Saturday, November 3, 2007

November rankings: Republicans push back but remain in a tight spot

September was an awful month for the GOP: John Warner and Hagel retired, Shaheen and Mark Warner jumped in for Democrats... October started much the same way, as New Mexico's Pete Domenici announced he would not run for re-election, opening up yet another very vulnerable seat. But Democrats then ran into a bad patch of their own that culminated in the disastrous news that Bob Kerrey would not run in Nebraska. That by itself made a race that was leaning towards Democrats become a likely hold for Republicans. Meanwhile, the shuffle in New Mexico has still not been resolved, with Democrats scrambling to find a strong candidate.

That Nebraska and New Mexico have dominated Senate news in the past month is obvious in these new rankings: New Mexico rose from the 11th to 4th, while Nebraska collapsed from 4th to 13th (Reminder: Races are organized in order of vulnerability, so that the first ranked race is the most likely to turn-over). But there was some other movement: The departure of Tom Davis from the Virginia Senate race solidified the contest's number one ranking, while Democrats are significantly more upbeat this month about their chances in Kentucky and even in North Carolina. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (KY) should be worried at the Democratic determination to avenge Tom Dashle's 2004 loss and target him for defeat.

The Senate situation is still very fluid with more retirement and recruitment rumors floating around, so that a lot of things could still change in the coming months. But an increasing number of races are settling down, so that we are starting to get a clearer idea of which states are likely to be hotly contested.

Check the October rankings here. Check the September rankings here.

Outlook: Democratic pick-up 4-7 Senate 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: 1)

A month after Virginia rose to the top of these rankings, it appears to have permanently secured its place as the most vulnerable seat of the 2008 cycle. The Republicans shot themselves in the foot when their Central Committee voted to choose the party's nominee at a party convention rather than in a primary. As a result, Rep. Tom Davis, who had been preparing to run for Senate for years, decided to stay out of the race. His moderate profile would have made a win in a party convention very difficult considering the more conservative candidacy of former Governor Jim Gilmore. And if the Republicans had one hope to make this race competitive next year, it was that Davis would be able to pick-up votes in his base of Northern Virginia, thus cutting the margins in the bluest region of the state. Polls continue to show Warner has a strong edge against Gilmore, and that cannot be accounted by name recognition as both men are well-known statewide.

Lean Takeover (2 Republican Seats, 0 Democratic Seats)

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

Former Governor Shaheen continues to be the worst nightmare for Senator John Sununu. Polls this past month confirmed that Shaheen was looking strong and was favored against the man who beat her five years ago. Sununu is certainly not out of it though; he mounted a very strong campaign in 2002, defeating the incumbent senator in the primary and the incumbent governor in the general election. Republicans will at least try to defend the seat, and they could definitely narrow the margin. But New Hampshire's Democratic turn in 2006 was so strong that the GOP is unlikely to easily overcome it. They might choose to focus their attention to reclaiming at least one of the House seats.

3. Colorado (Open; Previous ranking: 3)

Colorado is one of the quietest top-tier races, mostly of how early Senator Allard announced his retirement. Both parties settled on a candidate early, and primaries will not be particularly contested. Democrats are running Rep. Udall, and Republicans are running former Rep. Shaffer. In the past month, the second poll of the race was released and showed a tie between the two candidates -- though it had a very high undecided rate. And middle-of-the-road voters are precisely those that broke Democratic in 2004 and 2006. Democrats picked up a Senator's seat, the governorship and two House seats in two cycles, and there is no reason to think that Colorado independents are moving back in the Republican column. Udall is favored to pull away ride this blue trend across the finish line, though the race could certainly remain tight to the end.

Toss-up (4 R, 1 D)

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

New Mexico has been the big story of October. Pete Domenici announced a surprise retirement at the beginning of the month, setting off much movement among state officials. New Mexico is a swing state in most elections, and politicians from both parties see this as a major opening. On the Republican side, the two major candidates are Heather Wilson and Steve Pearce, two of the three House representatives from New Mexico. Wilson is supposed to be more moderate than Pearce, which has enabled her to survive cycle after cycle in her Democratic-leaning district (she won by 800 votes in 2006). Wilson is lining up more institutional support, but polls have shown Pearce is running stronger in the general election. The main factor against Wilson is her involvement in the attorney firing scandal -- that could hurt her in the primary, but especially in the general election.

