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Senate Shakeup Moving Through Primary Season

A Commentary By Larry J. Sabato

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Editor's Note:  Following an exciting night of primaries on Tuesday, the Crystal Ball  this week examines the races for U.S. Senate. With more primaries on the docket over the next month, and others looming further on the horizon, the Crystal Ball  will continue our midterm election focus over the next two weeks, first with a look at the U.S. House elections and then turning our attention to the races for governor. We hope you'll read our take each week on where the marquee action will be as we keep you up-to-date with our latest ratings and analysis. - Larry J. Sabato

The primary season is here, hot and heavy, and it has changed the Senate picture since our last update in April. Some of our individual race ratings have shifted, but our forecast still calls for sizeable Republican gains in November. Democrats are hoping that an improved economy will transform this portrait by the fall—and it may—but the positive news on the economy is too recent to have registered and too tentative to be called enduring. The chart below gives you a quick at-a-glance summary of our ratings, and we’ll add a few comments on selected contests. If the outlook hasn’t moved much since April, we haven’t added anything new to our previous summaries.

Arizona:  Former maverick John McCain is still holding up surprisingly well given the grassroots GOP antagonism that would give life to just about any respectable conservative challenger. McCain has been aggressive toward his opponent, reversing or refining some positions (such as on immigration) in a conservative direction and going on the attack frequently. Former Congressman J.D. Hayworth isn’t necessarily well suited to taking on McCain, especially because of his loss of his own House seat back in 2006. McCain has called in debts owed by Sarah Palin and others. Still, one of the nation’s best known senators cannot rest easy and must work this hard all the way to the primary on August 24. If McCain wins the primary, he’ll win in November. If Hayworth pulls off an upset, we’ll reassess. LEANS McCAIN AND REPUBLICAN HOLD .

Arkansas:  Blanche Lincoln gives every sign of being Dead Woman Walking. She barely edged liberal union-backed challenger Lt. Gov. Bill Halter in the Tuesday’s primary and has been forced into a June 8th runoff. Whether Lincoln or Halter, the Democratic nominee will likely lose to the GOP Congressman John Boozman, who won an absolute majority against several opponents on Tuesday. He’ll sit back and watch the Democratic bloodletting in an anti-Obama state that gave 59% to John McCain in 2008. LEANS REPUBLICAN TAKEOVER .

California:  Don’t bother telling us you expected three-term Senator Barbara Boxer to be in trouble. You don’t lie that well. The Golden State is so Democratic that we’ll still believe Boxer will lose when we see it; the party identification edge in the electorate will probably kick in come autumn. Yet either former Congressman Tom Campbell or wealthy businesswoman Carly Fiorina will give Boxer her toughest election ever. To the surprise of many observers, Campbell is leading the free-spending Fiorina so far. Conservative Chuck DeVore, a GOP base favorite, hasn’t gotten much traction, as far as we can see. Californians appear sick of everyone and everything. They have become the ungovernable state, and their gold is very tarnished. Boxer hasn’t helped with comments like the one to a general testifying before her: “Could you say ‘Senator’ instead of ‘ma’am?’” TOSS UP FOR NOW.

Colorado:  Appointed Sen. Michael Bennet (D) has a lot to prove in a very short time. He’s become a White House favorite, but that hasn’t stopped an energetic challenge from former state House speaker Andrew Romanoff, who defeated him at the state party convention (not surprising, given the liberal cast of such a conclave). If he survives the primary, and he’s currently leading Romanoff, he’ll face a tough GOP opponent in the fall, either former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton or District Attorney Ken Buck. TOSS UP

Connecticut:  The Republicans’ opportunity to win this one appeared to vanish when damaged Sen. Chris Dodd (D) agreed to retire. Attorney General Dick Blumenthal, long the bridesmaid, was set to become the bride in November over either wrestling executive Linda McMahon (the GOP nomination favorite) or ex-Congressman Rob Simmons. Then came Tuesday’s devastating New York Times  revelation that Blumenthal had claimed to be a Vietnam veteran when he had, in fact, sought multiple deferments to keep from going (though he did serve in the Marine Reserves without a Vietnam tour of duty). The contest is now in turmoil and cannot be reliably rated. Democrats appear to be sticking with Blumenthal, but no one knows if the broader public will be equally forgiving or if additional “resume enhancements” will come to light. A secondary question arises: Will Vietnam veteran and medal-winner Rob Simmons generate new traction over Linda McMahon on the GOP side? We believe the contest could still settle into the Democratic column, but at the moment, it is just a confusing TOSS UP .

