CT-Sen: Dodd at risk in AIG controversy

We all know that Connecticut has become an unexpected early battleground in the 2010 cycle, and Republicans are touting Simmons as a strong challenger to the vulnerable Chris Dodd.  

The longtime Senator has had a lot of problems over the past few months, from his seat on Banking to the mortgage controversy. But it now looks like he is at risk of being hit further by AIG. And this is happening very unfairly: people who are actually to blame – especially Timothy Geithner – is unfairly throwing the blame on Dodd!

The controversy stems from a new NYT article:

The administration official said the Treasury Department did its own legal analysis and concluded that those contracts could not be broken. The official noted that even a provision recently pushed through Congress by Senator Christopher J. Dodd, a Connecticut Democrat, had an exemption for such bonus agreements already in place.

Campaign Diaries explains why this is outrageous:

In February, Chris Dodd had introduced an amendment to the stimulus bill that would have imposed retroactive bonus caps on companies receiving bailout money – meaning that bonuses agreed to before February 11th would also fall under the legislation’s scope. As numerous news stories attest to, Geithner and Larry Summers both called Dodd, urging him to drop retroactivity. Dodd nonetheless pushed through the amendment (SA 354 to H.R.1) but it was then thrown out during the conference committee. (Jane Hamsher provides a clear and detailed documentation of this sequence of events.) …

[Now, in that NYT story,] a Treasury official is telling the media that there is no way to stop the AIG bonuses because the stimulus bill does not make restrictions radioactive. The official claims that Dodd is responsible for the provision’s ineffectiveness, but, as I explained above, it is Dodd who was trying to introduce radioactivity in the bill and the Treasury (via Geithner) who beat back his efforts to do so! In short: Geithner is deflecting his responsibility on one of the most endangered Democratic Senators of the 2010 cycle.

I know there is a lot of disagreement as to whether Dodd is actually vulnerable, whether Simmons could possibly beat him, but we can’t deny that the Senator’s numbers are truly dismal and that this is the sort of scandal that can drive him further down a hole – especially in the current context.

We’re seeing people like Paterson or Corzine lose their popularity and become VERY endangered in 2009/2010 because of the fiscal crisis. Senators are generally more protected, but Dodd is definitely on the front lines since he is the Chairman of the Banking Committee. For Treasury to (unfairly) throw the blame on a vulnerable Democratic Senator could definitely be a tremendous help for the GOP and it could lead to a whole cycle of anti-Dodd stories in Connecticut, so Treasury’s actions are really incomprehensible to me.

Do you think Dodd will be able to deflect the blame on this one? Or will it feed the growing anti-Dodd frenzy?

It’s KILROY!!!

The count of more than 20,000 provisional ballots allowed Mary Jo Kilroy to seize a commanding lead of 2,311 votes – quite a turnaround since Kilroy trailed by 594 votes this morning alone!

And get this: Kilroy’s lead is superior to 0.5%, so there will be no mandatory recount!

This one is over, and Democrats are back at a net of +20.

It’s also a huge relief for Kilroy who lost another very very close race two years ago. And this is a blue enough district that Kilroy should be able to keep it in two years.  

Full Senate rankings: Democrats have their 9 targets

Over the past two months, the Senate playing field has gotten much clearer, and the gap between competitive seats and sleeper races has widened.

On the one hand, Democrats have solidified their position in the top-tier. They have managed to catapult North Carolina into the toss-up category, finally reaching their goal of putting 9 GOP-held seats in play. As a series of stunning developments in Alaska left the GOP pinning its hopes on an indicted incumbent, there now are five Republican-held seats that are leaning towards Democrats. That is not to say that Democrats can take 5 seats for granted (in fact, they appear to have sealed the deal in only two contests), but a testament to the fact that Senate Democrats remain poised to have a strong night on November 4th.

On the other hand, Democratic chances in longer-shot races are fading; two months from Election Day, there is no more time for a wait-and-see policy, big polling leads matter more than they did in the spring, and the GOP still has little reason to worry about Maine, Kentucky, Texas and Kansas. The Palin pick might have helped the GOP put some of these seats out of the Democrats’ reach by energizing the Republican base. Among the second-to-third contest, only in Georgia have Democrats improved their chances, as the DSCC is looking with great interest in Jim Martin’s direction.

That said, recent changes in the political atmospheres should give hope to Republicans that they can survive this cycle without a massive meltdown. In fact, Republicans’ potential to cut its losses has never been as high as it is today. This is due to factors at the micro level (Stevens being found not guilty in late October could suffice for the GOP to save his seat) but also to national trends. The GOP convention appears to have improved the Republican brand and boosted John McCain among independents. If McCain confirms these gains in the weeks ahead, convinces voters that he represents a new Republican Party and brings back GOP-leaning independents that had deserted the party in 2006, a number of Republican incumbents stand to benefit – most notably John Sununu, Norm Coleman and Gordon Smith.

Just how big the Democrats’ majority is in the 111th congress will thus depend on the dynamics of the presidential race, but also on a number of local questions: What verdict will Ted Stevens receive? Has Gordon Smith improved his image among independents enough to sustain a barrage of DSCC attacks, and how will his latest and nastiest attack against Jeff Merkley play out? Will Obama succeed in boosting black turnout in Mississippi and Georgia? Will Franken succeed in putting Coleman on the defensive by attacking his ethics?

Outlook: Democratic pick-up a net 4-9 Senate seats.

Prediction: Democrats pick-up a net 7 seats, for a 58-42 majority.

History of Campaign Diaries‘s Senate rankings:

Likely Takeover (2 Republican seats, 0 Democratic seats)

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

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 ranking: 2)

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 ranking: 3)

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)

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. Alaska (Incumbent: Ted Stevens; Last Ranking: 5 and toss-up)

This race has been a roller-coaster since my last rankings. Ted Stevens had long been under investigation for corruption, but the situation worsened on July 29th when the longtime Republican Senator was indicted. This set the GOP in panic mode, as a seat that just a year ago was ranked 14th in my very first Senate rankings was now looking dangerously imperiled. The first post-indictment polls (Rasmussen, Ivan Moore) found Stevens trailing by double-digits.

Stevens looked toast, and we were even questioning whether he would survive his primary. But on August 26th, Stevens easily dispatched minor Republican opponents (who nevertheless spent hundreds of thousands of their own money hitting the incumbent) and won his party’s nomination. The GOP was hoping to convince Stevens to drop out of the race for his name to be replaced for a cleaner Republican with a better chance of winning, but Stevens looks determined to press on, all but ensuring that the GOP is stuck with him on the ballot.

The seat seemed lost for the GOP at that point, but Stevens has managed to rebound in a series of early September polls, suggesting that the indictment shock is fading and that Stevens is making inroads with his emphasis on the clout he has in Washington. The race looks to be inching back towards a toss-up.

The fate of this race looks to be entirely out of the hands of both campaigns. It is the 12 men and women of the jury of a corruption trial that are likely to decide who wins the November election. Stevens convinced a DC judge to advance his trial, which will start towards the end of September. If Stevens is found guilty, the last-minute shock will replicate the July surprise and would all but guarantee a Begich victory. If he is found innocent, the boost he would receive would be likely to propel him to victory since he has closed the gap already. So what if the trial does not end before the election? Stevens’ defense lawyers are mounting a very vigorous defense, and this outcome is now very much a possibility. My sense is that it would then be difficult for Stevens to survive: the trial is in DC, meaning that Stevens cannot campaign in Alaska and news of his trial and of revelations will dominate the local press.

Toss-up (3 R, 0 D)

6. North Carolina (Incumbent: Elizabeth Dole; Last Ranking: 10 and lean retention)

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 as Dole’s numbers collapsed, Democrats are now seeing a clear opportunity to capture a race that was on few people’s radar screen at the beginning of the year.

The extent of Dole’s vulnerability became clear in May when Dole got a huge bounce from her primary victory and catapulted into a dead heat. Dole followed that up by launching a big ad blitz in late May-early June and that allowed her to regain a double-digit advantage. But the harm had been done: When an incumbent that is as well-known as Dole sees her numbers go up and down that dramatically based on the latest headlines and two weeks worth of ads, it is clear that her support is fundamentally weak.

The DSCC seized on Dole’s vulnerability in early August and launched a wave of advertisement painting Dole as ineffective and lacking clout with brutal spots (here are the first and second) that claimed she ranked 93rd in terms of effectiveness.   And when Dole aired an ad portraying Hagan as a yapping dog, the DSCC fired back by comparing Dole to a smoking car. It is surprising to see the DSCC this committed to this race, but there is surely much more to come. Remember that the Democratic committee reserved up to $6 million of air time for the fall.

The Democrats’ aggressive strategy has been successful beyond expectations, as the race is now a complete toss-up. Recent polls have found Hagan in the lead by as much as 5% and Dole in the lead by as much as 8%. If the race remains close the the end, the winner could very well be decided by the dynamics of the presidential race and how well Obama’s turnout operation functions. If Democrats manage to lift African-American’s share of the electorate from 19% to the 22-24% range, it could make the difference here.

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

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 Ranking: 9 and lean retention)

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)

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 Ranking: 7 and toss-up)

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 (9 R, 2 D)

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

The DSCC was closely monitoring the results of the Democratic primary to see whether it had any hope of toppling Saxby Chambliss, a Republican incumbent despised by Democrats. While Vernon Jordan seemed to controversial a figure to have a shot, former state Senator Jim Martin seemed to be a more promising prospect. In the crowded primary’s first round Jordan topped Martin by a sizable margin, but Martin came back to crush Jordan in the runoff. Don’t expect Georgia to join the top-tier anytime soon, but Democrats believe that this could be the sleeper race of the 2008 cycle and point to two polls released in the past month that show a 6% margin between the incumbent and his Democratic challenger.

The GOP has too many more obviously competitive races on its hand to worry about Georgia, and that could play into the Democrats’ hand. If the DSCC is convinced, national Democrats could devote millions to this race to test the incumbent’s vulnerabilities and exploit the fact that the NRSC is unlikely to get involved until it has proof that Martin is a threat. And this indeed seems like a long shot, though Martin’s prospects will surely depend on how successful Obama’s voter registration and turnout effort is. Democrats have not contested Georgia in a presidential election in many cycles, and those coattails could give Martin a few extra points.

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

As expected, Mitch McConnell is using his big war chest to bury Bruce Lunsford under ads, some of which tout McConnell’s clout and the work he does on behalf of Kentucky, while others blast Lunsford’s ties to Big Oil. Lunsford has enough money he can put in the race to keep it competitive and at the very least force McConnell to stay at home, but this is not the golden opportunity it looked to be for Democrats at the end of 2007.

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

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 Ranking: 16)

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 ranking: 14)

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. Texas (Incumbent: John Cornyn; Last Ranking: 13)

17. Kansas (Incumbent: Roberts: Last ranking: 15)

18. Oklahoma (Incumbent: Jim Inhofe; Last ranking: 18)

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.  

19. Nebraska (Open; Last Ranking: 19)

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


21. Tennessee (Incumbent: Alexander)

22. Iowa (Incumbent: Harkin)

23. Alabama (Incumbent: Sessions)

24. Michigan (Incumbent: Levin)

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

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.

27 South Carolina (Incumbent: Graham)

28 Massachusetts (Incumbent: Kerry; last ranking: 24)

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)

Full August House ratings

The GOP has long faced tough odds in the battle of the House. In an election year that promises to be just as Democratic-leaning than 2006, many vulnerable Republican incumbents chose to retire rather than wage a tough battle. Few high-profile Republicans agreed to jump in the races thus left open or to challenge the Democratic freshmen incumbents that were supposedly so vulnerable. And the fundraising disparity between the DCCC and NRCC was obvious from the first days of financial reports of the 2008 cycle.

The road has not been getting any easier for Republicans. While no new incumbent retired and while GOP chances are improving in high-profile districts (NH-01, LA-06 and PA-11), Democrats are continuing to expand the map. 13 GOP-held seats have been moved to a more vulnerable column since the June ratings – compared to only 2 Dem-held districts. There is now a total of 56 GOP-held seats on this list versus 34 Dem-held seats.

