January 27, 2006
Senate Leans Democratic
Not Enough for the Big Win Yet
If the Democrats
want to win the Senate, they need a big wave--the kind of tsunami
they got in 1974 and 1986, or that the Republicans received in
1980 and 1994. Rough surf won't do the trick, and at least at
the start of 2006, November looks to be full of white caps but
no Maui-style waves for the party out of power.
forecast can change in either direction over the next ten months,
obviously. Yet our first 2006 midterm election survey of the Senate
contests suggests only a small craft advisory. In subsequent weeks,
we'll look at the U.S. House and the 36 Governor's match-ups to
create a benchmark for this year's Crystal Ball analysis. As we
do so, the Crystal Ball urges our readers to keep in mind one
of the most telling lessons of U.S. electoral history: When the
American people decide to make a change, they do it. They don't
care that the forecasters and the prognosticators say it isn't
likely. They find a way to make the change happen, even if--on
paper--there aren't enough competitive districts or states to
produce a party turnover.
It will be
a surprise if 2006 is not a Democratic year, with the
only question being how Democratic. After all, this is
the fabled sixth-year election of the Bush presidency (read more
in the Crystal Ball's look at the Sixth
Year Itch in the Senate), and President Bush has been in deep
trouble on a host of subjects, from Iraq to Katrina to scandal.
Presidential popularity is an overarching key to the 2006 results.
The current betting is that Bush will be below 50 percent come
November, but who knows? He could be at 35 percent or 55 percent
by then, and it is easy to construct scenarios that would produce
either result as events in the New Year unfold.
So for now,
we'll stick to a race-by-race analysis of the "War for the
Senate." This will give us a starting point for another unpredictable
year in American politics.
many of the contests appear over before they begin. We stress
the word appear. A few of the favored candidates might
well lose in the end, but at the moment there's no reason to think
any of them are in trouble. The list of Secure Senators follows:
- incumbent Richard Lugar (R)
* Maine - incumbent Olympia Snowe (R)
* Mississippi - incumbent Trent Lott (R)
* Nevada - incumbent John Ensign (R)
* Texas - incumbent Kay Bailey Hutchison (R)
* Utah - incumbent Orrin Hatch (R)
* Virginia - incumbent George Allen (R)
* Wyoming - incumbent Craig Thomas (R)
- incumbent Dianne Feinstein (D)
* Delaware - incumbent Thomas Carper (D)
* Hawaii - incumbent Daniel Akaka (D) or Rep. Ed Case (D)
* Massachusetts - incumbent Ted Kennedy (D)
* Michigan - incumbent Debbie Stabenow (D)
* New Mexico - incumbent Jeff Bingaman (D)
* New York - incumbent Hillary Rodham Clinton (D)
* North Dakota - incumbent Kent Conrad (D)
* Vermont (I/D) - Rep. Bernie Sanders (I/D)
* Wisconsin - incumbent Herb Kohl (D)
more than half the Senate seats are--for now--off the table. Somehow,
in the remaining 15 Senate contests, Democrats must find a way
to net the six additional seats they will need to control the
Senate. (Today's Senate is 55R, 45D with Jeffords, and Vice President
Cheney would break a tied 50-50 Senate in the GOP's favor.) So
the Democrats need six new seats. From where might these six seats
lean-Democratic switch at the moment is in Pennsylvania, where
Senator Rick Santorum (R) is trailing Bob Casey, Jr. (D) by wide
margins in most surveys. Santorum has better candidate skills
than Casey, though, and incumbency has its privileges. Reports
from reliable observers in the Keystone state also say that Santorum
has finally tired of shooting himself in the foot, has holstered
the gun, and has gotten engaged in the toughest challenge of his
career. So this contest is not yet a write-off for the GOP, and
Santorum has comeback potential.
Republican Senator Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island faces difficult
primary and general election challenges. He's a slight favorite
for reelection, but this is a heavily Democratic state, so the
Democrats have a real chance here.
Ohio is a
Republican disaster area, thanks to the enormous unpopularity
of Governor Bob Taft. While Taft may have the greatest negative
effect on GOP chances to hold his statehouse seat, Senator Mike
DeWine's race for reelection also has the potential to become
competitive. DeWine begins as a shaky favorite, pending the outcome
of a potentially divisive Democratic primary match-up to choose
his opponent. Yet if there is any Democratic tsunami in 2006,
the wave will break first over Ohio.
crusty GOP Senator Conrad Burns has substantial ties to the scandal-drenched
lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Nearly defeated for reelection in 2000,
Burns is a major Democratic target in a state that has seen a
drift to the Democrats.
