Thursday, May 22, 2008

May rankings: The map expands for Democrats

The presidential primaries are heading towards a not so climactic conclusion and so the time has come to focus some attention on the congressional races. I haven't updated the rankings since January and a lot has changed in the past 5 months, starting with the resolution of contested primaries in Oregon, Nebraska, North Carolina and probably Minnesota. Both parties have gone through final recruitment pushes, with the GOP playing a tragicomedic farce in New Jersey and suffering through one more round of failures in South Dakota and Iowa.

Meanwhile, a number of seats that had remained relatively quiet up to now have been seeing more action in the past few months. In Colorado, Bob Schaffer had been holding unexpectedly strong for most of 2007 but he was hit by a scandal over his ties with Jack Abramoff. In Oregon, the DSCC decided it had to soften Gordon Smith early to have a chance in November and started airing an attack ad against the incumbent. In Minnesota, it was Democrats who took a hit when it was revealed that Al Franken had trouble with taxes. And in Alaska, Mark Begich officially jumped in the Senate race -- though it had been many months that his candidacy had become clear.

But it is the lower ranked seats that created the most wave in the first half of 2008. It has become increasingly apparent that Democrats are successfully expanding the map, putting the dream of a filibuster-proof (however unlikely it still is) back on the table. As poll after poll show that seats like North Carolina, Texas and even Kansas -- not to mention Mississippi and Alaska, which were barely on the table back in the fall but which are not first-tier races on their own right -- are within Democrats' reach, the Senate picture is becoming increasingly nightmarish for the GOP. The NRSC is not in quite as big a financial hole as their House counterpart, but the Republicans have to be prepared to have their resources stretched thin. The DSCC is sending staffers to organize in Oklahoma, a clear sign that they are determined to put as many states in play as possible. For now, they are succeeding beyond even their expectations.

Check the January rankings here.

: Democratic pick-up a net 5-8 Senate seats, with a bigger gain more likely than a smaller one.

Prediction: Democrats pick-up a net 6 seats, for a 57-43 majority. This is the highest number of pick-ups I have predicted yet, though I think I am remaining on the safer side.

Likely Takeover (1 Republican seat, 0 Democratic seats)

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

If Democrat Mark Warner had not chosen to jump in this Senate race, he would surely have been near the top of both Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama's vice-presidential list. That he chose to run in Virginia instead demonstrates his confidence that he will be elected in November against fellow former Governor Jim Gilmore. Polls consistently show a double-digit lead for Warner, and given how many other seats the NRSC must defend it is unlikely they will invest anything to defend their chances here.

Lean Takeover (2 R, 0 D)

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

The Republican primary between Representatives Heather Wilson and Steve Pearce is getting increasingly aggressive, with two high-profile politicians facing the end of their political careers, in a primary no less. The Club for Growth is now getting involved on behalf of Steve Pearce. Meanwhile, Tom Udall is building his general election campaign and looking increasingly formidable in polls. He is also amassing a considerable financial advantage -- he has three times as much cash-on-hand than his opponents combined -- and is using the funds to already air his first ads re-introducing himself to all voters. New Mexico is as closely divided a state as there is in the country; but in a year that structurally favors Democrats, any Democratic nominee starts with a clear generic advantage -- even more so when he is as popular as Udall.

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

After a slight down-tick in polls at the end of 2007 -- perhaps because of her husband's heavily publicized comments about Obama's past drug use -- Jeanne Shaheen has reclaimed a convincing lead against Senator Sununu. How early the challenger jumped to a clear lead and how stable that lead has been since then confirms that this race is looking to be the 2006 Santorum-Casey election. This is a race in which the Democrats' success in expanding the map could prove critical, as it is unlikely that the NRSC will have a dime to spend to help a badly trailing Sununu if states like North Carolina, Texas or Mississippi look to be in any way endangered.

Toss-up (4 R, 1 D)

4. Colorado (Open; Last Ranking: 4)

In the first seat to open up this cycle, Colorado's Senate race was quiet for most of 2007 as both parties settled on their nominees relatively early. Expectations favored Democrat Mark Udall given past trends in the state, but Republican Bob Schaffer held on, as poll after poll found Colorado to be a toss-up. But the past few months have been rough for Schaffer. First, the Denver Post revealed that Schaffer was associated with convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff and that a 1999 trip to the Marinas Island that was meant to examine labor conditions was arranged by Abramoff; this controversy gained attention and an independent group chose to air an ad in the Colorado Springs region to soften up Schaffer's popularity.