On the Democratic side, the big question is whether Rep. Tom Udall will run after all. He ruled it out very quickly weeks ago, but he has been reconsidering in recent days, likely due to intense lobbying from the DSCC. All indications are that he will indeed jump in. If he does, he will start off slightly favored in the general election against either Wilson or Pearce. He has been elected statewide before (he was a two-term Attorney General), and he is a very popular figure. But he would first have to overcome a primary. Albuquerque Mayor Martin Chavez, very much disliked by progressives, is also running. Chavez would stay very competitive in the general election, though he would certainly not start off favored.

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

Republicans are feeling better about this race after Bobby Jindal's blowout victory in the governor's race last month. Granted, Jindal was not facing any significant opposition from Democrats, but his first-round triumph with 54% was nonetheless impressive. Louisiana was trending Republican even before Katrina hit, but Republicans are quite confident that Landrieu has lost much of her base because of hurricane migrations and that newly-turned-Republican state Treasurer John Kennedy will end up the victor.

However, the Republican case should not be overstated. Mitch Landrieu, Senator Landrieu's brother, overwhelmingly won his re-election race as Lieutenant Governor the same day as Jindal's victory. Granted, he was not facing much opposition either, but Democrats are not out in the state, and the Landrieu family name still carries some weight in the state.

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

Just like in Colorado, the field has been set long ago in Minnesotta, which means that the race has been mostly quiet. Coleman and his challengers Al Franken and Mike Ciresi are all busy raising money -- lots of it. Coleman also made news recently by endorsing Giuliani in the presidential primary, not that that will have a major impact on his senatorial race. Some Democrats still worry that Franken will not be very strong in the general election, though much stranger things have happened in American politics and many reports have emphasized how well Franken has been able to transition from comedian to politician. It is strange, however, that the DSCC has not pressured more politically experienced Democrats who could potentially be stronger into running.

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

Democrats are confident that Gordon Smith is vulnerable, though they did not convince their top-tier candidates to jump in the race. Ducking it out in the primary are House Speaker Jeff Merkley and Steve Novick, with the former favored by the establishment. Democrats they have to weaken Smith early on, especially considering the large amounts of money the incumbent has been raising. Smith's main vulnerability is the national anti-GOP environment, and Dems are trying to challenge the image of Smith as a moderate politician. Merkley recently blasted Smith for voting to confirm federal Court of Appeals nominee Leslie Southwick whose nomination was very controversial, especially on the basis of Soultwick's racial insensitivity.

Lean Retention (2 R, 0 D)

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

Democrats have a long way to go on this one, and there is reason to think they might have been too optimistic about Susan Collins's vulnerability. A recent Research 2000 poll showed her with a 23 point lead against Rep. Allen. Remember, Allen represents half of the state in the House, so he's not a total unknown either. Democrats know that their only chance in this race is to remind voters over and over again that Collins is a Republican. It worked in 2006 against Lincoln Chaffee in Rhode Island, and circumstances here are similar. With 2008 looking to be just as toxic for the GOP as 2006 was, Democrats have reason to believe they will be able to drive down Collins's numbers. But they still have a long way to go, and they better start soon.

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

Senator Stevens has faced a barrage of bad news in the past months, most of them surrounding the FBI's investigation. Stevens is the longest serving Republican Senator, but he would certainly have to retire if he were indicted. The DSCC is looking to convince Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich to enter the race. Begich recently traveled to Washington to meet with DSCC officials. If he does not run, the GOP will likely have little trouble winning the seat (except if things get really bad for Stevens and he refuses to retire). If he does run, Begich would likely push the incumbent into the fight of his political life, and Stevens would be further hurt by constant new developments in the FBI investigation. If Stevens were to retire, Begich would certainly still be able to mount a competitive campaign, though Alaska has not been kind to Democrats in recent cycles.

Likely retention (6 R, 1 D)

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

Democrats are aiming to make Kentucky into the 2008 version of Virginia -- a longshot race that becomes surprisingly competitive. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell should be safe in this Republican-leaning state, but all polls indicate that he is vulnerable. Republicans are not doing well in Kentucky overall: Governor Fletcher is days away from being ousted, and polls have shown Hillary Clinton leading Republicans in this state that Bush won by 20 points in 2004. McConnell appears to be falling victim to the GOP woes, as well as by his increased partisan role in Washington.

