Sunday, January 13, 2008

January rankings: GOP prospects improve in a few seats

It has been more than two months since my last Senate rankings. With the presidential primaries on every one's mind, congressional races are looking less urgent, not to mention that there was just very little news coming out of down-the-ballot contests during the holiday period. But a lot has changed since the beginning of November -- starting with the number of Senate elections that will be decided in 2008. Trent Lott's shocking decision to prioritize lobbying over holding the position he was elected to a year before has added a 35th race to our rankings, and has expanded the map for Democrats with an unexpected opportunity.

But Republican prospects are looking up outside of Mississippi. After months of good news for Democrats, the GOP has pushed back and improved its situation in several races, starting with Kentucky and Nebraska where a series of Democratic recruitment failures have diminished the party's chances of shocking Republicans in red territory. Dems still have hope that Andrew Horne and Scott Kleeb could make things competitive there, but both races look like long-shots right now. Meanwhile, polls in Colorado show that the conventional wisdom that the open seat would be an easy Democratic pick-up might have been a bit too hasty, while Republicans are looking stronger than they did three months ago in Maine and even in New Hampshire.

Yet, Democrats are still in the driver's seat of next year's elections. Eleven of the twelve most vulnerable seats are held by Republicans -- and it will be very hard for the GOP to save Virginia and New Mexico. Meanwhile, Democrats have to be happy with the way things are shaping up in Alaska, a state that was in few people's radar screens at the start of the cycle but where polls are now shaping entrenched but ethically challenged Senator Stevens trailing. Over the next few weeks, the recruitment process will come to a close, we will know what to expect in the Mississippi special election and get a feel of how things are shaping up in races where news has been rather slow.

Check the November rankings here.

Outlook
: Democratic pick-up 4-5 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)

There is no indication that the race is tightening in Virginia. In fact, most of the news that has come out of the state has revealed dissensions in the Republican camp, as former Governor Gilmore cannot even rally his party behind him. There is nearly continuous talk of an intra-party challenge to Gilmore, and meanwhile Democrat Mark Warner is continuing to amass the necessary money. The latest poll of the race out at the beginning of January has Warner holding on to his double-digit lead. If the race is going to get more competitive, expect things to start shifting next fall in case Virginia comes back to his conservative roots.

Lean Takeover (2 Republican Seats, 0 Democratic Seats)

2. New Mexico (Open; Previous ranking: 4)

A lot has changed in New Mexico since my last rankings. At that time, Democrat Tom Udall had not yet reversed his decision to not run for this open seat though rumors were starting to circulate that he was looking to get back in. He did just that shortly thereafter and has since then become the presumptive nominee of his party as his main rival, Albuquerque Mayor Martin Chavez, withdrew from the race.

The Republicans will have to decide between two congressmen of their own, Heather Wilson and Steve Pearce. That in itself should not hurt their chances as competitive primaries often serve as a bounce for a party (unless it becomes too nasty). But Udall nonetheless starts with an edge. Most polls show him to have a clear edge to start out the race -- and that is exactly the reason the DSCC was so intent on convincing him to get in the race. But New Mexico remains a very competitive state at the federal level, and the race could tighten up considerably depending on the national mood of the electorate.

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


The Shaheen that made the most news since my last rankings is not the Senate candidate but her husband Bill who was Clinton's co-chair in New Hampshire but had to resign from his position after he opened the subject of Obama's drug-use and suggested that the GOP will ask whether he had dealt any of it. This episode will probably be forgotten by next year but Jeanne Shaheen already had some ill-will among some Democratic activists in the state, and there is no way to know for now if this could significantly dampen the base's enthusiasm.

This incident could also be the reason that the latest ARG survey of the race showed a surge by Senator Sununu who suddenly took a lead against Shaheen, whereas poll after poll throughout the summer and fall had suggested that Shaheen was up by a big margin. This will obviously require confirmation by other polls, but odds are the race will get back to equilibrium for a few more months as soon as the memory of the drug episode fades. But it serves as a reminder that Sununu is a good enough of a politician to use Shaheen's vulnerabilities and pounce his way to victory.

