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April Senate Update

A Commentary By Larry J. Sabato

A lot has happened since our last Senate update in January. And yet overall, the balance hasn’t changed dramatically. Republicans are still likely to gain seats in a cycle that started off in 2009 looking good for Democrats. But how many new GOP senators will there be? It’s time for a dose of reality in the midst of April showers for some incumbents.

The chart below gives you what you need, and we’ll add a few comments on selected races:

Arizona: John McCain is holding up surprisingly well given the grassroots GOP antagonism that would give life to just about any respectable conservative challenger. Former Congressman J.D. Hayworth isn’t well suited to the task, 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, this might possibly turn into a contest worth watching, even though likely Democratic standard-bearer Rodney Glassman, the vice mayor of Tucson, is not a first-rank candidate.

Arkansas: Blanche Lincoln gives every sign of being Dead Woman Walking. If she defeats liberal challenger Lt. Gov. Bill Halter in the May primary, Lincoln will likely lose to the GOP nominee, probably Congressman John Boozman or possibly state Sen. Gil Baker. Frankly, it wouldn’t be a shock if Halter upset her in the primary. Democrats couldn’t do worse in November with Halter as their nominee, and they just might do better.

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. 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?'”

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. If he survives the primary, he’ll face a tough GOP opponent in the fall, presumably former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton.

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, becomes the bride in November over wrestling executive Linda McMahon or ex-Congressman Rob Simmons.

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) ought to defeat little-known local official Chris Coons (D).

Florida: Worst political move of the year goes to Gov. Charlie Crist, who gave up a secure second term in the statehouse for a Senate bid. Conservative former House Speaker Marco Rubio is on track to defeat him for the GOP nomination. Democratic Cong. Kendrick Meek will do better against Rubio than Crist, but isn’t likely to win in either case.

Illinois: Neither Democrat Alexi Giannoulias nor Republican Mark Kirk is having a great spring. 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. Kirk also can’t decide if he’s running as a moderate or a conservative. If the election were held today, Kirk would win. But this one will be worth watching all the way.

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 have hobbled him. We don’t completely rule out an upset by one of his challengers in the GOP primary. However, the usual establishment suspects are falling in line behind Coats, and he will have 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. Democrats have chosen the strongest possible party candidate in Congressman Brad Ellsworth. It will be difficult but far from impossible for Ellsworth to pull this out.

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.

Kentucky: Just wild, and one of our favorites. Secretary of State Trey Greyson is the establishment GOP choice and is backed strongly by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. But former presidential candidate Ron Paul’s son, Rand Paul, has scrambled the usual line of succession. McConnell helped to ease out GOP Sen. Jim Bunning, who would have lost in November. Yet he may be stuck with a party nominee in Paul 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 this May primary is going to be as dirty as any in the nation this year. Get ready. Meanwhile, the Democrats also have an acrimonious primary battle between Lt. Gov. Dan Mongiardo and Attorney General Jack Conway. We’ll have to wait to see how vicious things get in each party, and what the final match-up is, before we have any real sense of what will happen in the fall. It’s worth stressing, though, that Kentucky is a conservative, anti-Obama state, and any Democrat will have to be very lucky to win here in 2010.

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.

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).

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 (the president carried the Silver State), and most of all, a grassroots revulsion toward Congress, which Reid helps to run. Three little-known and mainly underwhelming Republicans are running, but this one is a referendum on Reid. No doubt, this wily survivor will try to make it a referendum instead on his eventual opponent.

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, to succeed fellow Republican Sen. Judd Gregg. Democrats have a first-rate candidate in Congressman Paul Hodes, though, so this is no runaway.

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 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.

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.

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.

Ohio: This swing state usually reflects the national trend. It’s why we’ve suspected the Buckeye State will go Republican this year for Senate. 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. However, this contest is not as clear-cut as it might be. The Democrats expect Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher to be their nominee, although Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner is running an energetic race. We’re keeping it a toss-up for now, though it will be a mild surprise if it doesn’t tilt GOP eventually.

Pennsylvania: It looks likely that party-switching Sen. Arlen Specter, now a Democrat, will defeat Congressman Joe Sestak in the upcoming party primary. Specter lined up the big boys, from the White House to the statehouse, to make the party change stick. But the general election could be a different story. At 80 and having been ill off-and-on for years, Specter is no longer the indestructible force that has kept him in the Senate since 1981. Observers with near-perfect predictive records in the Keystone State have told the Crystal Ball that they sense two things: a GOP year and Specter fatigue among the critical swing independents. Specter’s hope to beat the prognostications is that the GOP has selected former Congressman Pat Toomey, arguably too far right for this moderate state and less than a dynamic campaign presence.

Utah: One day somebody will have to offer a convincing explanation as to why solidly conservative GOP Senator Bob Bennett is in such trouble among his fellow Republicans. It could just be generalized anger against a Beltway-identified, longtime incumbent. In any event, it doesn’t matter much since, should Bennett lose the Republican nomination, he’ll simply be replaced by a Republican who will vote virtually identically to Bennett.

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, and our rating with it.

Wisconsin: Just like the situation in Washington state, Sen. Russ Feingold (D) only has a contest if former Gov. Tommy Thompson (R) decides he wants one more whirl at the ballot box. Thompson toys with running for things frequently, but usually thinks better of it in the end. We’ll see.

Those are our thoughts on the Senate merry-go-round as of mid-April. The only constant is change, as new candidates and developments emerge. But it’s obvious already that the Republicans will be gaining multiple seats, with the most likely pick-ups in Arkansas, Delaware, Nevada, and Pennsylvania. The GOP also has live possibilities of adding seats in California (amazingly, if it holds), Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, and possibly Washington state and Wisconsin if their strongest candidates decide to take the plunge.

Meanwhile, Democrats are pinning their hopes on potential turnovers in Kentucky, New Hampshire, and Ohio, though none of these is anything close to certain at the moment and all three states could easily remain in the GOP column in November.

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

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