Senate Seats in Play for '08

Republicans are generally downbeat about the prospects of re-taking the upper chamber in 2008 because Republicans hold 21 of the 33 seats up this cycle.  But part of the reason that Republicans have so many seats up this cycle is that the Senate seats are concentrated in the South and West.  Indeed, only five of the Senators whose seats are up for grabs in 2008 represent states that were considered solidly blue in 2004, and President Bush carried all but nine of these states at least once.  Only five GOP Senators represent states carried by either Al Gore or John Kerry, and only three represent states carried by the last two Democratic presidential candidates.

Barring a debacle at the presidential level, the game in 2008 is on a fairly pro-GOP field, and Republicans could net the single seat they need to climb back in the majority (assuming they hold the vice presidency).  Absent unexpected retirements, Republicans should easily hold seats in Alaska, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Mexico, and Virginia.  Barring a retirement or a major gaffe by an incumbent, Senate seats in Alabama, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Wyoming are safe, leaving only six Republican seats that are truly in play. 

On the Democratic side, seats in Arkansas, Delaware, Illinois, Michigan, Montana, and Rhode Island are solidly on the Democratic side.  This leaves six Democratic seats that are at least theoretically in play as well. Colorado has the most vulnerable Republican seat by far in this cycle, where two-term Sen. Wayne Allard announced his retirement in January.  On the Democratic side, five-term Rep. Mark Udall has a field that is almost cleared for him.  Although his voting record is solidly liberal (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 7 out of 100 possible), his last name is famous in the Mountain West, and he will present himself as a relatively youthful moderate.

On the Republican side there will most likely be a primary between former Representatives Bob Schaffer and Scott McInnis.  Both have conservative voting records, though McInnis’ has a libertarian tinge to it.  Former Rep. Bob Beauprez — who was absolutely destroyed in the 2006 gubernatorial election — is also considering a run.

Overall, this may be the rare seat that is easier to win without the incumbent than with him.  Allard had kept a low profile in the Senate, and had to come from behind to win re-election in 2002.  A November SurveyUSA poll showed him with a mediocre 44% approval rating.  Schaffer and McInnis are both experienced campaigners, but a bloody primary would make it difficult for either to win in the fall.  Democratic gains in the state have been exaggerated (due to their successes in redistricting and weak GOP statewide candidates) but Udall probably still starts with the edge.

New Hampshire was an absolute disaster for Republicans in 2006.  Democrats captured both House seats for the first time since 1912, captured both state houses for the first time since 1874, and re-elected their governor with 74% of the vote — the best showing for a gubernatorial candidate of either party since Democrat Isaac Hill defeated a Whig candidate in 1836.  First-term Sen. John Sununu — who narrowly won election over then-Gov. Jeanne Shaheen in the good GOP year of 2002 — should be concerned.

Sununu has a solidly conservative voting record (lifetime ACU: 94), his name is famous in the state but his most recent approval rating was 47%.  Sununu breathed a sigh of relief when Gov. John Lynch declared that he would not run for the seat.  All eyes are now on Shaheen, who would be only slightly less formidable.  But for now, Sununu is faced with second-tier candidates such as Portsmouth Mayor Steve March and and unsuccessful 2002 congressional nominee Katrina Swett.  Pay particular attention to the national climate and recruiting here.

Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu has never won re-election with more than 52% of the vote, and has a relatively liberal Senate record for the South (lifetime ACU: 20).  More importantly, though, roughly 200,000 of her most reliable voters are now in other states. Subtract 200,000 votes from the 2002 results, and Landrieu would have lost by 18 points.

The GOP’s main problem is that the state is fairly blue at the local level, and hence its bench is not particularly deep.  Landrieu’s strongest potential challenger, Rep. Bobby Jindal, is running for governor.  Seventh District Rep. Charles Boustany would put Landrieu in a geographic bind, as he is popular in Acadiana, the second most Democratic part of the state.  Secretary of State Jay Dardenne is also mentioned.  This year’s gubernatorial race will tell us more about this race.

Like Landrieu, South Dakota’s Tim Johnson has narrowly won election twice in a solidly red state, but unlike Landrieu, his base is intact and he sports a 70% approval rating.  The 800-lb. gorilla that no one wants to discuss is Johnson’s health.  If he mounts a full recovery from recent brain surgery, he will be favored to win.  If, however, he seems impaired on the campaign trail, he may be in trouble.  Popular GOP Gov. Mike Rounds presently is uninterested in the race, but an ailing Johnson could entice him into it.  If Johnson retires, look for popular Democratic Rep. Stephanie Herseth to examine a promotion, setting up a battle royale in the Coyote State.

After defeating Lincoln Chafee in Maine, Democrats are champing at the bit to take on two-term Sen. Susan Collins.  But Maine is not nearly as Democratic as Rhode Island, and Collins will likely not face a strong primary challenge from her right, as did Chafee.  She currently sports approval ratings in the 70s while Chafee was never above 60% in the last cycle.  First District Representative Tom Allen faces an uphill climb.

Minnesota freshman Sen. Norm Coleman must have been sweating after Republicans suffered a near wipe-out in this purple state.  But recent polls from SurveyUSA show him sporting a 55% approval rating, and defeating his two declared opponents by 20 points (see here and here).  Only a serious presidential debacle could sink Coleman, though even a 50-state Democratic sweep may not be enough to bring about Sen. Al Franken.

Oregon’s two-term Sen. Gordon Smith represents a state that went twice against Bush, and seems to have trended toward the Democrats lately.  But Smith has a moderate demeanor and a centrist voting record, and he has broken with President Bush on the war in Iraq.  His approval rating was 58% in January, and he caught a major break when former Gov. John  Kitzhaber declined to run.  Smith’s chances are currently solid.

North Carolina freshman Sen. Elizabeth Dole would be in serious danger of losing to popular Gov. Mike Easley, but he has declined to run thus far.  The DSCC is trying to change his mind.  If he does, this vaults into the top tier.  Otherwise, Dole is safe.

Every six years, Iowa’s Tom Harkin defeats a different Republican congressman.  Harkin’s approval rating is a fairly mediocre 53%, and for the first time he may be running in a year when the GOP Presidential candidate carries his state.  Last year’s gubernatorial candidate Jim Nussle is a frequently mentioned candidate, as is Fifth District Rep. Steve King.

New Jersey is littered with the bones of over-hyped Republican Senate candidates, who haven’t won a race here since 1976.  But Democrats have gotten above 55% of the vote only once in that time.  The GOP has as good a chance of breaking its losing streak against 84-year-old incumbent Frank Lautenberg as against anyone.  Lautenberg has a horrific 39% approval rating, six points lower than his ethically-challenged counterpart, Sen. Bob Menendez.  Several respectable Republicans are considering the race.  A Giuliani nomination would help immensely here.

Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry has never been the most popular senator in the state, but his approval ratings have plummeted of late, and he sits at 40%.  Any senator with that rating is vulnerable.  Republicans just have to come up with a viable candidate.

West Virginia’s Second District Rep. Shelley Moore Capito or Secretary of State Betty Ireland could make for an interesting race against Sen. Jay Rockefeller.  But Rockefeller has a 61% approval rating, and neither Republican seems interested in trying to knock him off.  For now, he’s in good shape.