Toss-up (4 R, 1 D)

4. Colorado (Open; Last Ranking: 3)

This is the first time Colorado has not been ranked "Lean take-over." The conventional wisdom of the race was long that Democrats would hold an advantage in an open-seat scenario given their successes in the past two cycles in this state, all of them occurring in open-seat scenarios (two House seats, one Senate seat and the governorship). To make matters worse for the GOP, they struggled to find a candidate and they ended up settling on former Rep. Shaffer who had lost the 2004 Senate primary; Democrats were confident that Rep. Udall was a much stronger candidate and that he would not struggle to much to pick-up the seat.

But the scenario is playing out quite differently. Shaffer has managed to be taken seriously and the NRSC is no longer writing the seat off -- which is already a huge disappointment for Democrats. Furthermore, all polls taken since the late summer show that the race is for now in a toss-up; the consistent tightness of all surveys of the race has to be taken into account and at this moment this race has to be ranked a toss-up. That said, Udall's position remains a bit stronger -- both because of the way recent CO elections have shaped-up and because of the fact that he is in the House now and is a popular and well-known figure in the state. And this is the type of race that the NRSC will abandon quickly if things get tough and they have other seats to defend. We shall keep an eye on any movement in the coming months.

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

Louisiana has long been the only Democratic-held seat the GOP had any chance of picking up, and Republicans finally got Treasurer John Kennedy to jump in the race in late November. Kennedy -- who ran as a Democrat in 2004 -- starts with some good statewide recognition, and this race looks like it might emerge as one of the tightest of the country. Louisiana has been trending Republican for years now, and Katrina accelerated that process; in November, the GOP picked-up the governorship in triumphant manner, and Landrieu has never been a particularly towering incumbent to begin with.

Democrats also have reason to hope: The same day Jindal was elected Governor, Mitch Landrieu -- Mary's brother -- won a new term as Lieutenant Governor; a few weeks later, Democrats managed to retain both houses of the Louisiana legislature, though they did lose a lot of seats; and Landrieu is starting with an impressive war chest. There have been two polls released for now, and they confirm that this race is starting as a toss-up: The first, (an independent poll) shows the race very tight with Landrieu 4 points ahead, while an internal poll for Kennedy has him up by 7%.

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

Most media stories of the race concentrate on Al Franken's candidacy and his transition from comic to politician. And even Franken's doubters have to concede that he is looking like a very serious contender. The fourth quarter numbers came out last week and show that Franken has out-raised Senator Coleman for the third quarter in a row -- but Coleman has a 2:1 cash-on-hand advantage. But with all the national press Franken is getting, it's easy to forget that Mike Ciresi is in the race for the Democratic nomination as well, and he has started running ads before Franken. Both candidates look like they could be strong against Coleman despite being derided as second-tier at the beginning of the cycle; the most recent poll was released 2 months ago and has Coleman stuck in a statistical tie against both men.

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

The Democratic primary is going strong between House Speaker Jeff Merkley and Steve Novick, who are battling to show their progressive credentials. Merkley got some good news recently by scoring the endorsement of the Oregon AFL-CIO, though Novick recently used the Iowa caucuses to compare Merkley to Hillary Clinton as a force of the establishment. Meanwhile, Senator Gordon Smith is working hard to build a moderate reputation. He was among the first to break with his party over the Iraq War; since then, he has introduced a bill to extend domestic partnerships to federal employees - not the typical Republican move. The first and only public poll of the campaign was released in mid-November and has Smith leading but under 50%-- so you can be sure the DSCC will invest heavily in this race.

Lean Retention (2 R, 0 D)

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

It's hard to believe that Alaska's Senate seat could soon enter the top-tier, but with yet another (independent) poll showing long-time Republican incumbent Ted Stevens trailing his challenger, we have to recognize that Stevens is truly vulnerable. This is not that surprising on paper given the scope of the FBI investigation against Stevens and many of the state's Republican figures; but Alaska has not been kind to Democrats of late and Stevens is a very entrenched incumbent.

Democrats appear to be getting their wish here candidate-wise. Anchorage Mayor Begich has not yet announced he is running, but he had long implied that he would not start a campaign before the spring. He had also said, however, that he would say he is not running by the end of 2007 to allow another Democrat to mount a strong campaign. And since we have not heard anything from him yet, it would seem to imply that Begich is preparing a run and could give Stevens the fight of his political life. Definitely not the place we were expecting to see a competitive election at the start of this cycle, but this could shape out to be one of the hottest races of the cycle.