Delaware:  It will be an embarrassment to the White House and Vice President Joe Biden if Biden’s old seat goes Republican, but even in deep-Blue Delaware, that seems probable. Congressman Mike Castle (R) is leading by a wide margin in the polls and ought to defeat little-known local official Chris Coons (D). LEANS REPUBLICAN PICK-UP

Florida:  No doubt about it, here’s one of the headline contests for November. In a bold and brilliant (or foolish) move—depending on who is analyzing this—Gov. Charlie Crist left the Republican Party to run for Senate as an Independent. Despite his various rationalizations, it was all about personal survival. Crist had already made the worst political move of the year by giving up a secure second term in the statehouse for the Senate bid. Conservative former House Speaker Marco Rubio was on track to defeat the moderate Crist overwhelmingly for the GOP nomination, capitalizing on party anger at Crist for allegedly “cozying up” to President Obama. Democratic Rep. Kendrick Meek hopes he’ll benefit in running against “two Republicans” in a contest that requires only a third of the vote to win, but so far the polls show Meek running a poor third. Crist and Rubio each lead in some polls, but both are stuck in the 30s. This is a volatile, unpredictable war. Can Crist get enough money and organization to be fully competitive? Can Rubio find a way to attract enough centrists to add to his solid GOP base? If a Republican wave is reasonably high by November, Rubio should be able to win. For now, TOSS UP

Illinois:  Democrat Alexi Giannoulias has had a bad spring, and Republican Mark Kirk couldn’t be happier. Illinois is so Democratic and the Obama White House is so determined to keep the president’s former seat in Blue hands that you simply can’t rule Giannoulias out despite all the corruption charges swirling around his family’s bank. If the election were held today, the moderate-conservative Kirk would win, but by no means has Kirk put this away. If Democrats save any endangered seat, it could be this one. TOSS UP

Indiana:  Former Sen. Dan Coats (R) had the worst roll-out of any Senate candidate this year. His lucrative lobbying career and his residency in Virginia and expressed desire to retire to North Carolina hobbled him, and despite being the choice of senior Republicans in both D.C. and Indiana, the bland Coats received an unimpressive 39% in the recent party primary. But now Coats has the good luck to be the GOP nominee in a Republican year in a conservative state. Democrats are mourning the decision of Sen. Evan Bayh to retire since Bayh would have been a shoo-in. However, Democrats have chosen the strongest possible party candidate in former sheriff and current Congressman Brad Ellsworth. It will be difficult but far from impossible for Ellsworth to pull this out, but he needs a lot of luck—good for him and bad for Coats. LEANS REPUBLICAN PICK-UP.

Kansas:  The Republican nominee will be the next U.S. senator, succeeding Governor-to-be Sam Brownback (R). GOP voters will decide between two congressmen, moderate-conservative Jerry Moran and conservative Todd Tiahrt. Polls show Moran has a slight edge—but how much does it matter? Either one will win and their prospective Senate voting records would be almost identical. SOLID REPUBLICAN HOLD.

Kentucky:  Just wild, and one of our favorites. Secretary of State Trey Grayson was the establishment GOP choice and was backed strongly by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in Tuesday’s primary. But former presidential candidate Ron Paul’s son, Rand Paul, a self-described Tea Party candidate, won the Republican Senate nod in an overwhelming landslide. McConnell had helped to ease out GOP Sen. Jim Bunning, who would have lost in November. Yet now he is stuck with a party nominee who dislikes him and won’t even commit to reelecting a fellow Kentuckian to his Senate post. Paul has some very un-Republican views on foreign policy and drugs–or at least he once did–and the fall election is going to be as dirty as any in the nation this year. Meanwhile, the Democrats narrowly chose Attorney General Jack Conway over Lt. Gov. Dan Mongiardo to carry their Senate colors. Conway was considered by Democratic insiders to be the stronger politician, but he’s got his work cut out for him in this 57% McCain state where Obama’s policies are not popular. Our sense is that Paul is the favorite and likely to win the seat, but he’s also fully capable of throwing it away with controversial statements and an undisciplined, divisive campaign. We’ll see. LEANS REPUBLICAN HOLD.

