Sunday, November 2, 2008

October 25th ratings

Outlook: Democratic pick-up a net 6-11 Senate seats.

History of Campaign Diaries's Senate rankings:

Safe Takeover (1 Republican seat, 0 Democratic seat)
1. Virginia (Open seat)

Last updated on October 25th: Barack Obama is leading the state’s presidential race by double-digits in the latest polls, so what is the chance that Mark Warner stumbles? Jim Gilmore’s campaign has been a catastrophe from the start, and the state GOP will regret having barred Tom Davis’s path to the nomination.

Likely Takeover (2 Republican seats, 0 Democratic seat)

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.

3. Colorado (Open)

Last updated on October 25th: In what has been one of the most puzzling races of this cycle, nothing that either candidate did was moving poll numbers. Mark Udall remained consistently ahead by single-digits for more than a year despite expectations that he would be able to rapidly pull away. Even the revelations about Bob Schaffer’s connection to Jack Abramoff and the abortion and sweat-shop labor controversies that surrounded his trip to the Mariana Islands failed to significantly help Udall. Similarly, the GOP thought they were making progress when the public mood turned in favor of oil drilling; Republicans believed that would hurt Udall, who is a staunch conservationist, and even Udall must have thought the same thing since he abruptly reversed his stance on drilling in the late summer. Yet, Udall’s defensive summer position made no dent in his modest polling lead.

Over the past month, however, the race appears to have decisively broken in Udall’s favor. The economic crisis has hurt Republicans across the country, and nowhere more so than in open seats. In a supreme sign of confidence, the DSCC announced this week that it was pulling out of the state, no longer believing that Udall needed their help. The NRSC did the same yesterday, pulling its ads out and shifting the resources it had devoted to helping Schaffer to other more salvageable seats. While Colorado might not be as much of a lock as New Mexico and Virginia, it has become highly unlikely that Schaffer can pull off an upset.

Lean Takeover (3 R, 0 D)

4. 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.

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.

6. Oregon (Incumbent: Gordon Smith)

Last updated on October 25th: Sen. Gordon Smith has been aware that he is vulnerable since the first days of the cycle and has done his best to prepare, but the environment is simply too toxic for Republicans - particularly in a blue state like Oregon. All polls suggest that Obama will crush McCain in the state, significantly outperforming Al Gore and John Kerry, a clear sign that Oregon’s independent voters are behaving like Democrats. The DSCC has been hammering Gordon Smith for months for his proximity to George Bush and for his party label, and it is remarkable that all of Smith’s ads touting his bipartisanship (some of which were quite effective) have not protected him. As if that was not enough, the Democratic surge of the past six weeks has perhaps damaged no Republican as much as Gordon Smith.

Merkley has now inched ahead in the latest polls and, while Merkley’s advantage remains narrow, Smith is stuck in the low 40s - very dangerous territory for an incumbent. That Merkley looks to be slightly ahead now is particularly significant because… Election Day is happening right now in Oregon. All voting is conducted via mail in Oregon, and the ballots arrived at voters’ home this week; these ballots have to be returned (not postmarked, returned) by November 4th, which means that most of the electorate will have voted by the middle of the next week. (As of Thursday, the ballots of 13% of registered voters had already arrived, with many more probably on the way.) All of this means that Smith has far less time than other endangered Republicans to try and turn the tide, and he will not benefit from any last-minute GOP surge.

All of this said, Smith is by no means out of the game, and this rating change is merely meant to reflect that Merkley now has a slight advantage. In particular, this is a race in which the GOP’s argument against unified government could resonate, and the liberal-leaning Oregonian endorsed Smith last week, warning against the possibility of a 60-seat Democratic Senate. That said, Smith is here plagued by the same problem we talked about above: Republicans have not yet started to make fear of a unified government the center of their congressional campaign, and even if they do that in the coming days, it might be too late in Oregon where many voters will have already cast their ballot.

Toss-up (3 R, 0 D)

7. 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.

8. 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.

