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Shifting Populations Will Impact '08 Senate Races

By Reid Wilson

As population grows and changes, the political sands shift over time. The once-solidly Democratic South continues its long march to Republicanism; the Northeast, where herds of Republican moderates once roamed free, now boasts an overwhelming Democratic Congressional majority. It is these shifts over time that present both parties with new opportunities at all levels of government.

Yet not all change happens at the same rate. In the cases of Colorado and Louisiana, both parties see their strongest chances to pick up a Senate seat, and both parties can credit the respective state's shifting population for that chance.

In Colorado, the growing Hispanic community and significant migration from California seems to have reached a tipping point in recent years. Now, Democrats hold majorities in both state houses and the Congressional delegation, and in the past two cycles have gained a Senate seat and the governor's mansion. While the state narrowly went for President Bush in 2004, Democrats are so enthusiastic about the possibility of picking up Colorado - and, indeed, the entire Mountain West region - that they will hold their convention in Denver next summer.

Couple Democrats' recent gains and commitment to the region with the retirement of incumbent Republican Senator Wayne Allard and one can imagine that the state would give National Republican Senatorial Committee chairman John Ensign a bit of heartburn.

The election sixteen months distant, both parties have seemingly chosen their all-but nominees already. The long-expected entry of Congressman Mark Udall, who backed out of the 2004 race to unite behind the successful candidacy of Ken Salazar, has frozen the Democratic field, as no other serious candidate is expected to throw his or her hat in the ring. On the Republican side, after flirtations with former Congressman Scott McInnis failed to lead to his candidacy, party leaders turned next to former Congressman Bob Schaffer, a conservative who ran unsuccessfully for the Republican Senate nomination in 2004.

The early settling of the field is a factor many political watchers consider when they say Udall holds the early, and significant, edge. University of Colorado Professor Ken Bickers says Udall's advantage comes from the Republican party, which, thanks to several bitter primaries and gridlock in the state legislature, has squandered its natural advantage with voter registration.

Now, independent voters are seeking new options, and as a fledgling majority in the legislature, Democrats "haven't really messed up," according to veteran Colorado political watcher Floyd Ciruli. The state's Democratic party "is in ascendance at the moment," he said, and if Republicans nominate someone like Schaffer, with a conservative reputation, he will struggle to get to the middle.

Add to that Schaffer's failure to beat moderate beer magnate Pete Coors in the 2004 race, and the impression remains that "he's not the strongest candidate in the world," according to Bickers.

Centrist Democrats have succeeded in Colorado of late. The elections of Governor Bill Ritter and Senator Ken Salazar reenergized the party. But Mark Udall isn't exactly in the mold of either Ritter or Salazar. Ciruli calls him "a much more across-the-board liberal," but hastens to point out that the liberal label may not stick. "What [Udall] is the most left on is not tons of social issues," but rather environmental issues. So will Republicans attack him for being a radical environmentalist? "That's not such a bad thing out here," said Ciruli. Solidly Democratic urban areas, a more environmentally-conscious rural population and the growing Hispanic population could all conspire to send Udall to the Senate.

In Louisiana, unlike Colorado, change did not mean growth. Longtime Louisiana political analyst Elliott Stonecipher points out that the state has been losing population for 25 years, and after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the slow drip became a hemorrhage. By his estimate, a quarter of a million African Americans left the state, likely permanently. The U.S. Census Bureau puts the total number of people who left the state at more than 400,000.

The state will be hit so hard by the population loss that not only will it lose a Congressional seat in the 2010 redistricting, but it could lose another seat in 2020 as well. The population loss "is like losing limbs," Stonecipher said.

Incumbent Lousiana Senator Mary Landrieu certainly noticed when those limbs were lopped off. Louisiana has one of the highest percentage of African American voters in the nation, and those voters, the vast majority of whom vote Democrat, are the cornerstone of Landrieu's success. Now, says Brookings Institute scholar Sarah Binder, "there is no natural ability to win in the South" without an African American base.

After the 2004 election of Republican Senator David Vitter and this year's governor's race, in which Congressman Bobby Jindal, also a Republican, is the heavy favorite, Landrieu's re-election campaign will be "a watershed kind of event for Louisiana politics," Stonecipher said, suggesting that, for the first time in its history, the state is likely to have two Republican senators and a Republican governor. Landrieu's African American base in New Orleans, he said, "is not there, and it won't be back in time" to bail her out.

Landrieu's only chance, he suggests, is if her campaign can mobilize heavy turnout among the state's remaining African American voters. She spent last year's election perfecting her turnout operation in Shreveport, campaigning on behalf of Democratic mayoral candidate Cedrick Glover. Glover won, beating a white Republican thanks to heavy turnout, and if Landrieu can repeat that success on a statewide level, she has a chance to remain a senator.

But Republicans have no intention of allowing a pickup opportunity like this to slip through their fingers. Among those considering throwing their hats in the ring are Secretary of State Jay Dardenne, a former Democrat, and Treasurer John Kennedy, still a Democrat who nonetheless recently sat down with White House political strategist Karl Rove over lunch to discuss running as a Republican.

Both Republicans, along with Congressman Richard Baker, who has not ruled out a run though seems increasingly unlikely to make a bid, would likely start out as frontrunners. Landrieu's demonstration in Shreveport showed that her victory is indeed mathematically possible, but Republicans believe the state gives them their best chance to win back a seat.

In both Colorado and Louisiana, population shifts have changed the states dramatically since the last time Allard and Landrieu faced voters. Colorado has seen a steady stream of new migrants, making the state friendlier territory for Democrats. Louisiana's Democratic base, on the other hand, fled the state in a matter of days, leaving a solid Republican core that will make Mary Landrieu's 2008 a very difficult year, and provides Republicans hope that they won't be shut out of winning a new seat for the second cycle in a row.

Future population shifts are already underway, and whether it's the Democrats' new enthusiasm about the Mountain West or Republicans' focus on the Midwest, the next step is never more than a redistricting cycle away.

Reid Wilson, an associate editor and writer for RealClearPolitics, formerly covered polls and polling for The Hotline, National Journal’s daily briefing on politics. Wilson’s work has appeared in National Journal, Hotline OnCall and the Arizona Capitol Times. He also served as deputy press secretary for Senator Chris Dodd’s Presidential campaign. Wilson can be reached at reid@realclearpolitics.com

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