Virginia, the region that has been trended dramatically blue over the past few years. Any Democrat who wants to win in VA has to carry Fairfax and the neighboring counties overwhelmingly, and Davis could cut in Warner's margins there. He first needs to win the GOP nomination then. If Republicans nominate their candidate through a primary, Davis has a good chance of winning. But if they opt to nominate him through a party convention, conservative activists could opt for the weaker Gilmore.

Lean Takeover (2 Republican Seats, 0 Democratic Seats)

2. New Hampshire (Incumbent: John Sununu; Previous ranking: 1)

A lot has changed in this race in the past month. At the beginning of September, the Democratic field was composed of three candidates who were hoping to take on Senator Sununu. A few weeks later, former Governor Jeanne Shaheen announced she would enter the race, setting up a rematch of the 2002 election. Two of the three Democrats already in the race (Marchand and Swett) withdrew, leaving Dartmouth Professor Jay Buckley as Shaheen's sole primary opposition. Many grassroots activists are questioning the party's rush to rally around Shaheen, a moderate politician who supported the war in 2003 and was not known for being particularly progressive during her terms as governor. But Shaheen is likely to coast to the nomination.

Polls throughout the summer showed Shaheen had Shaheen with gigantic leads averaging 20 points. That put Sununu in an even worse position than Santorum was in in 2006. How can an incumbent who is trailing by 20 points a year before the election possibly come back to win another term? But two polls taken shortly after Shaheen jumped in the race made Democrats a bit more confident. Shaheen only led by 5%. That is enough to make her the favorite (an incumbent in the low 40s rarely survives), but certainly not enough to count Sununu out.

Republicans argue that they beat Shaheen before, and they will use the same tactics against her in 2008. They see her record on taxes as particularly prone to attack. But Sununu barely edged Shaheen in 2002, at the height of Bush's popularity. The GOP took a drubbing in New Hampshire in 2006, and the Republican brand looks even worse today -- what fundamentals can Sununu rely on to come-back?

3. Colorado (Open; Previous ranking: 2)

This race has not made much news lately, probably because the basic story-line was settled months ago: Senator Allard retired, and both parties rallied around a candidate. Rep. Udall for Democrats, and former Rep. Shaffer for the GOP. Colorado has been voting for Democrats in open seat races in the past few years (the Salazar brothers in 2004, Governor Ritter in 2006), and have to be considered slightly favored here again. A recent poll commissioned by the Shaffer campaign gave Udall a 5-point lead. That certainly shows the state could still end up going for Republicans, but the poll was a partisan one, so it should be taken with a big grain of salt. This race will certainly shift around on the basis of future polls and campaign developments, but for now it is remarkably static.

Toss-up (4 R, 1 D)

4. Nebraska (Open; Last Ranking: 8)

Chuck Hagel announced his retirement last week, setting up what many people view as the marquee race of the 2008 cycle: former Republican Governor Mike Johanns versus former Democratic Senator Bob Kerrey. Both men were rumored to be very interested in the race, but for now only Johanns has announced his candidacy. Recent reports indicate that Kerrey might be leaning against a run after all!

This race's outlook will change dramatically in the coming days, as Kerrey is likely to announce his intentions very soon. If he does run, the race might edge into "lean takeover" territory -- given Kerrey's popularity in the state. If he ends up staying out of it, this race would drop down significantly, Johanns would be the favorite even if Omaha's Democratic Mayor Fahey agrees to jump in. Fahey would keep the race competitive, but he would find it difficult to overcome the state's overwhelming Republican lean, especially in a presidential year.

The second hope Democrats harbor is that Johanns will be stuck in a divisive primary. The state's Attorney General Bruning had been planning to run against Chuck Hagel in the primary, and he is showing no intention of backing down now that Johanns is in the race. Former Omaha Mayor Hal Daub entered the race for a few days, ran ads, and then decided to withdraw, setting up a two-way primary. This could prove an opening for the Democratic candidate (either Kerrey or Fahey) who would have time to introduce himself to voters and define the terms of the campaign.

