Friday, April 13, 2007

Senate elections 2008: who's vulnerable?

Next year there are 33 more Senate seats up for reëlection: 21 Republicans, 12 Democrats. The fact that the Democrats are defending fewer seats than the Republicans are is a big advantage for them, but there are other things going for the Democrats, as well. The Iraq occupation is dragging down politicians who have publicly and firmly stood by President Bush in the past, and the general malaise that's settled in around Republicans about their current president and their 2008 candidates for president will only serve to sap energy from their candidates for other offices.

In general, it looks like a good year for Democrats. All 12 Democratic senators have announced they're seeking reëlection, so all the Democrats will have the benefit of incumbency. For the Republicans, only one has announced his retirement, but all sitting Republican senators haven't yet declared an intention to run again, so it's harder to say how much that will affect the Republican races this year.

I'm going to present analysis of the races that either are interesting right now or could get interesting later on.

Maine (R) Senator Susan Collins said she believed in self-imposed term limits when she ran for the Senate in 1996, promising not to serve more than two terms. However, Senator Collins has since discovered the value of experience, and has decided not to deprive her constituents of that benefit, and is breaking her two-term pledge, effectively giving the finger to all those who believed in term limits back in 1996. Collins is facing a challenge from Democratic Representative Tom Allen, who will no doubt remind voters of Collins' broken promise, as well of her unwavering support for George W. Bush. Can Collins hold onto her moderate image in very blue Maine? Or will her own voting record sink her?

New Hampshire (R) Senator John Sununu's family has been friends of the Bush family for years. This helped Sununu when he ran against conservative Republican Senator Bob Smith in the 2002 Republican primary, winning the nomination and later winning a close election against Democratic Governor Jeanne Shaheen. While Shaheen could probably have done well in a rematch, word is that she isn't running. Young Turk (French-Canadian, actually) Steve Marchand is stepping up to the plate, and is a real threat to Sununu, who has already been literally running away from reporters asking him about his record voting for Bush's 2003 attack on Iraq. This looks like a pretty good opportunity for the Democrats, particularly in light of the fact that both houses of New Hampshire's state legislature flipped from solidly Republican to solidly Democratic in last year's elections. New Hampshire, long the most Republican state in New England, is rapidly trending Democratic. That's bad news for Sununu.

New Jersey (D) New Jerseyans hate their politicians, which is never helpful for any incumbent, and Senator Frank Lautenburg's numbers haven't been stellar since he returned to the Senate in 2002. However, with no really strong Republican candidates emerging, Lautenburg looks to be relatively safe in this very Democratic state—but New Jersey's known for its surprises. So don't be surprised if you're surprised. Or something like that.

Virginia (R) Virginia Senator John Warner hasn't said he's retiring, but there's some doubt out there that he's seeking another term next year. Some insiders think that Warner's holding off on announcing his retirement for as long as possible, as part of a strategy to discourage many Republican challengers for his seat, making it easier for Republican Representative Tom Davis to step up to the plate. Warner will be 70 in 2008, which wouldn't make him the oldest senator, but he'd be up there. Some feel that a strong Democratic challenger would scare Warner off—particularly if former Democratic Governor Mark Warner (no relation) stepped in. Word is that Mark Warner might be staying away from the Senate race because he's waiting to see if he can't land a spot as someone's running mate next year, or perhaps he might run for governor again in 2009. Rumors of ousted Senator George Allen running for the Senate again feed the notion that John Warner might be retiring, so if he retires, the question is: what other Democrats might run? There's the rub. That could prove to be one of the most interesting variables this year.

North Carolina (R) Senator Elizabeth Dole has put to bed the rumors that she might retire due to health concerns. Dole is seeking a second term. Her approval numbers are pretty low, though, indicating that some Democrat could step in and knock her out—but who? Some have suggested popular Governor Mike Easley, but Easley has said he's not interested. Hopefully someone will step up; so far, there hasn't been much in the way of Democratic challengers identified in North Carolina.

Alabama (R) Senator Jeff Sessions should have an easy race for reëlection, but that might change if the wildly popular (and populist) Alabama Secretary of Agriculture Ron Sparks steps in. There's no guarantee he'll do it, but if Sparks challenges Sessions, we could be looking at one hell of an upset. Conventional wisdom has it that Sparks is more likely to run for governor, but if he gets into the Senate race, then all bets are off.

Minnesota (R) Senator Norm Coleman managed to slip into this seat after Senator Paul Wellstone died while campaigning just over a week before the election. Democrats in Minnesota and elsewhere are bitter over Coleman's exploitation of Wellstone's untimely death to win the election and are said to be energized in this strongly Democratic state. Coleman's approval has been pretty limp, largely due to Coleman's strong support for Bush administration policies, so the terrain is ripe for a Democrat to come along and pick him off. The only declared candidate thus far has been comedian Al Franken, but it's likely that others will join the fray before long, since Franken isn't viewed as the strongest possible candidate, though he's been well received at his campaign stops around Minnesota.

Louisiana (D) Senator Mary Landrieu has been viewed as the most vulnerable Senate Democrat for the 2008 cycle, but her numbers have been surprisingly good. Landrieu also lacks a strong Republican challenger, but it's hard to say if that will stay true. Representative Bobby Jindal is seeking the governor's job this year, and would only run for Senate if he loses. Of course, if he loses, he'll be tagged as a loser, which he'd have to overcome in a Senate bid, and Jindal could well lose the gubernatorial race if former Democratic Senator John Breaux manages to settle his residency requirements and run for the job. Landrieu looks as though she's going to be all right next year.