9. Mississippi (Incumbent: Roger Wicker; Last Ranking: N/A)

This race is the huge shocker of the cycle. It did not even exist at the time of my last rankings -- and then Trent Lott decided that he would make more money in the private sector and proceeded to resign before the end of 2007 to escape the restrictions of the new lobbying law. Governor Barbour proceeded to appoint Rep. Roger Wicker to take Lott's seat, and Wicker will now have to win a race of his own right in a special election to get the right to finish Lott's term until 2012. Democrats had high hope for the seat at the beginning, and most of them rested on the candidacy of former Attorney General Mike Moore, a very popular figure in the state. But Moore recently announced he would not run, depriving Democrats of their strongest contender. Since then, two Dems have jumped into the race -- former Governor Ronnie Musgrove who is considered to be a strong candidate as well, and former Rep. Ronnie Snows. The problem with this is that -- because it is a special election -- this contest does not have a primary but a runoff-system. All candidates from any party will be on the same ballot and the top two will go to a runoff if no one gets 50%. In other words, the division of the Democratic vote makes it impossible for either Snows or Musgrove to win this in the first round and the party will have to find a way to keep Wicker under 50% in that first voting.

The question that could decide how competitive the race will be is the special election's timing. Will it occur on November 4th, as Barbour wants? Or within 90 days, as the law seems to require? Attorney General Jim Hood has now dragged Governor Barbour to court to force him to organize an election by the end of March, and the case should press forward fast in the first few weeks. That would naturally give more hope to Dems as Wicker would have less time to develop incumbency advantage and as the DSCC would play big in the state since it would not have anything else to focus on. And the Democrats clearly have the strength to be competitive here. There have been two polls released for now, one with Wicker up Musgrove by 7% and one with Musgrove up Wicker by 12%. The former poll undersampled black voters (said the pollster himself), so Musgrove clearly has what it takes to make this a top-tier race. We will know more about the dynamics of the race once we know

Likely retention (6 R, 1 D)

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

Rep. Tom Allen was touted as one of the DSCC's top recruits, but Democrats better figure out a way to knock Susan Collins off her pedestal soon. A series of polls released in October and November had Collins crushing Allen with almost no sign of vulnerability. Things will likely tighten as months go by, as Maine is a small state that would not cost much the DSCC to play in -- and it likely will do so given that it at least has a top-tier candidate in the race. One problem Democrats will face here is that the Iraq War seems to be fading as a campaign issue; at least it is no longer a topic Democrats are talking about on the trail the way they did in 2006, and the war does not seem to be weighing down moderate Republicans like it did in 2006. And that, of course, was the main factor that sank Chafee in Rhode Island -- the model Democrats were looking to use to pick-up Maine as well.

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

This race is being polled quite regularly because of PPP's commitment to extensive North Carolina surveys. And while most polls show Elizabeth Dole more vulnerable than she would like to be -- and often under 50% -- they underscore more than anything how much potential Democrats would have had here had they convinced a top-tier or second-tier Democrat to jump in the race. Instead, they are running state Senator Kay Hagan and investment banker Jim Neal. Time is passing fast for anyone else to jump in the race and there has been very little recruitment talk here since the last rankings in November. Yet, one development could perhaps boost the prospects of a Democratic pick-up here: the DSCC wants to expand the map to races that are not competitive yet. And with its recruitment troubles in Kentucky and in Nebraska, Schumer could realize that at least he already has candidates here. And there is no question that Hagan and Neal are serious enough that both could make this into a race. But they will need outside help.

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

Kentucky is shaping got to be the Democrats' major disappointment. In early November, it seemed poised to break in the top-tier of Senate races as McConnell was polling some very weak numbers against potential Democratic opponents that were looking very interested in the seat. Since then, not only have Attorney General Stumbo and Treasurer Crit Luallen announced that they would not run against the Senate Minority Leader, but McConnell has run weeks worth of ads boosting his image in a political vacuum. The evidence is mixed as to how much that has helped McConnell, but it is clear that Democrats have to get their act together as quickly as possible to have any chance to get this race on the radar screen. Iraq War veteran and attorney Andrew Horne has jumped in the race for Democrats -- and polls back in the fall showed him within striking distance if he played his cards right. How this race unfolds largely depends on the DSCC at this point and how much they are willing to go after McConnell and force him to play defense.

