If it's in the News, it's in our Polls. Public opinion polling since 2003.

 

Senate 2010: Part Three

A Commentary By Larry Sabato

Friday, February 27, 2009

Two weeks ago we discussed the basic framework for 2010's thirty-six Senate elections. Last week we reviewed the seventeen Democratic Senate seats that are on the ballot in the midterm year. Now let's see how the nineteen Republican-held seats for 2010 are shaping up in the initial stages:

Robert Bennett (R-UT): Bennett should seek and win his fourth term unless he surprises us with a retirement announcement. And why would he? At 77, he's a mere child in the senior reaches of the Senate--not to mention Utah, where clean living habits appear to yield long life. Young Turk Republicans are talking up a possible primary challenge to Bennett from David Leavitt, the brother of former Utah Governor Mike Leavitt (R), and state Attorney General Mark Shurtleff is also ambitious--though he is likely to run only if Bennett doesn't. Democrats have no one except Congressman Jim Matheson (D-UT), and it would be foolish for Matheson to give up his hard-won seat for a long-shot Senate bid. REPUBLICAN HOLD.

Kit Bond (R-MO): OPEN SEAT. More bad news for Republicans: The retirement of Senator Bond after four Senate and two gubernatorial terms means that yet another GOP seat is open to a Democratic takeover. The most likely Democratic nominee, Secretary of State Robin Carnahan, has a famous name via dynasty--her father was governor, her mother a U.S. senator, and her brother a current U.S. House member. African-American Congressman Lacy Clay (D) has also been making noises about running. New Governor Jay Nixon (D-MO), who lost to Bond for the Senate back in 1998, will work hard to turn Bond's berth to Blue. Still, as John McCain's squeaker win in 2008 showed, the Show Me State is highly competitive and certainly not a lost cause for the GOP. Congressman Roy Blunt, father of former Gov. Matt Blunt (R-2005 to 2009), is the early frontrunner for the GOP nod, but former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman is potentially a strong challenger--and she's running. A Carnahan-Blunt or Carnahan-Steelman match-up would be barnburner and a national headliner. TOSS UP.

Sam Brownback (R-KS): OPEN SEAT. Republicans may get a big break here. Brownback is relinquishing his Senate seat after fourteen years to run for Governor. The Republican nominee, who will be either U.S. Rep. Jerry Moran (R-First CD) or U.S. Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-Fourth CD), will have a natural edge in this normally Republican state over any Democrat except popular two-term Governor Kathleen Sebelius (D-KS), but some press reports suggest she will be President Obama's nominee to be Secretary of Health and Human Services. (This follows the embarrassing withdrawal of Secretary-designate Tom Daschle after tax-cheating charges emerged.) Sebelius was an early and ardent backer of Obama, and interestingly, Sebelius is the daughter of a Governor--not from Kansas but from Ohio, former Governor Jack Gilligan (D-1971-75). If Sebelius is not chosen for the Obama Cabinet and then she decides to run for Senate, the contest will be HIGHLY COMPETITIVE, with an initial edge to Sebelius. But if Sebelius ends up out of the running. Democrats have an essentially empty bench of strong candidates, and the seat will be a REPUBLICAN HOLD.

Jim Bunning (R-KY): Bunning has won two squeakers for the U.S. Senate, in 1998 and again in 2004, never having received more than 51% of the vote in this usually Republican state. Despite his age (79 in 2010), he insists he's going for a third term. As such, one would expect another close race, if Democrats can get a strong candidate. Quite a number of possibilities are mentioned, such as state Attorney General Jack Conway, state Auditor Crit Luallen, and Fifth district U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler, who has statewide name recognition from a previous, losing race for Governor. Conway is the most likely of this trio to run. But the most frequently discussed nominee for the moment is Lt. Gov. Dan Mongiardo, who as a state senator in 2004 nearly upset Bunning despite President Bush's massive 60% landslide in the state. Meanwhile, some Kentucky political observers continue to speculate that Bunning will not run again in the end, and increasingly, it appears that some senior leaders of the national and state GOP would prefer that Bunning didn't. He may be the one Republican who can actually lose the seat--a highly unusual position for an incumbent, but a product of, among other things, an unexplained absence from the Senate in January 2009. (Bunning refused to say where he was or what he was doing while he missed key committee hearings and floor votes.) Should Bunning step aside, the GOP Senate nominee may be Secretary of State Trey Grayson, who appears to be the early frontrunner. It is not impossible that, with enough encouragement, Grayson or another Republican could challenge Bunning in the Republican primary. Other possible Republican nominees include Congressman Ed Whitfield, Congressman Geoff Davis, or state Senate President David Williams. TOSS UP.