Second, the Schaffer campaign committed a major gaffe mid-May when his campaign substituted a picture of Colorado's Pikes Peak by Alaska's Mount McKinley in an ad that was meant to emphasize Schaffer's Colorado roots. While this is certainly a silly controversy, the reason Schaffer was running this ad in the first place was that there were questions about his attachment to Colorado and this only reinforces doubts people might be having about him. The DSCC jumped on the opportunity to air an ad also attacking Schaffer for his connections to Abramoff -- confirming that this will haunt the Colorado Republican for many months to come.

The only poll taken since these ads started running showed Udall slightly expanding his lead but he is ahead only 6%, confirming that Schaffer is a much stronger candidate -- and is holding on despite controversies -- much more strongly than people envisioned a few months ago. This has been a surprising reality Democrats have been dealing with for a few months and while Udall would probably prevail if the election was held today the race is much too close for comfort.

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

This race has been creeping up the rankings for months now. Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich officially declared his candidacy at the end of April, in one of the DSCC's best recruitment coups of this cycle. Democrats have had heartbreaks in Alaska over the past few years, but the state GOP is reaching rock bottom because of a corruption investigation that has engulfed most Republican figures -- including Stevens and Rep. Young. Both of these incumbents are in grave danger of losing their seat. Stevens might be the longest-serving Republican in the Senate, but Begich is actually leading by 5 percent in the latest poll of the race. However, this remains Alaska and Stevens is as formidable a political force as it gets so this race will remain tight to the end.

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

With the GOP's failure to recruit a credible candidate in South Dakota and Iowa and with the farce played by New Jersey Republicans (see below), Louisiana is more than ever the Republicans' only opportunity for a Senate pick-up come November. The size of the GOP's Senate losses will likely depend on whether they can cushion their fall with a pick-up here. Louisiana has been trending Republican in recent cycles but Mary Landrieu has been preparing for a tight race for years now. Predictably, as this is the main -- only? -- seat in which they will go on the offense, Republicans will concentrate a lot of their fire power and resources in defeating Landrieu, as was confirmed by the fact that Republican candidate John Kennedy outraised the incumbent in the year's first quarter.

But Democrats are certainly not panicking, as two polls in the past two months show Landrieu up double-digits and at or above 50% and found Landrieu with a strong favorability rating. Also, Don Cazayoux's victory in LA-06's special election bolsters the Democrats' case that their party is much stronger than predicted in this state; but Republicans could also point to this special election to argue that the Louisiana environment is less pro-Democrat than the national one, as Cazayoux's win against a flawed opponent was much tighter than Travis Childers's victory against a better candidate and in a more Republican district (MS-01) ten days later. Republicans are determined enough to make this race competitive that the race will likely tighten considerably in the coming months.

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

The first three months over the year looked very good for Democrat Al Franken. His main opponent for the Democratic nomination, Mike Ciresi, abruptly withdrew from the race, essentially handing the DFL's nod to Franken and allowing the comedian to focus his attention on Senator Coleman, who remains a savvy and fairly popular politician. Enjoying a wave of good press, as the media never ceased being stunned that an actor-comedian could wage a serious political campaign, Franken jumped to a lead against Coleman in numerous polls throughout February and early March. For an incumbent to not only be under 50% but to be trailing this far ahead of Election Day is a sign of great vulnerability.

Yet, it was Franken's turn to weaken in the months that ensued, as it was revealed that Franken had to pay $70,000 in back taxes and penalties to 17 states. The press started piling on, raising questions about Franken's sense of business and his competence, and a SUSA poll found that a majority of Minnesota voters said that Franken should withdraw and that these revelations made them less likely to support him. Election Day is 6 months from now, and Franken will have time to change the topic of conversation, but all polls in the past few months show Coleman has regained a lead and generally comes in above 50%. And Republicans will be sure to use the issue in the fall campaign.

