So with about three months to go, with Ted Stevens’ indictment dominating the Senate news, it’s time for another 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 what are the competitive races?
I’ll rank these in terms of tiers. The top tier will be the races where the party holding the seat has a real shot of switching (but I ain’t guaranteeing anything). 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.
This is meant to be a primer for both newcomers and political junkies alike, so some of the information may seem repetitive for you junkies out there. Also see my previous May diary to see what things have changed since my last update.
(Just so you know, I don’t do predictions. Every time I do, horrible things happen. So I won’t even make an actual prediction on the Virginia Senate race, because doing so would effectively jinx Mark Warner.)
FYI, whenever I refer to fundraising numbers in the races, I’m using the latest numbers we know of, from the end of June 2008. “Q2” refers to the period of April to June 2008, the most recent quarter that we have the fundraising numbers for. Major hat tip to Senate Guru for putting all the numbers in an easy to read table format.
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. Not a single poll shows Gilmore getting even 40%. Warner’s sitting on 20+ point leads. And oh yeah, Warner also pulled in almost $3 million in Q2, while Gilmore raised less than $500K. To top it off, Gilmore’s been burning through the little cash he got, and ended up with less than $117K left at the end of Q2, which was almost $5 million less than what Warner was sitting on. This is about as lopsided as you’re gonna get, but still, no official predictions from me.
2. New Mexico: Rep. Tom Udall (D) announced for this seat shortly after Pete Domenici (R) announced his retirement. 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 who ran for President in 1976. Stewart Udall was largely responsible for just about all the environmental laws that were passed in the 1960s. Rep. Steve Pearce (R) won a bitter GOP primary over Heather Wilson, ending her career in Congress. So the entire New Mexico U.S. House delegation was running for this Senate seat! The polling just keeps getting better and better for Udall, as he’s hit the 60% mark in several polls now. I wrote back in May that I expected to see a sort of “unity bounce” once the GOP primary was decided. Instead, the opposite happened, and Udall’s numbers went up even more. Combine this with Udall having over 5 times as much cash on hand as Pearce, and Udall would be number 1 on the list if it weren’t for Mark Warner.
3. 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. But why settle for a ham sandwich when you can run the former governor? Jeanne Shaheen (D), who Sununu beat in 2002 along with some illegal phone-jamming on Election Day for which several GOP operatives went to prison, has led Sununu in every single poll taken in 2008. The latest Rasmussen poll has her leading 50%-45%. A general rule of thumb: any incumbent polling under 50% in an election poll is in trouble. 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. The only thing keeping this race from being tied at number 2 is that while Shaheen outraised Sununu in the first two quarters this year, Sununu still has almost $3 million more cash on hand than Shaheen has. That money will probably make this race closer, but given how much New Hampshire has changed, I’m not sure how much that money advantage is really going to help Sununu.
4. Alaska: 84-year-old Ted Stevens (R) is seeking a sixth term, but earlier this week, he was indicted on 7 felony counts for not disclosing the gifts (over $250,000 worth) he got from oil company Veco Corp. This started when the FBI raided his home last June. Several Veco executives have already pled guilty to bribing Ted’s son Ben, who was the former Alaska state senate president, with former Veco CEO Bill Allen having admitted some bribe money also went towards Ted Stevens. Democrats got their top choice when Anchorage mayor Mark Begich entered the race. 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. Even before the indictment, several polls had already shown Begich leading Stevens. In the wake of the indictments, Rasmussen now has Begich leading Stevens 50%-37%. Jury selection will begin on September 24, and Stevens wants the trial to take place before the election. What remains to be seen is if he’ll survive the August 26th primary, and even if he does, if the Alaska GOP would try to replace him with someone else. But Rasmussen also showed that among some of the other GOP challengers, Begich leads them by even bigger margins, so it’s unclear if that will help the GOP out. On the fundraising side, Begich pulled in over $1 million in Q2, over a quarter million more than Stevens brought in, though Stevens still has twice as much cash on hand as Begich, though that may not help him now.
5. Colorado: Wayne Allard (R) kept his pledge of only serving two terms, and is retiring from the Senate. Rep. Mark Udall (D) is Mo Udall’s son, and Tom Udall’s cousin. He’ll face off against former Congressman Bob Schaffer (R). 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 Q2, Udall was sitting on an almost $4 million warchest, with Schaffer over $1 million behind. Schaffer also has close ties to Jack Abramoff and human rights abuses on the Marianas Islands, and was helping out Aspect Energy push an oil deal that would hurt U.S.-Iraq policy. Recently, though, some right-wing front groups have been running TV and radio ads filled with falsehoods attacking Udall. That may explain why Rasmussen shows the race getting narrower, though Udall still leads. The other polls still show Udall with some kind of lead (other than Quinnipiac, though its crosstabs make it look like they undersampled Democrats), and not a single poll has come out with Schaffer holding any kind of lead. Update: 9News in Colorado went through one of those attack ads and found every single statement the ad made was misleading, false, or conflating opinion with fact.
