So with eight months to go, I figure it’s time for an updated look at all the 2008 Senate races. There are 35 seats up for election because of a scenario in Wyoming and Mississippi where both seats are up, due to the passing of Craig Thomas and the resignation of Trent Lott, respectively. Now obviously, quite a few of the races are considered “safe” for the incumbent. So I’ll rank these in terms of tiers. The top tier will be the races where there is a serious challenger to the incumbent (or at least the incumbent’s party, in cases of retirement), where the party holding the seat has a real shot of switching. The second tier are races that could become top tier races, but are not at this point. Tier III are ones where a major event would need to happen for the seat to come into play. And the safe seats? Well, Mike Gravel has a better shot at winning the presidency than those incumbents have of losing their races.
Note: Some of this may seem repetitive, with information you already know. That’s because I originally wrote this for the Bruin Democrats, many of whom don’t follow the national races like we do. Consider this a primer for both newcomers and political junkies alike.
1. Virginia: Incredibly popular former Governor Mark Warner (D) is running for this seat that opened up when John Warner (R), no relation, announced his retirement. Warner left the governorship with a whopping 80% approval rating. That’s freaking unheard of. He’ll face another former Governor, Jim Gilmore (R), who some of you may remember tried running for President last year. Gilmore was known as the governor who helped drive the state into near-bankruptcy with his car tax cut, and Warner as the one who fixed the problem when he took over for Gilmore. Rasmussen Reports released a poll two weeks ago showing Mark Warner would CRUSH Jim Gilmore, 57%-37%.
2. New Hampshire: John Sununu (R) is about to become 2008’s version of Rick Santorum. Democrats could run a ham sandwich against him, and it would be a competitive race. No, really. But why settle for a ham sandwich when you can run the former governor? Jeanne Shaheen (D), who Sununu beat in 2002 thanks to some illegal phone-jamming on Election Day for which several GOP operatives went to prison, has led Sununu in almost every single poll taken. The latest from the University of New Hampshire shows her leading 54%-37%. Rasmussen shows a closer race, with her leading 49%-41%. A general rule of thumb: any incumbent polling under 50% in an election poll is in trouble. Under 40%, and you can start writing their political obituary. Add to that, the fact New Hampshire strongly went blue in 2006 all over the place, kicking out both Republican Congressmen and flipping over 80 seats in the state House, giving Democrats control of both state legislature for the first time since 1910, and Sununu has to be considered the most endangered incumbent.
3. New Mexico: When Pete Domenici (R) announced he was retiring, it suddenly turned this former Tier III seat into a top tier race. Rep. Tom Udall (D) announced for this seat shortly thereafter. Yes, he is part of the famed Udall political family; his father Stewart served as Interior Secretary under JFK, and his uncle Mo was an Arizona Congressman for 30 years, also running for President in 1976. Stewart Udall was largely responsible for just about all the environmental laws that were passed in the 1960s. The GOP side will feature a primary fight between Reps. Heather Wilson and Steve Pearce. So the entire New Mexico U.S. House delegation is running for this Senate seat! Before Udall even entered the race, hypothetical matchups from Research 2000 and SurveyUSA showed him crushing both GOP opponents by over 15 points. But a more recent Rasmussen poll shows a closer race, though with Udall still hitting the 50% mark in both matchups. The main New Mexico blog questioned the accuracy of the poll, given their matchup showing Obama tied with McCain, defying the trends you see in other states.
4. Minnesota: Norm Coleman (R) won this seat in 2002 only after Paul Wellstone (D) died just a few weeks before the election. With two top challengers in comedian Al Franken and lawyer Mike Ciresi, Coleman had a change of heart on Iraq, actually criticizing Bush over his handling of Iraq for the first time in years. And the polls have been steadily favoring the Democrats, especially Franken. While earlier polls showed Coleman leading by double digits (though under the 50% mark), both Democrats have been steadily closing the gap. And in February, three polls came out showing Al Franken either leading Coleman or basically tied: Minnesota Public Radio (Franken 43.2%, Coleman 40%), Rasmussen (Franken 49%, Coleman 46%), and SurveyUSA (Coleman 47%, Franken 46%). Ciresi doesn’t seem to do as well. Franken is showing himself to be much more than just a comedian. In 2007, he raised close to $7 million from over 81,000 people! The Minnesota SEIU, a decent-sized union, just endorsed Franken too. In case you’re wondering, there’s no “primary” for the Democrats, but rather the nominee will be picked at the party convention this June among about 1,400 delegates.
