Sunday, October 12, 2008

October 12th: Make it eleven

Democrats have been trying to expand the Senate map since the start of the cycle, and as of mid-September it looked like the GOP had managed to stop the bleeding by solidifying its position in a number of races that Democrats were eying. But Senate Republicans are now back in their downward spiral, the prospect of several incumbents badly damaged by the economic crisis. For the first time in the long history of my Senate ratings, there are a stunning 11 Republican-held seats that are rated as highly vulnerable (meaning that they are rated lean retention or above), two more than in my previous rankings.

Five of those seats are rated lean retention, but they are not the five you might expect, as Alaska and North Carolina are trading seats in these rating update. While her race remains hotly contested, Sen. Dole has fallen slightly behind in recent weeks (and Republican operatives are even more worried than poll numbers seem to justify); on the other hand, Sen. Stevens is looking surprisingly strong, and it looks likely that he would survive this race if he is acquitted in the coming weeks.

Complicating calculations is the fact that highly competitive seats tend to break heavily towards one party, as the national political breeze of the final days tips the balance to one side. That allowed the GOP to nearly sweep the table in 2002 and 2004, while in 2006 Democrats won 6 out of the 7 seats that could have been described as highly contested in the final week of the campaign (MO, MT, NJ, MD, VA, RI and TN). That makes it unlikely that Democratic pick-ups are somewhere at the middle of their range, say 6 or 7. Far more likely are that Republicans slightly improve their situation and save most of the seats that are now rated as toss-ups or lean Republican (holding Democrats at 4 or 5 pick-ups) or that Democrats push their advantage and sweep most of the seats now in contention (getting them to 9 or 10 pick-ups). At the present moment, this ought to worry Republicans, for Democrats have all the momentum and the blue wave is threatening to transform itself into yet another tsunami.

Outlook: Democratic pick-up a net 5-11 Senate seats.

Prediction: Democrats pick-up a net 8 seats, for a 59-41 majority.

History of Campaign Diaries's Senate rankings:
Likely Takeover (2 Republican seats, 0 Democratic seats)

1. Virginia (Open seat)

Last updated on September 23rd: Mark Warner's keynote speech at the Democratic convention contributed nothing to Barack Obama's election prospects, quite the contrary. But it certainly solidified his status as a favorite in Virginia's Senate race, as the state remains conservative-leaning and Warner's strength has long come from his popularity in rural regions long neglected by Democrats. No one expects this race to tighten as Election Day nears, and for now that conventional wisdom is proving right.

2. New Mexico (Open)

Last updated on September 23rd: While polls have long shown Tom Udall crushing Steve Pearce, the NRSC had not given up hope and had reserved $2.7 million of air time in the state to help Pearce. Yet, the Republican committee canceled that reservation earlier this week, signaling that they were no longer planning to contest New Mexico and admitting that the odds of Pearce coming back are too low for the GOP to spent its meager resources on this race. That said, Pearce is counting on independent groups to attack Udall, and Rasmussen's September survey found a tightening race.
Lean Takeover (3 R, 0 D)

3. New Hampshire (Incumbent: John Sununu)

Last updated on September 23rd: Senator John Sununu trailed Jeanne Shaheen by double-digits even before she declared her candidacy, and the incumbent has long looked like a dead man walking. But some of the latest polls are finding a tightening race, and, contrary to expectations, the NRSC has not given up on this race. A barrage of ads is now attacking Shaheen for her gubernatorial record, portraying her as a tax-and-spend liberal in what has become a repeat of the GOP's 2002 strategy.

It is doubtful those attacks can be as successful against Shaheen as they were six years ago. After all, Shaheen has been out of office since then, and in that time it is Sununu who has become an incumbent with dubious associations. While attacks on taxes could once again attack Shaheen, the tax-and-spend charge is less damaging when the GOP brand is in shatters. But this is precisely where Sununu's path to salvation lies. In no state was the GOP more submerged by the blue tsunami in 2006; and in no state do Republicans stand more to gain if McCain improves the GOP's image and its standing among independents. There are signs that McCain is succeeding in that endeavor, and if that dynamic is confirmed in the weeks ahead, it could shift the fundamentals of New Hampshire's Senate race.

4. Colorado (Open; Last Ranking: 4)

Last updated on September 23rd: The race has been remarkably predictable for much of the past year: Democrats are blasting Schaffer as ineffective and too conservative, Republicans are painting Mark Udall as a "Boulder liberal" beholden to the environmental lobby. And the polls have shown little evolution. Contrary to predictions, Udall has been unable to build on his narrow lead, though he has at least been able to maintain a consistent advantage.