8. Mississippi (Incumbent: Roger Wicker; Last Ranking: 9)

At the time of my previous rankings, we did not yet know whether Mississippi's election would be held in March or in November, as Republicans insisted that they could wait until the fall to hold the special election, despite the law's pretty obvious phrasing to the contrary. In mid-January, a judge ruled in favor of the Democratic Attorney General, setting up a March election, only to be overruled two weeks later by the state Supreme Court. This was a huge relief for Republicans, as it means that they would not have to worry about a low-turnout election in which Democrats would surely be more motivated (as we saw with MS-01, they would indeed have been so) and newly-appointed Wicker will have the advantage of incumbency.

Yet, Democrats have a lot going for them as well, and this judicial decision is the only good news the GOP got from Mississippi over the past few months. First, Democrats managed to unify behind one candidate, former Governor Ronnie Musgrove. Since this is a special election with no primary, it was not necessarily obvious that they would be able to do so and they had to wait until mid-February to convince former Rep. Snows to not attempt a run. Second, Mississippi Republicans are in as bad a shape as the national party. Travis Childers' picked-up MS-01 on May 13th, a district that Bush had carried with 62% and confirming that there is a road to victory for Musgrove -- a road that some Democrats believe will be only strengthened by Obama's presence on the ticket, which will bolster black turnout. Third, the November election will be a special election which in this state means that the partisan affiliation of both candidates will not be written on the ballot. In a state as conservative as Mississippi, that is a great asset for any Democratic candidate, one that helped Childers on May 13th and that will help Musgrove in the fall.

Fourth, Musgrove should almost be considered the incumbent in the race; he is better known than his adversary and he is fairly popular, while Wicker remains rather unknown, which could give the Democrat some of the incumbency advantage. Finally, polls are confirming that this race will be tight, with the latest survey showing Musgrove leading by 8%. It is a partisan poll released by the DSCC, so take it with a grain of salt, but other non-partisan polls of the Musgrove-Wicker showdown confirm that it is highly competitive.

Lean Retention (2 R, 0 D)

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

The DSCC got its wish on May 20th when House speaker Jeff Merkley won the Democratic nomination in a very tight race against Steve Novick. Despite there being little evidence that Merkley would fare better than Novick in the fall, Chuck Schumer chose to bank on Merkley, ran ads on his behalf and organized phone-banks. Now, Democrats can concentrate on the general election in what will be a tough race. Gordon Smith is a vulnerable incumbent, but Democrats knows they need to soften him up further if they want Merkley (who was recruited only after a series of first-tier candidates declined to run) to have a shot, which is why the DSCC is already airing ads against the Republican Senator Gordon Smith. Polls had been kind to the incumbent until a mid-May Rasmussen poll found a three point race with Smith under the 50% threshold.

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

This race only progresses by one ranking spot, but it is without question the biggest surprise of the past few months -- and the only one that has crossed the all-important limit separating "Lean retention" from "Likely retention" seats. A series of refusals this fall by potentially top-tier candidates had left Democrats convinced that they would not beat Elizabeth Dole this year, though some polls suggested that both state Senator Kay Hagan and investment banker Jim Neal could keep the race interesting. On May 6th, state Democrats gave an overwhelming victory to Hagan, making her their candidate against the freshman Senator. Ever since then, a series of polls has shown Hagan enjoying a post-primary bounce; as her name recognition increased and as she shared the limelight of the high-profile Democratic primary, she was unexpectedly propelled into a toss-up with Dole, leading her in a much-discussed Rasmussen poll and narrowly trailing in others. As North Carolina looks like it will be a battleground state at the presidential level, Hagan will also benefit from an increase in Democratic organizing in the state.

Likely retention (5 R, 1 D)

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

The race between popular Republican Senator Collins and challenger Rep. Tom Allen has been disappointing Democrats since last fall. Despite Allen's high name recognition and the Northeast's drifting towards the Democratic Party (as former Senator Chaffee can attest to), polls showed that Collins was not vulnerable, riding high above 50% and crushing her opponent. How quiet the race is remaining is a further victory for Collins, who wants to keep the race as discreet as possible to minimize voters' partisan reflexes and not fall victim to her party's unpopularity. The latest poll from the race, released last week by Rasmussen, shows the margin between the two candidates reduced to 10%, the smallest it has ever been in any public polling -- good but rare news for Allen. Given that the state is relatively inexpensive, the DSCC might push Collins and try to soften her no matter how competitive the race looks in the coming weeks, but there is no question that the race is taking a back seat to other races that are looking increasingly promising.