13. South Dakota (Incumbent: Tim Johnson; Last Ranking: 13)

A few more months have gone by without any indication that Tim Johnson might be considering retirement despite his health condition; and without any indication either that the Republicans are going to be able to recruit a strong candidate to run against him. In early November, there was some speculation that Gov. Rounds was being recruited by the NRSC, but Rounds denied that vehemently and nothing has come from that since then. The race was meant to be one of only two Democratic seats that Republicans would contest but it is not looking competitive at all as we head into 2008. Nevertheless, Johnson could be hurt dramatically by a senior moment on the trail or if he shows the extent of his health's deterioration -- which is why we are keeping the race up here.

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

Democrats have been touting a poll showing a weak approval rating and re-elect numbers for Cornyn, but fact is that the situation is very similar to North Carolina. Democratic challenger Noriega will not defeat the incumbent without outside help, so it depends on how much the DSCC is willing to help. At least the race has a solid challenger, which could motivate Schumer to invest in this race as opposed to spending more time trying to recruit in other contests as time is running down to find new candidates.

15. Idaho (Open; Last Ranking: 15)

Larry Craig is continuing to make life difficult for Idaho Republicans. The state party is hoping that the incumbent will just quietly go away, but Craig is continuing to dominate state headlines as he has now appealed a lower-courts decision to not let him withdraw his guilty plea. Of course, Craig has indicated he is not running for re-election and there is no indication for now to think he might be revisiting his decision; this scandal will likely be long resolved by November, and the state's conservative leanings should carry Lieutenant Governor Risch across the finish line against Democrat LaRocco.

16. Nebraska (Open; Last Ranking: 13)

Nebraska is Democrats' other big disappointment in this month's rankings. This race has dropped from 4th to 13th and then straight from 13th to 16th as first Bob Kerrey and then Omaha Mayor Mike Fahey have declined to run for the seat left open by Chuck Hagel. On the other side of the aisle, Republicans have recruited former Governor Johanns to carry their banner -- the strongest candidate they could have found. Democrats are now hoping to convince Scott Kleeb, their nominee for NE-03 in 2006, to run for the Senate seat. Kleeb has not yet declared, though recent reports indicate that he might be looking to jump in. Kleeb ran in one of the reddest districts in the country in 2006 and did more than well which is fueling Democratic hopes that he could pull off a miracle here; but Kleeb would have to perform even better than 2006 in a presidential year, at the statewide level and against a popular figure like Johanns.

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. Iowa (Incumbent: Harkin; Last ranking: 21)

There are some rumblings that GOP Rep. King could be looking to jump in the race, which would put the race on the radar screen. Harkin has defeated sitting GOP representatives in all his previous elections, and he is a popular figure in the state, so he would start off favored even if King were to jump in.

18. New Jersey (Incumbent: Frank Lautenberg)


19. Oklahoma (Incumbent: Inhofe)


20. Tennessee (Incumbent: Lamar Alexander; Last ranking: 17)

Democrats had a third-tier challenger in the race that could have at least taken advantage of a huge blunder by Alexander, but he recently withdrew from the race. Rumors that Alexander might withdrew were also put to rest for good when Alexander won the leadership race to become the Senate GOP's number 3.

21. Montana (Incumbent: Baucus)


22. Kansas (Incumbent: Roberts)



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. Alabama (Incumbent: Sessions)

24. Georgia (Incumbent: Chambliss)

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

26. Illinois (Incumbent: Durbin)

27. Delaware (Incumbent: Biden)

28. South Carolina (Incumbent: Graham)

29. Massachusetts (Incumbent: Kerry)


Rumors are circulating that Jim Ogonowski could jump in the race for Republicans. Ogonowski ran a strong campaign in the special election in MA-05 this fall and lost 51-45 only in a district Democrats should carry more forcefully. But a statewide Senate election in a presidential year is not the same as a House special election marked by low turn-out and in one of Massachusetts's least blue districts; and John Kerry is hardly Niki Tsongas. He remains one of the most identifiable faces of the Democratic Party and is unlikely to be rejected by Massachusetts voters.