In few races has the summer's energy debate helped the GOP more than in Colorado's Senate contest. Conservation has long been one of Udall's defining issues; but when Republicans decided to make drilling into their defining stance and when it appeared that voters were more in line with the pro-drilling position than had been anticipated, Udall's strength became his biggest liability. Udall was forced to reverse his position, which opened him instead to flip-flopping charges. The NRSC is now running an ad comparing Udall to shifting sand.

Udall remains favored, but he has not put it away and if the GOP's position improves over the next seven weeks Schaffer could squeak by.

5. North Carolina (Incumbent: Elizabeth Dole)

Last updated on October 5th: In my July ratings, I wrote that "the DSCC has been looking for more seats to contest, and has made a clear choice that North Carolina has the most potential." Within a matter of weeks, the DSCC's involvement has transformed the race into one of the year's most heated - and most surprisingly so. While we certainly knew that Senator Dole was vulnerable, Democrats were certainly not expecting for the incumbent’s standing to collapse so easily. Dole led by double-digits through July, but a hard-hitting campaign by the DSCC painting Dole as ineffective and lacking clout with brutal spots (here are the first and second) took care of Dole’s numbers. (When Dole aired an ad portraying Hagan as a yapping dog, the DSCC fired back by comparing Dole to a smoking car.) The race quickly became a toss-up by the end of August.

Since then, Hagan has inched ahead in a number of polls, with her lead extending as much as a 9% in the latest PPP survey! To make matters worse for Dole, Hagan will benefit from Obama’s turnout machine while McCain’s ground game is minimal in the Tar Heel state. Somewhat surprisingly, Republican operatives are very pessimistic about this race, dropping quotes in a multitude of press outlets about how bad Dole’s situation is. Though there is no question that Dole’s campaign has been strikingly weak and its attakcs on Hagan have failed to catch on, polls do not justify such a high level of despair. The race remains highly competitive, and it could easily find its way back to the toss-up column in upcoming weeks. For now, however, Hagan is riding the DSCC advertisements and Obama’s momentum in the state, and that is proving a lethal combination.

Toss-up (3 R, 0 D)

6. Alaska (Incumbent: Ted Stevens)

Last updated on October 12th: Contrary to conventional wisdom, there is no reason to categorize this seat as lean take-over when the result now looks to be almost entirely dependent on the decision of 12 Washington D.C. residents who are serving as the jury of Stevens’ trial. Mark Begich had pulled far ahead in July, but Stevens closed the gap over the past two months and seems to be convincing a sizable number of Alaskans that whether or not he is corrupt is irrelevant to the fact that he brings a lot of money to Alaska. The race is now a toss-up in the polls - the latest Ivan Moore survey has Begich leading by 4%, the latest Rasmussen has Stevens leading by 1%. If Stevens is found guilty, it should be enough to propel Begich over the top; but if Stevens is acquitted, it should him give him the last-minute boost he needs to come out on top. And as I explained yesterday, I am getting increasingly uncomfortable with the former scenario given how openly the prosecution has trampled defense rights in this trial.

7. Oregon (Incumbent: Gordon Smith)

Last updated on September 23rd: Given that Gordon Smith has run a particularly shrewd campaign and that Jeff Merkley has found himself in a financial hole for much of the summer, that the race remains very competitive is a testament to just how much Gordon Smith is being weighed down by his party label. And this week, Smith decided to embark on the same strategy John McCain and Norm Coleman have been pioneering: Disqualify his Democratic opponent and make voters put aside their dislike for the GOP by transforming the election in a referendum on Jeff Merkley.

Smith's latest ads have dragged the race down the gutter by using the Willie Horton template to strike fear in voters about Merkley's stance on criminal justice. By highlighting the story of one felon, Smith hopes to trigger a reaction of disgust among voters and have those repulsed feelings transferred unto Merkley. This is the type of ad that has the potential of altering the dynamics of a race if it is not properly fought against, and it is up to Democrats to make sure that Smith does not benefit as much as George H. W. Bush did 20 years ago. Fortunately for Merkley, the DSCC looks committed to helping him, as it recently moved in the state to air ads hitting Smith for his ties with the GOP and with Bush.