6. Oregon: Oregon House Speaker Jeff Merkley (D) won a close primary over lawyer/activist Steve Novick to take on Gordon Smith (R). The two quickly joined forces in a unity event to take on Smith. Smith seems worried, as his recent commercials have him embracing Barack Obama and John Kerry and fighting Bush! Merkley raised over half a million more than Smith did in Q2, but much of that was spent on the primary, and now Smith has almost $4 million more in his campaign war chest at the end of Q2. The DSCC has stepped in with an $850,000 cable TV ad buy starting in September to help out Merkley. Also, the latest Rasmussen poll now shows Merkley with a lead for the first time ever in any poll, at 43%-41%. In an interesting twist, Smith is actually a cousin of the two Udalls running for Senate.
7. 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 that seat then went blue when Travis Childers (D) won it in May. So things are changing even in Mississippi. That has to be a shot in a arm for former Governor Ronnie Musgrove (D). However, Wicker showed himself to be a prolific fundraiser, bringing in over $2.5 million in Q1. But in Q2, the two were almost even in fundraising, each raising a little over $800K. The latest polls still show this to be a tight race, with Wicker slightly up. It may all come down to the African-American turnout in this state. The 2004 exit polls showed they made up 34% of the electorate. The Rasmussen poll showing Wicker up by 6 seems to also have a 34% black breakdown in their sample. So if black turnout increases, that should benefit Musgrove. And because this is technically a special election (to fill out the remainder of Lott’s term), there will be no party identification on the ballot in November. That can actually work to our benefit in a state like Mississippi. As a result, Wicker went up with a TV ad back in May introducing himself to voters.
8. Minnesota: Norm Coleman (R) won this seat in 2002 only after Paul Wellstone (D) died just a few weeks before the election. Comedian Al Franken got the DFL (basically the Democratic Party for Minnesota) nod. The polls had been steadily favoring Franken, until late April when a story came out that Franken owed $70,000 in back taxes to 17 different states. Now, it turns out that as a traveling comedian, having visited lots of states, he was supposed to pay taxes to those individual states, but paid them instead all to the states he had homes in. Then the GOP hammered Franken for a Playboy article he wrote over a decade ago, calling it “juicy porn“. As for the fallout, there are very conflicting stories. SurveyUSA has Coleman up by double-digits, while Rasmussen has Franken up by 3. However, the SurveyUSA poll shows Coleman’s best support comes from young people, which doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense. Combined with their presidential poll, which shows Obama TIED with McCain among young voters, and something doesn’t quite make sense in their numbers. The Senate poll also shows the electorate will be made up of 32% Republicans, only 33% Democrats, and 21% Independents. It strangely leaves out 14% of the population. So take that poll with a huge grain of salt. Plus, Franken did outraise Coleman for three straight quarters until Q2, when they both raised over $2.3 million, with Coleman getting $50,000 more, though Coleman ended Q2 with $3 million more in his coffers.
9. North Carolina: After Kay Hagan easily won her primary in May, the polls showed a primary bump, with some polls even putting her ahead of incumbent Elizabeth Dole (R). That led Dole to fire her campaign manager. Then her campaign asked the DSCC and NRSC not to spend money on the race. Um, isn’t that’s the whole point of those campaign committees? However, since the primary bump, Dole’s lead has gone back to about 10 points. But something to note about those polls, they all seem to underestimate the black turnout. In 2004, blacks made up 26% of the electorate, while these polls have a sample that’s 22% or less black. Conventional wisdom says black turnout will be significantly higher than in 2004, so keep that in mind. Hagan’s been keeping pace in fundraising, pulling in 91% as much as Dole did in Q2, though Hagan still trails by a little over a 2:1 margin in cash on hand. Interesting fact, Hagan is the niece of the late Lawton Chiles, the longtime Senator and Governor of Florida, who came from behind to win re-election to the governorship in 1994 by defeating Jeb Bush.
10. Maine: Rep. Tom Allen (D) is running to challenge Susan Collins (R). But even though Maine is a blue state, he has an uphill climb. Collins has worked hard to craft her moderate credentials. The most recent Rasmussen poll has some good news for Allen, with him only trailing Collins 49%-42%. Allen’s fundraising was pretty strong in Q2, with both him and Collins netting a little over $1 million each, though he trails in cash on hand by $2 million. The DSCC has now reserved $5 million for ad buys in the state. And it will be needed, as the Maine newspapers suck at telling the truth about Collins. I mean, really suck. When they consistently let Maine GOP officials shill for Collins in letters to the editor without letting the readers know that fact, you know something’s up.