The Democrat that has made the most noise about running is State Attorney General Stumbo, who has not yet finalized his plans. Also considering the race is State Auditor Luallen. The candidate Democrats dream of fielding, Rep. Chandler, seems uninterested and would probably prefer to take on Senator Bruining in 2010. Both Stumbo and Luallen could make this race very competitive, so keep your eyes open for their decision in the coming weeks.

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

North Carolina has turned out to be quite a frustrating race for Democrats. They are convinced that Dole is vulnerable, and polls have shown she would be an underdog if Governor Easley ran against her. But he is not, and neither are any of the state's (numerous) Democratic heavyweights. After many more developments in October, Democrats now have two candidates: state Senator Kay Hagan and investment banker Jim Neal. Neither makes the race automatically competitive, but Dole consistently polls under 50% and this could get tight if the DSCC commits to the race.

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

We finally ended up dropping South Dakota. Tim Johnson has repeated so many times that he has no intention of retiring that we need to take him seriously sooner or late. If the seat is not open, Republicans are very unlikely to be able to challenge it, and they do not have a high-profile candidate in the race for now.

Major caveat: There was new speculation yesterday that Gov. Rounds had met with the NRSC in Washington. If he suddenly decides to run, that would obviously make the race much more competitive. But Rounds's camp strongly denied any such meeting, and it still remains very unlikely. The other reason why SD could get more competitive would be if Johnson starts showing some major physical weakness on the campaign trail. How much will he ever be on the campaign trail? How much will he be able to speak? How much will those questions hurt him?

13. Nebraska (Open; Last Ranking: 4)

This race dropped down dramatically since our last rankings -- probably the biggest drop we will see all cycle. Democrats were very excited about the news of Hagel's retirement in September, and I called the race "the marquee race of the 2008 cycle." But as Republican former Governor Johanns jumped in the race, it became obvious that only Democrat Bob Kerrey could make the race truly competitive. After weeks of silence from Kerrey, he ended up taking a pass on the race, dealing a dramatic blow to Democratic chances.

Right now, Dems have no candidate in the race, and are trying to convince Omaha Mayor Mike Fahey to run. If Fahey enters the race (which seems unlikely at this point), we will probably move the race up in more competitive territory, especially if Johanns becomes entangled in a bruising primary against Attorney General Bruning. But as of now, Democrats are empty-handed and Nebraska remains one of the most Republican states in the nation, so the edge goes to the Republican nominee.

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

Democrat Mikal Watts, who had promised to spend millions of his own money to fund his candidacy, dropped his bid a few weeks ago, ceding the nomination to state Senator Rick Noriega. Cornyn would be favored against both men, though recent polls have shown that he might be vulnerable to a strong challenge as he hovers around the 50% threshold of vulnerability. How competitive this race will be by next fall will depend on how committed the DSCC is to challenging Cornyn.

15. Idaho (Open; Last Ranking: 16)

The situation is much clearer than it was a month ago. Larry Craig finally made his plans clear: He is not resigning, but he is not running for re-election. Thus, the GOP will not get to appoint Craig's replacement and the seat will remain open. For now there have not been as many GOPers jumping in as expected, and Lieutenant Governor Risch is the frontrunner. With the state's very strong Republican leanings, he is favored to win the general election against Democrat LaRocco.

Democrats do still have an outside chance, however, as the way the race is playing out is the best scenario for them. Republicans will have no incumbent, and Larry Craig's shadow will loom large throughout 2008. Craig is still fighting his guilty plea, and the story is likely to go on for much of next spring, continuing to tarnish the GOP brand in the mind of Idaho voters.

16. Mississippi (Incumbent: Cochran; Last Ranking: 30)

Big jump for Mississippi, but it could very well be short-lived. There has been plenty of speculation this past week that Senator Cochran could retire, which would be a huge surprise considering most retirement talk had disappeared when Rep. Pickering, Cochran's heir apparent, announced he would retire from the House to go in the private sector, implying that Cochran was running for re-election. If Cochran runs again, the race will drop back to 30.

But if Cochran does retire (and he should announce within two weeks), expect Mississippi to feature a very competitive election and the race to move up the rankings. Democrats will probably run Attorney General Moore, a popular statewide figure who could give Pickering a very serious run. Mississippi remains a very Republican state, but an open seat could go either way.

