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Senate 2010: A Three-Peat for Democrats or Comeback for the GOP?

A Commentary by Larry J. Sabato

Friday, February 20, 2009

Last week in the Crystal Ball , we looked at the historical background of off-year Senate elections and laid the groundwork for the earliest possible projection of the 36 contests on the ballot in 2010. This week we call the Senate roll among sitting Democrats to see who appears safe and who might be in trouble. Next week, in our final round-up, the Republican seats will be under the microscope.

In many cases, since all candidates have not announced and the party nominees have not been chosen, it is impossible to do more than set the scene for an upcoming Senate battle. In other states, we already have a good idea about the likely match-up.

And now, in alphabetical order and without a drum roll, here are the Democratic Senate players of 2010:

Evan Bayh (D-IN): Indiana is never easy for a Democrat, but Bayh isn't any old Democrat. His long record of electoral success in the Hoosier State gives him a big leg up. Barack Obama's victory here in 2008 suggests that the state isn't as Republican as many have thought. A few names are being lightly discussed, but the GOP apparently has no big names willing to take Bayh on. DEMOCRATIC HOLD.

Michael Bennet (D-CO): APPOINTED SENATOR. Gov. Bill Ritter (D-CO) shocked his state by appointing a virtual political unknown, Denver Schools Superintendent Michael Bennet, to succeed Interior Secretary Ken Salazar (D-CO). Now the youngest U.S. Senator at 44, Bennet has never been elected to any office and doesn't have a long association with Colorado. Outside of Denver, the choice was met with puzzled expressions and considerable disappointment, especially by Hispanics. One group seemed pleased: Republicans. They had feared a politically potent choice like Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper. On the other hand, at least Bennet isn't another dynasty candidate; Congressman John Salazar (D-CO) was considered at one point to fill his brother's Senate seat. Apparently, the wealthy and well connected Bennet convinced Gov. Ritter that he has the contacts and ability to raise large amounts of money for the 2010 Senate contest for a full six-year term, and the new senator has an excellent reputation in the field of primary and secondary education. But Bennet has a tough slog before he can be considered the frontrunner in 2010. It is not certain that he will be unopposed by a major figure in the party for the Democratic nomination; for instance, Hickenlooper, who was apparently the runner-up on Ritter's list for the seat, could challenge the underling who upstaged him, and have a decent chance of winning. So far Hickenlooper says he is not interested, but another Democratic star, former state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, may be. As mentioned, Republicans see an unexpected opportunity here. They would not have been able to defeat Ken Salazar for reelection, and a popular, well known appointee would also have started the race with a notable advantage. But rural and exurban Colorado will not necessarily see Bennet as a champion of their interests. Despite the Democratic trend in Colorado in both 2006 and 2008, Republicans retain a firm base in the state, and if they nominate an acceptable moderate-conservative--rather than some of their recent wacky officeholders (such as former Congressman Tom Tancredo)--the GOP might prove competitive. Unfortunately for the GOP, their two arguably strongest competitors--state Attorney General John Suthers and former U.S. Rep. Scott McInnis--have declined to challenge Bennet. For now, this contest rates the cautious label of TOSS-UP.

Barbara Boxer (D-CA): Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R-CA) will be finishing up his seven years as chief executive in 2010, and Republicans dream that he will take on Boxer. The Governator is probably the GOP's only realistic chance of taking out Boxer, and even then, it would be a tough, unpredictable fight. Every six years since Boxer first won in 1992, Republicans have tried to make the case that she is vulnerable--and it's never even close in November. California is now so Democratic that it would take a Terminator for the Republicans to have anything approaching an even chance in this contest. Former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, who chaired John McCain's 2008 presidential race, has been mentioned for the Republican nomination if Schwarzenegger does not run. DEMOCRATIC HOLD. If Schwarzenegger runs, COMPETITIVE.