It is unlikely that future cycles would be this skewed towards Democrats, and the DCCC is eager to strike at the core of the GOP base, for it might not have another shot at them for a very long time. In this context, the importance of the financial disparity between the DCCC and the NRCC cannot be overstated: Money counts for more in House races than in Senate and presidential contests, and the DCCC’s ability to flex its financial muscle is already evident. Over the past month, the Democratic committee reserved a total of $53 million of air time in 51 districts, 34 of which are currently held by the GOP. That’s a very large playing field to invest in.

This money is not an actual buy – only a reservation – and the committee can pull the plug on any of this spending. In fact, it is likely that the millions the DCCC has reserved in seats like NY-13 , IL-14 and NY-25 will not even be spent – as these already look like probable Democratic victories – and that money could be relocated to other races. And consider that the $53 million the DCCC has reserved in the fall is within the $58 million of cash on hand it had at the end of June. If the DCCC keeps up its fundraising of $10 million/month, it could very well follow through on all the money it has already reserved (which would by itself be a huge money bomb) and still have as much as $40 million to spend!

Republicans, on the other hand, will face painful choices. In many conservative districts which lean Republican but in which the Democrats are injecting millions, the GOP candidates will be on their own, fighting the blue wave swamped under Democratic spending. Indeed, if the NRCC spends some of its small war chest on districts like FL-18, LA-07 and NM-02, what money will they have left to help their candidates in more obviously competitive districts – NM-01, KS-02, NY-26 or MO-06?

If the situation becomes bad enough that the GOP has to build a firewall in its third-tier of races (places like FL-18 and ID-01), the first and second-tier might find itself entirely submerged and Democrats might post huge gains. If the country’s mood balances itself a little and if John McCain manages to limit the electorate’s anti-Republican behavior, the third-tier could find itself much safer than it is now – and the GOP might be able to spend its resources on the first and second-tier, significantly limiting its losses.

So will we have a repeat of 2006, with Republicans powerless to stop the blue tsunami though they will probably score some gains of their own this time? Or a district-by-district battle that will still be fought with a clear Democratic edge? That is the key question of the upcoming months, and the answer will have much to do with the dynamics of the presidential race.

As always, I have written full descriptions of seats that have made news since early June. I indicated upgraded or downgraded next to the seats that saw their ratings change to indicate whether they became more vulnerable or less vulnerable for the incumbent party. Here is the quick run-down:

  • Less vulnerable Democratic seats: IL-08, IN-07, PA-07, OR-05
  • Less vulnerable Republican seats: CA-52, IL-06, MN-06
  • More vulnerable Democratic seats: LA-06, PA-11
  • More vulnerable Republican seats: AL-02, AL-03, FL-18, FL-25, LA-07, NV-02, NV-03, NY-29, PA-03, VA-05, VA-10, VA-11, WV-02

Outlook: Democrats pick-up 13-22 seats. My current prediction is a net pick-up of 17, for a 253-182 Democratic majority.

History of House ratings:

  • June: The field continues to shift towards Democrats, particularly in New York
  • February: As many more races get competitive, Democrats keep clear edge
  • November: How many more Republican retirements?
  • October: Democrats feel better as GOP faces worrisome retirements
  • September: Democrats poised to keep majority

Republican seats, Likely take-over (3)

  • NY-13 (open): In my previous ratings, I wrote that “in no other seat did Republican chances collapse as much and as quickly as in this Staten Island seat.” Little did I know how much further the GOP’s chances would collapse. Shortly after, the candidate Republicans had settled on passed away mid-June, leaving the GOP with no candidate once more. Followed a stunning series of Staten Island Republicans refusing to take on the role as the party’s sacrificial lamb and an increasingly acrimonious split between the Staten Island GOP and the Conservative Party. They each ended up settling on their own candidate, former state Rep. Robert Staniere for the GOP and retired banker Paul Atanasio for conservatives. That dual candidacy all but guarantees that Democratic candidate Mike McMahon will win in November – but consider that the situation could have gotten worse for the GOP: at some point in June, there was some talk of their endorsing McMahon!
  • NY-25 (open)
  • VA-11 (open, upgraded polls): Gerry Connolly, the chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, won a low turnout Democratic primary on July 11th and will now face Republican businessman  Keith Fimian, whose main advantage is that he can self-fund a race. In this blue-leaning district in increasingly Democratic Northern Virginia, Connolly is heavily favored and should benefit from the Obama’s campaign’s  focus on NoVa.  An internal poll released by the Connolly campaign shows the Democrat leading by 31%.

Republican seats, Lean take-over (4)

  • AK-AL (Rep. Young, polls): The Republican primary is being held on August 26th, and Rep. Don Young is in great danger against Lieutenant Governor Parnell. The Club for Growth is spending heavily on Parnell’s behalf, and Ted Stevens’ indictment could not have come at a worst time for  Young as it put the focus on the state GOP’s corruption scandals. Sarah Palin endorsed Parnell recently, calling him “honest” and “conservative” – a way to highlight the two charges Young faces (overspending and ethics). If Young somehow survives the primary, the race could move to the likely take-over column; if Parnell becomes his party’s nominee, Democrats will have a tougher time and the race will become a toss-up. The latest poll has Parnell narrowly ahead of Berkowitz but Young trailing widely.
  • AZ-01 (Open)
  • IL-11 (Open)
  • NJ-03 (Open): Not only are Democrats already favored to pick-up this district, but the DCCC decision to reserve $1.7 million worth of air time in the district should be all state Senator John Adler needs to clinch victory. Sure, the media market is expensive, and the DCCC does not have to spend that money, but when the moment comes for the NRCC to decide which races it will spend its small money on, it is unlikely NJ-03 will make the cut.

Democratic seats, Lean take-over (3)

  • FL-16 (Rep. Mahoney)
  • LA-06 (Rep. Cazayoux, upgraded): Following his special election victory in May, Don Cazayoux was favored to win re-election. But two developments have complicated things for Democrats here. First, Democratic state Rep. Michael Jackson, who was defeated in the Dem primary, decided to run as an independent. He is African-American and represents Baton Rouge, the part of the district in which Cazayoux needs to build huge margins. Second, Woody Jenkins, the GOP nominee in the special election, decided not to run in the special election. Jenkins was a tarnished candidate whose controversial profile doomed Republican chances. The general election will now feature two Democrats and a Republican whose name will not be Jenkins. That could be enough for Bill Cassidy to win the seat back for the GOP.
  • TX-22 (Rep. Lampson)

Republican seats, Toss-up (15)

  • AL-02 (Open, upgraded, polls): As expected, Democrats nominated Bobby Bright, the   conservative  mayor of Montgomery who was affiliated to neither party before he jumped in this race. The Republican candidate is state Senator Jay Love, who survived a contentious primary. This district is so overwhelmingly Republican that it should be impossible for a Democrat to win, but that Bright chose to run as a Democrat suggests otherwise. After all, Bright could just as easily filed as a Republican – and was courted by the NRCC. Three polls of these race were released in the space of 10 days, suggesting that Bright might have an edge: Love had a narrow 2% lead in his campaign’s internal poll, but Bright’s internal that showed him leading by 10% was confirmed by an independent poll that found the same margin.
  • CO-4 (Rep. Musgrave): In 04 and 06, independent groups attacked Musgrave with some memorable advertisements (most famously this 2004 ad of a Musgrave impersonator stealing from a soldier’s pocket). Now, it looks like Musgrave will be a target of outside groups yet again, with Defenders of Wildlife Action Fund already spending $175,000 on this ad focused on energy issues. The DCCC has already reserved $600,000 worth of advertisement in this district, not a huge amount considering that the Denver market is not cheap, but a strong start that should boost Betsy Markey’s efforts.
  • CT-4 (Rep. Shays)
  • IL-10 (Rep. Kirk)
  • MN-03 (Open)
  • NC-8 (Rep. Hayes, polls)
  • NJ-07 (Open)
  • NM-01 (Open, polls): When Heather Wilson announced she would not run for re-election, most Democrats expected this seat to be a relatively easy pick-up. But Darren White is one of the only strong recruitment coups of the NRCC this cycle, and it seems like he will at least succeed at keeping the race close. The two campaigns exchanged dueling internal polls in July showing their own candidate in the lead.
  • NV-03 (Rep. Porter, <span style=”font-weight:bold;”>upgraded</span&gt): Rep. Porter barely survived his 2006 re-election race against a political newcomer and his district has gotten much more Democratic since then. Highly-touted Democratic candidate Robert Daskas dropped out in April, leading to Senate Minority Leader and former gubernatorial candidate Dona Titus to join the race. Titus is a high-profile candidate who guarantees the race remains in the spotlight. Nevada Democrats are especially interested in defeating Porter this year, as he would be one of the toughest challengers for Senator Harry Reid in 2010. An internal poll released by the Titus campaign showed the Democrat narrowly ahead.
  • NY-26 (Open): We will know more about this race after the primaries decide which Democrat will move on to the general election: Iraq War veteran J<span>on Power or controversial self-funder Jack Davis, who is injecting millions of his own money in the race after getting the Supreme Court to struck down the Millionaire’s amendment?</span&gt
  • NY-29 (Rep. Kuhl, <span style=”font-weight:bold;”>upgraded</span&gt): The DCCC has reserved $2.7 million in the upstate New York media market, a sum that can be spent on this race, as well as NY-25 and NY-26. It is unlikely that Maffei will need that much money in NY-25, meaning that Eric Massa will receive a prodigious amount of money from the national party. Considering the state of disarray New York Republicans are in, that could be enough for Democrats to complete the job they started in 2006, when Kuhl survived by 2%. For now, the election is being waged on energy issues, with Massa embracing the GOP rhetoric to demand a special session on the issue.
  • OH-01 (Rep. Chabot): Two factors that will determine this race is whether Barack Obama’s candidacy succeeds in boosting black turnout, and how much the GOP will bleed support in the traditionally Republican suburbs. An internal poll released in July by the Chabot campaign showed him leading 50% to 37%.
  • OH-15 (Open): This seat is a disappointment for Democrats. When Rep. Pryce announced she would retire back in 2007, Dems felt really good about the chances of Mary Jo Kilroy. But GOP scored one of its best recruitment coups with state Senator Steve Stivers. In another year, this race would be a purer toss-up; in 2006, Kilroy remains slightly favored but  OH-015 is far from the clear pick-up opportunity it was a few months back. A SUSA poll released in August showed Kilroy ahead by 3%.
  • OH-16 (Open)
  • WA-8 (Rep. Reichert, polls): Darcy Burner had a tough summer, as her house entirely burned down in the beginning of July, taking her off the campaign trail for a while. Yet, Burner  is one of the best-funded House challengers: she raised more in the second quarter and she has more cash-on-hand than her opponent, GOP incumbent Rep. Reichert. The race promises to be just as tight as it was in 2006, and we will see whether Burner can ride presidential coattails.
  • WY-AL (Open)

Democratic seats, Toss-up (9)

  • AL-05 (Open, had forgotten before): We have known that AL-05 would be one of the most endangered Democratic-held seats since the day Rep. Cramer announced he would retire back in March. For some reason, I forgot to include it in my previous ratings – and the seat’s sudden appearance in the toss-up column should not be interpreted as the GOP gaining ground over the past two months. Both parties selected their nominees, state Senator Parker Griffith for Democrats and Wayne Parker for Republicans. This is a very conservative district (Bush got 60% in 2004) and the GOP has to be very frustrated that they are not doing better here – this is the type of red seats they need to claim to have a chance at regaining the House majority any time soon.
  • CA-11 (Rep. McNerney)
  • GA-8 (Rep. Marshall)
  • IN-09 (Rep. Hill, polls)
  • KS-02 (Rep. Boyda, polls): In early August, state Treasurer Lynn Jenkins (who represents the moderate wing of the state’s GOP) narrowly defeated conservative, who was defeated in 2006. She will now take on Democratic Rep. Nancy Boyda, who is one of the most endangered Democrats of the cycle. It is difficult to assess the race until we know how deep the wounds from the GOP primary: how will the district’s more conservative voters react to Jenkins’s general election candidacy? The Kansas GOP, after all, has been split in ideological feuds for years. Boyda, meanwhile, is planning a repeat of her 2006 grassroots campaign and has convinced the DCCC to not spend any money on her re-election race, leaving her all alone to fight her opponent.
  • NH-01 (Rep. Shea-Porter, polls): Defeating Carol Shea-Porter has been one of the GOP’s top priorities ever since the Democrat posted the biggest upset of Election Night 2006. Rep. Bradley is running for his own seat – but he first has to defeat John Stephen in what should be a crucial primary. The New Hampshire Union Leader has endorsed Stephen, in what could be a crucial show of support for the more conservative Republican. A recent UNH poll showed that Shea-Porter would be in great danger against both GOPers, though she would have more breathing room against Stephen.
  • PA-4 (Rep. Altmire)
  • PA-10 (Rep. Carney)
  • PA-11 (Rep. Paul Kanjorski, upgraded): Kanjorski is a long-term Democratic incumbent who is facing a more difficult re-election race than many of the freshmen of the 2006 class. That is due both to his opponent, Lou Barletta, who has become a high-profile Republican due to his harsh stance on immigration, and to the fact that he has neglected to build a strong local organization due to the fact that he has not faced a tough election. Barletta has released two internal polls showing him narrowly ahead, and while Democrats have not made their own polls public there is no doubt the DCCC is very worried: they have already spent a total of $260,000 on this district and are running ads on Kanjorski’s behalf.

