Here are what appear to be, at least at this early stage, the key Senate races to watch for 2006:
Connecticut: Incumbent Joe Lieberman (D.) vs. Ned Lamont (D) vs. Alan Schlesinger (R.)
The number one priority of the Democratic "netroots" right now seems to be beating Joe Lieberman. All that attention seems to have paid off for Ned Lamont who has managed to close the gap and narrow Lieberman’s lead over him to just 6 points according to a Rasmussen poll. If Lieberman loses, he has made it clear that he plans to run as an independent and this is where things could get really interesting. Some Democrats would undoubtedly back Lieberman, who would still probably be the strongest candidate, while others would back Lamont. If that were to happen, is it possible that Alan Schlesinger, who’s polling way back at the moment, might be able to sneak in and win the seat? Perhaps, but even if Lieberman won as an independent, it’s conceivable that you could see him take a few steps towards the center. This race has the potential to be a lot of fun if Lieberman loses the primary.
Maryland (Democratic Seat): Michael Steele (R.) vs. The Winner Of Ben Cardin (D.) & Kweisi Mfume (D.)
Normally, a Republican Senatorial candidate would have an extremely difficult time making any headway in a Democratic stronghold like Maryland. However, Michael Steele is drawing a lot of national attention — and a strongly contested Democratic primary between Ben Cardin and Kweisi Mfume may create an opportunity for the GOP. According to a Washington Post poll, Mfume leads Cardin 31% to 25%.
Among registered voters, Cardin leads Steele, an African American, by 10 points while Mfume leads him by three points. Mfume and Steele are tied among likely voters.
If Cardin wins, Steele will probably have to make an uphill slog to attain victory, but if Mfume pulls off a win in the Democratic primary, look for this race to turn into a real dogfight that Steele has a decent shot of winning.
Minnesota (Democratic Seat): Mark Kennedy (R.) vs. Amy Klobuchar(D.)
Minnesota seems to be a state in transition. Not that long ago, it was considered a Democratic stronghold. Then, Jesse "The Body" Ventura was elected as Governor. After the Independent Ventura stepped out of the picture, Republican Tim Pawlenty captured the governorship and Norm Coleman managed to take a seat held by the late, great liberal Senator, Paul Wellstone. Can Mark Kennedy continue to pull Minnesota to the right? Maybe. It’s a nip and tuck race with a Rasmussen poll showing Klobuchar ahead of Kennedy, 47% to 44%. This one still looks to be up in the air.
Missouri: Incumbent Jim Talent (R.) vs. Claire McCaskill (D.)
This race is still wide open with a St. Louis Post Dispatch poll showing McCaskill up 49%-43% while a Zogby poll has Talent up 49% to 44%. Meanwhile, the latest Rasmussen poll has it tied at 42%. Who’s going to win in the end? It’s impossible to say at this point, although Talent has three times as much money on hand; so just grab the popcorn and keep your eyes on Missouri.
Montana: Incumbent Conrad Burns (R.) vs. Jon Tester (D.)
You’d think a state like Montana, where George Bush won by 20 or more points in the last two elections, would be an easy retention for the GOP, but that is not proving to be the case. Conrad Burns, who had a surprisingly tough time with Democrat Brian Schweitzer in 2000, has been hampered by his ties to Jack Abramoff and is down to John Tester 50% to 43% in the latest Rasmussen poll. Those are poor numbers for an incumbent to have at this point in the election cycle and Burns is going to need to step his game up a notch or two to pull this one out.
New Jersey: Incumbent Robert Menendez (D.) vs. Tom Kean (R.)
This campaign has already turned into a real Garden State slugfest, with both candidates hurling barbs at each other left and right. In a liberal state like New Jersey, Menendez probably has the edge, but Kean is staying within striking distance. Rasmussen has it in Menendez’s favor, 46%-41% while Zogby gives Menendez a smaller 1 point lead, at 41%-40%.
Ohio: Incumbent Mike DeWine (R.) vs. Sherrod Brown (D.)
Mike DeWine has managed to infuriate a lot of conservatives by supporting the controversial Gang-of-14 compromise on judges and by being for the Senate’s illegal immigration amnesty bill. Fortunately for DeWine, a bruising battle between Sherrod Brown and Paul Hackett seems to have dampened Democratic enthusiasm for Brown. At the moment, Rasmussen has DeWine up 46% to 39%, although Brown has been staying within striking distance.
Rasmussen Reports puts Casey’s lead over Santorum at a staggering 15%, while Zogby puts it at 7 points. Either way, Santorum has been in a deep hole since the beginning of this race and has been desperately trying to climb out. On the other hand, he does have a much larger campaign chest than Casey, who is thought to be a less than exciting candidate who has largely gotten by in Pennsylvania politics by exploiting his father’s good name in the state. So, at the moment, the odds seem to be against Santorum, who’s widely considered to be the most vulnerable GOP incumbent, but he still has a chance to pull out a victory before it’s all said and done.
Rhode Island: The Winner Of Incumbent Lincoln Chafee (R.) & Steven Laffey (R.) vs. Sheldon Whitehouse (D.)
Lincoln Chafee, a left-of-center Republican, has been engaged in a vicious primary with Steven Laffey. Because Laffey could conceivably defeat Chafee in the primary, but couldn’t win in the general election, the National Republican Senatorial Committee has been attacking Laffey at every opportunity, even though it has probably cost them countless millions of dollars in fundraising opportunities because of complaints like this one. So if Laffey pulls it out, he’ll be slaughtered. If Chafee wins, you’ll see a demoralized Republican base being asked to support a candidate many of them don’t really like in one of the most liberal states in America. That’s not a very promising scenario for the GOP, especially since Whitehouse leads Chafee 38% to 37% and Laffey 55% to 25% in a Brown University poll.
Washington: Incumbent Maria Cantwell (D.) vs. Mike McGavick (R.)
Maria Cantwell eked out a victory back in 2004 over Republican Slade Gorton by a little over 2000 votes — and now she has another strong challenger in Mike McGavick. Perhaps that’s why the National Journal’s Hotline & the Cook Report have both said that Cantwell is the Democrats’ most vulnerable incumbent. Of course, knocking off an incumbent is always tough duty, but with the latest Strategic Vision poll putting Cantwell up only 47% to 43%, McGavick should have a chance to pull it off.