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Senate Sensibilities: A Second Democratic Year in '08?

An Overview by Larry J. Sabato

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Views expressed in this column are those of the author, not those of Rasmussen Reports.

Look at recent history. The Senate has changed party control six times: in 1980 (D to R), 1986 (R to D), 1994 (D to R), 2001 (R to D), 2002 (D to R), and 2006 (R to D). This is no longer a rare event. And the Democrats now control the Senate by the slimmest of margins, 51 to 49. Surely, then, Republicans have a real chance to recapture Congress' upper chamber in 2008.

Surely not. While strange things happen in politics, and the election is almost a year away, it would be truly extraordinary if the GOP seized the Senate. In fact, Democrats have an excellent chance to expand their margin of control, perhaps significantly. Let's go to the states to see how.

Thirty-three regularly scheduled contests will take place in 2008, along with an additional two special elections.

As usual, there are many contests that are not competitive. Of the 35 Senate seats up for election in 2008 (including two special elections, in Wyoming and Mississippi), the winning party for 25 of them is not seriously in question.

State

Likely Result

Incumbent

Alabama

Republican

Sen. Jeff Sessions

Arkansas

Democratic

Sen. Mark Pryor

Delaware

Democratic

Sen. Joe Biden

Georgia

Republican

Sen. Saxby Chambliss

Idaho

Republican

OPEN (Sen. Larry Craig retiring; Lt. Gov. Jim Risch the likely GOP nominee and thus the next senator)

Illinois

Democratic

Sen. Dick Durbin

Iowa

Democratic

Sen. Tom Harkin

Kansas

Republican

Sen. Pat Roberts

Kentucky

Republican

Sen. Mitch McConnell

Nebraska

Republican

OPEN (Sen. Chuck Hagel retiring; former Gov. Mike Johanns should win)

Massachusetts

Democratic

Sen. John Kerry

Michigan

Democratic

Sen. Carl Levin

Mississippi

Republican

Sen. Thad Cochran

Montana

Democratic

Sen. Max Baucus

New Jersey

Democratic

Sen. Frank Lautenberg

North Carolina

Republican

Sen. Elizabeth Dole

Oklahoma

Republican

Sen. Jim Inhofe

Rhode Island

Democratic

Sen. Jack Reed

South Carolina

Republican

Sen. Lindsey Graham

South Dakota

Democratic

Sen. Tim Johnson

Tennessee

Republican

Sen. Lamar Alexander

Texas

Republican

Sen. John Cornyn

West Virginia

Democratic

Sen. Jay Rockefeller

Wyoming

Republican

Sen. Mike Enzi

Wyoming (sp.)

Republican

Sen. John Barrasso (Appointed senator but almost certain to be elected to the four years remaining in the term of the late Sen. Craig Thomas)

Of these 25, 11 are Democratic and 14 are Republican. No doubt, two or three of these contests may become more competitive than expected once all party nominees are selected and new events unfold in the election year.

That leaves us with the ten hottest Senate elections that will determine the final tally in 2008:

