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The '08 Battles for the U.S. Senate

By Larry Sabato

Lots of exciting changes have occurred in the nation's Senate races since we last reviewed them in December 2007. Yet overall, the outlook hasn't changed much. Democrats will pick up seats to pad their slim 51-to-49 margin. They are defending a mere 12 seats, and all their incumbents are running again. The Republicans have drawn the short straw, trying to protect 23 seats with five incumbents retiring in a tough political environment for the GOP.

It is still too early to project the exact size of expected Democratic gains, but it will be a major surprise if Democrats fail to add at least three or four seats. The total of projected Democratic gains may well rise considerably, possibly five to seven, depending on the electoral conditions prevailing in the fall. The GOP's only real hope in Senate contests is that John McCain wins the Presidency handily, generating coattail in some key match-ups. In any event, the Democrats currently seem unlikely to hit the magic number of 60 seats, needed to shut down filibusters. (That assumes all 60 Democrats would stick together on key votes. Good luck.)

As we noted in an earlier analysis, the Senate has changed party control six times: in 1980 (D to R), 1986 (R to D), 1994 (D to R), 2001 (R to D), 2002 (D to R), and 2006 (R to D). This is no longer a rare event. Still, 2008 is virtually certain not to generate a seventh such shift. Let's go to the states and see why.

Thirty-three regularly scheduled contests will take place in 2008, along with two special elections, in Mississippi and Wyoming. As usual, there are many contests that are not competitive. Of the 35 Senate seats on the ballot, the winning party for 24 of them seems set. Of these 24, 13 are Democratic and 11 are Republican. No doubt, two or three of these contests may become more competitive than expected as new events unfold in the summer and the general election. For example, in Texas, early polls have shown Sen. John Cornyn to be weak, though Texas' statewide Republican majority still appears intact.

It is the eleven hottest Senate elections that will determine the final tally in 2008. Here is a brief run-down of each, with a tentative winner indicated, where possible.

* Alaska: Who could have believed that a Republican incumbent would be in trouble here? But at least initially, the longest-serving Senate Republican, Ted Stevens, is mired in a major corporate scandal involving pay-offs and bribery. He has not been indicted and may be able to clear himself. He has a tough Democratic opponent in Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich, the son of the former Democratic congressman Nick Begich, who died in a plane crash in October 1972 with then-House Majority Leader Hale Boggs (D-LA). (The wreckage was never found.) Stevens' power and seniority cannot be overestimated, but events might force him out after forty years. If the election were held today, Begich would defeat Stevens. Yet Stevens is a wily foe, and it is too early to call any November election for an Alaska Democrat. Awaiting further developments, this race has to be called a TOSS-UP.

* Colorado: When Republican Wayne Allard (R) announced his retirement after two terms, the assumption was that this Purple state might well lean Democratic in 2008, just as it did in 2006 when it elected a new Democratic Governor (Bill Ritter) in a landslide. Perhaps that will prove true, and the early polls show the Democratic candidate, Congressman Mark Udall, out in front of the GOP candidate, former Congressman Bob Schaffer (who had lost the GOP Senate primary in 2004 to Pete Coors, who in turn lost to now-Democratic Senator Ken Salazar.) Schaffer's links to disgraced GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff aren't helping any. This is another state where presidential coattail could come into play, and every indication is that Colorado will be close and highly competitive for President in November. LEANS DEMOCRATIC (PICK-UP).

* Louisiana: This is the only contest involving a Democratic incumbent because, incredibly, this is the only incumbent that Republicans have any reasonable shot at defeating. Senator Mary Landrieu has won two close contests for Senate, and with the exodus of Democratic African-American votes from New Orleans to other states after Hurricane Katrina, she can take nothing for granted. Her GOP opponent will be state Treasurer John Kennedy, a party-switcher. This might be a tight race in the end, but it isn't starting that way. Despite decent fundraising by Kennedy, Landrieu has the edge. Governor Bobby Jindal (R) is an asset for Kennedy, and the national Republican party, having no other real targets, can be expected to pour resources into this race. On the other hand, scandal-drenched Senator David Vitter, enmeshed in a prostitution ring, may make Louisianans think twice about electing a second Republican senator. Also keep in mind that a court decision has required the state to hold regular party primaries in 2008 instead of the unique all-party primary that has characterized Bayou State politics for decades. This could be a wild card, too. We'll keep a close eye on this one, since Landrieu has won her first two contests narrowly, but for now it LEANS DEMOCRATIC.

* Maine: Two-term Senator Susan Collins (R) is still the favorite for reelection, but if the Democratic nominee for President wins Maine by a wide margin, the coattail effect could work in favor of Congressman Tom Allen (D). Collins does not have the electoral strength of Maine's other U.S. senator, Olympia Snowe (R), so her elections are always worth monitoring. But Collins is holding up well so far. LEANS REPUBLICAN.