Texas (R) Senator John Cornyn, longtime Bush crony, is hurting because of his closeness to the president—but this is Texas, after all, so it can't hurt him that much—probably. State Representative Rick Noriega has been cited as a possibly tough Democratic challenger to Cornyn, but the odds still lean toward the Reds in this race. Still, if the Republicans have a weak enough presidential nominee, all bets are off in Texas...

Nebraska (R) If Senator Chuck Hagel breaks his two-year term-limit pledge and seeks a third term, he'll probably win reëlection. However, if his seat is open next year, the Democrats have a crack at it. A favorite is last year's political newcomer and near-miss for the Nebraska's Third Congressional District, farmer Scott Kleeb, who did much better than anyone expected. Former Lieutenant Governor Maxine Moul could also be a strong candidate, though even if the seat is open, the Republicans are favored here. But a Democratic switch is possible.

South Dakota (D) Senator Tim Johnson is rather popular, but his recent brain hemorrhage gave cause to think that he'd be stepping down. However, he's made a full recovery and is back in the Senate, and looks strong for reëlection. Conservative Republican Governor Mike Rounds is a possible challenger for his seat, but word is that Rounds is afraid of running against the popular Johnson, partly out of fear of appearing to be exploiting Johnson's health condition. Rounds hasn't made many noises about running for the seat, and Johnson's popularity remains firm, so while South Dakota is probably the best chance for a Republican pickup after Louisiana, it still doesn't look that great for them.

Colorado (R) Senator Wayne Allard is unusual for a Republican: he made a pledge not to run for more than two terms, and he's actually sticking to it. Allard is stepping down, leaving this seat open. Representative Mark Udall is the Democrats' candidate, hailing from a popular political family in the interior west. The Republicans don't have any strong candidates in this Democratic-trending state, so the early observers have Colorado as a likely Democratic pickup.

New Mexico (R) Senator Pete Domenici has been a New Mexico institution and no one saw him as vulnerable at all until this year, when his involvement with the U.S. Attorneys scandal came to light. This could bring Domenici down, or at least inspire him to retire early. Tom Udall, brother of Mark in Colorado, is running for this seat already, making it possible for the Democrats to pick this seat up.

Idaho (R) Senator Larry Craig is up for reëlection this year, but rumors that he's gay might hound him into retirement. Already a right winger has announced a primary challenge to Craig, and Democrat Larry LaRocco is pretty strong for an Idaho Democrat. LaRocco might be able to take advantage of the situation, but then, Idaho hasn't been much for electing Democrats lately, even when their Republican candidate is a stark-raving loon, as they proved last year when they elected Bill Sali over Democrat Larry Grant in the First Congressional District. With Grant seeking a rematch, LaRocco might enjoy a boost, maybe returning the Gem of the Mountains to the heady days of Senator Frank Church? It's possible, but I wouldn't hold my breath...

Oregon (R) Senator Gordon Smith was a moderate until he decided to support George W. Bush every step of the way. Now Smith is facing a right-wing primary challenge, courtesy of Club For Growth, plus the prospect of spirited Democratic Representative Pete DeFazio in the general election. Smith is a pretty vulnerable incumbent, and DeFazio is popular statewide. Considering how firmly Democratic Oregon has become (not voting for a Republican presidential candidate since 1984,) this is a very good place for a Democratic pickup.

I left a few states off the list because I don't think there will be strong challenges in them this year. They're still holding elections, though. Those states, vulnerability subject to change, are:

Democratic seats
Massachusetts—John Kerry
Rhode Island—Jack Reed
Delaware—Joe Biden
West Virginia—Robert Byrd
Michigan—Carl Levin
Iowa—Tom Harkin
Illinois—Dick Durbin
Arkansas—Mark Pryor
Montana—Max Baucus

Republican seats
South Carolina—Lindsey Graham
Georgia—Saxby Chambliss
Mississippi—Thad Cochran (some rumors of retirement...)
Tennessee—Lamar! Alexander
Kentucky—Mitch McConnell
Oklahoma—James Inhofe
Kansas—Pat Roberts
Wyoming—John Enzi
Alaska—Ted Stevens


At Friday, April 13, 2007 at 9:05:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You made a mistake regarding SD Sen. Tim Johnson. He has not recovered and is not back in the senate. According to his staff, Sen Johnson remains in an undisclosed facility. No one will say how long it will be before he is able to resume his duties.

At Friday, April 13, 2007 at 11:59:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Despite rumors to the contrary, Ron Sparks is not "widely popular." Aside from stickers from the AG Commissioner's office on all gas pumps in the state, most Alabamians do not even know who he is. Ironically, the only people who seem to think he has a chance at beating Senator Sessions are people who do not live in Alabama.

If analysts honestly believe Alabama's Senate race is going to be "interesting," I would advise looking for political entertainment elsewhere.

At Saturday, April 14, 2007 at 5:02:00 PM EDT, Blogger Kurt Kaletka said...

I'll admit that maybe "wildly" popular might be overstating my point a bit. I guess I mean that, as Alabama goes, he's pretty popular for a Democrat where a statewide office is concerned.

Various blogs have various opinions about Commissioner Sparks' viability. Legend or no, Sparks could pull it off. Jim Webb in Virginia and Jon Tester in Montana were considerable underdogs at this point in the 2006 races; Sparks could possibly knock off Sessions if:

1. He's adequately funded.
2. The Democratic presidential cnadidate is strong enough.
3. The Republican presidential candidate is weak enough.
4. The Iraqi civil war continues to drag on as messily as it has been lately.

All four points are quite possible for 2008. Even if all four come to pass, a Republican incumbent is still the safer bet this far out, but this could certainly change.


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