Republican seats, Lean retention (17)

  • CA-04 (Open)
  • FL-13 (Rep. Buchanan): In this rematch of the bitterly disputed 2006 election (in which Vern Buchanan scored a controversial 369 vote victory), both candidates are already on air, setting the tone for what is sure to be a bitter and emotional few months.
  • FL-21 (Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart): See the description of FL-25 (below) for more context, as the FL-21 race similarly pits two Cuban-Americans and a battle on Miami airwaves. A recent poll had the Republican incumbent leading by only 4% against Martinez.
  • FL-24 (Rep. Feeney)
  • FL-25 (Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, upgraded): The battle for Southern Florida is reaching fever pitch here, with Diaz-Balart facing fellow Cuban-American Joe Garcia. The Diaz-Balarts might not be used to highly competitive elections, but the DCCC’s decision to reserve $1.4 million worth of air time this fall in the Miami market (the money will be spent on FL-18, FL-21, and FL-25) guarantees that this area will be ground zero of the House battle – and one that will test whether the allegiance of Cuban-Americans is at all shifting away from the GOP. A poll released in July had Garcia trailing by 5%.
  • IL-18 (Open)
  • KY-02 (Open)
  • LA-04 (Open): This is not the type of district in which Democrats are expected to compete (how many times have I used those words in these house ratings?) but the retirement of Rep. McCrery has given Democrats an opening they are ready to exploit. The Democratic candidate, Paul Carmouche, is the DA of the parish in which the district is located, while the GOP will have to wait for its crowded primary to be settled. We will have to wait to get a better idea of the general election match-up, but it is obvious that Democrats are hopeful: Carmouche released an internal poll finding him ahead of all his potential opponents, and even if that advantage comes from a better name recognition will Republican candidates have the funds to address that in the three months ahead? The DCCC has reserved more than $700,000 worth of ad time for the fall, a large buy in this relatively cheap district.
  • MI-07 (Rep. Walberg, polls): Conflicting internal polls released by the Walberg and Schauer campaigns showed the GOP incumbent leading by 16% and by 3% – but in both cases under 50%. But Mark Schauer is out-raising his Republican opponent, and the DCCC has already budgeted a substantial investment this fall.
  • MI-09 (Rep. Knollenberg)
  • MO-06 (Rep. Graves, polls)
  • MO-09 (Open): Both parties settled on their nominees in early August. Republicans nominated Blaine Luetkemeyer, while Democrats chose their more liberal option, Judy Baker. The Democrat’s base is in the district’s urban centers, so she will have to run up the margins there while holding on in its rural parts. One advantage Republicans will have: current GOP Rep. Kenny Hulshof will be running statewide in the gubernatorial race, potentially allowing Luetkemeyer to ride his coattails.
  • NM-02 (Open)
  • OH-02 (Rep. Schmidt)
  • PA-03 (Rep. English, upgraded): In a close district at the presidential level, Rep. English is favored but Democrats remember that he only got 54% in 2006 despite the opposition barely contesting the race. This year, Democrats have nominated a pro-lifer, Kathy Dahlkemper, who released an internal poll showing her ahead by 1%! That’s not enough to get Republicans panicked, but neither English nor the RNCC have released a poll to counter Dahlkemper’s…
  • VA-02 (Rep. Drake)
  • WV-02 (Rep. Capito, upgraded): In a district that has become Republican over the past decade, Shelley Capito has looked increasingly solid over her re-election races. But as the only GOP office-holder in what remains a Democratic state at the local level, she is a perennial target for Democrats. The party is excited by the candidacy of Anne Barth – and while Emily’s List did not have a great track record in 2006 and over the past few months, their endorsement should at least guarantee that Barth remains well-funded.

Democratic seats, Lean retention (13)

  • AZ-05 (Rep. Mitchell)
  • AZ-08 (Rep. Giffords, polls)
  • CT-05 (Rep. Murphy)
  • GA-12 (Rep. Barrow)
  • IL-08 (Rep. Bean, downgraded): In a neutral year, Melissa Bean is sure to be one of her party’s most vulnerable incumbents. But in a Democratic year and in the state of Barack Obama, Bean should have some breathing room. She also knows that she will always be targeted by the GOP and she fundraises and organizes accordingly. Her opponent <span>Steve Greenberg is highly-touted by the GOP, but he will need to quicken his fundraising pace and find new attack angles to come out on top.
  • KS-03 (Rep. Moore)
  • KY-03 (Rep. Yarmuth, polls): Anne Northup is attempting to come back to Congress after a failed gubernatorial run in 2007. In a district that leans ever so slightly Democratic at the presidential level, Northup needs to run a flawless campaign but for now her camp seems to be in disarray after a staff shake-up that has left her without a campaign manager.
  • MS-01 (Rep. Childers)
  • NY-19 (Rep. Hall)
  • NY-20 (Rep. Gillbrand)
  • MN-1 (Rep. Walz)
  • OR-05 (Open, downgraded): Along with AL-05, this is one of only two Democratic-held open seats that is competitive. But GOP prospects are plummeting because of the candidacy of Mike Erickson. Back in may, Erickson was viciously attacked by his primary opponent Kevin Manni for having paid his girlfriend’s abortion years ago. Right to Life immediately blasted Erickson, but all that drama unfolded too late to damage Erickson in a state in which most voters sent their ballot in early via mail. Erickson prevailed in the primary. If there was any doubt then that the abortion story would damage his chances, the story soon got worse for Erickson: the woman whose abortion Erickson allegedly paid forconfirmed the story to to the  Oregonian and blasted Erickson’s pro-life record. conservative activists.
  • WI-8 (Rep. Kagen, polls)

Republican seats, likely retention (17)

  • AL-03 (open, upgraded): This is a long-shot race for Democrats for sure, but the DCCC appears to have taken an interest in Alabama races – and the local press has taken notice. Democratic nominee Joshua Segall will be helped by the fact that AL-02 and AL-05 are both featuring contested races, in the hope that a mention of his own contest will be inserted in other House stories.
  • FL-8 (Rep. Keller)
  • FL-15 (open)
  • FL-18 (Rep. Ros-Lehtinen, upgraded): This is the third race in the Southern Florida battle, and while the Republican incumbent seems safer than in neighboring FL-21 and FL-25, the money the DCCC will spent in the Miami market could just as easily be spent here than in the other races. (We will have to wait and see the size of the investment.) An independent poll of the race had Ros-Lehtinen leading 51% to 38% against Annette Taddeo, a decent margin but certainly not enough to keep the race out of these ratings.
  • ID-01 (Rep. Sali): That this district is even on the list is just as stunning this year than it was 2 years ago. But Bill Sali still has a rocky relationship with his state’s GOP and his Democratic opponent Walt Minnick is outraising him – a stunning feat for an Idaho Democrat. And the DCCC has reserved nearly $350,000 of media time for the fall – a small investment for them to make but one that is big by Idaho standards (compared to a buy in the Chicago area, it gets almost twice the amount of time with $1 million less!)
  • IL-06 (Rep. Roskam, downgraded): In 2006, IL-06 was the DCCC’s heart-breaker and a source of anger for many party activists who protested the millions the national party wasted in this district at the expense of other races like NC-08. This year, the DCCC found someone else from the military to run, Jill Morgenthaler; she is sure to be even less exciting to local activists than Duckworth was, as she was the Army spokeswoman during the Abu Graib scandal. This is a swing district at the presidential level, and Morgenthaler could be helped by Obama’s presence at the top of the ticket. But a recent internal poll released by Rep. Roskam shows her crushing the Democrat by 30%.
  • LA-07 (Rep. Boustany, <span style=”font-weight:bold;”>upgraded</span&gt): Democrats have suddenly taken interest in Louisiana’s House races – including this conservative seat few people expected to see competitive. State Senator Don Cravins entered the race in mid-June and could take advantage of the area’s substantial African-American population. Boustany only picked up the seat for Republicans in 2004, after all, and the DCCC has added Cravins to its Red to Blue list.
  • MD-01 (Open)
  • MN-06 (Rep. Bachmann, <span style=”font-weight:bold;”>downgraded</span&gt): Of all open seats Democrats were contesting in 2006, MN-06 was particularly disappointing, as very conservative GOPer Michelle Bachmann won by a decent 8%. This year’s Democratic candidate, <span>Elwyn Tinklenberg, should force Bachmann to play defense but he has been significantly outraised and the DCCC might not be as eager to play in the district.
  • NV-02 (Rep. Heller, upgraded): This seat should not be expected to be competitive, as Bush got 57% in both 2000 and 2004. But Heller’s first election back in 2006 was surprisingly weak and the Democrat he vanquished, Jill Derby, is back for a rematch. The seat has been added to the DCCC’s Red to Blue program, so Derby could receive some assistance by the national committee. And while Heller starts as the clear favorite, the seat will test how much Nevada’s demographics have evolved in the past decade.
  • OH-07 (Open)
  • OH-14 (Rep. LaTourette)
  • PA-06 (Rep. Gerlach)
  • PA-15 (Rep. Dent)
  • PA-18 (Rep. Murphy)
  • VA-05 (Rep. Goode, upgraded): Democrats are touting Tom Pariello’s chances in this conservative district, and in a sign that this is not all talk the DCCC has added Pariello to its Red to Blue program. But there is no doubt that this remains a long-shot for Democrats. A recent poll conducted by SUSA showed Goode with a 34% lead.
  • VA-10 (Rep. Wolf, upgraded): Just like in VA-05, Democrats are making enough noise about VA-10 that the seat ought to at least be added to the list of potentially competitive  districts. Bush won VA-10 with 55% in 2004 – not an unsurmountable Republican lean. The DCCC has added Judy Feder to its Red to Blue list, in what will be a rematch of the 2006 election which Rep. Wolf won by 16%.

Democratic seats, likely retention (9)

  • CT-02 (Rep. Courtney)
  • IL-14 (Rep. Foster)
  • IN-02 (Rep. Donnelly)
  • IN-07 (Rep. Carson, downgraded): Andre Carson won a special election this spring against state Rep. Jon Elrod, a Republican who would have done better in another year and if the NRCC had had more money to come to his rescue. Carson already looked like the favorite for the November rematch, but he now is even safer as Elrod announced he would give up on his congressional candidacy and run for re-election instead.
  • IN-08 (Rep. Ellsworth)
  • NH-02 (Rep. Hodes)
  • OH-18 (Rep. Space)
  • PA-08 (Rep. Murphy)
  • TX-23 (Rep. Rodriguez)

Posted on Campaign Diaries.

Senate rankings: Dems still looking for new targets

Whatever the make-up of the 111th Congress, no one will be able to say that Democrats didn’t try everything in their power to reach a 60-seat majority. As of the spring of 2008, there already were eight highly competitive seats that no one would be surprised to see turn-over: With Virginia and New Mexico all but lost for Republicans (and Senator Ensign acknowledging just as much), the GOP is in grave danger in New Hampshire, Colorado, Alaska, Mississippi, Oregon and Minnesota. On the other hand, Republican attempts to go on the offensive have been disastrous, with only Louisiana looking competitive.