  • Alaska : Who could have believed that a Republican incumbent would be in trouble here? But at least initially, the longest-serving Senate Republican, Ted Stevens, is mired in a major corporate scandal involving pay-offs and bribery. He has not been indicted and may be able to clear himself. He may or may not run again, no matter what he says now. He may or may not be seriously challenged in the GOP primary or the general election. So, on this one, we'll just have to watch and wait. Based solely on the strength of his past electoral record, we'll call it, for now, LEANS REPUBLICAN .
  • Colorado : When Republican Wayne Allard (R) announced his retirement after two terms, the assumption is that this Purple state might well lean Democratic in 2008, just as it did in 2006 when it elected a new Democratic Governor (Bill Ritter) in a landslide. Perhaps that will prove true, and the early polls show the Democratic candidate, Congressman Mark Udall, out in front of the GOP candidate, former Congressman Bob Schaeffer (who had lost the GOP Senate primary in 2004 to Pete Coors, who in turn lost to now-Democratic Senator Ken Salazar.) Republicans say that Hillary Clinton is most unlikely to carry Colorado, and that her nomination will give them a chance to turn the Senate battle around. Maybe so, but for right now, the justifiable rating is LEANS DEMOCRATIC (PICK-UP) .
  • Louisiana : This is the only contest involving a Democratic incumbent because, incredibly, this is the only incumbent that Republicans have any reasonable shot at defeating. Senator Mary Landrieu has won two close contests for Senate, and with the exodus of Democratic African-American votes from New Orleans to other states after Hurricane Katrina, she can take nothing for granted. Her GOP opponent will be state Treasurer John Kennedy, a party-switcher. This is likely to be a tight race from beginning to end. Our instinct is to give the edge to Landrieu, but newly elected Governor Bobby Jindal (R) is a big asset for Kennedy, and the national Republican Party, having no other targets, can be expected to pour resources into this race. Also keep in mind that a court decision has required the state to hold regular party primaries in 2008 instead of the unique all-party primary that has characterized Bayou State politics for decades. This could be a wild card, too. TOSS-UP .
  • Maine : Two-term Senator Susan Collins (R) is still the favorite for reelection, but if a Democrat wins Maine by a wide margin, the coattail effect could work in favor of Congressman Tom Allen (D). We will be carefully monitoring this one, but Collins is holding up well so far. LEANS REPUBLICAN .
  • Minnesota : Here's a state that still leans Democratic but overall can be unpredictable politically. Six years ago, Republican Norm Coleman won a narrow victory over former Vice President Walter Mondale (D), the substitute nominee after the tragic death of Senator Paul Wellstone (D) in a plane crash. Coleman is beatable in 2008, but it's far from certain that either of the two likely Democratic nominees, comedian Al Franken or the wealthy Mike Ceresi, can do it. For now, Coleman continues to work his state hard, and we'll call it LEANS REPUBLICAN .
  • Mississippi (special): It is not yet certain whether this special election for the seat of the resigning Sen. Trent Lott (R) will be held in March or November. Mississippi law is less than definitive on the subject. However, Gov. Haley Barbour appears determined to hold it in November, when the GOP presidential nominee will almost certainly be carrying the state and helping the party's nominee. The temporary Senator, to be appointed by Barbour, will also have most of a year to establish himself. Still, this could be a real contest if former Governor Ronnie Musgrove or former Attorney General Michael Moore decides to run as the Democratic candidate. For the moment, given the decidedly Republican nature of the Magnolia State, we will rate this one as LEANS REPUBLICAN .
  • New Hampshire : No state in the nation has moved so quickly from Republican to Democratic in party orientation. This is a state that dislikes both President Bush and the Iraq War, and it showed from top to bottom of the state's 2006 elections. Freshman GOP Senator John Sununu has his hands full in a re-match with former Gov. Jeanne Shaheen (D). All major public and private polls show her ahead, some by a wide margin, so for now we'll list this one as LEANS DEMOCRATIC (PICK-UP) .
  • New Mexico : What a free-for-all! The retirement of longtime Sen. Pete Domenici (R) has led all three of New Mexico's U.S. House members to throw their hats in the ring: Democrat Tom Udall and Republicans Steve Pearce and Heather Wilson. The Land of Enchantment is also the land of close presidential races, at least in competitive years, and this leads us to suspect that the Senate race is up for grabs. Should Gov. Bill Richardson end his presidential campaign at some point and seek the Senate seat, this would become a likely Democratic pick-up. Democrats may well win it anyway, and once the nominees are set we'll reclassify this race, but for now, the only reasonable rating is TOSS UP .
  • Oregon : Senator Gordon Smith (R) has managed to forge a successful political career in an unfriendly Democratic environment. But he must always be careful to project a moderate image in order to win the swing independents that, when added to the GOP base, can produce victory in November. He has done so on issues ranging from Iraq to the environment, but will it be enough in 2008? Once again, the Democratic nominee for President will be a strong favorite to carry Oregon again, creating a headwind for Smith. His likely Democratic opponent, state House Speaker Jeff Merkley, is a serious candidate who will eventually have solid party backing and financing. Still, based on Smith's record, we give the early edge to the incumbent, though it could be a tense year for him. LEANS REPUBLICAN .
  • Virginia : The Old Dominion hasn't moved nearly as far as New Hampshire across the political spectrum, but it has undeniably become more Democratic in recent years, primarily because of the growth of moderate Northern Virginia. The GOP has lost races for Governor in 2001 and 2005, U.S. Senator in 2006, and the state legislature in 2007. The man who started the movement to the Democrats, former Governor Mark Warner, is very likely headed to the Senate in 2008. He may be handicapped by the Democratic presidential nominee, especially Hillary Clinton, but he has such wide appeal among independents that he should be able to make up any ground she costs him (if she is the nominee). The Republicans will nominate Warner's controversial predecessor, former Governor Jim Gilmore, who may have trouble funding the contest. Should Mark Warner succeed the retiring John Warner (R), Democrats will control the Governorship and both Senate seats for the first time since early 1970. LEANS DEMOCRATIC (PICK-UP) .

Therefore, the early outlook is for another good Democratic year, though it remains to be seen just how good. The Crystal Ball has Democrats in line for pick-ups in Virginia, New Hampshire, Colorado, and possibly New Mexico. If 2008 turns out to be strongly Democratic at the presidential level, Democrats might be able to grab one or more of the seats up in Alaska, Maine, Minnesota, Mississippi, and Oregon, though currently we have Republicans leading in all five states. To balance the likely Democratic gains, Republicans have only the Democratic seat in Louisiana to target, and we rate that race a toss-up.

Democrats will unabashedly celebrate this electoral picture. To Republicans who find this assessment depressing, we would note two facts. First, it is highly unlikely that Democrats will get the sixty Senate votes necessary to shut off filibusters-the essential requirement to actually control the Senate on most controversial matters. Second, if Democrats gain substantially in the Senate, then probably a Democratic President is being elected. This will set the stage for Republican gains in the critical redistricting midterm election of 2010. What goes around comes around, and the cycles of politics are not to be denied.

A final, vital caution: This Senate ranking is where we start , not where we finish . Imagine how many twists and turns await us in these 33 states with Senate contests. The Crystal Ball will travel the road with you all the way to November.

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

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