5. Colorado: Wayne Allard (R) kept his pledge of only serving two terms, and is retiring from the Senate. Democrats have cleared the path for Rep. Mark Udall here. He’s Mo Udall’s son, and Tom Udall’s cousin. On the GOP side, former Rep. Bob Schaffer is the likely nominee. Colorado has been trending bluer recently, picking up a Senate seat in 2004 (Ken Salazar), and a congressional district and the governor’s office in 2006. Schaffer had previously lost the GOP primary for that Senate seat back in 2004 to Pete Coors. At the end of 2007, Udall was sitting on a $3.6 million warchest, with Schaffer trailing by over $2 million. Money isn’t everything, but damn. Dick Wadhams (no, really, that’s his name) is taking over Schaffer’s campaign. Wadhams got Allard first elected to the Senate, and became a rising start in the GOP for managing John Thune’s 2004 win over Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle in South Dakota. But, he was also in charge of managing George Allen’s 2006 re-election bid in Virginia, sending him from a 20-point lead seven months out to defeat. (Allen revealing his inner racist greatly helped, too.) However, recent Rasmussen polling shows Schaffer barely edging out Udall, so this race is far from a given pickup.
6. Louisiana: Mary Landrieu (D) is the most endangered Democratic incumbent in 2008. But how endangered that really is remains to be seen. She was able to win in 2002, a decidedly strong year for the GOP. Karl Rove was able to woo state treasurer John Kennedy (no relation to the Kennedy family in Massachusetts) to switch parties to run for re-election to State Treasurer as a Republican last August, and after winning, he announced he would challenge Landrieu for her Senate seat. Party switching actually seems rather common in Louisiana. And hundreds of thousands of residents from New Orleans and the surrounding areas never came back to the state after Hurricane Katrina, making it even more red than it used to be. Bobby Jindal (R) didn’t even need a runoff to win the governor’s race last year, getting over 50% of the vote on the first ballot and performing stronger than expected. So that doesn’t bode well for Landrieu’s chances. The good news for her is that she raised over twice as much as Kennedy did in the fourth quarter last year (October – December) and has almost 10 times as cash on hand as he does.
7. Alaska: Ted Stevens (R) is always a candidate for retirement, being 85 years old now, but says he will seek a sixth term. But Stevens is in some legal trouble, with the FBI having raided his home last June in connection with possible bribes from Veco Corp., where several executives have already pled guilty to bribing his son Ben, who was the former state senate president. Former Veco CEO Bill Allen admitted some bribe money also went towards Ted Stevens. Democrats got their top choice when Anchorage mayor Mark Begich announced he was forming an exploratory committee (the first step in running). His father Nick Begich was a former Congressman, who was killed in a plane crash along with House Majority Leader Hale Boggs (D-LA) in 1972. A Research 2000 poll from December showed Begich already leading Stevens 47%-41%.
8. Oregon: Gordon Smith (R) has two challengers in lawyer/activist Steve Novick (D) and Oregon House Speaker Jeff Merkley (D). Smith’s approvals from 2007 are not as good as they were in 2006 and before. We’ll see if that trend continues. The state party itself is in financial trouble too, facing over a quarter million dollars in debt, and the IRS is calling for some missing payroll taxes. Rasmussen polling still shows Smith with double digit leads over both Democrats, but he is under the 50% mark. Interesting to note, Smith is actually a cousin to the two Udalls running for Senate.
9. Maine: Susan Collins (R) doesn’t have the stature that fellow Senator Olympia Snowe (R) has. Rep. Tom Allen (D) is running to challenge Collins. But even though Maine is a blue state, he’ll have an uphill climb. Collins has worked hard to craft her moderate credentials. The most recent polls all show Collins over the 50% mark, with almost 20-point leads over Allen. And the Maine newspapers suck. I mean, really suck.