Among these nine initial seats – eight of which are held by Republicans – the rating of four has changed this month. New Mexico has moved from lean Democrat to likely Democrat, Colorado from toss-up to lean Democrat, and Oregon from lean Republican to toss-up. Only Minnesota has moved in the opposite direction, from toss-up to Lean Republican.

9 competitive seats is already a large number – comparable to the field of play two years ago. But with 2008 shaping up to be as good a Democratic year as 2006, the DSCC is aware that it has to do the most of this opportunity and is eager to put even more seats in play. As a result, we have seen a lot  of actions since my previous Senate rankings in the second and third-tier of GOP-held seats: In North Carolina, strong polling by Kay Hagan forced Elizabeth Dole to air a round of advertisements, but the DSCC has reserved up to $6 million of air time in the fall. This race is the most likely candidate to join the “initial nine.”

In Maine, Democrats have still not been able to tie Susan Collins to her party label, but the $5 million the DSCC is budgeting for the fall campaign is a huge amount of money for this inexpensive state. In Kentucky, Bruce Lunsford’s primary victory certainly exasperated progressives, but the first slate of polls suggests all hope is not lost for Democrats. As for Texas, Kansas and even Idaho, Democrats would need titanic shifts that for now remain unimaginable, but the mere fact that these races are being discussed is horrendous news for the GOP.

Will Democrats be able to go beyond eight serious targets and seriously contest one of these long-shot races? How close will they come to a sweep of their initial eight targets and will they save Louisiana? These are the obvious questions to ask out of these new rankings and I will be closely monitoring any signs of further shifts in the electoral map. More precise questions that will come to determine the make-up of the next Senate include: Will John Sununu be able to take advantage of McCain’s good name in New Hampshire to appeal to independents? How much will Obama boost black turnout in Louisiana and in Mississippi? Will Al Franken be able to put his personal controversies behind him? And is the Maine electorate already over Bush?

The full new rankings are available here, with this accompanying map:

Outlook: Democratic pick-up a net 5-9 Senate seats.

Prediction: Democrats pick-up a net 7 seats, for a 58-42 majority.

Likely Takeover (2 Republican seats, 0 Democratic seat)

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

It is hard to believe that Jim Gilmore’s situation has worsened over the past two months given how much of an underdog the former Republican Governor was to start with. It is never a good sign when a presumptive nominee wins his party’s nod with 50.3% of the vote, but that is what happened to Gilmore at his party’s nominating convention. As if this proof of an unenergized conservative base was not enough, the state GOP’s moderate wing is also backing away from Gilmore: incumbent Senator John Warner, the Republican whom Gilmore is seeking to replace, is refusing to endorse his own party’s nominee! The only hope for Republicans to retain this seat is for Barack Obama to tap Mark Warner as his running-mate. Warner might very well have been the favorite in the veepstakes… if he were not favored to win this Senate race.

2. New Mexico (Open; Last ranking: 2 and lean take-over)

Three giants of New Mexico politics entered this race after Senator Domenici announced his retirement back in October. The political career of one of them has already been cut short: Rep. Heather Wilson lost a heated and narrow GOP primary to Rep. Steve Pearce, leaving him in a difficult match-up against Democratic Rep. Tom Udall. Pearce is much more conservative than Wilson, making it more difficult for him to appeal to independents in this blue-leaning year, but Wilson had her own ethical issues.

This is an open seat in a swing-state in a Democratic year — that by itself is a recipe for success Democrats, just as it was in Minnesota in 2006. In a very similar situation, Amy Klochubar opened a large lead against Rep. Kennedy in what was supposed to be a competitive open seat. Now, Udall is leading Pearce by 2:1 in recent polls and has 6 times more cash on hand than his Republican rival. That means Pearce is dependent on the help of the NRSC, help that is unlikely to come. In mid-June, Sen. Ensign, the NRSC chairman, implied that his committee was giving up on the Virginia and New Mexico races. That just about seals the deal in this race.

Lean Takeover (2 R, 0 D)

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

The parallels between this race and Pennsylvania’s 2006 Senate race continue. Despite predictions that the race is bound to tighten and that John Sununu is too good a politician to go down without a fight, polls are showing no sign of a competitive race – with the latest numbers finding Shaheen leading by 22%. But Republicans are hoping that the more accurate parallel for the Sununu-Shaheen race will be North Carolina’s 2004 race, when Rep. Burr had stockpiled his cash to launch an ad blitzkrieg starting in September and had turned a consistent deficit into a narrow victory on Election Day. Now, it is Sununu who is saving up for a big push in the fall; as of the end of the second quarter, he has $5 million in the bank versus $2 million for Jeanne Shaheen. Will a late wave of advertisements be enough?

4. Colorado (Open; Last Ranking: 4 and toss-up)

For the first time since the November rankings, Colorado is not rated a “toss-up.” As had been expected from the day the match-up between Mark Udall and Bob Schaffer was set up, the Democrat has pull ahead and is now consistently ahead by 9-10% in recent polls. A combination of factors explains why Udall finally jumped up to his first lead. First, this year’s Democratic bent gives Democrats an edge in any open seat race that should have been tight. Second, Bob Schaffer had a bad few months, in particular over stories broken by the Denver Post about his association with convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Third, Udall fundraising advantage has allowed his campaign to spend more aggressively on ads. Udall outspent Shaffer 3:1 in the second quarter, and the DSCC jumped in with an attack ad of its own.

Meanwhile, we are starting to get a better idea of the campaign arguments Udall and Schaffer will use in the months ahead, and the first debate that opposed the two men in mid-July set some battle lines: Energy is already a hot topic in the campaign, with the two candidates exchanging barbs on the subject and Udall has devoted the entirety of one of his first ads to energy. Schaffer is determined to paint Udall as weak and unable to make much of a decision, while Udall is casting himself as a bipartisan with a commitment to consensus. It does look like Mark Udall is running as more of a moderate than his cousin Tom in New Mexico; beyond his insistence on bipartisanship, Mark voted for the FISA bill and Tom voted against it.

Toss-up (3 R, 1 D)

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

Ted Stevens is suffering from the corruption scandal that has ensnared him and the state’s Republican Party and it is even affecting his fundraising abilities, as Mark Begich outraised the entrenched incumbent in the second quarter. Contrary to Rep. Young in the at-large House race, Stevens does not face a credible primary challenge, a relief for Democrats as the state’s red leaning would kick in to help a Republican not plagued by ethical controversies.

Begich has been at worst tied with Stevens for months now. He went up on TV in early July, with one ad introducing himself and the other devoted to energy issues (with a joint pledge to develop alternative energies and to fight to “open ANWR”). Perhaps boosted by his increased media exposure and his advertisement efforts, Begich has jumped to a 9% lead in the latest poll, though we will naturally need confirmation of that number before drawing any conclusion.

The Democrat’s efforts will be boosted by those of the Obama campaign, which has unexpectedly decided to make Alaska into a battleground state at the presidential level. Alaska polls have shown a tight presidential race, a sharp departure from past cycles in which Bush crushed his opponents by more than 20%. That means that  contrary to Knowles in the 2004 Senate race, Begich will not have to swim counter-current and that he might benefit from Obama’s organizational efforts.

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

Ronnie Musgrove and Roger Wicker were once roommates, but they are quickly becoming bitter rivals. Polls confirm that the race is a pure toss-up. The Republican incumbent has a clear advantage on the financial front ($3 million of cash on hand versus less than $800K for Musgrove at the end of the second quarter), but the DSCC has already rushed in to help Musgrove respond to Wicker’s ads, demonstrating how seriously it took this contest. The DSCC’s move triggered further controversy: Republicans are charging that the ads break campaign finance rules. Democrats answered by filing their own complaint about Wicker’s fundraising.

It is true that Musgrove would have had a better chance had this special election been held in March, as it should have. Now, Wicker has more time to introduce himself to voters and blunt Musgrove’s high name recognition; the GOP believes November’s turnout will be more uniform than it was in MS-01 in May and that a more conservative electorate will give Wicker victory. But Democrats remain confident: First, there will be no party labels next to the candidates’ names. Second, this is one down-the-ballot race in which the Obama candidacy could have a very clear effect: If there is a significant boost in black turnout, it could prove all Musgrove needs to pick-up this seat. The African-American vote is more than ever the key metric of this senatorial race, and one polls are unlikely to capture accurately.

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

Not much has changed in this race since the end of May. For one, Louisiana remains the one credible pick-up opportunity for Republicans, and as such will remain a high priority for the NRSC. Second, the two candidates remain on par financially, with Kennedy keeping up with Landrieu’s fundraising for the second quarter in a row, though the incumbent retains a 2:1 advantage in the cash on hand department. As for polls, they show  Landrieu ahead but the race has tightened a bit, with the  Democrat ahead mid-single digits and under 50% in a number of recent polls. This is one state in which the presidential race is likely to help the Republican, as Louisiana is not a state Obama will do much of a dent. He might increase black turnout a bit, but the African-American vote’s decrease since Katrina will be an advantage to Kennedy. One strong argument Democrats hold is statements made by Kennedy in 2004 when he was running as a Democrat for Senate.

8. Oregon (Incumbent: Gordon Smith; Last Ranking: 9 and lean retention)

Democrats have targeted Gordon Smith since the very first days of the cycle. But a disappointing recruitment process followed by primary difficulties for Jeff Merkley made Democrats anxious that they could be wasting an opportunity here. Since the May 20th primary, however, Merkley has grown stronger and is consistently polling within a few points of Smith. In fact, Merkley led in a poll for the first time just a few days ago. News that Merkley had outraised Smith in the second quarter hardened his position as a strong challenger.

Smith has been aware of the target he has on his back and has been preparing since the start of the cycle. Despite being distanced in second quarter fundraising, he still has a 8:1 in cash on hand and so much of Merkley’s money was spent in the primary that his campaign is now in financial difficulty. Furthermore, Smith has been rapidly moving to the center, aware that he is at danger of becoming this cycle’s Lincoln Chaffee: a Republican incumbent in a Democratic state who drowns in the blue tsunami, heightened by the probability that Obama scores a large victory in Oregon.

Smith’s solution has been to throw his party label overboard and run as a consensus candidate ready to embrace both side. And he is going very far in that direction. Not only did he run an ad featuring a Democratic state representative and a state Senator endorsing him, but he followed that up with a spot embracing… Barack Obama, in a desperate-seeming effort to show his willingness to work across the aisle. This strategy does not come without risk: Smith, after all, is supporting John McCain and his positioning could confuse voters. And it will make Smith that much more vulnerable to Obama campaigning on Merkley’s side (the Illinois Senator wasted no time issuing a statement reiterating his support for Merkley).

Lean Retention (2 R, 0 D)

9. Minnesota (Incumbent: Norm Coleman; Last Ranking: 7 and toss-up)

This is the first time in six Senate rankings that Minnesota is not rated as a toss-up. After a wild two months in which Al Franken was undermined by a succession of controversies, polls have clearly shifted away from the former comedian. Except for Rasmussen, which continues to show a toss-up race, other pollsters (including SUSA and Quinnipiac) find Coleman leading by double-digits.

Facing a shrewd incumbent with the reputation of a solid campaigner, Franken had no room for error. Yet, his campaign started tanking with revelations of Franken’s tax problems and with the controversy over his 2000 allegedly-pornographic essay in Playboy; this led a Democratic congresswoman state that she was not sure she could support Franken’s campaign and led Planned Parenthood to blast Franken’s “misogynist remarks.” Next came another firestorm over a rape joke Franken helped write on SNL in 1995. Now, the Coleman campaign is airing a personal attack ad blasting Franken for not paying taxes and writing “juicy porn.”

Franken and Coleman’s strategies are clear. The Democrat wants to make this a referendum about the incumbent and about the Republican Party. Franken denounces the “Bush-Coleman recession” and emphasizes Coleman’s proximity to his party’s leadership. The Republican wants to make this a referendum about what he believes is Franken’s polarizing persona. Whoever manages to frame the debate best is likely to win the election – and both candidates have millions of dollars in the bank to define their opponent.

As if all of this agitation was not sufficient, there was the Jesse Ventura question mark. The former Governor only announced he would not run for Senate on July 14th, and his decision was a relief for Franken’s campaign who had far more to lose from a Ventura candidacy. Now, Franken faces trouble within the DFL. Despite some intra-party rumblings back in May, Franken easily won the DFL’s endorsement. Yet, a well-connected attorney recently announced she would run against Franken in the Democratic primary. She is unlikely to threaten Franken’s nomination, but her late run could prevent the former comedian from turning his attention to Coleman.