Up until now, Smith had attacked Merkley on smaller issues - most notably his redecorating the state legislature. And his primary advertising strategy had been to tout his maverick credentials, airing a series of ads in which he embraced Barack Obama and John Kerry. The most effective such ad was released in late August; it relied on clips from nightly news that all repeated that Gordon Smith had broken ranks with his party. This also means that Smith could find himself on the path to salvation if McCain leads independents to reassess their opinion of the GOP.

Perhaps in no other state will the dynamics of the presidential race and how they affect the year's political fundamentals matter as much. For now, it is difficult to say where the race stands. The race is polled frustratingly little; only 5 surveys have been released over the past 3 months. The latest (a Merkley internal poll) finds the Democrat gaining 9% in a month and taking a narrow lead.

9. Minnesota (Incumbent: Norm Coleman)

Last updated September 23rd: The media chose the Minnesota Senate race as this cycle's marquee match-up more than a year ago, before there was any evidence of whether the contest would live up to the hype. In 2006, the Casey-Santorum battle was similarly drummed up but it turned out to be a relatively dull race without much movement. But this time the expectations were spot on: No Senate race has been as heated and as nasty as the all-out war between Al Franken and Norm Coleman.

For much of the spring, Coleman put Franken on the defensive with a series of controversies on Franken's past - and his best summer efforts to keep the conversation on these issues were boosted by the fact that a Democrat started airing even harsher spots against Franken's "record of degradation of minorities and women." But Franken has effectively turned the table on Coleman by hitting the incumbent's ethics in a series of spot (here's part 1 and part 2) that conclude with “stay tuned for more,” in an attempt to transform Coleman’s ethical misconduct in some sort of eagerly-awaited mini-series. And Franken has also relied on the DSCC, which has become increasingly involved in the race and is airing ads tying Coleman to the Bush Administration - the Democrat's most predictable strategy this election year.

We have long known that this election would be defined over which campaign manages to put the spotlight on his opponent: Democrats want to make this a referendum on Coleman's party label, and Republicans want to make it into a referendum on Franken's past. As Democrats have made progress over recent months, the comfortable lead Coleman posted throughout the summer has melted. SUSA (which had found Coleman up outside the MoE since March) now has a 1% race, and Minnesota Public Radio recently found Franken ahead by as much. It's no surprise, then, that Coleman just unleashed his harshest negative ad yet, attacking Franken's temperament in an effort to put the spotlight back on the Democrat.

Lean Retention (1 R, 1 D)

9. Mississippi (Incumbent: Roger Wicker; Last Ranking: 6)

Last updated September 23rd: This race has gotten increasingly nasty over the past few weeks, and the former roommates have quickly become bitter political rivals. Both campaigns are going after their opponent's shady ethics (for instance, Wicker is attacking Musgrove over the beef plant scandal) and both the DSCC and the NRSC are advertising in the state. As is expected in such a red state, Musgrove is trying to minimize his party affiliation by running a very conservative campaign and attacking Wicker for not being enough like McCain! But as I explained recently in a detailed analysis of the race's dynamics, this race is anything but routine. In fact, it is in total confusion.

For one, the contest is now once again subject to a legal challenge. The GOP-controlled state Election Commission took another controversial move by placing the Musgrove-Wicker Senate race at the very bottom of the ballot - after obscure races like local school boards - even though a state law that says federal elections have to be placed at the top of the ballot. A judge has issued a restraining order, blocking the state from printing ballots until the issue is resolved. Will the ballot stand? If so, will it hurt Democrats by burying a race, boosting the incumbent reflex and lowering black participation in this election? Or will it backfire on Republicans by depriving them of the white electorate's reflex to vote GOP in federal races and by preventing Wicker from riding McCain's coattails?

There are other questions as well: How much will Obama's presence on the ballot boost black turnout? How much will it boost white turnout? How will the fact that the two candidates' party affiliation will not be on the ballot affect the race? Will it be more of a boost for Musgrove to avoid his party label in this deeply red state or more of a problem if African-Americans voters skip this contest, not realizing that he is a Democrat?

For now, one question mark has been answered in Wicker's favor: There was talk of Obama investing some resources in the state, which would have been a big boost for Musgrove, but that did not work out. Another advantage for Wicker is that he has the time to strengthen his incumbency status and introduce himself to voters. As Gustav suspended campaigning and allowed incumbents to shine, Sen. Wicker touted his role in preparing for Gustav. "Almost everything that we have been able to do from the federal level [since 2005] has my fingerprints on it," he told the press. And Wicker appears to be gaining a slight advantage. Rasmussen has found Wicker jumping to a 9% lead, and Research 2000 finds him ahead by 5%.