* Minnesota: Here's a state that still leans Democratic but overall can be unpredictable politically. Six years ago, Republican Norm Coleman won a narrow victory over former Vice President Walter Mondale (D), the substitute nominee after the tragic death of Senator Paul Wellstone (D) in a plane crash. Coleman is beatable in 2008, but it is uncertain whether the new convention-crowned Democratic nominee, comedian Al Franken, can do it. Franken has been found to have had a substantial number of overdue tax bills in various states, and some of his off-color satires from past years have not sold well in this more politically correct era. All of this has gotten him off to a rough start. There are even rumblings in the Democratic Party that Mike Ciresi, a wealthy Democrat who had earlier withdrawn from the contest, may challenge Franken in a September primary. Should John McCain choose Gov. Tim Pawlenty for his running-mate, Coleman might benefit from some coattail-if Pawlenty, who won a squeaker reelection victory in 2006, has any to offer. Former Gov. Jesse Ventura has also been hinting that he may run as an Independent, which could scramble the voting patterns. Ventura is unlikely to win, as he did in his statehouse bid back in 1998, but he's the ultimate wild card. For now, Coleman continues to work his state hard, and we'll call it LEANS REPUBLICAN.

* Mississippi (special): The seat of resigned Sen. Trent Lott (R) went to Congressman Roger Wicker (R), courtesy of GOP Governor Haley Barbour. Relatively little-known and running in a bad year for the GOP even in the Magnolia State, Wicker has about a 50-50 chance of retaining the seat in November. Republicans claim Wicker is a shaky frontrunner, but the Democrats have nominated a serious challenger in former Governor Ronnie Musgrove (D), who lost his office to Barbour in 2003. Usually, a defeat for reelection as Governor would cast doubt on a comeback, and Musgrove had an embarrassingly public divorce while Governor, complete with allegations of adultery. Yet this is no normal year even in Mississippi. The wild card is Barack Obama. How large an African-American vote in this 38 percent black state can Obama generate? The bigger the black vote, the more Musgrove is helped. There are plenty of white voters unhappy with the Republicans, too, mainly because of the weak economy in this poorest of states. Early indications are that Musgrove is more than holding his own in polls and votes, but lagging in the money contest, and he'll have to convince the well-funded Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee to invest real dough. We admit that on election night, we'll be mildly surprised if this seat shifts-but only mildly. John McCain is still the favorite in Mississippi and he ought to provide some coattail for Wicker, though Obama's campaign believes they can steal the state or at least give McCain a good run here, draining his small treasury further. Given the still unsettled nature of the contest, and pending the fallout from the developing McCain-Obama contest, we rate this one as TOSS-UP.

* New Hampshire: No state in the nation has moved so quickly from Republican to Democratic in party orientation. This is a state that intensely dislikes both President Bush and the Iraq War, and the feeling showed from top to bottom of the state's 2006 elections. Freshman GOP Senator John Sununu has his hands full in a re-match with former Gov. Jeanne Shaheen (D). Most major public and private polls show her ahead, some by a wide margin. Yet Senator John McCain is New Hampshire's kind of Republican, and the state rescued McCain's candidacy from oblivion in January. McCain's nomination was the best news Sununu could have hoped for. Most of the other Republicans were sure losers in this state. Here is a contest where the incumbent senator's fate is closely tied to McCain's. Should McCain do well in the fall, the New Hampshire Senate contest could reverse course, but for now we'll list this one as LEANS DEMOCRATIC (PICK-UP).

* New Mexico: What a free for all! The retirement of longtime Sen. Pete Domenici (R) led all three of New Mexico's U.S. House members to throw their hats in the ring: Democrat Tom Udall and Republicans Steve Pearce and Heather Wilson. The Land of Enchantment is also the land of close presidential races, at least in competitive years, so the Senate race could conceivably be up for grabs. Yet Republicans may have taken a wrong turn in their June 3rd primary by nominating the conservative Pearce over the moderate Wilson (backed by Domenici) by a narrow 51 to 49 percent margin. Wilson might have been able to capitalize on her gender and more centrist record in the fall. Pearce has little but hard conservatism to sell in a year when it isn't particularly appealing. Not surprisingly, the early polls favor Udall, the cousin of the Senate frontrunner in near-by Colorado. While we could possibly see this contest becoming close in November, Pearce will need a lot of breaks to win. We give the early edge to the Democrat. LEANS DEMOCRATIC (PICK-UP).