11. Louisiana: Mary Landrieu (D) is the most endangered Democratic incumbent in 2008. But how endangered that really is remains to be seen. She was still able to win in 2002, a decidedly strong year for the GOP. Karl Rove was able to woo state treasurer John Neely 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.) As for how endangered Landrieu really is, well, there’s lots of conflicting data. On the one hand, hundreds of thousands of residents from New Orleans and the surrounding areas never came back to the state after Hurricane Katrina, making the state 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. On the other hand, Mary’s brother Mitch won the Lt. Governorship by an even bigger margin. And the win by Don Cazayoux (D) in LA-06, a Republican district, may bode well for Landrieu. Kennedy did outraise Landrieu in Q1, but she outraised him in Q2, and has almost $3 million more in cash on hand than he does. All the non-Zogby polls show Landrieu ahead; the question is by how much. A boost came to the Landrieu campaign when the Huffington Post obtained an NRSC memo from 2004 that attacked Kennedy when he ran for the Senate that year… as a Democrat. After ripping him for being so wrong for Louisiana, they’re suddenly going to say he’s the right person for the job?
12. Texas: Democrats got the challenger they wanted to face John Cornyn (R). State rep. and Texas National Guard Lt. Col. Rick Noriega (D) served in Afghanistan after 9/11, and was chosen to coordinate relief efforts in Houston after Hurricane Katrina. The biggest news this summer so far is probably the Big Bad John ad Cornyn’s people released, which drew mockery and laughter from just about everywhere. Then the Texas Medical Association rescinded their endorsement of Cornyn after he and other GOP Senators blocked the Medicare bill that would have prevented 10% cuts in Medicare payments to doctors, and the American Medical Association said they were going to run ads against Senators like Cornyn who voted against it. But no polls have been taken of this race since June, when Rasmussen showed Noriega down by 13, though Cornyn was under the 50% mark. However, the fundraising numbers are troubling, with Cornyn having outraised Noriega by more than a 4-to-1 margin in Q1. Noriega did better in Q2, raising almost $1 million, but Cornyn finished Q2 with over 10 times as much cash on hand. And in a huge state like Texas, money will most definitely matter. Unless some polls come out showing this is a closer race, this will remain in Tier II. Update: And right after writing this, Rasmussen shows Noriega down by 10 points, with Cornyn under the 50% mark. So I’ve moved it back to Tier I status.
13. 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 and State Auditor Crit Luallen both declined to run, and netroots favorite Lt. Col. Andrew Horne, a Marine who has served in both the Persian Gulf War and the Iraq War, dropped his bid. Wealthy businessman Bruce Lunsford hasn’t exactly been a netroots favorite in the past, having ticked off a lot of Democrats in the past by endorsing Fletcher over Ben Chandler (D) for Governor back in 2003 after he lost the primary to Chandler. But it looks like Kentucky Democrats quickly unified behind Lunsford and are all pledging to do their part to defeat McConnell. McConnell has a HUGE warchest of over $9 million, but Lunsford can afford to self-fund. And this quote from Lunsford after winning the primary is nice to read. “[McConnell is] going to spend millions of dollars trying to destroy my reputation. But I don’t care how many names he’s going to call me, because in January he’s going to call me ‘Senator.'” Well played, sir. Things like that will help assuage the netroots. Two recent polls show Lunsford behind by about 10 points. Lunsford actually brought in more money in Q2, largely due to loaning himself $2.5 million to keep pace, but McConnell still has almost 7 times as much cash on hand. But by keeping pace, if Lunsford can force McConnell (and his campaign coffers) to stay in Kentucky instead of going to help other Senators, that will only serve to benefit the other Democrats running for Senate.
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.
Idaho: With Larry Craig (R) retiring after his airport bathroom… ah… incident, 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 was absolutely blitzkrieged in Q1, with Risch raising over 4 ½ times as much money as LaRocco raised, and again outraised in Q2, leaving Risch with over 4 times as much cash on hand as LaRocco. A recent Research 2000 poll showed LaRocco down by 10 points, 42%-32%. The wild card in this race may be independent rancher Rex Rammell, who despises Risch, and may be able to pull away some of Risch’s support. Rammell actually outraised LaRocco, and has a little more cash on hand, and will spend that money attacking Risch. There are also two other right-wing candidates on the ballot that will split the conservative vote even more.