Louisiana : It’s a measure of just how Republican the post-Katrina Bayou State has become that the incumbent GOP senator, David Vitter, has been able to survive a seamy prostitution scandal and be the favorite in his reelection bid. Democrats (and some Republicans) regard Vitter, a “family values” candidate, as a shameless hypocrite, and he’s not one of the more popular members of the Senate on either side of the aisle. Still, it will take a small miracle for Democratic Cong. Charlie Melancon to defeat him. President Obama hurts Democrats a great deal here. LEANS REPUBLICAN HOLD.

Missouri:  Another place where anti-Obama sentiment has tilted a Senate contest is the Show Me State. If this were 2006 or 2008, we’d bet on Secretary of State Robin Carnahan to pick up the Senate seat of the retiring Kit Bond (R). But instead, it is likely to go to a senior House Republican, Roy Blunt, father of one-term Gov. Matt Blunt (2005-2009). LEANS REPUBLICAN HOLD .

Nevada:  The question everybody is asking is, can Harry Reid pull out a miracle reelection? The Senate Majority Leader knows how to win a close one—he got another term in 1998 by a few hundred votes—and he’ll have a record amount of money to spend and the full resources of the White House on his side. No sane person counts him out, yet Nevadans seem determined, at least in the spring, to send him packing. It’s a combination of anger over health care reform, Obama second-thoughts (even though the president carried the Silver State), and most of all, a grassroots revulsion toward Congress, which Reid helps to run. Three little-known Republicans are running, former state party chair Sue Lowden, businessman Danny Tarkanian (son of the coaching great), and conservative activist Sharron Angle. Any one of them could win the nomination. Lowden was a clear favorite until her infamous blunder suggesting that people could barter for health care (“chickens-for-a-check-up”). Angle is a Tea Party favorite and has been moving up quickly. Still, this one is basically a referendum on Reid. No doubt, this wily survivor will try to make it a referendum instead on his eventual opponent. LEANS REPUBLICAN TAKEOVER .

New Hampshire:  Another national bellwether, the Granite State has swung back and forth between the parties of late. This year’s swing is to the GOP. The early bet is on the GOP nominee, probably former state Attorney General Kelly Ayotte but possibly businessman Bill Binnie, to succeed fellow Republican Sen. Judd Gregg. Democrats have a first-rate candidate in Congressman Paul Hodes, though, so this is not necessarily a runaway. LEANS REPUBLICAN HOLD .

New York:  The most puzzling contest in the nation is in New York, where a weak, appointed senator, Kirsten Gillibrand (D), is running virtually unopposed for election to the two years remaining in Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s Senate term. The only explanation is that Gillibrand has the right Democratic friends at the top, and the state GOP is now something of a joke. First, the White House and Senator Chuck Schumer muscled out all serious Democratic challengers, some of whom could have beaten Gillibrand. Then every prominent Republican, fearing the Schumer machine, bowed out, including former Gov. George Pataki and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Gillibrand was appointed by scandal-drenched Gov. David Paterson, by the way, who was forced out of the race for a full term and is currently sitting somewhere in the 20s in public approval, on his way to the teens. That alone would be a killer issue against Gillibrand, except for one thing: You can’t beat somebody with nobody. SOLID DEMOCRATIC HOLD .

North Carolina:  Sen. Richard Burr (R) holds the least secure seat in America, having turned over to the opposite party just like clockwork every six years since 1980. Despite low name recognition, Burr is in a good position to break the jinx. Top-flight Democratic candidates took a pass, and with the unpopularity of President Obama and Gov. Beverly Perdue (D) in the Tar Heel State, one can sense a GOP year on the march. Secretary of State Elaine Marshall and former state Sen. Cal Cunningham finished one-two in the early May primary, and are fighting each other in a resources-draining runoff. Burr is sitting on millions. LEANS REPUBLICAN HOLD.

North Dakota:  Automatic pick-up for the GOP, from retiring Democratic Sen. Byron Dorgan to Republican Gov. John Hoeven. A real ho-hum affair, to the Republicans’ delight. SOLID REPUBLICAN GAIN .