* North Carolina: Political observers are keeping a close eye on Elizabeth Dole's reelection race. Turning in sub-par polling performances so far, Dole has not had as strong a profile in the state during her first term as required to keep her seat safe, and many state observers are telling the Crystal Ball to watch this contest closely. Democrats have selected an energetic opponent for Dole in State Sen. Kay Hagan, and the strength of the Democratic gubernatorial nominee, Lt. Gov. Bev Perdue, who is likely to keep the statehouse in her party's hands, could possibly help Hagan. Moreover, Barack Obama's campaign has decided to target North Carolina after his strong primary win. While John McCain is still favored to win the state, it is unlikely to be by the landslides Bush secured in 2000 and 2004. That means less presidential coattail to help a GOP incumbent like Dole. Senator Dole and her husband, former presidential candidate Bob Dole, have many friends and supporters, and they will draw on those ties to fight back. Yet this will not be anything approaching a cakewalk for Dole, and she will have to fight hard to hold her seat. For now, we will list this one as LEANS REPUBLICAN.

* Oregon: Senator Gordon Smith (R) has managed to forge a successful political career in an unfriendly, Democratic environment. But he must always be careful to project a moderate image in order to win the swing independents that, when added to the GOP base, can produce victory in November. He has done so on issues ranging from Iraq to the environment, but will it be enough in 2008? Once again, the Democratic nominee for President will be the favorite to carry Oregon, creating a headwind for Smith. (McCain has the potential to surprise here, though it is an uphill contest for any Republican.) Smith's Democratic opponent will be state House Speaker Jeff Merkley, who defeated attorney Steve Novick in a competitive May primary. It's a close race. Based on Smith's record, we give the early edge to the incumbent, though it could turn into a tense election for him. LEANS REPUBLICAN.

* Virginia: The Old Dominion hasn't moved nearly as far as New Hampshire across the political spectrum, but it has undeniably become more Democratic in recent years, primarily because of the growth of moderate Northern Virginia. The GOP has lost races for Governor in 2001 and 2005, U.S. Senator in 2006, and the state Senate in 2007. The man who started the movement to the Democrats, former Governor Mark Warner, is very likely headed to the Senate in 2008. He may or may not be handicapped by the Democratic presidential nominee, but he has such wide appeal among independents that he should be able to make up any lost ground, and it is far from impossible that Barack Obama (unlike Hillary Clinton) could carry Virginia. On May 31st Republicans nominated Warner's controversial predecessor, former Governor Jim Gilmore, who is having trouble funding his candidacy. Gilmore's already severe problems were compounded by what happened at the convention. He barely squeaked by a far-right, gadfly state legislator, Del. Bob Marshall, a staunch abortion opponent, with a mere 50.3 percent of the votes case. Even more shocking was the convention's ouster of incumbent chairman and former Lt. Gov. John Hager as party chair. Hager, whose son Henry recently married the President's daughter, Jenna, lost decisively to yet another far-right 32-year old state legislator, Jeff Frederick. The Virginia GOP has moved even further right at a time when the state as a whole has dramatically moderated, making the Republican party's brand unpalatable to the key swing moderates and independents who determine the results of general elections, not to mention the band of Virginians who fund the candidates. All this is great news for the Democrats. Should Mark Warner succeed the retiring John Warner (R), as is highly likely, Democrats will control the Governorship and both Senate seats for the first time since January 1970. Virginia's years as a Republican stronghold are well over. LIKELY DEMOCRATIC (PICK-UP).

Therefore, the early outlook is for another strong Democratic year, though it remains to be seen just how strong. The Crystal Ball has Democrats in line for pick-ups in Virginia, New Hampshire, Colorado, and New Mexico. Surprisingly, Alaska is definitely obtainable for the Democrats, and Mississippi is very much on the radar screen, too. If 2008 turns out to be strongly Democratic at the presidential level, Democrats might be able to grab one or more of the seats up in Maine, Minnesota, North Carolina, and Oregon, though currently we have Republicans leading in all four states. (The GOP leads in Minnesota and North Carolina are already shaky.) To balance the likely Democratic gains, Republicans have a single Democratic seat in Louisiana to target--and we rate that race as currently leaning Democratic.

Democrats will unabashedly celebrate this electoral picture. To Republicans who find this assessment depressing, we would note two facts. First, it is still unlikely that Democrats will get the sixty Senate votes necessary to shut off filibusters-the essential requirement to actually control the Senate on most controversial matters. Second, if Democrats gain substantially in the Senate, then probably a Democratic President is being elected. This could set the stage for Republican gains in the critical redistricting midterm election of 2010, or in 2012, when Democrats will be defending a whopping 24 of 33 seats up that year. What goes around comes around, and the cycles of politics are not to be denied.

Dr. Sabato, the Robert Kent Gooch Professor of Politics at the University of Virginia, founded the Center for Politics in 1998.

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