Roland Burris (D-IL): APPOINTED SENATOR. Is there anyone out there who doesn't know the saga of Roland Burris? Sleazy, impeached, cuckoo Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D-IL), accused of trying to sell President Obama's vacated U.S. Senate seat, tried to recoup by choosing an African-American. Burris was a 71-year old, washed-up politician in the Land of Lincoln, having lost three gubernatorial campaigns after service in lower-level elective positions such as state Attorney General. The Democratic Senate leadership at first pledged absolutely that Blagojevich would not be rewarded and Burris would not be seated. Some critics immediately made race an issue, correctly pointing out that, without Burris (and Obama), the U.S. Senate would have not a single African-American member. Afraid of alienating blacks, fearful also of losing a possible special election to fill the post, and faced with expert opinion that they had no legal right to deny Burris his due, Democrats executed an embarrassing about-face. Before Obama was sworn in as President, Burris got the Senate slot. Respect is something else, of course. It was obvious that Burris knew this was his only way back into office. While his record has been described as honest--by the generous Illinois yardstick--Burris is also widely seen as thoroughly mediocre. He undeniably has a massive ego, having already built his own mausoleum in tribute to himself, carving every 'trail-blazing' accomplishment into rock. And now, Burris' honesty is being called into question. In testimony given to the Illinois state House of Representatives in early January, Burris denied that he had had conversations about the Senate seat with anyone close to Blagojevich before Christmas. But it turns out he spoke to the Governor's brother and chief of staff well before that time. It will be surprising if Democrats choose to nominate Burris for a full term in 2010, assuming he runs. As always, it will depend on the competition. Anti-Burris Democrats are recruiting State Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias (D), a 32-year old former professional basketball player in Greece who is a FOO (Friend of Obama). Attorney General Lisa Madigan and Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky (D) may challenge Burris, too. (Madigan also has her eye on the Governorship.) Should Burris somehow be nominated, a moderate GOP Senate candidate such as Congressman Mark Kirk would have a shot. Another Republican who is being touted as a possibility is Congressmen Peter Roskam, though he appears to be willing to defer to Kirk. We'll need to see the entire field of candidates before a reasonable judgment can be made. TOSS UP.

Christopher Dodd (D-CT): Dodd has had a rough couple of years, losing his presidential bid badly, after moving his family to Iowa and seemingly abandoning Connecticut. Dodd has also attracted much criticism for his role in the banking and housing crisis (he chairs the Senate Banking Committee). His approval ratings are weak, considering how Democratic Blue Connecticut now is. This contest bears watching. Still, the only Republican who is an obvious threat to Dodd is Governor Jodi Rell (R-CT), an immensely popular chief executive. Yet she seems more likely to run for reelection. After Rell, the GOP bench is thin. With the defeat of U.S. Rep. Christopher Shays (R-CT) in 2008, Republicans do not hold a single House seat in the Nutmeg State (or anywhere else in the once-impregnable GOP stronghold of New England). Shays has been mentioned as a Dodd challenger, but former Congressman Rob Simmons (R), who lost his seat in 2006, may be more likely to run. It will take a lot to unseat Dodd, but given his low polling numbers, he is no slam dunk. Even if the GOP candidate turns out to be Chris Shays or Rob Simmons, Dodd could be in trouble. We'll call this one POTENTIALLY COMPETITIVE.

Byron Dorgan (D-ND): There is no reason to believe that this politically invincible Democrat in a heavily Republican state won't continue to win. The small state of North Dakota understands the seniority system better than most. Remarkably, Dorgan has been in statewide office continuously since 1969, as tax commissioner, then U.S. Representative, and since 1993 as senator. Still, if Gov. John Hoeven (R-ND), now in his third popular term as chief executive, were to decide to make the run for Senate, it would be a barn-burner. DEMOCRATIC HOLD. If Hoeven runs, COMPETITIVE.

Russell Feingold (D-WI): Feingold is a stickler for ethics and campaign finance propriety, and as such, Republicans always hope to catch him off guard by overpowering him in expenditures. But Feingold appears to be strong as he seeks a fourth term. Only U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) is potentially a tough foe. Ryan seems headed for bigger things on the GOP stage, in the House and elsewhere, and he may not want to wager it all on this risky venture. DEMOCRATIC HOLD. If Ryan runs, COMPETITIVE.

Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY): APPOINTED SENATOR. Among the many splendid subplots unfolding around the country in the wake of the 2008 election was the search for a senator in New York. Gov. David Paterson (D) needed to find Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's replacement, and an awkward quest it became. To nearly everyone's surprise, the hyper-private Caroline Kennedy announced her candidacy and began a statewide tour. She self-destructed in a torrent of revelations about her non-voting habits, her tendency to say 'ya know' every five milliseconds, her taxes, and other unpleasant items, some fed to the press by Gov. Paterson's own staff. (On the 'ya know' front, we were reminded of Uncle Ted Kennedy's moment of self-immolation in a TV special hosted by Roger Mudd when the 1980 presidential cycle began in earnest. Ted was unable to answer the straight-forward question, 'Why do you want to be President?') Of the four states in need of temporary appointments (Colorado, Delaware, Illinois, and New York), only the Land of Lincoln proved a greater embarrassment thanks to Gov. Blagojevich's alleged attempted selling of the Senate seat, the Roland Burris farce, et al. The gubernatorial appointments were somewhat bumpy everywhere, but Paterson's process was so drawn out it felt like the Olympic trials. Paterson managed to irritate a wide range of actual and potential candidates, and especially the Kennedy clan--irate that Caroline was 'dissed' in her quest for high office. Finally the Governor settled on Congresswoman Kirsten Gillibrand of the Hudson Valley area, who had served a mere two years in the House of Representatives. It was obvious that Paterson chose her because she was (1) a woman, to replace another woman; (2) an upstate resident at a time when upstaters felt ignored and had no prominent statewide elected official; and (3) relatively moderate and might strengthen the 2010 Democratic ticket--which Paterson will presumably lead as he runs for his first elective term. Whether Gillibrand can raise the tens of millions of dollars needed to compete in two years (and then again in 2012, when she would have to run yet again for a full six-year term) remains to be seen. Some liberal Democrats were unhappy with her National Rifle Association ties, and pro-gun control Congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy threatened a primary challenge in 2010. Others may jump in, too, such as Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer. In order to stave off a liberal primary challenge, Gillibrand has been abandoning her conservative positions on gun control, immigration, and gay marriage so quickly and completely that she is starting to resemble a human weather vane. Republican hopes may center on Congressman Peter King, a moderate-conservative who is often used on national TV talk shows. New York is a deeply Blue state, but the voters of the Empire State are willing to elect the occasional Republican when they want to send a message to the Democrats, or when Democrats are badly split. We'll see. New York is too Democratic to call this a Toss-Up, at least not yet, but we'll watch developments carefully. LEANS DEMOCRATIC HOLD.

Daniel Inouye (D-HI): Republicans would love to see Governor Linda Lingle (R-HI), whose second and final term expires in 2010, challenge Inouye. However, how do you defeat not just a Hawaiian institution but also the chairman of the pork-barrel Senate Appropriations Committee? Inouye's been around since 1962, and few in the Aloha State much care if he'll be seeking a ninth six-year term at the age of 86. Inouye is a World War II hero who lost an arm in the fighting, and he was pushed for the Democratic vice presidential nomination in 1968 by President Lyndon Johnson--Vice President Humphrey, the Democratic presidential candidate, said no, fearing America wasn't ready for a non-white nominee. Lately, Inouye's actions have been a little less heroic, as he gave a middle-finger salute to his own party by endorsing Alaska's corrupt Republican Senator Ted Stevens for reelection in 2008. As we said, no one much cares about these little details in Hawaii. DEMOCRATIC HOLD, even if Lingle runs.

Ted Kaufman (D-DE): APPOINTED SENATOR--OPEN SEAT Such is the strength of dynasty in American politics that this Senate spot is now known as "The Biden Seat". It belonged--the possessive verb is not too presumptuous--to Vice President Joseph Biden from 1973 (he was 29 when elected) until he resigned in early 2009. Like some of his Veep predecessors, Biden was too greedy to give up his Senate seat in order to seek the VP spot, so he was reelected to the Senate on the same night he won residence in the Naval Observatory. But what was he to do with the lesser prize? Biden wanted son Beau, the state's attorney general, to succeed him, but Beau had a tour of Reserves duty in the Middle East to fulfill. The brilliant if rancid solution was the old seat-warmer gambit: Put a completely loyal, utterly reliable placeholder in the Senate to keep the seat warm until young Beau found it convenient to run. The seat-warmer steps aside and doesn't run for election the next time around. Joe Biden helped the unpopular outgoing Democratic Governor, Ruth Ann Minner, to make the appointment decision. She ignored the best qualified candidate, Lt. Gov. John Carney, favored by the party activists, and installed the Biden pick, 69-year-old Ted Kaufman, whose ticket to the seat was his prior service as Biden's Senate chief of staff. The universal reaction in Delaware was "Ted Who?", and some party people privately fumed at the arrogance of it all. But of course heavily Blue Delaware will probably go right along with the plan and elect a Democrat in 2010, very likely the aforementioned Beau Biden. It's the right thing to do for the American House of Lords. It is possible that Carney or someone else will challenge Biden in a Democratic primary. For the GOP to have any chance at all in November, former Governor and longtime U.S. Rep. Michael Castle (R-DE) would have to give up his safe House berth. He's 71 years old. Not bloody likely. DEMOCRATIC HOLD.