10. Texas: John Cornyn (R) has some pretty anemic poll numbers, and the immigration issue seems to have triggered a change in the Latino community. State rep. Rick Noriega (D) got a nice boost when wealthy trial attorney Mikal Watts (D) dropped out of the race and threw his support to Noriega, ensuring a united Democratic front against Cornyn in November. Noriega is also Lt. Col. in the Texas National Guard, served in Afghanistan after 9/11, and was chosen to coordinate relief efforts in Houston after Hurricane Katrina. Earlier polling shows Texans are largely dissatisfied with Cornyn, and a baseline poll from last September showed Cornyn beating Noriega 51%-35%, with only 40% saying Cornyn deserved re-election. And that was before Watts dropped out of the Democratic primary. The Texas GOP seems to be concerned about this race, as they recently demanded Noriega release his military records… to them. Instead, Noriega released his records to the entire public and denounced their swiftboating tactics at the same time. Well played, sir. However, the fundraising numbers are troubling, with Cornyn having outraised Noriega by more than a 4-to-1 margin in the fourth quarter, and Noriega trailed by almost $7 million in cash on hand to end the year.
I decided, for the sake of my own sanity, not to try to rank the Tier II and III races. These are given in alphabetical order, by state.
Kentucky: Even though Mitch McConnell (R) became the Senate Minority Leader, he is a top target of the Democrats. And with former Governor Ernie Fletcher (R) losing his re-election bid to Steve Beshear (D) 59%-41% last November, that made Kentucky Democrats even more confident. But then Kentucky Attorney General Greg Stumbo (D) and State Auditor Crit Luallen (D) both declined to run, and netroots favorite Lt. Col. Andrew Horne (D), a Marine who has served in both the Persian Gulf War and the Iraq War, dropped his bid. Rasmussen had shown both Stumbo and Luallen holding McConnell under the 50% mark, and for the Senate Minority Leader who can bring home the pork, that showed significant dissatisfaction with McConnell in Kentucky. Now, the Democratic establishment seems to have coalesced around wealthy businessman Bruce Lunsford, who’s lost several primaries before, and ticked off a lot of Democrats by endorsing Fletcher over Ben Chandler (D) for Governor back in 2003 after losing the primary to Chandler. The blogs are, ah, less than pleased. We’ve yet to see how Lunsford would match up against McConnell.
Mississippi-B: Roger Wicker (R), appointed by governor Haley Barbour (R) on New Year’s Eve after Trent Lott (R) resigned to become a lobbyist, won’t have all the incumbency power Lott had accumulated over the years. Wicker was the Congressman from MS-01, so he’s won elected office previously. But Democrats scored a huge get when former Governor Ronnie Musgrove announced he was running for Senate, and former Rep. Ronnie Shows (D) ended his campaign, deferring to Musgrove. Some polls have shown this matchup would be close.
Nebraska: With Chuck Hagel (R) retiring, all eyes had turned to former Nebraska Governor and Senator Bob Kerrey (D) to see if he would challenge for this open seat. But, he announced last October that he wouldn’t run. But Mike Johanns (R), who was also a former Governor of Nebraska, quit his job as Bush’s Agriculture Secretary to run for the seat. The netroots were thrilled when rancher and history professor Scott Kleeb (D) threw his hat in the ring. While Kleeb lost the NE-03 House race in 2006, that district is the most Republican in Nebraska, and Kleeb got a higher-than-expected 45% of the vote. That’s had a lot of people thinking he would actually win in the other two districts, and thus a statewide race. Of course, that doesn’t take into account how he’d be running against the former governor of the state.
South Dakota: Tim Johnson (D) is fully back at work after suffering a brain hemorrhage in December 2006. His illness had made Republicans hesitant to challenge or attack him. Governor Mike Rounds (R) would be a top challenger, but hasn’t made any indications that he will give up his governorship for the seat. And when polling shows Johnson may be the most popular Senator in the country, why would he?