Richard Burr (R-NC): Democrats are on a roll in North Carolina, with a stunning trio of 2008 victories for Barack Obama, Gov. Beverly Perdue, and Senator Kay Hagan (defeating Sen. Elizabeth Dole, once thought to be invulnerable). Despite all that, the last remaining major GOP officeholder in the Tar Heel State, first-term Sen. Richard Burr, will not be easy to dislodge. He's got a good reputation, comes across well in the media, and tends to his constituencies. Two statewide Democratic figures, Attorney General Roy Cooper and former Treasurer Richard Moore, have been mentioned as possible Burr opponents. One of the many Democratic House members from North Carolina could also run, especially U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler, ex-quarterback of the Washington Redskins and a Blue Dog who represents part of western North Carolina. This is unsettled as yet, and Burr will have to work hard for reelection, thinking of Dole--who was often absent from the state--as a cautionary tale. It's actually worse than that, and you, dear reader, won't believe this, but the last time a U.S. senator holding this seat was reelected was 1968. (Trivia answer: He was Democrat Sam Ervin of Watergate fame.) All of Ervin's elected successors got one term each as the seat wobbled between the parties--Robert Morgan (D), John East (R), Terry Sanford (D), Lauch Faircloth (R), and John Edwards (D). Truly, this is a berth for which the occupant should rent an apartment and not buy a house in D.C. For now, we'll list it as LEANS REPUBLICAN but if the Democrats play their cards right, and 2010 is a decent year for them, Burr will have to fight history to get a second term.

Tom Coburn (R-OK): If there is one senator who is completely unpredictable, it is Tom Coburn. Should he run for a second term, he'll very likely win it. Not only is he a Republican in a deeply Red state, but he has attracted grudging support from some Democrats and enthusiastic backing from many Independents for his principled stands on pork barrel spending and other topics. If Coburn decides to call it a day and go back to his medical practice, then Democrats will actually have a decent shot with Governor Brad Henry (D-OK), assuming he is open to a candidacy. Still, everyone remembers that Oklahoma was John McCain's best state (almost 66% of the vote) in November 2008, replacing former top GOP performers like Utah, Idaho, and Wyoming. Various Democratic and Republican congressmen and statewide officials might jump in if Coburn and Henry opt out, and it's too soon to say which ones. REPUBLICAN HOLD if Coburn runs, TOSS UP if Coburn retires.

Mike Crapo (R-ID): Crapo is a sure bet for a third term. He is popular and--pardon the pun--untouched by the Larry Craig scandal. It is doubtful that any major figure in either party will challenge him. New Democratic U.S. Rep. Walt Minnick knows how lucky he is to be in office at all, and he will be working around-the-clock just to keep his normally Republican House district. REPUBLICAN HOLD.

Jim DeMint (R-SC): Here is another certain reelection for a conservative GOP Southerner. Freshman DeMint has become a hero on the right for his tax and spending policies, and he is just as conservative on social issues. Democrats do not have an obvious challenger with heft. REPUBLICAN HOLD.

Charles Grassley (R-IA): Democrats are on the upswing and ever-stronger in the Hawkeye State, and that raises warning flags for the venerable senior senator who will be seeking his sixth term. Former Gov. Tom Vilsack (D-IA) would have been the logical opponent but his selection as Obama's Secretary of Agriculture removes him from the table. There are plenty of other Democratic officials, statewide and district, who could challenge Grassley. Still, the eventual nominee will have a steep uphill climb. This is a politician who has consistently and easily won, and he fights hard for his state's farming interests. Grassley also has something of a populist streak, which appeals to Independents. We'll obviously revisit this race once we have a clearer picture of the field, but for now it is a REPUBLICAN HOLD.