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

Minnesota concludes the list of the eight obvious Democratic targets. The DSCC has been looking for more seats to contest, and has made a clear choice that North Carolina has the most potential. Chuck Schumer has been including the state in the list of top targets for many weeks now and the DSCC has reserved up air time for up to $6 million in advertising starting mid-September. Think about that number for a minute: Democrats are committing to invest $6 million in their 9th target in a Republican-leaning state in a presidential year. What better sign of confidence could the DSCC send?

Yet, Republicans have reason to feel confident about this race as well. As of my last rankings, a

series of polls had just found Kay Hagan enjoying a stunning post-primary bounce to almost tie Elizabeth Dole. But the Republican incumbent then unleashed a big advertisement campaign. Combined with the fading of Hagan’s primary victory bounce, Dole has recovered a low-double digit  lead in all institutes, including SUSA, Rasmussen, PPP and Civitas.

But it is too late for Dole to make herself look strong. She still hovers around the 50% threshold of vulnerability, and the quick drop in her numbers in May shows that her support is weak. And Hagan will benefit from the Obama campaign’s decision to contest North Carolina, particularly since the McCain campaign is doing little to counter. It will help Hagan overcome North Carolina red leaning and it will allow her to rely on Obama’s turnout efforts. North Carolina might look less promising for Democrats than it did late May, but it retains unexpected potential.

Rankings continue here.

Gubernatorial rankings: Top 4 races are still heated, but only one remains a toss-up

The 2008 gubernatorial races were never meant to be the cycle’s most suspenseful contests, but my March ratings found that the top four races had gotten unexpectedly more competitive, with three making their way to the toss-up rating. Yet, things have quieted down over the past few months. For one, heated Democratic primaries in Indiana and North Carolina were resolved and it will take some time before the general election in these states reaches full speed. Meanwhile, Missouri’s Democratic Attorney General Jay Nixon is expanding his lead over his two potential opponents in what is looking like it could be a runaway race.

As a result, only one contest remains a toss-up in this month’s ratings — but what a toss-up it is! Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory’s victory in the GOP primary guarantees that North Carolina will host three crucial and competitive statewide elections this fall: Obama’s success at putting the state in play will determine whether he can hope to win a landslide election, the Hagan-Dole race is key for Democratic hopes to reach a 60 seat majority (the seat is at the top of the second-tier of Senate races which were not supposed to be endangered and its loss could open the floodgates of a blue tsunami) and the GOP will try to score its fourth gubernatorial victory since the 19th century. And remember that this is the state that sunk Hillary Clinton’s presidential ambition: North Carolina will have played quite a role in 2008.

The previous gubernatorial ratings, written in March, are available here. For descriptions of the races that have no description here and that are rated “Safe”, check the first gubernatorial ratings, written back in September.

Lean take-over (1 R)

1. Missouri (Open; Previous rating: Toss-up)

The contested Republican primary will not be resolved until August 5th. Rep. Kenny Hulshof and state Treasurer Sarah Steelman are running to become their party’s nominee, and the former looks to have lined up much of the party’s establishment behind him. But the result of their contest might not matter much as Democratic Attorney General Jay Nixon has been campaigning for four years now. This cycle’s Democratic environment might be too much for his opponents to overcome, and Nixon has opened up a huge lead against either of his opponents in the latest polls. Democrats hope that this election will be a repeat of Colorado’s 2006 gubernatorial race and Minnesota’s 2006 senatorial race, both open races that were supposed to remain competitive but in which the Democratic candidate rode  the GOP malaise to an early lead and never relinquished it.

Toss-up (1R, 1D)

2. North Carolina (Open; Previous rating: Toss-up)

Both parties settled contested primaries on May 6th. On the Democratic side, Lieutenant Governor Beverly Perdue survived a strong challenge by state Treasurer Richard Moore, who aired negative ads in the closing weeks of the campaign. On the Republican side, Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory prevailed in a primary that was less nasty — and this is the sort of difference that can impact a general election. Since the primary, both candidates have been gearing up for the general election… and McCrory has received the help of George Bush who joined his party’s candidate for a fundraiser in Raleigh. No joint photograph of the two men was authorized, but the state Democratic party is already hitting McCrory for his ties to Bush, highlighting the dismal state of the Republican brand, even in a Southern state.

McCrory is a much stronger contender than Republicans were hoping to get just a few months ago, and this race looks to be the most suspenseful gubernatorial contest of the cycle (which isn’t saying a lot). Early polls suggest that neither candidate has the advantage but that McCrory might be able to peel away the support of independent-minded voters and conservative Democrats who have been critical to a string of state-level Democratic successes. In fact, how competitive the presidential election becomes could impact the result of the Perdue-McCrory contest. If there is a boost in black turnout as some are predicting, it would make it difficult for Republicans to pick up the governor’s mansion.

Lean Retention (1 D)

3. Indiana (Gov. Daniels; Previous rating: Toss-up)

The Democratic primary between Jill Long Thompson and architect Schellinger (favored by the state’s establishment) was even tighter than the state’s crucial Clinton-Obama contest, with results delayed by Lake County and Long Thompson triumphing by 0.6%. Now in a quest to become the state’s first female governor, Long Thompson first has to ensure financial viability. While polls showed no electability difference between the two Democrats, Schellinger was more successful at fundraising. Seeking to attract some attention in a dull campaign period, Long Thompson announced her running-mate and she benefited from glowing headlines after her speech at the state convention for “making history’ as the first female candidate.

Yet, three polls taken in the past two months find Daniels settling in a narrow but consistent lead — leading me to downgrade the race to lean retention for the first time. But the race remains competitive: however much Daniels has improved his popularity over the past two years, he remains very vulnerable and Obama’s decision to invest resources in Indiana will help Long Thompson get out the vote.

4. Washington (Gov. Gregoire; Previous rating: Lean retention)

In a neutral environment, this race would be the ultimate toss-up. The rematch of a 2004 race which ended in grotesque cacophony, Dino Rossi’s challenge to Gregoire is hurt by the year’s pro-Democratic bent. News that Rossi is shying away from his party label reveals the disadvantage he has to overcome. New election rules allow candidates to choose what party label will appear next to their name, and Rossi chose “GOP party” rather than “Republican” (note that the Republican candidate for insurance commissioner is running with no party label at all). However, polls find that the race remains very tight and there is every indication that it will be very nasty as well: A recent controversy over whether Democrats were playing the “Italian card” against Rossi by using the Soprano music in an ad against him confirms that there is little chance that the 2004 bitterness can be overcome.

Full rankings of all 11 races on my governor’s page.

House rankings: The field continues to shift towards Democrats, particularly in New York

In the past 3 months, Democrats have increased their House majority as they picked up a remarkable 3 seats in a series of special elections organized in Illinois’s 14th district, Louisiana’s 6th district, Mississippi’s 1st district. What is particularly remarkable is that all three of these districts leaned heavily Republican; in 2004, George Bush had won them respectively with 55%, 59% and 62%. Each defeat increased the chaos of the Republican caucus as the NRCC started to settle in panic mode. After the loss of MS-01 on May 13th, Tom Cole, the chairman of the NRCC, issued a remarkable statement calling on Republican incumbents to brace for the worse and find individual ways to deal with the onslaught.

And Republicans have reason to fear a second November debacle. First, Republicans are now three more seats away from the majority and it is hard to find a GOP operative willing to suggest their party has any hope of reducing that margin in November. Second, the party continues to be at a significant financial disadvantage while the DCCC has a huge pile of cash that it will use in dozens of districts in the coming months, testing any Republican seat that shows any sign of being vulnerable. While the GOP was able to respond in the special elections, they will not have the money to do the same in the fall and will be forced to make some painful choices.

Third, the success of Travis Childers in MS-01 differed from those of Don Cazayoux and Bill Foster in that his opponent was not tragically flawed; in other words, the GOP had no easy excuse to explain the loss of that seat and has to face the terrifying prospect that all of its open seats are vulnerable, no matter how competitive they have appeared in previous cycles. A number of districts that opened up in the past few months and which Republicans believed would be safe bets for re-election are now finding themselves at the center of the storm, districts like NM-02, MO-09, AL-02 and OH-07. Democrats know that they will likely not have such an opportunity to snatch away heavily Republican seats in years – perhaps even decades – and they will do everything they can to make the most of every opening they have this year.

The field has shifted towards the Democratic Party, as a stunning 53 of the 88 seats that are listed in these rankings are held by Republicans. The 25 seats Democrats are defending include the 3 districts that they have just acquired and that are likely to remain in their hands in November. New York in particular is looking to be emblematic of the national catastrophe Republicans fear. Once dominant in the Empire State, the GOP has only 6 districts left today. Next year, they might only have 2. NY-25, NY-26 and NY-29 were already on everyone’s list of vulnerable Republican seats at the time of my last rankings, though the GOP’s catastrophic recruitment process in the first two of these districts has increased their predicament. And in a sign that New York Republicans are doing everything they can to seal their own doom, Vito Fossella’s arrest and subsequent retirement and the farce Staten Island Republicans are currently playing has suddenly moved NY-13 from a barely vulnerable seat to one of the Republicans’ two most vulnerable districts nationally. And to make matters worse, Republican chances in districts Democrats picked up in 2006 are rapidly fading, despite GOP boasting that they would have no trouble recapturing NY-19 and NY-24 (though the first has been making some noise again over the past few weeks, see below).

I have written full descriptions of seats that have made news since mid-February. For detailed descriptions of the other races, check last month’s rankings. I indicated upgraded or downgraded next to the seats that saw their ratings change to indicate whether they became more vulnerable or less vulnerable for the incumbent party. Here is the quick run-down:

  • Less vulnerable: IL-11, IN-07, IN-07, PA-06, OH-15, OH-18
  • More vulnerable: AK-AL, AL-02, ID-01, LA-04, MD-01, MO-09, NM-02, NY-13, NY-19, NY-25, NY-26, TX-22, WY-AL
  • Changed parties: IL-14, LA-06 and MS-01
  • Off the list: DE-AL, FL-10

Outlook: Democrats pick-up 14-20 seats, with a possibility of higher gains. My current prediction is a net pick-up of 17.

Republican seats, Likely take-over (2)

  • NY-13 (open, upgraded): In no other seat did Republican chances collapse as much and as quickly as in this Staten Island seat, the last which the already dying New York GOP controls in New York City. All it took was for Rep. Vito Fossella to be arrested on DWI charges for Republicans to unravel. First, there were revelations that Fossella had an extramarital affair and that he had taken his mistress on taxpayer-funded congressional trips, forcing Fossella to announce his retirement. Second, the top Republicans in the district declined to run, leading the Staten Island party to endorse a weak and unknown candidate, Francis Powers, the island’s representative on the MTA board. Finally, Democrats convinced one of their strongest candidates, councilman Mike McMahon, to  jump in the race. Despite some divisions and the candidacy of Brooklyn Democrat Steve Harrison, Democrats were already favored to pick-up this swing district when the race devolved even further into a farce as Francis M. Powers, the son of the Republican candidate, announced he would run as the Libertarian candidate with the explicit desire to get the Republican Party (and thus his father defeated).
  • NY-25 (Open, upgraded): Democrat Dan Maffei, who was came very close from unseating Walsh in 2006, never stopped running in this district that voted for both Al Gore and John Kerry. Given how toxic the environment is for Republicans in any open seat, the seat became instantly lean take-over as soon as Rep. Walsh announced his retirement back in January. And that was before the disastrous series of GOP recruitment failures, as the only Republican candidate who had stepped forward by mid-March suddenly dropped out, leaving the party with nowhere to turn. The county committees ended up settling on former Onondaga County Legislature Chairman Dale Sweetland. Given how many seats the NRCC has to defend in the next few months, it is unlikely they will put much effort into holding this seat.