10. Louisiana (Incumbent: Mary Landrieu)

Last updated September 23rd: Much like Mississippi's Wicker, Mary Landrieu stands to benefit from the added exposure for incumbents that came with Gustav and she is already running an ad touting her work on damage prevention. However, she also could lose more from the demobilization of New Orleans. That city is essential to statewide Democratic victories in this state, will residents be thinking about the election in the coming week and can they be organized?

Gustav aside, Landrieu has enjoyed a strong summer. Her campaign has relentlessly and effectively pounced on Kennedy, using his party switch to blast him as a "confused" and flip-flopping politician in a series of hard-hitting ads. And in a clear sign that Louisiana's politics tilt to the right, the Landrieu campaign mocked Kennedy for supporting "liberal John Kerry" in 2004. These efforts are aimed at cutting Kennedy's support among conservatives, feed resentment among Democratic voters and make him look unprincipled to independents - that was, after all, one of the central claims of Kennedy's campaign. As a result, Kennedy has been forced on the defensive and Landrieu has taken a comfortable lead in the most recent poll.

11. Georgia (Incumbent: Chambliss; Last ranking: 17)

Last updated on October 12th: Who knew that Saxby Chambliss was this vulnerable? Late late spring, there were many other candidates to join the group of highly competitive Senate contests: Maine, Texas, Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Idaho… Democrats were too busy figuring out what was happening in a divisive primary in Georgia to think ahead to the general election. But some polls showed potential immediately after Jim Martin’s nomination - and that as before the financial crisis undercut Chambliss’s defenses along with those of Republican candidates nationwide. Chambliss retains an edge, but polls have shown that the race has dramatically closed to the low single digits.

Yet, the DSCC is not running ads on Martin's behalf. That is certainly understandable (the DSCC is running ads in 9 states…), but unless the Democratic wind is really strong it could mean that Martin is unable to take full advantage of his opening. Martin’s success might very well depend on Obama’s coattails and on whether the Illinois Senator increases the share of the black vote in the state. Early voting indicators are very strong for Democrats, but Martin would have been in a far stronger position had Obama not pulled out of the state in mid-September.

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

Last updated on October 12th: We have known that Mitch McConnell is highly vulnerable since polls released in the fall of 2007 showed him barely beating a number of Democrats. Yet, many top-tier Democrats passed on the race and Bruce Lunsford simply did not seem a strong enough candidate to make it this tight (nor would he be a reliable enough Democrat for progressives to get excited over). But the race has been highly engaged for months, with both candidates running vicious ads (Lunsford has been particularly smart by contrasting McCain’s reformist image to McConnell’s insider status).

Over the past few weeks, polls have shown the gap has closed, with Mason Dixon going as far as showing a tie; most other pollsters show McConnell leading in single digits. The DSCC has just gone up on air against McConnell, further proof that Democrats are determined to bring down the Senate’s Republican leader. In the context of the financial crisis, it might no longer matter how good or bad a candidate is as long as he has a “D” next to his name; as the Senate Minority Leader, McConnell is that much more likely to suffer from voter anger about Washington and about Republicans.
Likely retention (9 R, 2 D)

13. Maine (Incumbent: Susan Collins)

Last updated September 23rd: This is not a race that is making much noise - and that's bad for Democrats considering they have been failing to put in the competitive category. The DSCC has not canceled its $5 million reservation on state airwaves, but it's already mid-September and there is still no sign of Democratic willingness to go after Susan Collins. Tom Allen's ads have been positive biographical spots, but that will not get the job done against a popular incumbent. If they are not given a convincing reason to throw Collins out, Maine voters are likely to stick with the incumbent, and it is really not surprising that Allen continues to trail widely in the most recent polling - 17% and 19% in the latest Rasmussen and Research 2000 surveys.

14. Idaho (Open)

Last updated on September 23rd: Lieutenant Governor Jim Risch is performing as he has to perform to win the election - but not enough to discourage Democrats. Two summer polls have Risch's lead hovering at the double-digit mark, but stuck way under 50%. That has some Democrats hoping and the DSCC is reportedly starting to take a look at this race. A third poll released this week has Risch leading by 28%, though it does include independent and conservative candidate Rex Rammell.