Alabama: The Democrats’ top hope in Agriculture Commissioner Ron Sparks announced he was not running, leaving little-known state senator Vivian Figures (D) the only challenger to incumbent Jeff Sessions (R). But… with the recent 60 Minutes piece on former Alabama governor Don Siegelman (D) being sent to prison on incredibly flimsy charges which Karl Rove may have had a hand in, those of us who’ve been following the story know that the guy who supposedly gave illegal contributions to Siegelman had also done the exact same thing with Sessions. And it seems Sessions was desperate enough to try and kill the 60 Minutes story before it aired. So there’s a chance Sessions will get ensnared in this growing scandal, in which case his seat may not be so safe. But for now, it’s still Tier III.
Idaho: It’s looking like a rematch between Lt. Governor Jim Risch (R) and former Congressman Larry LaRocco (D), who lost the 2006 Lt. Gov. race to Risch by a sizable 58%-39% margin. While LaRocco finished 2007 with more cash on hand than Risch, he had been raising money for most of 2007, while Risch only jumped in after the Larry Craig airport bathroom… ah… incident.
New Jersey: Frank Lautenberg (D) said he’s running again, but his age is always a concern, as he is already 84 years old right now. His poll numbers also don’t look that good, but no New Jersey politician’s numbers ever look really good. But no top-tier challenger has yet stepped up to challenge him. Anne Estabrook (R) recently plopped $1.6 million of her own money into her campaign, but when she answers questions like this, Lautenberg may not have much to worry about.
North Carolina: Both Governor Mike Easley (D) and state rep. Grier Martin (D) decided not to run for this seat, giving Elizabeth Dole (R) some good news. The declared Democrats are state senator Kay Hagan and businessman Jim Neal. The blogosphere seems to be supporting Neal in this race. FYI, if Jim Neal were to get the Democratic nomination and then beat Dole in the general, he would be the first openly gay Senator in U.S. history.
Oklahoma: James Inhofe (R) looks pretty safe, though interestingly enough, Inhofe has never gotten to 50% approval in the history of SurveyUSA’s polling. State senator and netroots favorite Andrew Rice (D), who lost his brother in the 9/11 attacks, has declared for this race.
South Carolina: This race is only in Tier III because Lindsey Graham (R) may actually be primaried out of his own party, for his support of Bush’s immigration plan. The natives are restless. A party switch is much less likely, but a different senator serving in this seat come 2009 is a distinct possibility.
Tennessee: Well, businessman Mike McWherter (D), son of former Tennessee Governor Ned McWherter (D), announced back in November that he was not going to run for this seat, a blow for Democrats. But, former Tennessee Democratic Party chair Bob Tuke announced last week that he will run. It remains to be seen if Tuke can make this a real race against Lamar Alexander (R), who was also a two-term governor of Tennessee and the Secretary of Education under George H.W. Bush.
Democratic safe seats
Arkansas (Mark Pryor)
Delaware (Joe Biden, so safe I forgot to include him last time)
Illinois (Dick Durbin)
Iowa (Tom Harkin)
Massachusetts (John Kerry)
Michigan (Carl Levin)
Montana (Max Baucus)
Rhode Island (Jack Reed)
West Virginia (Jay Rockefeller)
Republican safe seats
Georgia (Saxby Chambliss)
Kansas (Pat Roberts)
Mississippi (Thad Cochran)
Wyoming (Michael Enzi)
Wyoming (John Barrasso)
So there you have it, my personal rankings for the 2008 Senate races, as they stand at the beginning of March. Things can still change if some candidates jump in or drop out. But the filing deadline has already passed in some states, so getting our dream candidate in some of these races has already passed. And we won’t know what the national mood will be 8 months from now. Still, given that, these are my picks, and I’m sticking with them… until my next update, at least.
Feel free to rip me apart in the comments, telling me I don’t know what the hell I’m talking about, how could I possibly put a certain race in Tier II or III when it’s so obviously a top tier race, why I’m being too optimistic in some seat, etc. Have at it, folks. 🙂