30. Wyoming (Incumbent: Barrasso)

Rep. Cubin's retirement from the state's at-large seat makes it even less likely that a miracle-candidate will emerge for Democrats and take on Barrasso who was appointed earlier this year after the death of Senator Thomas. Whichever Democrat might have had a small chance to make this into a race is now likely to jump in the House race instead.

31. West Virginia (Incumbent: Rockefeller)

32. Michigan (Incumbent: Levin)

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

Two months ago, there were rumors that Cochran was on the verge of announcing his retirement, which had led me to rank the race 16th. Instead, Cochran announced he would run for re-election but Trent Lott ended up revealing he would resign at the end of the month, meaning that any high-profile Democrat who might want to run for Senate will go for that seat rather than Cochran's, making this seat safer than it's ever been.

34. Wyoming (Enzi)

35. Rhode Island (Incumbent: Reed)

5 Comments:

  • I agree with almost everything you wrote, but I am more optimistic about Maine and about Kentucky. Horne has good poll numbers and Allen will look better soon.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At January 13, 2008 at 9:29 PM  

  • you rank Oklahoma too low.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At January 14, 2008 at 11:13 AM  

  • Kleeb's first name is Scott...not Steve.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At January 14, 2008 at 2:36 PM  

  • Good to see the first rankings of 2008 for the SENATE to be published! I have to say, for the most part I agree with what is being stated.

    No question on the listed Likely takeover, and that's Virginia with Gov. Warner. I would also at this point put New Mexico there as well (given Chavez dropping out of the DEM primary). On the Lean Takeover column, I would agree with New Hamsphire, but I would also put Colorado in that #4 spot in the Lean Takeover column (DEM convention in Denver, trending blue with Gov & other US Senator).

    I personally am taking the stance of no "Toss-ups" - everything is either Lean takeover or Lean Retention. Therefore the other three Toss-ups go into Lean Retention (those races that the best case can be made for a change in party in that seat). This puts Minnesota, Louisiana, and Oregon in that category, along with Alaska. All of these are incumbents, they get some advantage there as Lean Retention versus takeover.

    I would note Mississippi as Likely Retention (after Maine) given that states leanings and no scandel. This would go along with Maine, North Carolina, Kentucky, South Dakota, & Texas.

    Idaho and Nebraska fall into the Almost Safe category, not sure what could realistically be done there.

    So with that, my list would state:
    LIKELY TAKEVER (2 GOP seat, 0 DEM seats)
    1. Virginia (Open-GOP)
    2. New Mexico (Open-GOP)

    LEAN TAKEOVER (2 GOP, 0 DEM)
    3. New Hampshire (John Sununu-GOP)
    4. Colorado (Open-GOP)

    LEAN RETENTION (3 GOP, 1 DEM)
    5. Minnesota (Norm Coleman-GOP)
    6. Louisiana (Mary Landrieu-DEM)
    7. Oregon (Gordon Smith-GOP)
    8. Alaska (Ted Stevens-GOP)

    LIKELY RETENTION (5 GOP, 1 DEM)
    9. Maine (Susan Collins-GOP)
    10. Mississippi (Roger Wicker-GOP)
    11. North Carolina (Elizabeth Dole-GOP)
    12. Kentucky (Mitch McConnell-GOP)
    13. South Dakota (Tim Johnson-DEM)
    14. Texas (John Cornyn-GOP)

    Prediction: Democrats pick-up 4 seats for a 55-45 majority.

    Having said that, I hope that Minnesota and Oregon can come through (in same way Montana & Virginia did in 2006) and we have a surprise in Alaska taking down Stevens. Having 58 senators in the DEM/Independent caucus would be a great way to hit 60 in the 2010 elections when again the GOP has to defend more seats (19 vs. 15).

    By Blogger KELL, At January 14, 2008 at 5:34 PM  

  • Dan - Just a note on two things:

    1) I think the summary of seats for "Toss-up" needs to be updated. It currently shows: (4 R, 1 D), whereas there are three Republicans (CO, MN, OR) and one Democrat (LA). So it should be listed as: Toss-ups (3 R, 1 D).

    2) The link on your front page to the Updated Senate Rankings still shows the date as November 3, versus your current update.

    Awesome work on the blog - keep it up!

    By Blogger KELL, At January 14, 2008 at 5:39 PM  

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