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In 2008 Election Cycle, How Bad Is Bad for Senate Republicans?

By Stuart Rothenberg

While the 2008 elections are still more than a year away, Democrats appear well-positioned to score additional gains in the Senate. Many observers assume that those gains will be modest, but the party has a serious chance to replicate -- or even exceed -- its gains of 2006.

Recruitment and fundraising problems are only symptoms of a larger difficulty facing the GOP: the national political environment. With the Republican brand battered and voters still dissatisfied with the direction of the country and likely to respond to a message of change, many Republican incumbents have low personal and job ratings, an ominous sign of vulnerability.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee starts out with three migraines -- New Hampshire and open seats in Colorado and Virginia. By the end of the year, Democratic candidates could be running ahead in ballot tests in all three states.

Three other states where Republicans lead seem headed for tight races: Maine, Minnesota and Oregon. All three states lean Democratic in presidential races, and the GOP's weak national standing increases the risk for Sens. Susan Collins (Maine), Norm Coleman (Minn.) and Gordon Smith (Ore.), each of whom would likely win re-election comfortably in a neutral political environment.

In addition, the uncertainty about Nebraska, with Sen. Chuck Hagel reported to announce his retirement today along with questions about New Mexico and Alaska, where incumbents long assumed to be safe have ethics clouds hanging over their heads, make a Democratic gain of five to seven seats a serious possibility next year.

Democrats are defending just 12 of the 34 Senate seats up next year, and the party seems to have but two problems: Louisiana and, possibly, South Dakota. Barring a surprise retirement or a shocking scandal, 10 Democratic seats appear to be safe: Arkansas, Delaware, Illinois, Iowa, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, New Jersey, Rhode Island and West Virginia.

Even if the Republicans come up with competitive candidates in these 10 states, a GOP victory in any of them would be remote without an open seat.

The Republicans' main problem right now in the Pelican State is the lack of a certain challenger to Sen. Mary Landrieu (D). None of the GOP Members of the House delegation is inclined to run, and the party lacks a deep bench with statewide name identification, which is why former White House political strategist Karl Rove spent time wooing state Treasurer John Kennedy into the GOP and also into the Senate race.

While Kennedy initially appeared to turn down both the switch and the Senate contest, his subsequent announcement that he was changing parties and running for re-election as a Republican this year obviously changes everything. It would be surprising if he didn't run for the Senate, as a Republican, against Landrieu.

In any case, given Landrieu's close calls and the Republicans' expected victory in the gubernatorial race this fall, Democrats ought to expect that Landrieu will face a tough challenge.

South Dakota is a trickier question. While national Democratic strategists and operatives close to Sen. Tim Johnson insist that he will seek another term, some Democrats are quietly skeptical. They suggest that when the Senator, who suffered a life-threatening medical emergency in December and returned to the Senate this month, needs to make a decision about the future, he may not choose to seek re-election.

If that were to happen, Republican strategists would place heavy pressure on popular Gov. Mike Rounds to run for an open seat, and while the governor doesn't seem very interested now, he might find it hard to resist an open seat.

One Democrat familiar with South Dakota politics argues that given Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin's apparent preference to run for governor -- her grandfather was governor and her father ran unsuccessfully for the office -- the Democratic Congresswoman might well decide against an uphill run against Rounds for the Senate. But all of this is moot if Johnson runs for re-election.

The best-case scenario for Democrats assumes that the 2008 elections again turn into a referendum on the previous four years, on Iraq and, at least to some extent, on Bush's presidency.

The best-case scenario for Republicans is that the presidential race is close, the Democrats' ticket both energizes Republican voters and frightens independents, and, for a variety of reasons (including the withdrawal of some U.S. forces from Iraq), voters return to their traditional voting patterns.

At the moment, and despite Congressional job-approval poll numbers, Democrats appear more likely to take advantage of the public's dissatisfaction with the direction of the country and the electorate's desire for change.

Obviously, things could change in the next 14 months. But for now, Democrats have every reason to hope for -- and Republicans to fear -- another terrific Democratic Senate year. And if that happens, especially if it is combined with a Democratic president, things will really change in Washington, D.C.

Stuart Rothenberg is the editor of the The Rothenberg Political Report, and a regular columnist for Roll Call Newspaper.

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