Republican seats, Lean take-over (5)

  • AK-AL (Rep. Young, upgraded): Hit by a corruption investigation that is sinking many Alaska Republicans (including Senator Stevens), Rep. Young has a Democratic target for months now, even more so since highly-touted Democratic challenger Ethan Berkowitz jumped in the race in 2007. Since then, numerous polls have shown Young trailing, the latest being a mid-May Research 2000 survey with Berkowitz up by 10 percent. In fact, the Democrats’ nightmare is that Young lose the Republican primary and the GOP nominate someone with less ethical trouble. The state’s Lieutenant Governor Sean Parnell (whose father Young defeated 28 years ago) is challenging him in the primary.
  • AZ-1 (Open)
  • IL-11 (Open, downgraded): Republican prospects in this district have been dismal since the GOP candidate Tim Balderman abruptly withdrew after the primary. The seat was already leaning Democratic with Balderman in the race: the DCCC had hit the jackpot by convincing state Senate President Debbie Halvorson to jump in while the NRCC had failed to recruit its top candidates. With Balderman’s exit, party leaders got the right to select a new nominee and they attempted to convince state Senators that had previously refused to run to do so. Yet, despite the prospect of becoming a candidate without having to go through a primary, none of them changed their mind. At the end of April, Republicans appointed Chicago businessman Martin Ozinga to fill Balderman’s spot on the ballot. They now have a candidate to hold the seat — something they did not have at the time of my previous rankings — which is enough to downgrade the seat form likely to lean take-over. But there is no question that Halvorson is heavily favored to pick-up this seat, particularly with Barack Obama topping the Democratic ticket.
  • NJ-03 (Open): Democratic state Senator Adler and Republican Mayor Chris Myers won their party’s nomination on June 3rd in a race with unbalanced recruitment. Adler is the Democrats’ dream candidate while Republicans did not get their first choice. In a district that is swing in a neutral year, an open race should be fatal for Republicans in a cycle that looks so toxic for them.
  • VA-11 (Open): As soon as Tom Davis announced his retirement, Democrats rejoiced at the opportunity of a sure pick-up in a region that is rapidly trending Democratic, Northern Virginia. But the party’s primary, opposing former Rep. Leslie Bynre to Gerald Connolly, the chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, has gone very negative, even splitting the state’s establishment, with Sen. Webb and Gov. Kaine supporting different candidates. This gives Republicans hope that they might beat the odds and hold on to this seat with businessman Keith Fimian. It is too early to downgrade this race to a toss-up, but Byrne and Connolly better find a way to finish their race in a less brutal manner.

Democratic seats, Lean take-over (2)

  • FL-16 (Rep. Mahoney): Tim Mahoney has had a target on his back ever since his narrower-than-expected victory in 2006 in the seat that had just been left vacant by Rep. Foley. The GOP primary is late so the race will not settle for a few more months, but the number of credible candidates running for this seat contrasts to the situation in many other districts and confirms that this is one of the Republicans’ top opportunities.
  • TX-22 (Rep. Lampson, upgraded): This is a rare seat in which the GOP caught a break over the past few months. The former seat of Tom DeLay was won by Nick Lampson in 2006 after an absurd campaign in which DeLay messed up his retirement, preventing the GOP from replacing him on the ballot. Republicans settled on a write-in campaign on behalf of Shelley Sekula Gibbs. This year, Sekula Gibbs was running to take on Lampson  one more time, but many Republicans were worried that she had become too much of a liability after spending a controversial few months in Washington (she had won the special election to replace DeLay until January 07); they were concerned that nominating her could doom their chances in a district they have no doubt belongs to them. Yet, Sekula Gibbs was crushed in the runoff by Pete Olson despite coming in ahead in the first round of the primary. Olson can now set his sights on Lampson and Republican are upbeat about their chances in this race. However, Lampson can take comfort in Democratic victories in seats like MS-01, as the country’s mood might be anti-Republican enough to save him.

Republican seats, Toss-up (14)

  • CO-4 (Rep. Musgrave): Many feel that Democrats had their best shot here two years ago, when they fell just short of picking-up a second Colorado House seat. Musgrave has always significantly underperformed in this GOP-leaning district, and Democrats are fielding Betsy Markey, a former aide to Senator Salazar. A recent internal poll released by the Markey campaign shows Musgrave held under 50% and leading by 4%.

  • CT-4 (Rep. Shays)
  • IL-10 (Rep. Kirk): Rep. Kirk knows he has a target on his back since the early days of the 2008 cycle and he thus made sure to be the highest fundraising Republican congressman. Last month, challenger Dan Seals  tried a stunt that had already been performed by many other Democratic campaigns across the country: he sold gas at the price at which it was sold when Kirk took office. But unlike similar events held elsewhere, Seals’ version somewhat backfired as many cars were turned away, the police intervened and Kirk asked for a vote-buying investigation to be launched. However, any Illinois Republican has a target on his back now that Obama is sure to top his party’s ticket and drive up Democratic turnout in his home-state.
  • KY-02 (Open)
  • MN-03 (Open): Rep. Ramstad’s retirement was an instant headache for Republicans in this swing district but at the time of my last ratings rumors were swirling that Ramstad would un-retire. That has not happened and both parties have now picked their nominee: Republicans picked state Rep. Paulsen. At the Democratic convention, early favorite state Senator Terri Bonoff surprisingly lost to Iraq War veteran Ashwin Madia. This race is still in its early stages and should thus be considered a toss-up but even a weak Democratic breeze would be enough to turn this seat blue.
  • NC-8 (Rep. Hayes)
  • NJ-07 (Open): Republicans nominated state Senator Lance Leonard to lead their party, defeating Kate Whitman, the former Governor’s daughter. The GOP’s obvious trouble in keeping any open seat — let alone one that is competitive on the presidential level — will make it hard for them to defeat Democrat Linda Stender who came close to unseating Rep. Ferguson in 2006.
  • NM-1 (Open): It would be a curious feat if Democrats pick-up NM-02 but not this district, as Heather Wilson’s seat has been one that Democrats have targeted for years. Wilson’s career ended on June 3rd with a defeat in her party’s Senate primary and she opened up her seat in the process. Her campaigning skills were the only reason Republicans were able to retain this Kerry-voting district but sheriff Darren White is one of the GOP’s main recruiting successes this cycle, as the NRCC is confident he will keep the race more competitive than other Republicans would have managed to. Democrats nominated Martin Heinrich, the early favorite and a former Albuquerque councilmember. Given the political environment, Democrats are favored in most open seats — let alone one that leans Democratic usually. Yet, this race should remain competitive and suspensful.

  • NY-26 (Open, upgraded): Rep. Tom Reynolds, the NRCC chairman in the 2006 cycle, unexpectedly retired since my last rankings, giving Democrats an opening in this traditionally Republican upstate New York. The GOP looks to have unified around businessman Christopher Lee but that was only after a disastrous recruitment effort in which the GOP’s top two choices declined to run for the seat — a problem that has haunted Republicans in this state more than in others. Thankfully for the GOP, the Democratic picture looks confused as 2006 nominee and unconventional (to put it politely) candidate Jack Davis wants the nomination and is looking to spend hundreds of thousands of his own money; actually, he is hoping to spend up to $3 million and to do that he has filed suit to overturn the millionaire amendment, which poses conditions on candidates’ self-funding… Meanwhile, most of the Democratic establishment is lined up behind Iraq war veteran Jon Powers. The New York primaries are very late, so if Davis decides to hit Powers it could give th GOP an unexpected boost in its effort to stay alive in New York State.
  • OH-01 (Rep. Chabot): State Rep. Driehaus is trying to unseat one of 2006’s unlikely survivors. Some Democrats point that OH-01 has an important black population and with predictions of an increased African-American turnout in November this is one race in which that could have an impact.
  • OH-15 (Open, downgraded): Mary Jo Kilroy unexpectedly lost her bid to unseat Rep. Pryce back in 2006 and when the Republican incumbent announced her retirement early in this cycle Kilroy was deemed the favorite. The fact that virtually every major Republican in the district passed on the race seemed to give Kilroy a pass in the general election but the NRCC managed to convince state Senator Steve Stivers to change his mind and jump in the race. The GOP is touting Stivers so highly that they at least look certain to devote some of their defensive resources to this race (the same cannot be said of every open seat the GOP will be defending) which warrants the downgrade to toss-up status. However, Kilroy remains a slight favorite. This is a district in which Bush and Kerry tied in 2004, and it will be difficult for the GOP to retain any such open seat. Furthermore, a poll conducted last month for the Kilroy campaign found her leading Stivers by 10%.
  • OH-16 (Open): On March 4th, Republicans selected state Sen. Kirk ¬≠Schuring to be their nominee. Schuring will run against Democratic state Senator John ¬≠Boccieri who has long been one of the DCCC’s most prized recruits.
  • WA-8 (Rep. Reichert): Challenger Darcy Burner lost by a thin margin in 2008 and is back for a rematch. The district leans Democratic, voted for Kerry and should go for Barack Obama in the fall which could help Burner. One of the biggest problems the Democrat faced two years ago was her political inexperience but now that she is running for the second time voters will feel more familiar with her, making it more difficult for the GOP to paint her as a risky vote.
  • WY-AL (Open, upgraded): One of the most Republican districts in the nation, WY-AL was downgraded to lean retention in my last rankings after Rep. Cubin announced she would not seek re-election. Given that most of the GOP’s past difficulties in holding this seat had come from her unpopularity, an open seat made it easier for Republicans to hold the seat. But Democratic special election successes this spring means that no open seat is safe from take-over as long as Democrats have a credible candidate, and Gary Trauner (their 2006 nominee) is very viable. A new Research 2000 survey shows him edging out GOP candidate Cynthia Lummis, confirming a January poll by Mason-Dixon.

Democratic seats, Toss-up (9)

  • CA-11 (Rep. McNerney): Republican state Rep. Dean Andal won his party’s nomination on June 3rd and he is being highly touted as a top recruit to take on Jerry McNerney, an incumbent Democrat in a district that leans Republican. Yet, the Democrats’ special election victories have made the 54% Bush got in this district look like an inconsequential GOP lean, though it is noteworthy that Andal won more votes than McNerney did on their respective primary ballots (both were running uncontested).
  • GA-8 (Rep. Marshall)
  • IL-08 (Rep. Bean)
  • IN-09 (Rep. Hill)
  • KS-02 (Rep. Boyda): The freshman’s incumbent main hope for re-election in this very Republican district is for the GOP primary between former Rep. Jim Ryun and state Treasurer Lynn Jenkins prevents the Kansas Republican Party — which has been divided for years between conservative and moderate wings — from uniting behind the nominee.
  • NH-01 (Rep. Shea-Porter): Shea-Porter is one of the rare freshman Democrats who is facing a rematch with the Republican representative she defeated  in 2006. Jeb Bradley wants his job back — given that this was the upset of the 2006 cycle he probably never fully integrated his defeat — and the latest poll of the race suggests this will be a tough hold for Democrats if Bradley is the Republican nominee. Shea-Porter just joined the DCCC’s Frontline program, meant to help Democratic incumbents raise money and prepare for their re-election; she had refused to join it through 2007, so her change of mind says a lot about her vulnerabilities.
  • OR-05 (Open): The GOP endangered its chances in one of the only competitive Democratic open seats because of the incredible levels of nastiness their primary reached. State Rep. Kevin Mannix attacked his opponent businessman Mike Erickson for getting a woman pregnant and paying for her abortion, leading the National Right to Life is calling for him to drop out of the race. Incredibly, Erickson survived these allegations and became the GOP nominee by the thinnest of margins, most probably because of the strength of early voting and ballots sent in before the scandal was exposed. This is the kind of primary that leaves traces in a general election.
  • PA-4 (Rep. Altmire): Melissa Hart, the Republican congresswoman Altmire defeated in 2006, is back for a rematch and it ought to be a tough one as this is a district that leans Republican and in which a Democratic victory was something of a last-minute surprise. But in the intervening two years Democrats have consolidated their position in Pennsylvania and the thousands of new registrations in the first few months of 2008 have altered the playing field in their favor.
  • PA-10 (Rep. Carney): Republicans nominated businessman Chris Hackett in what is sure to be a tough race for Carney in a district Bush won with 60% in 2004. PA-10 is the kind of district, however, in which Cazayoux and Childers’s victories should reassure the incumbent Democrat the most.