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

Along with North Carolina, Texas is the second unexpectedly-rising Republican-held seat. Senator Jon Cornyn has never been particularly popular, but state Senator Rick Noriega did not necessarily seem like the candidate who could topple the Republican incumbent in a state that has solidly anchored itself to the GOP column in the past decade. But May came, and two polls in one week showed Cornyn with only a 4% lead over his challenger. Noriega will benefit from a lot of fundraising help from the netroots, and he will need every penny to keep this race competitive as it is not easy for a challenger to get known in a state as large -- and as Republican -- as this one. Nonetheless, Democrats are delighted to be expanding the map to the Lone Star State and we will keep a close eye on whether the dual May polls were just a fluke or the sign of real trouble for Cornyn.

13. New Jersey (Incumbent: Frank Lautenberg; Last ranking: 18)

Paradoxically enough for a seat ranked this low, New Jersey's Senate race is the contest that made the most news in the past few months. Since my last rankings -- and in fact in an even more compressed amount of time, as all these events happened between mid-March and mid-April -- a series of events changed this race's outlook: (1) The candidate Republicans were touting unexpectedly dropped out for health reasons, leaving the GOP with no credible candidate. (2) The GOP was excited to recruit businessman Andrew Unanu, though it did not take long for him to be discredited. (3) Rep. Andrews, a Democrat, annouced he would challenge Senator Launtenberg in the June 3rd primary. (4) Two days later -- and three days before the filing deadline -- the GOP found a strong candidate, businessman John Crowley, leading to Unanu's withdrawal from the race. (5) Barely two more days passed and Crowley dropped out of the race, leading to Unanu's jumping back in. (6) After the filing deadline, Unanu withdrew once more, ceding his spot on the ballot to former Rep. Richard Zimmer.

There will therefore be two contested primaries on the ballot on June 3rd. The GOP will choose between state Senator Pennacchio, Zimmer and professor Murray Sabrin. Zimmer would probably be the Republicans' strongest choice, though it has been a while he has been out of politics: He lost a hotly contested Senate race in 1996 against Torricelli and lost a House race in 2000 by 651 votes. The Democratic primary, meanwhile, is centered on the question of Lautenberg age -- one that the Republican candidate will use against the incumbent if he survives Andrews' challenge. Odds are that he will, and do so convincingly, for the simple reason that Andrews declared his candidacy months to late for it to be effective. A primary challenge in a state as expensive as New Jersey is always difficult, but leaving yourself 3 months is a strange sort of political suicide.

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

At the end of 2007, it looked like Kentucky was the sleeper race of the 2008 cycle. Mitch McConnell looked surprisingly weak against potential Democratic opponents. But the Senate Minority Leader immediately decided to start airing advertisement, and Attorney General Stumbo and Treasurer Crit Luallen announced that they would not run against the Senate Minority Leader. That left the Democratic nomination in the hands of Iraq War veteran Andrew Horne, but even he called it quits in early 2008. On May 20th, the Democratic nomination was won by Bruce Lunsford, a Democrat who lost his party's gubernatorial nomination in 2003 and 2007. He endorsed Republican Ernie Fletcher in 2003 after the primary, and has donated to McConnell's senatorial campaign. This race is certainly not what it used to be for Democrats, even if the jury is still out on how successfully McConnell addressed his vulnerabilities.

15. Idaho (Open; Last Ranking: 15)

We were all breathlessly waiting to see if Larry Craig would pull any last minute stump to try to hold on to his Senate seat. Would he suddenly change his mind about retiring just as he changed his mind about resigning back in September? The filing deadline passed mid-March without Craig filing for reelection, confirming that the general election will feature a new Republican nominee, most probably Lieutenant Governor Jim Risch. The Democratic nominee is almost certain to be former Representative Larry LaRocco. This would be a rematch of the 2006 race for lieutenant governor, which Risch won 58% to 39%. LaRocco insists that times are different, but the state's Republican roots will make it difficult for Democrats to contest the seat, though the DSCC will push to test whether Craig's shadow is still haunting the state GOP. For now, Risch is attracting criticism from local papers for refusing to participate in live debates televised on public TV.