Talent (R) is completing his first, short term, having been elected
in 2002--a strong year for the GOP. Missouri is a swing state,
and while it has a conservative cast, a Democratic trend could
be felt here. Talent is not that well known and he has not yet
secured the seat, given his brief tenure.
Leader Bill Frist's retirement in Tennessee gives Democrats a
shot at an open seat. The evaluations on this contest vary wildly,
depending on the identity of the eventual GOP nominee in a three-way
primary contest. Congressman Harold Ford, an African-American,
will be the Democratic candidate, and his chances depend in part
on how divisive the Republican primary turns out to be, as well
as how conservative the GOP nominee is.
insist that wealthy businessman Jim Pederson has a chance to upend
incumbent Senator Jon Kyl (R) in Arizona. This is a long-shot
for the Democrats, but one that they might well need.
reviewed the Democratic Senate wish list. They'd have to capture
six of these seven seats and hold every single one of their
own. And there's the rub. It's possible, but Democrats have
some shaky seats themselves.
One of the
shakiest is in Minnesota, where one-term Democrat Mark Dayton
is retiring. Congressman Mark Kennedy will be the GOP nominee,
and he is well funded and organized. The Democratic field has
now been winnowing down, and most Minnesota Democrats seem to
be betting on Hennepin County Attorney Amy Klobuchar. Minnesota
is far more competitive than it was in the era of Hubert Humphrey's
DFL, but the Democrats still have the edge here except in strong
GOP years. 2006 is not going to be a strong GOP year. Nonetheless,
Kennedy has a fighting chance to steal this seat from the Democrats.
Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey has the "D" next
to his name in running for a full term, and that may be all that
he needs in this increasingly Blue state. However, he's not the
cleanest candidate around--though that rarely seems to bother
cynical Garden State voters--and he may have primary opposition,
followed by a tough challenge from state Sen. Tom Kean, Jr., the
son of the former, popular GOP governor. It will be difficult
to oust Menendez, but Kean has upset potential.
Cantwell (D) of Washington has not achieved real popularity in
her first term, won in a squeaker in 2000, and she faces a sharp,
wealthy Republican: Mike McGavick, the former CEO of Safeco. Again,
though, Cantwell benefits from the luck of the draw in election
years. Even a mild national Democratic drift in this basically
Democratic state may be enough to deliver a second term for her.
Senator Ben Nelson is the rare successful Democrat in this heavily
Republican farm state. Still, he barely won against weak opposition
in 2000, and so this contest bears watching, especially if the
GOP nominee is former Ameritrade COO Pete Ricketts.
is another very Blue state, but Republican Michael Steele is not
a typical GOP candidate. He is the African-American lieutenant
governor, elected in 2002 with Governor Bob Ehrlich (R). The Democrats
have a potentially divisive, multi-candidate primary to choose
a successor to retiring Senator Paul Sarbanes (D). It's easy to
imagine both Ehrlich, who is running for reelection, and Steele
ending up in the loser's circle in a Blue state during a Blue
year. But there's just a chance that both could win, and open
seats like this one have to be monitored closely.
in Florida have had their eyes on the seat of one-term Democratic
Senator Bill Nelson since Nelson won narrowly in 2000, and in
this Red state, no Democrat will be safe. Still, the GOP has probably
blown its opportunity, since its likely nominee, Congresswomen
Katherine Harris of 2000 presidential recount fame, is too controversial
and disliked to win. Nelson's real fear is that the Republicans
will find a way to force Harris to withdraw, leaving him with
a more threatening challenger.
Democratic seats are on our "watch list," though both
will very likely stay with the Democratic incumbents. In Connecticut,
Senator Joe Lieberman has upset some Democrats with his support
of the Bush Iraq policy, and former Republican senator and Independent
governor Lowell Weicker is making noises about challenging Lieberman
in a primary. A fratricidal battle between these two old adversaries--Lieberman
took Weicker's Senate seat in 1988--creates a GOP opportunity,
especially with GOP Governor Jodi Rell cruising to her first elected
term. And in West Virginia, as long as his health holds up, Senator
Robert Byrd (D) should win again handily. But he's 87, and sometimes
the age shows.
and short of the "War for the Senate" in 2006 is this:
Democrats are a good bet to pick up two or three seats net. But
for Democrats to regain control of the Senate, almost everything
has to fall just right for them. In politics, very occasionally
those things happen--but only rarely do all the dominoes fall
in one direction. And the Democrats will have to win the world
championship of dominoes for the Senate to become theirs again
Sabato, the Robert Kent Gooch Professor of Politics at the University
of Virginia, founded the Center
for Politics in 1998.