Republican seats, Lean retention (18)

  • AL-02 (Open, upgraded): Rep. Everett announced he was not running months ago, so why is this the first time I am adding the district to my ratings? MS-01 showed that even staunchly Republican districts are offering openings for Democrats, and they will be sure to seize them — who knows when the climate will be this favorable for them again? AL-05 gave 67% of its vote to Bush in 2004, clearly a huge percentage (even in MS-01 Bush “only” got 62%). But Democrats do have a candidate they believe will make this close,   Montgomery Mayor Bobby Bright… who Republicans also tried to recruit, underscoring just how conservative Democrats tend to be in this kind of district.
  • CA-04 (Open): A brutal and ideologically driven GOP primary was settled on June 3rd when Republicans chose to nominate the more-conservative candidate,  Tom McClintock. His very high-profile in California circles will help him raise money and attract attention, though some suggest that he might be too identified with ideologically pure conservatism to win in the fall. The district is very Republican, and Democrat Charlie Brown’s best shot might have been to face the ethically challenged incumbent. But he could pull it off if he attracts moderate Republicans disappointed in McClintock.
  • FL-13 (Rep. Buchanan)
  • FL-21 (Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart)
  • FL-24 (Rep. Feeney): Democrats are continuing to play up Feeney’s connections with Jack Abramoff and to tout the candidacy of former state Rep. Suzanne Kosmas.
  • IL-06 (Rep. Roskam)
  • IL-18 (Open): Aaron Schock, a state Representative who is the 26 year-old Republican nominee for this open seat, has already created a PAC, signaling his confidence that he will be elected in November and minimizing the competitiveness of the race he is engaged in now. It is true that Democrats did not field the strongest of candidates, but IL-18 is less Republican than other open seats the Democrats picked-up over the past few months.
  • LA-04 (Open, upgraded): The situation is the same as AL-05’s. This is a reliably conservative district that gave George Bush 58% of its vote in 2004. But no open seat seems safe for Republicans this year, and 58% is less than what Bush got in LA-06, which switched over to the Democrats’ side earlier this month revealing how much seats like LA-04 are also endangered. There is a wealth of candidates from both parties, so it will take a while to figure out the general election dynamics.
  • MI-07 (Rep. Walberg): Democratic state Sen. Mark Schauer is outraising the freshman incumbent, a sure sign that the DCCC will pay attention to his campaign in the coming months.
  • MI-09 (Rep. Knollenberg)
  • MO-06 (Rep. Graves): This race has gotten heated early as Sam Graves is using challenger Kay Barnes’s fundraising events with Nancy Pelosi to hit her with two ads accusing her of having “San Fransisco values” along with footage of disco dancing and colorful images depicting gay marriages and the homosexual lifestyle. Beyond  explicit gay-baiting, the aim of these ads is to alienate Barnes, the former Kansas City Mayor from the district’s non-urban voters. In response, the Democratic campaign is airing a brutal ad accusing Graves of neglecting the district’s true concern. Indeed, Graves’s tactics might not be adapted to a in a year in which the GOP brand is toxic and voters are giving signs of privileging non-value issues.
  • MO-09 (Open, upgraded): The NRCC was not too worried when Rep. Hulshof first announced he would retire from the House to seek the open gubernatorial seat as this is a Republican district in which Bush got 59% of the vote in 2004. But the Democrats’ special  election victories this spring mean that open seats like MO-09 are very vulnerable to take-over and Democrats realize they cannot afford to pass this opportunity. Both parties have crowded primaries in this district, with a number of former and current state Representatives seeking their party’s nod. The state primary is not until August 5th, so it will take us a while to have a better sense of the campaign’s dynamics.
  • MN-06 (Rep. Bachmann)
  • NM-02 (Open, upgraded): Steve Pearce’s retirement was not supposed to create that much of a headache for Republicans, but times are tough for the GOP when it comes to open seats and this is the type of Republican-leaning district that Democrats are confident they can make more competitive. On June 3rd, Democrat Harry Teague won a tight primary to become his party’s nominee and he will face Republican Edward Tinsley.
  • NV-03 (Rep. Porter): There has been some unexpected movement in this race over the past few months, as Robert Daskas, the presumptive Democratic nominee who was highly touted by the DCCC, unexpectedly dropped out in late April. Democrats were able to recover, however, as they quickly moved to convince Dina Titus, the state Senate Minority Leader and the party’s 2006 gubernatorial nominee, to jump in the race, guaranteeing that this remains a competitive race.
  • NY-29 (Rep. Kuhl)
  • OH-2 (Rep. Schmidt): In this rematch of their 2006 contest, which Schmidt won by 1%, Democrat Victoria Wulsin is outraising the incumbent and has positioned herself for an upset. But Democrats have suffered two heartbreaks in this district whose GOP leanings (it gave 63% of its vote to Bush in 2004) still appear too difficult to overcome, despite Schmidt’s unpopularity. Democratic hopes in past cycles were fueled by Republican divisions, as some GOPers in the district were hoping for another Republican to represent them but that factor is fading away as cycles are passing.
  • VA-02 (Rep. Drake): Democrats are upbeat about the chances of Glenn Nye, but Thelma Drake might have survived the worst by narrowly prevailing in a hotly contested race in 2006. A recent poll has her leading by double-digit but under 50 percent — a little bit for both candidates to celebrate. Like OH-01 (see above), increased black turnout have have an impact in this race.

Democratic seats, Lean retention (13)

  • AZ-5 (Rep. Mitchell)
  • AZ-8 (Rep. Giffords)
  • CT-5 (Rep. Murphy)
  • GA-12 (Rep. Barrow)
  • IN-7 (Rep. Carson, downgraded): Andre Carson replaced his grandmother mid-March in a special election. Republicans believed they had a strong candidate, state Rep. Elrod, but Carson prevailed in this blue-leaning district by 11%. The special could have been tighter had Republicans had invested resources in helping Elrod but the NRCC did not have enough money to do that — a concrete example of the limitation the House GOP is facing because of their fundraising weakness.
  • KS-03 (Rep. Moore)
  • KY-03 (Rep. Yarmuth)
  • LA-06 (Rep. Cazayoux, changed parties): Coming soon
  • MS-01 (Rep. Childers, changed parties): Coming soon
  • NY-19 (Rep. Hall, upgraded): Republicans had made freshman Rep. John Hall one of their top targets until their much touted candidate dropped out of the race in mid-November. Followed 5 months of confusion in which the NRCC struggled to find a replacement. They had given up when George Oros, the leader of the Westchester County Legislature, announced he would take on Hall, drawing the immediate support of the GOP establishment. Republicans have such a late start by now that it will be hard for them to live up to their potential, but this is a rare seat in which their situation has improved over the past 4 months.
  • NY-20 (Rep. Gillbrand)
  • MN-1 (Rep. Walz)
  • WI-8 (Rep. Kagen)

Republican seats, potentially competitive (14)

  • CA-52 (open)
  • FL-8 (Rep. Keller)
  • FL-15 (open): I forgot to add this seat to my previous rating, though it ought to have been on my list ever since Rep. Weldon announced that he would retire and leave this Republican-leaning seat open. Bush won this district with 57% in 2004, making it winnable for the opposing party but this is a rare race in which Democrats have failed the recruitment game as their favorite candidate, Nancy Higgs, abruptly dropped out of the race in February while the GOP has united around state Sen. Bill Posey. Democrats will need a very strong wind to move numbers in this district.

  • FL-25 (Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart): This is the second of two Southern Florida districts which Democrats are trying to pick-up in a battle between Cuban-Americans, the other being FL-21. This Diaz-Balart is facing Joe Garcia, the former chairman of the Miami-Dade Democratic Party and the former director of the Cuban American National Foundation. This is a district that leans Republican and Cuban-Americans tend to vote for the GOP, so Garcia will need to convince them to have any shot at unseating the incumbent.

  • ID-01 (Rep. Sali, upgraded): This is one of the most conservative districts in the country, and Bill Sali did the most difficult in 2006 by capturing an open race when most of the state GOP was attacking him.  Yet, Sali won a surprisingly tight primary on May 27th, as he was held to 60% by an underfunded challenger, suggesting that Republican divisions have not yet been resolved. Democratic challenger Walt Minnick has more cash-on-hand than Sali as of May. But Democrats are the underdog here even when everything aligns for them.
  • MD-01 (Open, upgraded): State Senator Andy Harris defeated Rep. Gilchrest in a primary on February 12th, making the seat nominally open. MD-01 has a clear Republican lean, so Harris starts out as the heavy favorite; but an open seat with a defeated incumbent can bring surprises, especially if Gilchrest supporters remain bitter.
  • NY-03 (Rep. King)
  • OH-07 (Open): George Bush won 57% here in 2004, which is less than his share of the vote in LA-06 and MS-01. An internal poll for the Democratic candidate finds Republican state Senator Auria leading by only 6%, though we have to wonder whether Democrats can win in such a district without their strongest candidate, as their first choice declined months ago explaining it was too Republican a seat.
  • OH-14 (Rep. LaTourette)
  • PA-03 (Rep. English): Surprised by English’s unexpectedly low 54% in 2006, Democrats are confident they can test the incumbent more actively this time. Kathy Dahlkemper won the Democratic nomination on April 22nd.

  • PA-06 (Rep. Gerlach, downgraded): A rare Democratic recruitment disappointment, PA-06 should have been at the top of the DCCC’s priority list. But after two very close contests in 2004 and 2006, Democrats have eased the pressure on Gerlach in a district narrowly carried by Kerry. The Democratic nominee will be retired businessman Bob Roggio, and while the national environment is anti-Republican enough that anything will happen, Gerlach demonstrated two years ago that he is a tough code to crack.  
  • PA-15 (Rep. Dent)
  • PA-18 (Rep. Murphy)
  • WV-02 (Rep. Capito)

Democratic seats, potentially competitive (10)

  • CT-2 (Rep. Courtney)
  • IL-14 (Rep. Foster, changed parties): The former seat of Dennis Hastert fell into Democratic hands in March, in the first of the three shocking Democratic victories. IL-14 was also the least Republican of the three, but it still gave Bush more than 55% of the vote in 2004. The Republican candidate in the special election, Jim Oberweis, was a flawed candidate who had lost  elections before and was denounced in state papers for his negative campaigning. The mere fact that he will represent the GOP again in November makes it improbable that Foster will be much threatened. Not to mention that the NRCC wasted enough money defending this seat in March that they will stay away from Oberweis in the fall.
  • IN-02 (Rep. Donnelly): The filing deadline passed in Indiana and Donnelly attracted minor opposition in a district the GOP had vowed to take back this year.
  • IN-08 (Rep. Ellsworth, downgraded): The situation is similar to IN-02. This is a Republican-enough seat that I gave the GOP the benefit of the doubt until now. They insisted that they would make this seat very competitive, but they are sending a former congressional aide, Greg Goode, against a Democrat who atomized his opponent, an incumbent, in 2006.
  • NH-02 (Rep. Hodes): The GOP is concentrating its resources on NH-01, where Rep. Shea-Porter is much more endangered than Hordes. And given that the Senate race will also require heavy GOP attention, there won’t be much left for them to go after Hordes. The same poll that showed Shea-Porter in danger also shows Hordes costing to re-election.
  • OH-18 (Rep. Space, downgraded): Given the district’s conservative nature, Zach Space was expected to receive one of the strongest challenges of any incumbent. But many Republicans declined to run and the party’s nomination was left in the hands of Fred Dailey, the state’s former agriculture director. Dailey’s fundraising has been anemic, especially compared to Space’s fast-paced campaign, and no one is really paying attention to this race anymore. This is a stunning turnaround considering the GOP’s determination 18 months ago.
  • PA-07 (Rep. Sestak)
  • PA-08 (Rep. Murphy)
  • PA-11 (Rep. Paul Kanjorski)
  • TX-23 (Rep. Rodriguez)

Full Senate 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.

Outlook: 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.

For the rest of the rankings, including the lean retention seats (Oregon, North Carolina) and the quickly developing second-tier races (Texas, Oklahoma), check the full rankings here, on Campaign Diaries.  

Governors rankings: The top four races get more interesting

Presidential years are not the most active in terms of gubernatorial races, and 2008 is no exception, with only 11 states holding elections, only 5 of which are not entirely safe for the incumbent party. But there has been some movement within those 5 races, as many of them have gotten considerably (and unexpectedly) more competitive in the past few months.