Ohio:  This swing state usually reflects the national trend. It’s why we’ve long suspected the Buckeye State will go Republican this year for Senate, even though the tied polls do not currently reflect this. Former Congressman Rob Portman, the mild-mannered director of President Bush’s Office of Management and Budget, is trying to succeed fellow Republican Sen. George Voinovich. The Democrats nominated Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher by a solid but not overwhelming margin Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner. Portman will probably have a long-term money advantage. We’re keeping it a toss-up for now, though it will be a mild surprise if it doesn’t tilt GOP eventually. TOSS UP .

Pennsylvania:  After 30 years in office, party-switching Sen. Arlen Specter was finally given his walking papers by Congressman Joe Sestak in Tuesday’s party primary. Specter lined up the big boys, from the White House to the statehouse, to make the party change stick. But rank-and-file Pennsylvania Democrats in a closed primary remembered the Specter who was warmly endorsed by President George W. Bush. They also saw an elderly, halting Specter who was well past his prime after several serious illnesses. The question now is whether the script for the general election has truly changed. Former Congressman Pat Toomey, the GOP Senate nominee, would be too far to the right in most years to win statewide here, but if 2010 lives up to its billing as a Republican year, Toomey might well win. Most observers in the Keystone State thought that Specter fatigue would carry Toomey into the Senate. But now there’s no Specter for Toomey to lean on. Sestak is a different type of foe, and this race just got a lot more unpredictable. Until the dust settles, it’s a TOSS UP .

Utah:  Outside his overwhelmingly Republican state, political observers are still scratching their heads about the out-and-out repudiation suffered by three-term U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett (R) in early May, when GOP convention delegates squashed his bid for another term and gave him an embarrassing 27% of the vote. But Utah Republicans are among the most fiercely conservative in the nation, and they came to regard Bennett as a creature of Washington who had voted for the bank bailout and even worked on occasion with—gasp—Democrats. Businessman Tim Bridgewater and attorney Mike Lee finished first and second, respectively, at the convention, and are headed for a June primary. Despite talk of a write-in campaign by Bennett in November, the GOP primary winner will be the next senator from Utah. SOLID REPUBLICAN HOLD .

Washington:  The only way Sen. Patty Murray (D) has a contest is if Republicans convince two-time GOP gubernatorial nominee Dino Rossi to run. The jury is out, Rossi is still mulling his options, and our definitive rating will have to wait. Even Rossi will have a hard time ousting Murray, though. Tentatively, we’ll say LEANS DEMOCRAT HOLD .

Wisconsin:  Sen. Russ Feingold (D) probably only had a contest if former Gov. Tommy Thompson (R) had decided he wanted one more whirl at the ballot box. Thompson said no, as he usually does to entreaties that he run for further office. This will not be an especially Democratic year in Wisconsin, and it’s possible one of the second-tier Republican candidates, Dick Leinenkugel, of beer fame, could surprise Feingold if he gets the party nomination. We’ll keep our eye on it, and it’s a very late primary (Sept. 14), but for now, LEANS DEMOCRATIC HOLD .

Those are our thoughts on the Senate merry-go-round as of mid-May. The only constant is change, as new developments emerge and the primaries continue. But it’s obvious already that the Republicans will be gaining multiple seats, with the most likely pick-ups in Arkansas, Delaware, Indiana, Nevada, North Dakota, and maybe Pennsylvania. The GOP also has live possibilities of adding seats in California (amazingly, if it holds, and we’re doubtful), Colorado, Illinois, and theoretically, Washington state and Wisconsin. The recent events in Connecticut have the potential to put this seat in play, too—though it is too soon to say for sure.

Meanwhile, Democrats are pinning their hopes on potential turnovers in Kentucky and Ohio, though neither of these is anything close to certain at the moment and both states could easily remain in the GOP column in November.

Overall, this updated Senate assessment suggests a Republican net gain in the neighborhood of not less than 4 or 5 seats, and quite conceivably, up to 7 or 8 seats. It takes a net gain of ten for the GOP to win the Senate outright, and that appears very unlikely at the moment. Still, Republicans would count the year a big success if they narrowed the 59-seat Democratic majority down to a range of 51-55 seats.

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

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