5. Minnesota (Incumbent: Norm Coleman; Last Ranking: 6)

Coleman is showing signs of vulnerability, but the question of whether the Democratic candidates are strong enough to take him on remains. There is no question that the DFL could have found a stronger Democrat to take on Coleman, but a recent poll showed Coleman with a single-digits lead against both comedian Al Franken and businessman Mike Ciresi -- which seems to indicate both would offer a strong challenge to the incumbent. Also, Franken has been a tremendous fundraiser, while Ciresi is very wealthy and willing to use his own money to finance his campaign, so either of them would have the resources to make this truly competitive.

6. Louisiana (Incumbent: Mary Landrieu; Last Ranking: 7)

This race remained very static through September, for two very simple reasons. First, the Louisiana political world is focused on next month's gubernatorial race. Second, John Kennedy -- the likely Republican candidate against Landrieu -- is for now concentrated on his re-election as the state's Treasurer. He is running uncontested, but he will likely use the next two months to build up his network and connections, in preparation of 2008.

Landrieu has been aware of the target on her back since 2002, and has been preparing and fundraising accordingly. But the race nonetheless move up a spot: Republicans are now much more confident that Kennedy (who just switched his party affiliation in August) will jump in the Senate race, guaranteeing that Landrieu faces a strong challenge. And the fact that Landrieu is the only truly endangered Democrat means that Republicans will put all their offensive resources and potential for nasty campaigning in this state.

7. Maine (Incumbent: Susan Collins; Last Ranking: 5)

It is very curious that this election has been one of the most engaged of this cycle's, given that Collins portrays herself as a moderate non-partisan Republican who fits the needs of a progressive New England state. The liberal blogs clearly realize they have to make Collins into a more partisan figure to tie her to the GOP brand and make her into the 2008 cycle's Lincoln Chafee, a popular figure that loses re-election because of the R next to his name. Tim Allen is a top-tier candidate and is willing to do what he needs to do to take Collins down, but it will not be easy.

8. Oregon (Incumbent: Gordon Smith; Last Ranking: 4)

This race has been pretty quiet since Democrat Jeff Merkley, the Speaker of the Oregon House, announced his candidacy last month. Smith's biggest vulnerability is the Iraq War, and he has been inching away from full support to Bush's policies -- though Democrats are sure to argue that he has been putting on a show without actually voting for meaningful propositions. Republicans are also preparing to blur differences on the Iraq issue by pointing out that Merkley voted for a resolution in the Oregon House supporting the war. It worked for Bush against Kerry in 2004, but a lot has happened since then... Democrats would have better served if they had gotten one of their top-tier candidates in the race, but they are sure to make this race competitive.

Lean Retention (1 R, 1 D)

9. Alaska (Incumbent: Ted Stevens; Last Ranking: 14)

It seems that every day brings worse news for Ted Stevens. Since the beginning of September, a VECO executive testified in court that he had bribed Stevens's son, and that he had sent employees to renovate the Senator's house, the same that was raided earlier this summer by the FBI. Later in the month, it was revealed that the FBI had taped some of Stevens's phone conversations, and the state's Republican governor started talking about Stevens in a more critical tone.

The FBI investigation seems to be gathering stream, so the inevitable question is whether Stevens can even run again given the likelihood he will face new bribery allegations weekly throughout the campaign. If he runs, his hold on the state is strong enough that it would still take much more for Democrats to topple him though Stevens would clearly be very vulnerable. If the seat opens up, Republicans would probably start with an edge given the state's strong Republican lean. Democrats are looking at Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich to make this race as competitive as it should be.

10. South Dakota (Incumbent: Tim Johnson; Last Ranking: 9)

The fundamental equation of the race has not changed: If Johnson runs, Republicans are unlikely to mount a challenge against him. If he retires, Governor Rounds will probably jump in the race and start off as a strong favorite, even if Democratic Rep. Herseth tries to upgrade to the Senate. Johnson made his first public appearance at the end of August, and he has repeatedly stated since then he has every intention of running. He is raising money, and there seems to be no reason to doubt him at this point, which means Democrats are confident they will keep the seat. But Johnson clearly hasn't made up his mind 100% and has to be at least considering whether he is up for six more years in the Senate.

Likely retention (6 R, 0 D)

11. New Mexico (Incumbent: Pete Domenici; Last Ranking: 10)

This race will automatically move up if Democrats get a candidate in the race, but they have so far been unable to do so. This is really surprising given Domenici's ethical troubles following revelations that he was involved in the attorney firing scandal. Domenici has always been popular in his state, but a recent SUSA poll shows that his approval rating has collapsed to a dismal 41%. New Mexico voters are inching back towards Democrats after trying out Bush in 2004, and it is shocking the DSCC hasn't taken advantage of Domenici's troubles yet.