Judd Gregg (R-NH): OPEN SEAT. This Senate seat has had a wild ride over the past few weeks. When Senator Judd Gregg (R) was named Secretary of Commerce-designate by President Obama in early February, Obama, Gregg, and Democratic Gov. John Lynch reached a deal to keep the seat in GOP hands for the next two years (the remainder of Gregg's elected Senate term). This prevented Democrats from securing a possibly filibuster-proof 60th Senate seat by the back door of appointment. Gregg secured the post for his former House chief of staff, J. Bonnie Newman. She was generally described as a moderate Republican. Newman agreed not to run for a full term in 2010, which would have produced an open seat vulnerable to Democratic takeover. Then Gregg shocked the White House, and everyone else, announcing on Abraham Lincoln's 200th birthday that he was withdrawing from the Commerce appointment because of an unbridgeable gap in ideology between a conservative Republican and a liberal President. Democrats feared their chances of a turnover would evaporate, since Gregg would likely be reelected. Then Gregg quickly said he would "probably not" seek another term. Assuming that is true, Democrats are back in the game. When Gregg began his elective career in 1978, the Granite State was as Republican as any state in the Union. After stints in the U.S. House and as Governor, Gregg made it to the Senate in 1992. But rock-ribbed Republican New Hampshire started to change dramatically during the 1990s and the first decade of the 21st century, partly because of in-migration from liberal Massachusetts. Now the Democrats have the Governorship, the other Senate seat, both House seats, the state legislature, and just about everything else worth taking, not to mention victories for John Kerry in 2004 and Barack Obama in 2008. Gregg's GOP Senate colleague, John Sununu, was shown the door by former Gov. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) in 2008. All of this may have nudged Gregg out the door. For the 2010 Senate nomination, Democrats might have a choice between their two congressmen, Paul Hodes or Carol Shea-Porter. The strongest Democrat, Gov. John Lynch, has decided not to run for the seat. But either Hodes or Shea-Porter could possibly win, assuming economic conditions in 2010 are not hostile to Democrats. Hodes appears to be the preferred candidate of many party leaders, and he's already announced that he is a candidate. For the Republicans, former Senator Sununu may try for a comeback, and he would be a formidable candidate in the right environment. If Sununu doesn't run, or even if he does, former U.S. Rep. Charles Bass and former Gov. Steve Merrill are other GOP possibilities. One New Hampshire newspaper has even encouraged almost-Senator Bonnie Newman to throw her hat into the ring. Bonnie, we hardly knew ye. Since we don't know the party nominees yet, we can only call this a TOSS-UP.

Johnny Isakson (R-GA): If Isakson runs, given his popularity and slightly more moderate image than the other high-ranking Peach State Republicans, he'll be a clear favorite for a second term. Isakson may be tempted to run for Governor, however, and he tried for the office unsuccessfully back in 1990. Incumbent Gov. Sonny Perdue (R-GA) has reached his two-term limit, and Isakson would be a dominating figure in the race to succeed Perdue. Yet GOP Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle also wants the statehouse, and Isakson will probably take the path of least resistance and run for reelection. Should he vacate the seat, however, a free-for-all in both parties would ensue. For now, REPUBLICAN HOLD with Isakson running.