The retirement of Gov. Blunt in Missouri, the heated Democratic primaries in North Carolina and Indiana, the candidacy of Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory, and Dino Rossi’s attempts to rouse passions in Washington all guarantee that these 4 states will remain competitive to November and keep things interesting on the gubernatorial front. And since both parties control 2 of these 4 most contested governorships, Republicans can at least be relieved that things look more even-handed here than in the Senate and the House.

The previous gubernatorial ratings, written in December, are available here.

Toss-up (2 R, 1 D)

1. Missouri (Open)

Missouri’s gubernatorial race made a lot of news comparatively to other gubernatorial races. The showdown between Republican Gov. Blunt and Democratic Attorney General Jay Nixon had started as early as 2004, and the incumbent’s growing unpopularity had given the early lead to Nixon. But Blunt unexpectedly announced his retirement in late January.

Republicans hurried to find a nominee and they will now have to decide between two strong candidates, congressman Kenny Hulshof and state Treasurer Sarah Steelman. Either  would keep the race competitive but Nixon undoubtedly has a head start given that he has been preparing his campaign for so long — and that the state’s voters have turned sour on their Republican administration.

2. North Carolina (Open; Previous ranking: 4)

Republican at the federal level, North Carolina remains blue at the state level, and Democrats looked favored to keep the governor’s mansion next year with two strong candidates — Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue and state Treasurer Richard Moore — battling for the Democratic nomination. But two factors have made the race more competitive.

(1) The Democratic primary is staying very competitive and now going negative, with Moore needing to shake up the race to contest Perdue’s early edge. (2) Republicans got a potentially very competitive candidate in the race with with the entry of Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory. Polls show McCrory in toss-ups against both Perdue and Moore, with the Democrats holding the slightest of edges.

The GOP primary is also contested, however, and it remains unclear who will emerge to claim the party’s nod. We will now more about the state of play in North Carolina after the May 6th primary.

3. Indiana (Gov. Daniels; Previous ranking: 2)

Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels is certainly unpopular and vulnerable, but it is difficult to precisely assess the general election before Democrats settle their nomination race on May 6th. Architect Jim Schellinger has been the establishment’s favored candidate and has far outraised his opposition, but former Rep. Jill Long Thompson could emerge the winner due to higher name recognition. The Indianapolis Star reports that Schellinger’s campaign has been a disappointment while Thompson has been very active and that his fundraising edge could be drowned amidst the presidential race if Clinton and Obama spend millions in ads here in the next few weeks.

Lean Retention (2 D)

4. Washington (Gov. Gregoire; Previous ranking: 3)

The 2004 campaign never really stopped in Washington, where Republican Dino Rossi lost by 129 votes on the third count after leading the first two ballot counts. Christine Gregoire started off a controversial term and has done her best to overcome the partisan rancor of her first election. Rossi announced his second gubernatorial candidacy in late 2007, and he has been campaigning hard since then, hoping to rouse the passions of 2004, bringing up the recount on the trail to undermine the legitimacy of Gregoire’s incumbency. This race will be tight (and bitter) to the end but Gregoire has been able to somewhat regain her footing over the past few years and built some good will which give her a slight edge to start with.

Check the full rankings with all 11 races here.

House ratings: As many more races get competitive, Democrats keep edge in House

Now that the primaries are slowly quieting down and that delegate calculation are no longer a full time job, we can get back to the joy of ranking congressional races. My last House rankings came in mid-November, and the 4 months that have passed since then have been a political eternity. There have been a number of high-profile retirements, including the first Democrat to retire from a competitive seat in OR-05; but open seats are clearly a Republican headache in this cycle, with many GOP congressmen calling it quits since November, some of them in districts that Democrats are already salivating over (such as NY-25 and VA-11). And while many retirements are in districts that look safe for the GOP (LA-06 and KY-02, for example), their cumulated impact forces the NRCC to play defense and stretches Republican resources even further.

Both parties have also scored recruitment coups in the past few months, and gotten some disappointing news. Here again, the GOP has much more to worry about; it even finds itself without a candidate in IL-11, an open seat that has sky-rocketed at the top of the Democratic priority list. But Republicans also have some bright spots: They for instance convinced former Rep. Anne Northup to run for her old seat in KY-03 and are keeping  NM-01 much more competitive than many observers expected. And Republicans got encouraging news in December when they successfully defended two districts in special elections, particularly in OH-05 where the DCCC believed it could snatch a seat away.

Overall, all this movement is pushing many more races towards the top of these ratings and we should expect a few more surprises before the retirement and recruitment season comes to a  close. We should already get a better sense of the mood of the country and what to expect in November with two special elections in the coming weeks in IN-07 and IL-14.

I have only written full descriptions of seats that have made news over the past month. For detailed descriptions of the other races, check last month’s rankings. Only a few seats saw their rating change in the past month. I indicated upgraded or downgraded next to them to indicate whether they became more vulnerable or less vulnerable for the incumbent party. Here is the quick run-down:

  • Less vulnerable: CA-04, NY-19, PA-06, OH-18
  • More vulnerable: FL-21, IL-11, IL-14, KY-02, KY-03, LA-06, MD-01, MO-09, NJ-03, NY-25, OR-05, PA-11, VA-11
  • Off the list: OH-05

Outlook: Democrats pick-up  9-14 seats.

Republican seats, Likely take-over (1)

  • IL-11 (Open, Upgraded): The GOP’s recruitment woes had already pushed this seat to “Lean Takeover” in the fall. Democrats got a top-tier candidate — state Senate President Debbie Halvorson — while Republicans failed to do the same. Things have gotten even worse since then for the GOP, as their nominee — New Lenox Mayor Tim Baldermann — dropped out two weeks after the primary. This actually could prove a blessing to Republicans if they manage to get a stronger candidate (who would not have to face a primary), but it has been months they have failed to do just that and right now Halvorson is running unopposed — and raising a lot of money. Until the GOP replaces Baldermann, this race has to be considered the top pick-up opportunity for Dems.

Republican seats, Lean take-over (5)

  • AZ-1 (Open): Rep. Renzi had already announced his retirement in this swing district, and Democrats have a strong field of candidates. But Renzi has now been indicted on 36 charges of corruption, and some in the House leadership are pushing him to resign. That would create a competitive open seat in which Democrats would have an even better chance of winning given the turnout differential in this year’s races.
  • NJ-03 (Open, Upgraded): The less dramatic version of IL-11, NJ-03 could fall in the Democratic column easily because of a recruitment differential. After Rep. Saxton retired in this competitive district, Democrats coalesced around state Senator John Adler (who was already running) while the top potential GOP contender declined to run. Bush very narrowly carried the district in 2004, but Adler is favored to pick up the seat this year.
  • NY-25 (Open, Upgraded): This seat has emerged as one of the RNCC’s biggest headaches. One of the 8 remaining Republican-held districts that Kerry carried in 2004, NY-25 was barely kept in the GOP column by Rep. Walsh in 2006 — by 2,005 votes. Now, Walsh has retired and the Democrats appear to be coalescing around their nominee from last cycle, Dan Maffei. This will be a tough seat for the GOP to hold, particularly in a presidential year.
  • OH-15 (Open)
  • VA-11 (Open, Upgraded): Rep. Tom Davis finally announced his plans to leave his Northern Virginia seat next year, opening up a seat in a rapidly Democratic-trending region. Dems are running two strong candidates, state Sen. (and former Rep.) Leslie Bryne and Gerry Connolly, the chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. The Republican candidate will likely be Keith Fimian, a businessman with self-funding abilities. An idea of how uphill a climb this race could be for the GOP is provided by the 2005 statewide election results: Leslie Byrne narrowly lost the Lieutenant Governor race that year, but she trounced her Republican opponent within VA-11.

Democratic seats, Lean take-over (1)

  • FL-16 (Rep. Mahoney)

Republican seats, Toss-up (12)

  • AK-AL (Rep. Young):  The day of reckoning might be getting near for Alaska Republicans, embroiled in a giant corruption investigation that is also threatening Senator Stevens.  Rep. Young  is facing a very strong challenger, Ethan Berkowitz, but even believers in the Democrat’s chances here were surprised when an independent poll showed Young trailing by 7%. And that was barely better than the 15% deficit Young was facing in a late November internal Democratic poll.
  • CO-4 (Rep. Musgrave)
  • CT-4 (Rep. Shays)
  • IL-10 (Rep. Kirk): Most of the attention in this race was devoted to the Democratic primary, which was held on February 5th, but it ended in a blow-out. Dan Seals won with 81%, setting up a rematch of the 2006 race against Rep. Kirk. Seals can expect to receive more attention from the DCCC this time around.
  • KY-02 (Open, upgraded): Complete chaos erupted in this race on January 30th, when Rep. Lewis retired quite literally at the last minute, in a ploy to allow his chief of staff to get the GOP nomination. But state Senator Guthrie heard of this time to jump in the race, setting up a wholly unexpected Republican primary. The winner will face state Senator David Boswell, whom Democrats have long been touting.  This seat is very Republican (Bush won with 65%) but depending on the outcome of the GOP primary things could shape up to the Democrats’ advantage.
  • MN-03 (Open): There were rumors back in the fall that Rep. Ramstad might un-retire, which would be a huge boost for Republicans in a swing district. But most indications since then have been that the retirement is definite. Will Rep. Shadegg’s recent un-retirement cause Ramstad to reconsider?  In any cae, Republicans have a candidate they believe will be strong in November,  state Sen. Erik Paulsen.
  • NC-8 (Rep. Hayes)
  • NJ-07 (Open): Democrats had their candidate as soon as Rep. Ferguson announced his retirement a few months ago, as Linda Stender (who lost narrowly in 06) was back for a rematch. Republican recruitment here is not as worrisome as in other open seats, with Kate Whitman, the daughter of former Governor Christie Whitman, headlining the competitive primary.
  • NM-1 (Open, Downgraded): NM-01, a blue-leaning district that Kerry carried in 04, is an unlikely place to one of the rare open seat bright spots for the GOP. But Republicans believe in the candidacy of Sheriff Darren White (an internal poll showed him leading in the general) while Democrats have to deal with a major primary between high-profile figures. The dynamics here could change after the primary but the early script is what the GOP was hoping for.    
  • OH-1 (Rep. Chabot)
  • OH-16 (Open)
  • WA-8 (Rep. Reichert)

Democratic seats, Toss-up (11)

  • CA-11 (Rep. McNerney)
  • GA-8 (Rep. Marshall)
  • IL-8 (Rep. Bean): The Feb. 5th primaries delivered Bean’s Republican challenger, businessman Steve Greenberg. Bean will probably have very few calm cycles in her House careers, as she sits on Republican territory. But Barack Obama’s probable heading of the Democratic ticket coupled with the fact that she is very aware of the danger and prepares herself accordingly will make her a tough target.
  • IN-7 (Open): Rep. Carson’s death earlier this year created a special election in this Democratic leaning district. Democrats selected Andre Carson, the former Rep.’s grandson, while the GOP fielded a much touted candidate, state Rep. Jon Elrod. The most recent public poll was taken a few weeks ago and shows a toss-up, though the consensus seems to be that the district is too unfavorable to Republicans for Elrod to have a chance. Ultimately, what is really hurting Elrod is the NRCC’s lack of funds, as they are not able to truly test the relatively weak Carson.
  • IN-09 (Rep. Hill): The filing deadline passed in Indiana, confirming that the 2008 race will be the fourth straight confrontation between Democrat Baron Hill and Republican Sodrel. The former won in 2002 and 2006, and the latter in 2004.
  • KS-2 (Rep. Boyda)
  • NH-1 (Rep. Shea-Porter)
  • OR-05 (Open, Upgraded): Rep. Hooley’s surprise retirement is the first open seat headache Democrats are facing this year, and it could be a very difficult one for the DCCC to hold. Bush won this district by 1% in 2004, testifying to its being one of the tightest in the country. Republicans are already excited about their candidate, Mike Erickson, who is a wealthy self-funder who already ran in 2006 and got a very respectable 43%.
  • PA-4 (Rep. Altmire)
  • PA-10 (Rep. Carney)
  • TX-22 (Rep. Lampson)

For the rest of the ratings (and there are MANY more very interesting seats to go, including all the lean retentions and potentially competitives), go here on Campaign Diaries.