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

Not much news in this race. Democrats are still hoping their candidate McWherter will test Alexander, but it would take a major stumble on the incumbent's part to make this race competitive.

18. New Jersey (Incumbent: Frank Lautenberg)

Republicans at least now have a candidate in the race. Businesswoman Anne Estabrook declared that she would run against Launtenberg, and the GOP is hoping to get a state Senator or Assemblyman in the race as well. With Lautenberg posting weak approval numbers, Republicans hope something might happen... but this is New Jersey, and no Democrat have good approval ratings. Republicans have probably learned from 2004 and 2006 and will not make the same mistake for the third time.

19. Oklahoma (Incumbent: Inhofe)

Republicans seem afraid enough of state Senator Andrew Rice to start linking him to the Italian Communist Party... but I am still unconvinced that Inhofe has much to fear in this very Republican state, especially in a presidential year.

20. Montana (Incumbent: Baucus)

21. Iowa (Incumbent: Harkin)

Time is passing and Republicans seem to have given up on recruiting a decent candidate to run against Harkin, which is a surprise given how close his previous re-election races have been.

22. Kansas (Incumbent: Roberts; Last Ranking: 25)
Reports that the DSCC is trying to recruit Governor Sibelius to run against Sen. Roberts made me move this from "Safe" to "Almost safe." Sibelius's entrance would make this an explosive and unpredictable contest -- but it still seems extremely unlikey.


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. Alabama (Incumbent: Sessions)

24. Georgia (Incumbent: Chambliss)

25. Arkansas (Incumbent: Pryor; Last Ranking: 21)

This race had been rated "Almost safe" the past two months because of the small odds that Mike Huckabee would jump to the Senate race. But he is doing better by the day and competing with the Big Four, and he is definitely at the top of the veepstakes, making Pryor that much more safe.

26. Illinois (Incumbent: Durbin)

27. 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.

28. Wyoming (Incumbent: Barrasso)

29. South Carolina (Incumbent: Graham)

Graham doesn't have much to fear from Democrats, but the conservative base would love a primary challenge against him).

30. West Virginia (Incumbent: Rockefeller)

31. Massachussets (Incumbent: Kerry)

32. Michigan (Incumbent: Levin)

33. Wyoming (Enzi)

34. Rhode Island (Incumbent: Reed)


  • I am in total agreement on #1 (Likely Takeover - is there a higher category?), and the order at which #2 and #3 currently sit (Lean Takeover). I imagine as soon as Udall-NM does annouce, this also moves to the "Lean Takeover" column, potentially passing Colorado to the #3 spot. It's unfortunate that Minnesota and Oregon sit behind Louisiana, but it is what it is. Dems need to make stronger strides in those two states and pick them up. I am not nearly as confident in Maine, even with the Rep. Allen in the race. I almost think Kentucky and Alaska might have a better shot. It is nice to see only one Dem in the entire Top 10 though, as I can't ever imagine more than 10 seats changing party hands. Here's to a prosperous November (this one and in 2008).

    By Blogger KELL, At November 4, 2007 at 7:25 AM  

  • Just a note... Your prediction of 5 seats for a 56-41 Dem advantage, doesn't add up. Did you mean 56-44?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At November 4, 2007 at 12:22 PM  

  • You can sure tell a democrat wrote this piece.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At November 6, 2007 at 11:08 AM  

  • Nebraska Senate Race...

    You left out Scott Kleeb who Democrats in the state are trying to draft into the race. It is likely that Fahey will not run.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At November 7, 2007 at 6:06 PM  

  • "You can sure tell a democrat wrote this piece."

    Absolutely true. The problem with these homespun 'Senate rankings' is that they are heavily influenced by personal wishes. For instance, a Republican would likely believe that Oregon and Minnesota both lean Republican retention (backed up by polls and common sense) but this take on it suggests they are 'toss-ups'. Also, to suggest that Maine is only 'leaning GOP retention' is really quite a stretch as polls show Susan Collins doing better against her potential Dem challengers than even many polls show the Republicans in deep-red states. Just look at Olympia Snowe in 2006 to prove this.

    By Anonymous Steve, At December 21, 2007 at 12:36 PM  

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