12. North Carolina (Incumbent: Elizabeth Dole; Last Ranking: 11)

Democrats have been convinced that Dole is vulnerable, but they still have to get a candidate in the race... Governor Easley crushed their hopes early in the cycle, and the DSCC has been looking for a replacement ever since. The latest name considered: State Rep. Gaier Martin, a veteran of Afghanistan. A recent Democratic poll shows Martin trailing Dole by 15%, with Dole under 50%, making the match-up potentially interesting but not too worrisome yet. And Democrats first have to actually convince Martin of running.

13. Texas (Incumbent: John Cornyn; Last Ranking: 12)

Two polls taken in September show Cornyn above 50% over his two Democratic challengers Mikal Carter Watts and Rick Noriega, with a lead averaging 17-18%. He is not showing obvious signs of vulnerabilities, but netroots are determined to make Noriega competitive and put resources in the race. First-term Cornyn hasn't developed a strong hold on his state, and his approval rating is weak enough to make it plausible that he could be threatened. But this is Texas, in a presidential year.

14. Idaho (Either open or with a yet-unappointed incumbent; Last Ranking: 15)

This race is almost unclassifiable at this point. All hell broke loose for Senator Craig in late August when it was revealed that he had plead guilty to lewd behavior. Craig then claimed he would resign at the end of September, but has since then backtracked on his promise. He is trying to withdraw his guilty plea, and the judge is likely to offer a ruling very soon (presumably next week). If the judge rules in Craig's favor, it appears that Craig would remain in the Senate until the end of his term. But even if the judge refuses, recent comments by Craig's lawyer indicate that Craig might still not resign!

What appears certain is that Craig will not try to run for re-election in 2008. But whether he resigns will determine whether the seat will be open, or whether Governor Otter will get to appoint a replacement that would then run in 2008 as an incumbent. Idaho is overwhelmingly Republican, and the GOP has a good bench, so they are likely to come away with a victory in either case. But if the seat becomes open, the GOP might divide itself in a bloody primary which could give a small opening to former Rep. LaRocco.

15. Kentucky (Incumbent: Mitch McConnell; Last Ranking: 13)

Democrats are on the verge of conquering the Governor's Mansion this November, and they are convinced they could extend their streak of Kentucky success to next year's Senate race. The Nation's cover was recently devoted to the promising grassroots movement in Kentucky. Mitch McConnell is no easy target; he is, after all, the Minority Leader. Democrats are hopeful that they can make this competitive with the candidacy of Attorney General Stumbo, who formed an explanatory committee last month. Rumors in September had it that Stumbo was about to drop out of the race, but nothing else has filtered since then.

16. Tennessee (Incumbent: Lamar Alexander; Last Ranking: 19)

Ray McWherter, the son of a former Democratic Governor, announced he would take on Lamar Alexander last week. Democrats are at least assured of being able to compete if Alexander has a George Allen-like meltdown. Don't hold your breath for the race to be any more competitive for now.

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.

17. New Jersey (Incumbent: Lautenberg; Last Ranking: 19)
A new poll last week showed how unpopular Lautenberg is. Asked whether the incumbent was too old to get another term, an overwhelming majority said that he was. But the race is only rated 17; all New Jersey Democrats have dismal approval ratings. Their saving grace is that NJ voters trust the GOP even less. The Republicans dump a ton of money every cycle in New Jersey with no benefits or progress whatsoever. They have no candidate against Lautenberg for now, and are unlikely to mount a strong challenge.

18. Oklahoma (Incumbent: Inhofe)
19. Montana (Incumbent: Baucus)
20. Iowa (Incumbent: Harkin)
21. Alabama (Senator Sessions)
22. Arkansas (Incumbent: Pryor)

Arkansas is deemed "almost" safe only because of the small possibility that Huckabee drops out of running for President and goes for Senate. This remains very unlikely because Huckabee's fortunes are improving in the GOP race (especially in Iowa) and that he is the most likely vice-presidential candidates for the Republicans.


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)
32. Michigan (Incumbent: Levin)
33. Wyoming (Enzi)
34. Rhode Island (Incumbent: Reed)


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