Indeed, the GOP is reportedly worried Rammell might siphon votes away from Risch. Rep. Sali is said to have contacted Rammell and two other conservative candidates, urging them to drop out of the race. But the GOP's attempt to kick Rammell off the ballot failed in early September, as the state Supreme Court upheld Rammell's petition. Now, LaRocco is trying his best to raise Rammell's profile. While Risch continues to refuse to debate, LaRocco and Rammell held a debate - an opportunity for both to make this as much of a three-way race as possible. Summer polls are finding Rammell getting only in the mid-single digits.

15. New Jersey (Incumbent: Frank Lautenberg)

Last updated on September 23rd: As is usual in New Jersey, polls are all over the place, from an 18% lead for Lautenberg to a 1% lead for Zimmer (in a Club for Growth poll). Most surveys are finding the Democratic incumbent hovering around the 10% mark. In New Jersey's peculiar political universe, for a Democrat to lead by 10% in September is as large a lead as he can hope for. But the state GOP has got to believe that they will at some point break their New Jersey curse.

16. Oklahoma (Incumbent: Jim Inhofe)

Last updated September 23rd: Democrats have been eying this race for a while, but the only sign that it might be competitive is an internal DSCC poll that finds Inhofe up by 9%. The other two surveys from the state (Sooner and SUSA) find Inhofe crushing his challenger by more than 20%. At the very least, Inhofe is taking Andrew Rice seriously to air an attack ad portraying Rice as too liberal for Oklahoma; but in a red state like this one, that l-word is a tough accusation to recover from, and Rice would need the DSCC's help to have a chance. That does not look like it will be happening.

17. Texas (Incumbent: John Cornyn)

Last updated September 23rd: In May, a number of polls showed Senator Cornyn unexpectedly weak against state Senator Rick Noriega but the incumbent's number have recovered since then. That the DSCC is making no move to help Noriega is telling.

18. Kansas (Incumbent: Roberts)

Last updated September 23rd: A series of polls in May and June that found Republican incumbent Pat Roberts up by smaller margins than he ought to have been against former Democratic Rep. Jim Slattery. But polls since then have found him regaining a solid lead and, just the DSCC has been as silent about this race as it has been about Texas.

19. Nebraska (Open)

Last updated in July: Considering this race keeps falling down the rankings, it is hard to believe that Nebraska was once ranked fourth. Chuck Hagel's retirement created a short-lived opportunity for Democrats. Former Republican Governor Johanns soon jumped in the race and Democrats Bob Kerrey and Mike Fahey announced they would not run. Democrats nominated Scott Kleeb, a promising candidate who did surprisingly well in NE-03 in 2006. Yet, Nebraska remains very Republican and Johanns is as strong a candidate as the GOP could have run. Polls confirm that it will take a miracle for Kleeb to move to Washington.

20. South Dakota (Incumbent: Tim Johnson; Last Ranking: 20)

21. South Carolina (Incumbent: Graham)

21. Tennessee (Incumbent: Alexander)

22. Iowa (Incumbent: Harkin)

23. Alabama (Incumbent: Sessions)

24. Michigan (Incumbent: Levin)

25. Montana (Incumbent: Baucus)

At the beginning of the cycle, some Republicans were murmuring that Max Baucus would be a top target. That they managed to nominate an 85-year perennial candidate and former Democrat and former Green Party member Bob Kelleher just about sank any chances they had to make this race competitive.

26. Delaware (Incumbent: Biden)

Joe Biden's name will appear twice on the Delaware ballot - in the presidential race and in the senatorial one. Biden is extremely unlikely to lose the latter, as his opponent is a little-known and weakly-funded Republican activist. Of course, the GOP would love to tie Biden up to Delaware and make the Senate race competitive enough to force him to campaign there rather than in presidential battleground states, but they should have thought about that sooner (and frankly, if there was any risk of that happening, the Obama campaign would have insisted that he give up his Senate seat). If Biden wins both elections and moves to the Naval Observatory, outgoing Governor Ruth will appoint his successor before leaving office in January. That successor would have to run for a full term in a special election in November 2010.

28. Massachusetts (Incumbent: Kerry)

29. Illinois (Incumbent: Durbin)

30. Wyoming (Incumbent: Barrasso)

31. West Virginia (Incumbent: Rockefeller)

32. Mississippi (Incumbent: Cochran)

33. Rhode Island (Incumbent: Reed)

34. Wyoming (Incumbent: Enzi)

35. Arkansas (Incumbent: Pryor)


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