Thursday, November 02, 2006

Senate races: the final fourteen

Every so often in American politics there comes a tsunami of an election that sweeps the dominant party from power. 2006 certainly has all the markings of such a tsunami. This year there are close to 80 House seats that are considered to be in play, with the forty most vulnerable of those seats being held by Republicans, and the majority of the rest also held by Republicans. The president is campaigning in places like Georgia and Texas—typically Bush-friendly; not parts of the country where you’d expect him to go to defend incumbents from his party. Dick Cheney has made high-profile appearances in Nebraska, Idaho and Wyoming—again Republican-friendly territory that’s threatened by surging Democratic challengers in parts of the country that haven’t shown much love to a Democrat since William Jennings Bryan. Bush’s star power has faded, with many Northern Republicans wishing the commander in chief would stay away—quite a bit different from the way they felt about him two years ago, when the president was still the Republican Party’s rock star. The man who, after winning a second term in 2004, announced, “I have political capital and I intend to spend it” seems to be stumping for Republicans with a maxed-out credit card. Bush spent his political capital—deficit spending, as usual.

The question surrounding Democratic gains in the House is less and less a question of if and more and more a question of how much. Republicans are hopefully announcing that we’re looking at 12 seats to flip Democratic, causing the House to stay Republican. The more cautious optimists are predicting closer to 20, surpassing the 15 seats needed for the Democrats to take control. But there are bolder pundits who call for an excess of 30 to flip Democratic. Heartening to this Democrat is the fact that the indominatable Charlie Cook is predicting 25-35 seats, possibly 40, as a net gain for the Democrats. Thanks to gerrymandering and a cash advantage, Republicans can’t lose anything approaching the 53 seats the Democrats lost during the Republican Revolution of 1994.

Most of the Republican losses are happening in the Northeast. The Democrats are poised to take as many as five House seats in New York, three or four in Pennsylvania, maybe four or five in Ohio, three in Indiana, two or three in Connecticut, maybe one in New Hampshire, one in New Jersey… that’s quite a lot. But the Democrats also stand to take as many as ten seats in the South, as many as ten in the Midwest, and maybe a couple in California. But what’s interesting is that the Interior West, the land between California and the Midwest, is seeing Democratic trends, and Democrats picking up seats all over, and Republicans picking up none. Apart from a long-coveted seat in New Mexico that the Democrats look poised to take, there’s a couple in Arizona they could snap up, up to three in Colorado, maybe two in Nevada, possibly Wyoming’s sole House seat, and one in Idaho, a state where Democrats are about as common as giraffes. Idaho also might elect a Democratic governor this year, just like Montana did in 2004, and Arizona, New Mexico and Wyoming did in 2002 (as well as Kansas and Oklahoma.) Northeasterner are starting to see that even if you have a moderate like Lincoln Chafee hailing from your state, he’s still going to vote for Trent Lott as Majority Leader if he gets to keep his job.

While the Democratic takeover of the House is fairly likely (I tend to side with Charlie Cook and say it’ll be a mere twenty seats if the Democrats have a bad night,) the takeover of the Senate is up in the air. There are fourteen Senate seats worth mentioning this year, either for what’s going on in those states or for what’s not going on in those states. I’ll start out by mentioning Florida, Minnesota, Nebraska and Washington: four states with Democratic incumbents that were all supposed to be easy pickings for the Republicans this year, but saw no strong Republican challengers stepping up. Three of those states see the Democratic incumbent as safe as ever, with Minnesota’s open seat securely in the hands of Hennepin County DA Amy Klobuchar, who has humiliated Republican Representative Mark Kennedy, who was supposed to be the Republicans’ rising star this year, but turned out to be more of a white dwarf. Or a nova. Or a black hole. Or… well, you get the idea. The other ten seats are more interesting, though. I’ll list them in no particular order.

Pennsylvania’s Senator Rick Santorum is going down this year. The man who has campaigned on such salient issues as tax cuts, prayer in schools and men having sex with dogs is finally on the brink of seeing a defeat as humiliating as his own record. The commonwealth’s Treasurer, Bob Casey Junior, son of a former governor, has a commanding lead over Santorum. Casey is a moderate Democrat whose politics of economic populism are evocative of his father’s—though his pro-life outlook is far less pronounced. Democratic pickup.

