September was a great month for Senate Democrats. Is started with news that John Warner was retiring, featured the endless saga of Larry Craig’s guilty plea to lewd behavior, saw another crucial GOP seat open up in Nebraska and was marked with recruitment coups with the candidacies of Mark Warner in VA and Jeanne Shaheen in NH. In fact, the only bad news Democrats are fearing now is that Bob Kerrey might end up taking a pass in Nebraska — but even there, the fat lady hasn’t yet sung.
All of this is really icing on the cake for Democrats, who already felt great before Labor Day. Not only is the GOP is defending 22 seats, and the Dems only 12, but the NRSC has been doing poorly in fundraising and recruitment, failing to move to target states beyond… the one state of Louisiana. Democrats, on the other hand, are expanding the map left and right: While they are huge underdogs in TN, KY, NM, TX, and ID, odds are they will at least put one of those in play (just like VA in 2006 and KY in 2004 became competitive only in the last stretch). And the most problematic second-tier seat is turning to be Alaska, where incumbent Ted Stevens is facing significant bribery allegations.
The coming weeks are likely to bring more news that will determine how some of these races shape up. Bob Kerrey’s decision is obviously what everyone is waiting for, but there are other important questions: Will Craig retire as he had promised? Will there be more open seats, with all eyes turned towards SD’s Tim Johnson, AK’s Stevens, and NM’s Pete Domenici? Will Democrats find candidates to run against Dole in NC, Domenici in NM, Stevens in AK, McConnell in KY? All of these races could end up on the map, but Democrats have to succeed in their recruitment efforts first.
The first 4 states are listed after the jump. For the full rankings, go here, to CampaignDiaries.com.
Outlook: Democratic pick-up 4-7 seats.
Prediction: Democrats pick-up a net 5 seats, for a 56-44 majority.
Likely Takeover (1 Republican seat, 0 Democratic seats)
1. Virginia (Open seat; Previous Ranking: 3)
Virginia inaugurates the “Likely Takeover” category. When John Warner announced he was retiring at the end of August, Virginia immediately became a top pick-up opportunity for Democrats. And events in September certainly didn’t help dispel the notion that this is their race to lose: Very popular former Governor Mark Warner entered the race on their behalf, while the GOP is showing every indication that it is heading towards a divisive primary between moderate Rep. Tom Davis and conservative former Governor Jim Gilmore. To make matters much worse for Republicans, a few polls taken this month show Warner with massive leads of about 25% or more against both Davis and Gilmore.
Republicans argue that Warner has never been fully tested, and that they can lower his ratings by finally going on the offensive against him. While this may be true, Democrats can rest in peace (for now) for two simple reasons: (1) Warner has a lot of room to give before being truly threatened given the massive nature of his lead, and (2) Warner will have plenty of time to re-introduce himself to voters and strengthen their good impression of him.
That said, Tom Davis could make the race more competitive. He represents Northern Virginia, the region that has been trended dramatically blue over the past few years. Any Democrat who wants to win in VA has to carry Fairfax and the neighboring counties overwhelmingly, and Davis could cut in Warner’s margins there. He first needs to win the GOP nomination then. If Republicans nominate their candidate through a primary, Davis has a good chance of winning. But if they opt to nominate him through a party convention, conservative activists could opt for the weaker Gilmore.
Lean Takeover (2 Republican Seats, 0 Democratic Seats)
2. New Hampshire (Incumbent: John Sununu; Previous ranking: 1)
A lot has changed in this race in the past month. At the beginning of September, the Democratic field was composed of three candidates who were hoping to take on Senator Sununu. A few weeks later, former Governor Jeanne Shaheen announced she would enter the race, setting up a rematch of the 2002 election. Two of the three Democrats already in the race (Marchand and Swett) withdrew, leaving Dartmouth Professor Jay Buckley as Shaheen’s sole primary opposition. Many grassroots activists are questioning the party’s rush to rally around Shaheen, a moderate politician who supported the war in 2003 and was not known for being particularly progressive during her terms as governor. But Shaheen is likely to coast to the nomination.
Polls throughout the summer showed Shaheen had Shaheen with gigantic leads averaging 20 points. That put Sununu in an even worse position than Santorum was in in 2006. How can an incumbent who is trailing by 20 points a year before the election possibly come back to win another term? But two polls taken shortly after Shaheen jumped in the race made Democrats a bit more confident. Shaheen only led by 5%. That is enough to make her the favorite (an incumbent in the low 40s rarely survives), but certainly not enough to count Sununu out.
Republicans argue that they beat Shaheen before, and they will use the same tactics against her in 2008. They see her record on taxes as particularly prone to attack. But Sununu barely edged Shaheen in 2002, at the height of Bush’s popularity. The GOP took a drubbing in New Hampshire in 2006, and the Republican brand looks even worse today — what fundamentals can Sununu rely on to come-back?
3. Colorado (Open; Previous ranking: 2)
This race has not made much news lately, probably because the basic story-line was settled months ago: Senator Allard retired, and both parties rallied around a candidate. Rep. Udall for Democrats, and former Rep. Shaffer for the GOP. Colorado has been voting for Democrats in open seat races in the past few years (the Salazar brothers in 2004, Governor Ritter in 2006), and have to be considered slightly favored here again. A recent poll commissioned by the Shaffer campaign gave Udall a 5-point lead. That certainly shows the state could still end up going for Republicans, but the poll was a partisan one, so it should be taken with a big grain of salt. This race will certainly shift around on the basis of future polls and campaign developments, but for now it is remarkably static.
Toss-up (4 R, 1 D)
4. Nebraska (Open; Last Ranking: 8)
Chuck Hagel announced his retirement last week, setting up what many people view as the marquee race of the 2008 cycle: former Republican Governor Mike Johanns versus former Democratic Senator Bob Kerrey. Both men were rumored to be very interested in the race, but for now only Johanns has announced his candidacy. Recent reports indicate that Kerrey might be leaning against a run after all!
This race’s outlook will change dramatically in the coming days, as Kerrey is likely to announce his intentions very soon. If he does run, the race might edge into “lean takeover” territory — given Kerrey’s popularity in the state. If he ends up staying out of it, this race would drop down significantly, Johanns would be the favorite even if Omaha’s Democratic Mayor Fahey agrees to jump in. Fahey would keep the race competitive, but he would find it difficult to overcome the state’s overwhelming Republican lean, especially in a presidential year.
The second hope Democrats harbor is that Johanns will be stuck in a divisive primary. The state’s Attorney General Bruning had been planning to run against Chuck Hagel in the primary, and he is showing no intention of backing down now that Johanns is in the race. Former Omaha Mayor Hal Daub entered the race for a few days, ran ads, and then decided to withdraw, setting up a two-way primary. This could prove an opening for the Democratic candidate (either Kerrey or Fahey) who would have time to introduce himself to voters and define the terms of the campaign.