The Canary in the Republicans' Senate Coal Mine

By all accounts 2008 should be a miserable year for Senate Republicans. They hold 21 seats up for election, including seats in blue-to-purple states such as Colorado, Maine, Minnesota, New Hampshire and Oregon. None of the Senators in those states has served more than two full terms. The Democrats, by contrast, have only 12 seats up this cycle. While several of these seats are in red or purple states, most of these seats are held by entrenched incumbents; only two – South Dakota and Louisiana – are seen as particularly vulnerable at this point. As a result, experienced Congressional observers such as Chris Cillizza have openly discussed the possibility of Democrats picking up enough Senate seats to ensure a filibuster-proof majority in this cycle.

And yet the Senate campaign season has gotten off to an inauspicious start for the Democrats. Perhaps the biggest failure has been their inability to recruit a quality challenger to run against Senator Gordon Smith in Oregon. Smith has angered the Republican base by abandoning the Iraq War effort, and holds a tepid 48%-39% approval rating, including a weak 55%-36% approval rating among Republicans. Yet Democrats, who hold every other statewide office in the state, are currently presented with a fitness instructor, an attorney, and a businessman as declared opponents for Smith. Three top-tier opponents, including former Governor Kitzhaber and current Representatives DeFazio and Blumenauer have passed on the race, notwithstanding DSCC polling showing DeFazio within the error margin.

Minnesota and New Hampshire are currently shaping up as disappointments for Democrats as well. Tidal waves hit Republicans in both states in 2006, setting up high hopes for Democrats heading into 2008. But no prominent Democrat has stepped up to challenge Freshman Senator Norm Coleman in Minnesota. Presently, comedian Al Franken and habitual candidate Mike Ciresi are the only declared candidates; recent polling gives Coleman a 51% approval rating and a twenty-point lead over both of his opponents. New Hampshire may yet turn into a bright spot for Democrats, as former Governor Jeanne Shaheen is considering a rematch against Freshman Senator John Sununu. Shaheen narrowly lost in the Republican mini-tsunami of 2002; she would be a formidable candidate this time around. Still, she would be an easier opponent for Sununu than Governor John Lynch, who sports a 64%-10% approval rating, and who passed on the race.

This leaves Democrats with few options for significantly expanding their majorities in 2008. Democrats found a top-tier candidate in Colorado (as did Republicans), and they may be able to take advantage of retirement opportunities if Senators John Warner (Va.), Pete Dominici (N.M.), Chuck Hagle (Nev.) or Thad Cochran (Miss.) decide to retire. But the state they are most pinning their hopes on outside of Colorado is Maine.

Democrats are downright ebullient about the chances of Representative Tom Allen against Senator Susan Collins, which is surprising. The justification for their optimism stems from two things — Maine’s increasing blue-ness and liberal Republican Senator Lincoln Chafee’s defeat last cycle in Rhode Island. But Maine is not Rhode Island, and Susan Collins is not Lincoln Chafee.

Maine is actually one of the most Republican states in New England, though that is akin to being the healthiest person in a leper colony. In 2004, Maine went for John Kerry over President Bush by 9 points; in 2000 it went Democrat by 5 points. By contrast, Rhode Island favored the Democrats by 20 points in 2004 and by nearly 30 points in 2000. Of the 113 seats in the Rhode Island General Assembly, only 21 (18%) are held by Republicans. In Maine, Republicans hold 77 of the 186 statehouse seats (41%). And in 2006, Democrats had a 37%-29% lead in registration among the electorate; in Rhode Island they held a 38%-18% healthier lead over Republicans.

Nor is Susan Collins as weak as Chafee was in 2006. First, Collins does not have as tempestuous a relationship with her base as Chafee did in 2006. Collins has a truly moderate voting record and sports a lifetime ACU rating of 54 (of 100). Chafee’s was 35, placing him to the left of at least two Democratic Senators (Nelson of Florida and of Nebraska). As a result, Collins will not face a strong challenge from the right in 2008 as Chafee did in 2006. The NRSC response to the challenge — vigorously defending Chafee at his conservative challenger’s expense — had devastating consequences for Chafee by simultaneously turning off the Republican base and by connecting him with the national party in the minds of Democrats and Independents. As a result, Collins has maintained truly astronomical approval ratings. It was 73% the last time it was measured. Chafee, by contrast, never rose above 56% in the entire 2006 cycle.

In other words, Collins is a much more popular politician in a much more Republican state. Her moderate Republicanism is a pretty good fit for the state, especially when compared to the voting record of her likely opponent, who holds a lifetime ACU of 4. Moreover, Allen has never been especially popular even in his own district, and ran about 10 points behind his counterpart in the more heavily Republican Second Congressional District in 2006.

This makes the Maine race something of a canary in the coalmine for Republican Senate prospects in 2008. If Collins is in trouble in October of 2008, it would mean that the situation for Republicans is even more dire than the one that only narrowly sunk less popular Republicans running in less Republican states. And if that is the case, expect an election night that is gloomier than any in living memory.


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