Ohio has come to see recent movement in favor of Democrat Sherrod Brown. Brown, currently a House member, is thumping one-term Senator Mike DeWine in the polls, and is expected to secure this Senate seat in a state that’s seen an epic meltdown of its own Republican Party. Scandals involving Governor Bob Taft, Representative Bob Ney, plus Tom Noe and Secretary of State Ken Blackwell (who’s the Republicans’ loser of a candidate for governor this year) have only helped to speed the demise of the Buckeye State’s entrenched Republican majority. Democratic pickup.

Rhode Islanders are finally deciding that it’s time to toss Lincoln Chafee out. Chafee is the most liberal Republican in Congress, putting him to the political left of about 80% of Senate Democrats. However, it’s Chafee’s continued membership in the Republican Party that’s hurting him. There’s no reason why Rhode Islanders should support a man who votes with the Republicans, who are a regional party anymore, and that region is the South. Chafee should have quit the party and joined the Democrats when he had the chance, back in 2003. Democratic pickup.

Montana’s Senate race has been watched very closely this year. State Senator Jon Tester is running very strongly against incumbent Senator Conrad Burns. Tester has consistently led in the polls, though lately those polls have been tightening, putting Tester and Burns essentially neck and neck. Conventional wisdom a few weeks ago said that Tester had this one in the bag, but the recent dumping of campaign funds into Montana by the national party has breathed new life into the campaign of Conrad Burns, who was Jack Abramoff’s best friend in the Senate. It’s too close to call, but the Democrats have a shot.

Virginia has been a hard race to keep track of. Ronald Reagan’s former Navy Secretary, Jim Webb, is the Democrat challenging one-term incumbent Republican George Allen for his seat. Allen, widely discussed as a 2008 presidential contender, is now trailing Webb slightly in the polls. Webb has turned out to be a decent candidate, but Allen’s real enemy has been his mouth, which is regularly filled with his own imported cowboy boots. Allen has come across as a racist buffoon and a stupid thug, which is true. His campaign has even tried to make hay out of a salacious passage from a novel that Webb wrote with homo-erotic overtones—never mind that the novel, “Something to Die For,” has not only been praised as one of the best wartime novels yet written, but has been on the US Marine Corps’ recommended reading list for years. Webb has suffered from reports of articles he wrote in the 1970s about why he felt women had no business being in the military, which has eliminated the gender gap in this election, which would normally favor the Democrat. We could well see Virginia flip Democratic, but it all depends on whose ground operation gets more voters to the polls. Even if Webb doesn’t manage to win this race, his campaign has already effectively derailed Allen’s presidential ambitions, so that’s some consolation.

Missouri is always close, and this year is no exception. Milquetoast Republican Jim Talent is facing a spirited challenge from Democrat Claire McCaskill. McCaskill and Talent had long been neck-and-neck in the polls, but she’s pulled ahead recently, many crediting this leap forward to Michael J. Fox’s famous campaign commercial for her in which Mr. Fox appears after an overdose of medication for Parkinson’s disease. The sympathy this is generating, particularly with Talent’s opposition to stem cells, has been good for McCaskill. Rush Limbaugh’s recent mocking of Mr. Fox has helped McCaskill, as well. Michael J. Fox has also appeared in Virginia to help out Jim Webb with a version of this TV commercial as well as with some personal appearances, but the Fox issue seems to be more helpful to McCaskill. I’d say the Democrats have a decent shot at a pickup this year in Missouri, but you’ll be biting your nails until dawn before you get any results.

Tennessee looked like a good Democratic pickup, but Republican Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker’s race-baiting ads attacking Democratic Representative Harold Ford seem to be paying off. The conservative Ford, once a contender for Nancy Pelosi’s job, could pull it off, but polls over the last week have made this seem less likely. It’s still a possible Democratic pickup in the retiring Bill Frist’s Senate seat, but the Republicans have a better shot here, frankly.