Mel Martinez (R-FL): OPEN SEAT. Never very popular, Martinez stunned his state by deciding to step down after just one term, creating a rare open seat opportunity in this mega-state. The pent-up ambitions of dozens of politicians are on display. Nonetheless, one politician had the ability to shut down the contest on the GOP side, and also become the instant November favorite: former Gov. Jeb Bush. The Sunshine State is one of the few where it is still possible for a Bush to be elected to a top spot because Jeb Bush carved out his own legacy in eight years as Governor (1999-2007), and voters understand the difference between Jeb and George. But after sending signals that he might run, Jeb Bush said no in early January. Republicans would love to get popular Gov. Charlie Crist to forgo a second term as chief executive and run for the Senate instead. Like Bush would have, Crist would very likely win the seat. On the other hand, the open Senate seat is good news for Crist in another way: Most ambitious Democrats are going to make a beeline for an open Senate seat rather than challenging an incumbent Governor. Crist has sent contradictory signals about his intentions, and the GOP field will be essentially frozen until he decides whether he'd rather continue being Governor or prefers the Senate seat. At one time, the presumed Democratic frontrunner was state Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, but she has now removed her name from consideration and plans to run again for her post. In her stead, a cluster of U.S. House members is now hungrily eyeing the Senate seat, including Kathy Castor, Kendrick Meek, and Ron Klein. State Sen. Dan Gelber, an early Obama supporter, is also in the hunt, as is Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio. For the Republicans, if Crist joins Bush in opting out of the Senate contest, the GOP will have exhausted the list of near-sure winners. The GOP has to find a good candidate and will have just a 50-50 shot at holding the seat. It isn't immediately obvious which second-tier Republicans will launch a candidacy but a couple of GOP congressmen are making noises, including wealthy Vern Buchanan and Connie Mack (whose father served in the Senate--another dynasty watch that has yielded Mack an early poll lead in the Republican primary). Former New Hampshire U.S. Sen. Bob Smith is also considering the race; he's lived in the Sunshine State since his defeat for re-nomination by now-former U.S. Sen. John Sununu (R) in 2002. Some current and former state legislative leaders may also jump in. Former Florida House Speakers Marco Rubio and Allan Bense are ones to watch, especially if either one turns out to be the choice of Jeb Bush and many of Bush's supporters. A TV talk show host, former Congressman Joe Scarborough (R), has been promoted by his MSNBC colleagues for the seat, but much like Chris Matthews' feint in the Pennsylvania Senate contest, this will end up being the staple of cable TV--hot air. If Crist runs, this is LEANS REPUBLICAN HOLD. Otherwise, it's a TOSS-UP.

John McCain (R-AZ): The only Democrat who could have defeated John McCain in 2010 for reelection to his Senate seat was snatched away by President Obama for his Cabinet: Gov. Janet Napolitano, now Secretary of Homeland Security. Much like Barry Goldwater, who was reelected to the Senate in 1968 after he lost his 1964 presidential bid, McCain will very likely secure his fifth Senate term. McCain actually won Arizona in 2008 by a much wider margin (53.6%) than Goldwater did in 1964 (50.5%). REPUBLICAN HOLD.

Lisa Murkowski (R-AK): Here is yet another 'legacy' in the Senate, and a more outrageous one than usual. Murkowski's Senate career began when her father, Sen. Frank Murkowski (R), ran for Governor of Alaska in 2002, and won. Sweetening the deal for him, Governor Frank got to appoint his own successor. He made a great pretense of searching the state high and low for the best qualified person, and lo and behold, he found her in his own household, daughter Lisa. The blatant nepotism did not sit well with Alaska voters, but in 2004, when Lisa had to run on her own, she was incredibly lucky. George W. Bush swept Alaska with 61%. Lisa defeated former Gov. Tony Knowles (D) by a mere 3% (49% to 46%). The Alaskan electorate decided to take out its anger on Governor Frank instead, and he lost in a landslide for reelection in the Republican primary, actually finishing a miserable third place with 19%. The winner of the primary and general was someone you might have heard of, Sarah Palin. Now, fresh off her trailblazing if unsuccessful campaign for vice president, Gov. Palin has to decide if she wants to run for a second term as Governor or to challenge Lisa Murkowski in a primary. Palin is a cinch for Governor again (and we suspect she'll do that), while the well funded Murkowski would put up a stiff fight. Polls on the potential match-up have been contradictory. (By the way, Palin has a third choice. She could retire from the Governorship and run flat-out for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination.) Whatever Palin decides to do, the Senate seat will stay Republican in November. Democrats barely defeated Sen. Ted Stevens (R) in 2008--and he was convicted on seven counts of fraud the week before the election. Senator Mark Begich is all the Democrats are going to get for the time being. REPUBLICAN HOLD.

Richard Shelby (R-AL): Shelby has been a conservative Democratic senator (1987-1994) and a conservative Republican senator (1995-2010), and he'll continue in the latter capacity for his fifth term in 2010. It really doesn't matter who runs against this popular politician with $13 million already banked. REPUBLICAN HOLD.