Patrick Leahy (D-VT): The only Republican who could give Leahy a decent race is moderate four-term Governor Jim Douglas (R-VT), and it is doubtful in the extreme that Douglas will take on the challenge. The Governor will have a reasonable shot at an open seat, if ever one occurs in the Green Mountain State. Leahy will get his seventh Senate term handily, as usual. DEMOCRATIC HOLD. In the unlikely event Douglas runs, possibly competitive.

Blanche Lincoln (D-AR): Republicans are making noises about mounting a serious challenge to Lincoln, especially given John McCain's solid win in Arkansas on an otherwise awful night for the GOP. They hope to recruit former Governor Mike Huckabee (R-AR), but he's been bitten by the presidential bug for 2012 (again) and is highly unlikely to take his eye off that ball, or leave the lucrative media and lecturing world. The only other immediately credible GOP nominee would be U.S. Rep. John Boozman, the last Republican in the Arkansas delegation to Congress. He'll have to be convinced to give up a safe House berth for a very chancy Senate race. Lincoln starts out in a commanding position for her third term. DEMOCRATIC HOLD.

Barbara Mikulski (D-MD): The only real question here is whether the 72-year old Mikulski will run for a fifth term. If she does, she's in. If she doesn't, one of the many Democratic U.S. representatives or other statewide officeholders is likely to get nominated and win the seat. Maryland is a disaster area for Republicans. The GOP will try to push either former Gov. Bob Ehrlich (R-MD) or Lt. Gov. Michael Steele (R-MD), the new Republican National Committee chairman, into the contest, but they were defeated for reelection in 2006. Every now and then, Maryland can vote Republican, but to invoke the Democratic color, it's only in a blue moon. DEMOCRATIC HOLD.

Patty Murray (D-WA): Now in her third term, the "mom in tennis shoes" is a veteran legislator, and the fourth term will be hers for the asking. Washington is yet another state that has moved from very competitive to substantially, often heavily, Democratic. The GOP-leaning eastern part of the state is too rural and lightly populated to overcome massively Democratic Seattle. DEMOCRATIC HOLD.

Harry Reid (D-NV): Even Senator Harry Reid's fiercest supporters understand that 2010 will be a genuine reelection contest for the Senate Majority Leader. Partly, it is his leadership position that puts Reid in some jeopardy. Despite Barack Obama's healthy victory here in 2008, Nevada is still a closely divided state, and partisanship is deeply felt by many in this gambling mecca. Reid might well have a more conservative voting record were he simply the senior senator from Nevada, but his job is to advocate for the Democratic Senate Caucus position--often more liberal than his state. Reid had a very close call in 1998, winning reelection by a mere 428 votes out of more than 425,000 cast. The near-winner is now his Senate partner, John Ensign (R-NV), who captured the other Senate seat in 2000. Still, both potential Republican candidates for Reid's seat were badly weakened in 2008. Congressman John Porter (R-NV) was defeated for reelection to his House seat, and Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki (R-NV) is in some serious legal trouble, having been indicted for allegedly mismanaging a large college savings fund while he was state treasurer. Krolicki insists the charges are trumped up and politically inspired. The GOP Governor, Republican Jim Gibbons, is scandal-drenched and enormously unpopular. Second-term U.S. Rep. Dean Heller (R-NV) is a possible fallback candidate. LEANS DEMOCRATIC BUT POTENTIALLY COMPETITIVE.

Charles Schumer (D-NY): We won't waste our time or yours. Sitting on $10 million and able to raise ten times that, Chuck Schumer is a certain bet for his third term in this deep Blue state. DEMOCRATIC HOLD.

Ron Wyden (D-OR): First elected in a tight battle with Gordon Smith (R) in a special 1996 election, Wyden will cruise to reelection for a third term. Like the entire West Coast of the continental U.S.A., Oregon has trended strongly Democratic. Smith, who captured the other Oregon Senate seat later in 1996, was ousted by Democrat Jeff Merkley, with Wyden's help, despite Smith's moderate voting record. Some Republicans want Smith to return the favor and try to unseat Wyden. Smith is too smart to attempt it; he's got one more good run left in him, and he'll choose an option likely to lead to victory. DEMOCRATIC HOLD.

SUMMARY FOR DEMOCRATIC-HELD SEATS: The GOP's chances to make up any ground in the Senate depend heavily on their ability to recruit well prepared challengers. It is early, and there is plenty of time for dramatic changes, but so far the Republicans appear to have very limited opportunities to pick up Democratic seats.

Next Week: The Republican-held Senate seats up in 2010.

Larry J. Sabato is the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

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