Arizona could be the surprise of the season. Democrat Jim Pederson has spent most of the race trailing Republican Senator Jon Kyl, but lately he’s been catching up. A deal Kyl made with Reverend James Dobson of Focus On The Family to insert an anti-online gambling provision into a port security bill has angered the online gambling industry, which has taken an interest by pouring money and manpower into the race to help out Pederson. Arizona is the race that the Democrats aren’t counting on that could push them across the finish line to take the six seats they need to take control of the Senate. Right now, though, I’d say it’s safer to bet that Arizona is heading toward Republican retention—but I wouldn’t bet all my chips on it.

Connecticut has been infuriating and exhilarating and confusing. After losing the Democratic primary to Ned Lamont on August 8, Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman decided to run as an independent who’d caucus with the Democrats if he won. The problem is that Lieberman is not only defying the wishes of his own party’s voters, but is seeking to drive Republicans to the polls on November 7 to boost his numbers. More Republicans voting will mean better chances for the three House Republicans who are seeking reelection this year—Nancy Johnson, Christopher Shays and Rob Simmons. As it looks, Simmons currently has a better chance of keeping his job than Johnson and Shays, but it shouldn’t be this difficult, and wouldn’t be, if Lieberman listened to the wishes of his own party. Another curious development is that Alan Schlesinger, the Republican candidate, has turned out to be pretty strong, and is drawing a number of Republicans to his side, thus eating into Lieberman’s lead. Though polls tend to show Lieberman with a lead of anywhere from six to ten points, it’s all up in the air at this point. I do believe that the Senate Democratic leadership wouldn’t take away Lieberman’s seniority if he wins; they’re pragmatists, and understand that with the Senate so closely divided, they’d be crazy to turn Lieberman away. So I’ll call this a Democratic retention, but I wouldn’t say so so enthusiastically if Lieberman wins.

Maryland has been a source of anxiety for Democrats. Democratic Representative Ben Cardin is facing a challenge from Republican Lieutenant Governor Michael Steele to replace retiring Senator Paul Sarbanes. Cardin is not a firebrand, but Steele kind of is. Steele has also taken great pains to draw attention away from the fact that he’s a Republican, hoping to convince people that he’s worth voting for on independent grounds, even though he advocates against stem cell research, against abortion rights, for high-end tax cuts, and gave a passionate speech celebrating George W. Bush at the 2004 Republican convention. Steele is also black, and his race has become an issue. In the primary, Ben Cardin beat NAACP Chairman Kweisi Mfume, causing some prominent black Maryland Democrats to come forward and declare that they deserve to be heard, that they deserve to have one of their own in office, that they’d be better served by… a Republican. They’re declaring their support for Michael Steele based not on the content of his character but on the color of his skin, and Steele is more than happy to have the support of these color-blindered race warriors, who include Kweisi Mfume’s own son. (Kweisi Mfume has endorsed Cardin in the Senate race.) Though this is an unnecessary circus, I call it a Democratic retention. But look out—Steele might be positioning him for a run in 2010, when Senator Barbara Mikulski is expected to retire.

New Jersey, strongly Democratic, has been curiously uncertain on whether to support Democratic Senator Bob Menendez. Menendez was a U.S. Representative until Senator Jon Corzine ran for governor and won, and Corzine appointed Menendez to finish the last year of his term. Menendez has proven to be a fairly weak candidate, slipping against Tom Kean Junior, whose greatest political accomplishment has been to be the son of the popular governor, Tom Kean Senior. The polls have been all over the place, with Menendez trailing often enough. Lately, though, we’ve seen Menendez surge, putting Democrats at east. Kean worked hard and early to smear Menendez as a corrupt machine politician, but corruption watchers were no doubt stunned by revelations that Kean, while in the state senate, took large campaign contributions from pharmaceutical companies the same day he voted to give them a large break on their state taxes. It’s bad enough that he did it at all, but on the same day? That’s just sloppy workmanship. New Jersey looks like it will remain in the Democratic column.

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