Arlen Specter (R-PA): Heading towards thirty years in the Senate, Specter is the great survivor. He is too Republican for an increasingly Democratic state, and too liberal for a firmly conservative Republican party. Nearly defeated in a GOP primary by Rep. Pat Toomey (R) in 2004, Specter has to worry about another primary challenge from the right, possibly Toomey again (though he has vacillated and appears to be leaning more to the Governor's race), wealthy radio talk show host Glen Meakem, or longtime conservative activist Peg Luksik. Some conservatives are even touting Congressman Jim Gerlach (R), despite his moderate positions on social issues, believing that Gerlach could more easily defeat the despised Specter. So far, Gerlach is leaning more to the Governor's contest. Conservatives are furious that Specter was one of three GOP senators to back the Obama stimulus bill. Assuming Specter survives the primary, he'll have a hard-fought general election contest against the eventual Democratic nominee. Television talk show host Chris Matthews considered running, and then understandably decided his well-paid media perch was superior. (Why run for senator when you can interview all 100?) The Democrats have a deep bench of congressmen from every region of the Keystone State, so a nominee shouldn't be hard to find. Congressman Patrick Murphy or Congresswoman Allyson Schwartz might well run for the Democratic Senate nod, and state Auditor Jack Wagner is another possibility. A state Board of Education member, Joe Torsella (D), is all but announced, too. Specter's health is delicate, and he has beaten cancer, a brain tumor, and goodness knows what else. He'll also be 80 years old in 2010. Yet in recognition of his toughness, we still tilt the contest towards him. He's earned it, at least at the outset. LEANS REPUBLICAN.

John Thune (R-SD): After ousting Sen. Tom Daschle in 2004, Thune is seeking his second term and is very likely to get it. Democratic U.S. Rep. Stephanie Herseth-Sandlin is the only top-flight opponent for Thune, but she's much more likely to run for Governor in 2010 or wait to succeed Sen. Tim Johnson (D) when he retires. By the way, the congresswoman's grandfather, Ralph Herseth, was the Democratic Governor of South Dakota from 1959-1961. REPUBLICAN HOLD.

David Vitter (R-LA): In most other states, we could safely write off Sen. Vitter, a "family values" conservative who was hypocritically caught with his hand in the cookie jar in the messy "D.C. Madam" prostitution scandal in 2007. A regular customer of the world's oldest profession, Vitter reportedly had a thing for wearing diapers during the performances, earning him the sobriquet of "Diaper David". (In an added bit of irony, a Vitter commercial from his 2004 Senate race centered on his changing his son's diaper.) But this is Louisiana, a state for which Illinois is eternally grateful. Vitter may give new meaning to Robert Penn Warren's famous phrase "the stink of the didie" in All the King's Men, set in the Bayou State, of course. Yet as the incumbent he enters his 2010 reelection battle with distinct advantages. Louisiana is a conservative Republican state overall, and the well funded ($2 million-on-hand) Vitter is playing to the right-wing of the GOP--for example, being the only Foreign Relations Committee senator to vote against Hillary Clinton's nomination to be Secretary of State. Also, the other Louisiana senator is a Democrat, Mary Landrieu. It may be difficult to get state voters to put in a second Democrat, although some potent Democrats are taking a close look at the contest, including Shaw Group CEO and former state party chairman Jim Bernhard, U.S. Rep. Charlie Melancon (who is hesitant to run), former U.S. Rep. Chris John (hmmm...a "John versus John" race), and Jefferson Parish District Attorney Paul Connick, cousin of crooner Harry Connick, Jr. Equally important will be the answer to this question: Will any notable Republican challenge Vitter in the GOP primary? (The state now has regular party primaries for U.S. Senate instead of the come-one-come-all open primary used for Governor.) Two may be possibilities: Secretary of State Jay Dardenne and the new House wonder that defeated U.S. Rep. "Dollar Bill" Jefferson, Congressman Anh "Joseph" Cao. The former, Secretary Dardenne, must be worried about the puzzling decision by Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) to appear at a fundraiser for Vitter--a decision that could come back to haunt the heretofore squeaky-clean Jindal when he seeks support from family values conservatives in a presidential bid one day. (Jindal is now insisting that his appearance at the Vitter event did not constitute an endorsement; what marvelous hair-splitting can these pols perform!) By the way, Congressman Cao will have a hard time getting reelected from his liberal Democratic district in 2010, but he would be beautifully positioned to take out a second corrupt Louisiana politician, this time, Mr. Vitter. The only announced Republican candidate against Vitter is Stormy Daniels, a well known sex worker who offered this rationale for her candidacy: "I might be a slut and a whore...but I'm not a criminal, and I've never been a hypocrite." As we said, it's Louisiana. And Daniels can fairly make the claim that that she is a one-woman stimulus package. Vitter is lucky because, so far, he has avoided strong opposition, yet given his scandal and hypocrisy, he can never rest easy. His supporters once touted him as a future President, but his chances of winding up in the White House are about the same as a dirty pile of diapers. This contest is unformed as yet, and it's fair to call it a TOSS-UP.

