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)