September was an awful month for the GOP: John Warner and Hagel retired, Shaheen and Mark Warner jumped in for Democrats… October started much the same way, as New Mexico’s Pete Domenici announced he would not run for re-election, opening up yet another very vulnerable seat. But Democrats then ran into a bad patch of their own that culminated in the disastrous news that Bob Kerrey would not run in Nebraska. That by itself made a race that was leaning towards Democrats become a likely hold for Republicans. Meanwhile, the shuffle in New Mexico has still not been resolved, with Democrats scrambling to find a strong candidate.
That Nebraska and New Mexico have dominated Senate news in the past month is obvious in these new rankings: New Mexico rose from the 11th to 4th, while Nebraska collapsed from 4th to 13th (Reminder: Races are organized in order of vulnerability, so that the first ranked race is the most likely to turn-over). But there was some other movement: The departure of Tom Davis from the Virginia Senate race solidified the contest’s number one ranking, while Democrats are significantly more upbeat this month about their chances in Kentucky and even in North Carolina. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (KY) should be worried at the Democratic determination to avenge Tom Dashle’s 2004 loss and target him for defeat.
The Senate situation is still very fluid with more retirement and recruitment rumors floating around, so that a lot of things could still change in the coming months. But an increasing number of races are settling down, so that we are starting to get a clearer idea of which states are likely to be hotly contested.
Outlook: Democratic pick-up 4-7 Senate seats.
Prediction: Democrats pick-up a net 5 seats, for a 56-41 majority.
Full rankings are available here, on Campaign Diaries. The lean take-over and toss-up seats are listed here.
Likely Takeover (1 Republican seat, 0 Democratic seats)
1. Virginia (Open seat; Previous Ranking: 1)
A month after Virginia rose to the top of these rankings, it appears to have permanently secured its place as the most vulnerable seat of the 2008 cycle. The Republicans shot themselves in the foot when their Central Committee voted to choose the party’s nominee at a party convention rather than in a primary. As a result, Rep. Tom Davis, who had been preparing to run for Senate for years, decided to stay out of the race. His moderate profile would have made a win in a party convention very difficult considering the more conservative candidacy of former Governor Jim Gilmore. And if the Republicans had one hope to make this race competitive next year, it was that Davis would be able to pick-up votes in his base of Northern Virginia, thus cutting the margins in the bluest region of the state. Polls continue to show Warner has a strong edge against Gilmore, and that cannot be accounted by name recognition as both men are well-known statewide.
Lean Takeover (2 Republican Seats, 0 Democratic Seats)
2. New Hampshire (Incumbent: John Sununu; Previous ranking: 2)
Former Governor Shaheen continues to be the worst nightmare for Senator John Sununu. Polls this past month confirmed that Shaheen was looking strong and was favored against the man who beat her five years ago. Sununu is certainly not out of it though; he mounted a very strong campaign in 2002, defeating the incumbent senator in the primary and the incumbent governor in the general election. Republicans will at least try to defend the seat, and they could definitely narrow the margin. But New Hampshire’s Democratic turn in 2006 was so strong that the GOP is unlikely to easily overcome it. They might choose to focus their attention to reclaiming at least one of the House seats.
3. Colorado (Open; Previous ranking: 3)
Colorado is one of the quietest top-tier races, mostly of how early Senator Allard announced his retirement. Both parties settled on a candidate early, and primaries will not be particularly contested. Democrats are running Rep. Udall, and Republicans are running former Rep. Shaffer. In the past month, the second poll of the race was released and showed a tie between the two candidates — though it had a very high undecided rate. And middle-of-the-road voters are precisely those that broke Democratic in 2004 and 2006. Democrats picked up a Senator’s seat, the governorship and two House seats in two cycles, and there is no reason to think that Colorado independents are moving back in the Republican column. Udall is favored to pull away ride this blue trend across the finish line, though the race could certainly remain tight to the end.
Toss-up (4 R, 1 D)
4. New Mexico (Incumbent: Pete Domenici; Last Ranking: 11)
New Mexico has been the big story of October. Pete Domenici announced a surprise retirement at the beginning of the month, setting off much movement among state officials. New Mexico is a swing state in most elections, and politicians from both parties see this as a major opening. On the Republican side, the two major candidates are Heather Wilson and Steve Pearce, two of the three House representatives from New Mexico. Wilson is supposed to be more moderate than Pearce, which has enabled her to survive cycle after cycle in her Democratic-leaning district (she won by 800 votes in 2006). Wilson is lining up more institutional support, but polls have shown Pearce is running stronger in the general election. The main factor against Wilson is her involvement in the attorney firing scandal — that could hurt her in the primary, but especially in the general election.
On the Democratic side, the big question is whether Rep. Tom Udall will run after all. He ruled it out very quickly weeks ago, but he has been reconsidering in recent days, likely due to intense lobbying from the DSCC. All indications are that he will indeed jump in. If he does, he will start off slightly favored in the general election against either Wilson or Pearce. He has been elected statewide before (he was a two-term Attorney General), and he is a very popular figure. But he would first have to overcome a primary. Albuquerque Mayor Martin Chavez, very much disliked by progressives, is also running. Chavez would stay very competitive in the general election, though he would certainly not start off favored.
5. Louisiana (Incumbent: Mary Landrieu; Last Ranking: 6)
Republicans are feeling better about this race after Bobby Jindal’s blowout victory in the governor’s race last month. Granted, Jindal was not facing any significant opposition from Democrats, but his first-round triumph with 54% was nonetheless impressive. Louisiana was trending Republican even before Katrina hit, but Republicans are quite confident that Landrieu has lost much of her base because of hurricane migrations and that newly-turned-Republican state Treasurer John Kennedy will end up the victor.
However, the Republican case should not be overstated. Mitch Landrieu, Senator Landrieu’s brother, overwhelmingly won his re-election race as Lieutenant Governor the same day as Jindal’s victory. Granted, he was not facing much opposition either, but Democrats are not out in the state, and the Landrieu family name still carries some weight in the state.
6. Minnesota (Incumbent: Norm Coleman; Last Ranking: 5)
Just like in Colorado, the field has been set long ago in Minnesotta, which means that the race has been mostly quiet. Coleman and his challengers Al Franken and Mike Ciresi are all busy raising money — lots of it. Coleman also made news recently by endorsing Giuliani in the presidential primary, not that that will have a major impact on his senatorial race. Some Democrats still worry that Franken will not be very strong in the general election, though much stranger things have happened in American politics and many reports have emphasized how well Franken has been able to transition from comedian to politician. It is strange, however, that the DSCC has not pressured more politically experienced Democrats who could potentially be stronger into running.
7. Oregon (Incumbent: Gordon Smith; Last Ranking: 8)
Democrats are confident that Gordon Smith is vulnerable, though they did not convince their top-tier candidates to jump in the race. Ducking it out in the primary are House Speaker Jeff Merkley and Steve Novick, with the former favored by the establishment. Democrats they have to weaken Smith early on, especially considering the large amounts of money the incumbent has been raising. Smith’s main vulnerability is the national anti-GOP environment, and Dems are trying to challenge the image of Smith as a moderate politician. Merkley recently blasted Smith for voting to confirm federal Court of Appeals nominee Leslie Southwick whose nomination was very controversial, especially on the basis of Soultwick’s racial insensitivity.