George Voinovich (R-OH): OPEN SEAT. Ohio is another state that has shifted ground substantially, leaving a once-invulnerable incumbent to cash in his chips. George Voinovich announced in early January that he would not seek a third term. He has been in office almost continuously since 1966, and has served as mayor of Cleveland, lieutenant governor, governor, and since 1999, as U.S. senator. He won both Senate races by handsome margins, and has long been the state's most popular Republican. But Democrats have surged in Ohio, winning the governorship with Ted Strickland by a wide margin in 2006, ousting the state's other GOP senator (Mike DeWine) in the same year and substituting Sherrod Brown, and then carrying the Buckeye State for Barack Obama in 2008. Voinovich will be 74 in 2010, and the prospect of a tough contest for reelection must have weighed in his decision. Young Democratic lions such as Congressman Tim Ryan of the Youngstown area started to pace early, and with Voinovich's retirement announcement, others began to float their own names, including state Attorney General Richard Cordray, Congressman Zack Space, Congresswoman Betty Sutton, Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher, and Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner. Gov. Strickland has now weighed in to support Lt. Gov. Fisher, and this may (or may not) help to clear out some of the Democratic field. Secretary of State Brunner made it clear she is running in any event, and the Fisher-Brunner match-up will be intense. The front-running Republican to replace Voinovich appears to be former Congressman and ex-Office of Management and Budget Director Rob Portman, but other candidates may also jump in: former U.S. Sen. DeWine, state Auditor Mary Taylor, and former Congressman John Kasich. The key question in Ohio as in so many other states is: How will President Obama--and the economy--perform, and will voters be patient or demand quick results in a devastated economy? TOSS UP.

The long and winding road that leads to the 2010 U.S. Senate elections has just begun, but already we can see that it will be extremely difficult, bordering on the impossible, for Republicans to re-take control of the upper chamber then. In fact, based on an early reading of the thirty-six contests, Democrats have the better opportunity to gain seats, thereby lifting the party over the sixty mark that can (if the Democrats hold together) enable them to shut off filibusters and invoke cloture.

There's plenty of time for Senate fortunes to change, in individual contests and nationally, but Republicans have the more difficult trek-- for the third election cycle in a row . It is not an exaggeration to say that the GOP will be very fortunate to hold its own or pick up a seat or two. Odds are very substantial that Republicans will be playing Senate defense for Barack Obama's entire first presidential term.

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

See Other Commentary by Larry Sabato

See Other Political Commentary

Rasmussen Reports is a media company specializing in the collection, publication and distribution of public opinion information.

We conduct public opinion polls on a variety of topics to inform our audience on events in the news and other topics of interest. To ensure editorial control and independence, we pay for the polls ourselves and generate revenue through the sale of subscriptions, sponsorships, and advertising. Nightly polling on politics, business and lifestyle topics provides the content to update the Rasmussen Reports web site many times each day. If it's in the news, it's in our polls. Additionally, the data drives a daily update newsletter and various media outlets across the country.

Some information, including the Rasmussen Reports daily Presidential Tracking Poll and commentaries are available for free to the general public. Subscriptions are available for $3.95 a month or 34.95 a year that provide subscribers with exclusive access to more than 20 stories per week on upcoming elections, consumer confidence, and issues that affect us all. For those who are really into the numbers, Platinum Members can review demographic crosstabs and a full history of our data.

To learn more about our methodology, click here.