Kansas: Pat Roberts (R), known for covering up issues related to intelligence and domestic spying for Bush, looked to be coasting to an easy re-election until former Congressman Jim Slattery entered the racein mid-March. Given that late start, he still managed to raise over $250,000 in just the first two weeks, and brought in a decent haul in Q2 also. Rasmussen had given encouraging news in June, showing Slattery within single digits, but in July, their poll showed Slattery down by 27 points. There are signs, however, that Roberts is nervous, as his people lashed out, attacking Slattery for criticizing the Iraq War, considering he voted for going to war with Iraq. Except… the war he voted for was the FIRST Gulf War in 1991. So… voting for that war makes you unable to criticize this war? Um, OK, that’s some great Republican logic for you. And then, they attacked Slattery for missing a lot of votes in his last year in Congress. Why only that year? Because that was the year Slattery was back in Kansas running for Governor.
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, is now the formal Democratic nominee, having won his primary last week by a 20-point margin. Rice and Inhofe could not be farther apart when it comes to energy and environmental issues. Rice pulled in decent fundraising numbers in Q2, but still trails Inhofe by over $1.7 million. A Research 2000 poll from June showed Rice down by 22 points. Those two factors would normally make this a Tier III race, but then came the news that veteran political operatives Geri Prado and Phil Singer have joined Rice’s staff. Those two both worked on Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and for the DSCC.
Alabama: The Democrats’ top hope in Agriculture Commissioner Ron Sparks announced he was not running, leaving little-known state senator Vivian Figures (D) as the only challenger to incumbent Jeff Sessions (R). But, Jeff Sessions does play a role in the Don Siegelman case. And it seems Sessions was desperate enough to try and kill the 60 Minutes piece about Siegelman before it aired. So if Sessions gets ensnared in this scandal, his seat may not be so safe. And the prospect of that, which grows dimmer by the day, is the only thing keeping this from going into the “safe” category.
Georgia: A crowded field of relatively unknown Democratic challengers to Saxby Chambliss (R) didn’t seem to go anywhere, until former state representative Jim Martin entered the race in March. Martin was the 2006 Democratic Lt. Gov. nominee, so he’s run a statewide race before. And in just 12 days, Martin raised $346,675, which dropped a lot of jaws. Martin would first have to get by DeKalb County CEO Vernon Jones, who is black and is depending on African-American turnout to win the primary runoff on August 5th. Except… Jones voted for Bush… twice, still doesn’t know what to think about Iraq, and likes calling Democrats “losers”. Way to, um, not endear yourself to the netroots. The 3rd and 4th place finishers in the primary have already endorsed Martin in the runoff. Remember, Chambliss ousted triple amputee Max Cleland (D) in 2002 by running a despicable ad blending the images of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein into Cleland’s face. If Martin bests Jones in the primary next Tuesday, I’ll move this up to Tier II, as polling shows Martin would at least be competitive, though he’d still be seriously behind in funds.
Nebraska: With Chuck Hagel (R) retiring, former governor Mike Johanns (R) quit his job as Bush’s Agriculture Secretary to run for this 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. Kleeb easily won his primary against Republican-turned-Democrat Tony Raimondo, but the polls show Kleeb still has quite a ways to go. The last two Rasmussen polls show Kleeb down by over 25 points to Johanns. The one bright spot was that Kleeb outraised Johanns in Q2, though he still trails in cash on hand by almost $800K.
New Jersey: Frank Lautenberg (D) is running again, but as he is already 84 years old, his age is always going to be a concern. His poll numbers also don’t look that good, but no New Jersey politician’s numbers ever look really good. He easily beat back a primary challenge from Rep. Rob Andrews. On the GOP side, it’s been a wild roller coaster ride as multiple candidates have been declaring, and then dropping out of the race, before they finally settled on former Congressman Dick Zimmer. Blue Jersey has a wild recap of it all.
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. And the polling shows Johnson may be the most popular Senator in the country, to boot.
Tennessee: Former Tennessee Democratic Party chair Bob Tuke entered the race in late February. 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. Tuke has a little over a quarter million on hand, while Alexander has over three million.
Democratic safe seats
Arkansas (Mark Pryor)
Delaware (Joe Biden)
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
Mississippi (Thad Cochran)
South Carolina (Lindsey Graham)*
Wyoming (Michael Enzi)
Wyoming (John Barrasso)
*South Carolina is now a safe seat, as Lindsey Graham easily won his primary in June, and Michael Cone ended up barely losing the Democratic primary by 0.6% to Bob Conley, a Republican-turned-Democrat who voted for Ron Paul in the South Carolina primary.
So there you have it, my personal rankings for the 2008 Senate races, as they stand at the beginning of August. Things can still change, people who only pay attention after Labor Day may shake things up, and we won’t know exactly what the national mood will be 3 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. 🙂