9. Mississippi (Incumbent: Roger Wicker)

Last updated October 25th: Republicans felt much better about this state in the first half of September. Sarah Palin’s selection had invigorated the conservative base, and the post-convention GOP surge looked like it would be to put away races in very Republican areas. But things have shifted quite dramatically since my last rankings, and Ronnie Musgrove has gained as the conversation has turned to the economy. Research 2000 and Rasmussen have both showed him closing the gap Sen. Wicker had opened during the summer.

But there is another factor that has led me to move this race to a more competitive category: We have always known that Musgrove’s fortunes were tied to the level of black turnout, as race is the best predictor of the vote in Mississippi (Kerry got 14% of the white vote in 2004). Would Barack Obama’s presence at the top of the ticket boost African-American turnout? While we don’t have a response to that question in Mississippi, the early voting data that is being reported out of North Carolina and Georgia suggest that African-Americans are very motivated and that they might very well make up a far greater proportion of the electorate as they did in 2004. If that pattern holds in Mississippi, it could push Musgrove over the top.

This campaign has been particularly vicious, with both sides and the national committees exchanging brutal spots, with Democrats going after Wicker on economic issues (his votes against the minimum wage, for instance) and the GOP attacking Musgrove’s gubernatorial record. The Republican attacks have been more personal, as a subtext of the anti-Musgrove campaign has been the Democrat’s divorce as well as his efforts to change the Confederate-inspired state flag while he was governor; the GOP is also airing a gay-baiting ad tying Musgrove to the “homosexual agenda.”

Lean Retention (2 R, 1 D)
10. Georgia (Incumbent: Chambliss; Last ranking: 17)

Last updated on October 25th: 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 was before the financial crisis undercut Chambliss’s defenses along with those of Republican candidates nationwide. Over the past few weeks, polls have shown that the race has dramatically closed to the low single digits and the stunningly high African-American turnout among early voters gives Martin a clear path to victory.

There is one bright spot for Chambliss, however: A blue wave would not only have to carry Jim Martin ahead of Saxby Chambliss for him to score a victory on November 4th, it would also have to get him across 50%. If neither candidate crosses that threshold (and that is very much possible given the candidacy of Libertarian candidate Allen Buckley), a runoff will be held on December 2nd. Such a runoff would seem to favor Sen. Chambliss. For one, Barack Obama would no longer be at the top of the ticket, which would make a boost in black turnout unlikely (African-Americans make up 35,4% of early voters for now, far higher than in 2004). Second, voters might not be looking to punish Republicans anymore by December 2nd, especially if Obama wins the presidency and if Democrats have already secured a big Senate majority. That would make it far easier for the GOP to argue that keeping Chambliss is necessary to not give Democrats too large a majority.

11. 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.

12. 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.

Likely retention (4 R, 1 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. 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.

15. 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.

16. 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.

17. 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.


18. Texas (Incumbent: John Cornyn)

Last updated October 25th: Late spring, Sen. Cornyn looked endangered, as a string of polls showed him barely ahead of Democratic challenger Rick Noriega, a state Senator who might not have been a top-tier candidate but was certainly credible enough to exploit Cornyn’s vulnerabilities. Unfortunately for Democrats, Noriega never caught fire, and Cornyn’s poll numbers - while not as stellar as they could be - put him safely ahead. The main factor that explains why Texas did not become more competitive while North Carolina, Kentucky and Georgia have joined the top-tier is money: It takes a lot of it to wage a campaign in the Lone Star State because of the high number of media markets one has to cover - many of which are very expensive. Noriega’s fundraising was not strong enough to get around that problem, and this also prevented the DSCC from moving in.

19. Kansas (Incumbent: Roberts)

Last updated October 25th: Democrats had some hope that former Rep. Slattery could make this a race, and some summer polls showing Republican Sen. Roberts under 50% gave them hope; even the Kansas press started noticing that there was a Senate race worth covering. But a wave of advertisement has allowed Roberts to regain his footing, despite a memorable ad by Slattery, and the incumbent is now leading by huge margins in the latest polls.

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

Last updated October 25th: The race was kept in the potentially competitive category based on the possibility that Sen. Johnson’s health condition worsened and gave an opening to his Republican opponent, but Johnson has managed to coast his way to the election remarkably smoothly. South Dakota was once considered as one of the most competitive races of the cycle, but there has been nothing to see ever since Johnson announced he would run for re-election.

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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