16. Nebraska (Open; Last Ranking: 16)

Here is another race that Democrats had much higher hopes about in the fall of 2007. As former Governor and Senator Bob Kerrey and Omaha mayor Mike Fahey announced they would not run for the seat left open by Chuck Hagel, this seat plunged in the rankings. Both parties held their primaries on May 13th, setting up a general election between former Governor Mike Johanns and Democrat Scott Kleeb, a favorite of the netroots. The first poll of the race shows Johanns leading comfortably, though not overwhelmingly; however much some sites and online networks concentrate on this race, it will be very tough for Kleeb to overcome the state's deep Republican roots and the popularity and name recognition of his opponent.

17. Oklahoma (Incumbent: Jim Inhofe; Last ranking: 19)

Inhofe might not be the most popular of incumbents, and Democratic candidate state Senator Andrew Rice might be a grassroots darling, but this remains deeply red Oklahoma and an entrenched Republican. The reason I am moving this race up and out of the "almost safe" category for the first time is that the DSCC seems committed to testing Inhofe. They are sending paid staffers to the state -- in a clear vindication of Dean's 50-state strategy -- and they will probably get financial help from environmental groups who want Inhofe's defeat, given that the Senator is one of Congress' most vocal skeptics of global warming.

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. Kansas (Incumbent: Roberts: Last ranking: 22)

The Senate picture is so worrisome for the GOP that it merits my first description of the Kansas Senate race. Senator Roberts was not believed to be facing any sort of threat despite Chuck Schumer's hopes that Governor Sibelius might jump in the race. The candidacy of former representative Jim Slattery satisfied Democrats that they would at least have a viable candidate if Roberts were to melt down. But the first poll of the race suggests that imagining this race to be interesting isn't as insane a proposition as it would have seemed to us just las month.

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

Just 9 months ago, South Dakota was included in any list of vulnerable Senate seats. Now, it has plunged to 19th position, behind even Kansas. That reflects the dual factors of (1) Tim Johnson choosing to run again and appearing healthy and (2) the GOP failing to recruit a series of candidates that they tried to pressure into running. The Republican candidate will be Joel Dykstra, the assistant Majority Leader in the state House. The most recent Rasmussen poll shows Johnson crushing Dykstra 63% to 28%, not the type of numbers the GOP was hoping for here.

20. Georgia (Incumbent: Chambliss; Last ranking: 24)

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

22. Montana (Incumbent: Baucus: Last ranking: 21)

23. Iowa (Incumbent: Harkin; Last ranking: 17)

It is incredible that Republicans failed to recruit even a second-tier candidate in this seat given that Harkin has never had a comfortable re-election race in his Senate career. Republican hopes rested on ultra-conservative Rep. King who squashed talk of a potential run in March.


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.

24. Massachusetts (Incumbent: Kerry)

25. Alabama (Incumbent: Sessions)

26. Illinois (Incumbent: Durbin)

27. Delaware (Incumbent: Biden)

28. South Carolina (Incumbent: Graham)

29. Wyoming (Incumbent: Barrasso)

30. West Virginia (Incumbent: Rockefeller)

31. Michigan (Incumbent: Levin)

32. Mississippi (Incumbent: Cochran)

33. Rhode Island (Incumbent: Reed)

34. Wyoming (Incumbent: Enzi)

After some speculation that Enzi might be eying retirement (not that even an open seat would have been that competitive in Wyoming), he announced in May that he would be seeking re-election.

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

A Democratic Senator in Arkansas is now the safest incumbent for the Republicans failed to recruit any candidate in a particularly pathetic display of incompetence; this was after all a seat that was talked about as potentially vulnerable since Pryor is a freshman Democrat from a Southern state.


  • This is a fairly conservative estimate of Democratic chances in November. Given the polls and the mood of the country, Democrats are definitely looking for a pick-up of at least 8 seats.

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