2008 SENATE RACES: INTRODUCTION

Before our nation finds itself balls-deep in the upcoming presidential election, let's take a moment to focus on the race to control the most important chamber. In many ways the presidential election is of secondary importance. The composition of the Senate will be far more determinative in several key areas like court appointments and the length of the new president's leash on Iraq.

Rather than diving into specific races today, let's start with an overview of the 33 Senate races as a whole. To put it mildly, the Republican Party has an uphill battle in 2008. Of the 33 Senate races, 21 are currently held by the GOP. Given that the chamber is currently 50-50 (for all intents and purposes) it represents incredible bad luck to have 64% of the contested seats belonging to one party. The bad luck is compounded, of course, by the fact that the GOP has fallen on some hard times after riding a high wave from 1994 – 2004.

To whatever extent you find polling data persuasive (and there are certainly reasons to be skeptical), Democrats are solidly leading the GOP in the generics. Generic matchups tend to be some of the most unreliable polls, as more detailed survey work always finds that Americans hate "Congress" but love their Congressman. Nonetheless it is not an encouraging sign for a GOP hoping to re-take the majority.

The analysis for 2008 is complicated by the uncertainty surrounding the true "balance" of the current Senate. It's either 51-49 (counting Independents Sanders and Lieberman as Democrats, with whom they currently caucus) or 50-50. I argue in favor of the latter. The Democrats have a procedural majority thanks to Lieberman, but he has gone completely off the wagon on their agenda. Holy Joe is now essentially a Republican or, at best, a sniveling unknown on whom the leadership can't rely. In a way, both parties are trying to take the majority in 2008. The GOP obviously wants to regain a numerical majority, but the Democrats probably won't feel comfortable until they hold 52 solid seats (including Sanders). Not having to worry about appeasing Lieberman will be worth its weight in gold to the Democratic leadership. Right now he's the swing vote on every issue. With a slightly larger majority he'd be irrelevant.

For the GOP to re-take a majority, it would have to defend 21 seats successfully and then take two or three of the remaining 10 Democratic seats. I can't stress enough how highly unlikely (in historical terms) that would be, especially given the party's current lack of popularity. The good news for the GOP is that 10 of the 21 seats are in the south. The incumbents in those seats are essentially safe barring a catastrophe or retirement. Of course, the same is true for some Democratic seats (I consider 8 of their 12 seats safe – more on that later). So how many races are actually competitive?

There are currently seven races that show the potential to switch party control, and….well, our Republican friends may want to look away for a moment….five of those are currently held by the GOP. In addition to those seven, the Alaska race is teetering on the brink as 85 year-old Ted Stevens stands ready to be indicted. The seven competitive races are:

  • Colorado – Open Seat (Wayne Allard, retirement)
  • Maine – Susan Collins
  • Minnesota – Norm Coleman
  • Oregon – Gordon Smith
  • New Hampshire – John Sununu
  • South Dakota – Tim Johnson (health concerns)
  • Louisiana – Mary Landrieu (state demographic changes)

    It may not be good news for those of you who lean to the right, but the fact is that the GOP is far more likely to lose a few seats in this election than to gain any. It is highly unlikely that they will lose 6 seats again as they did last year, but losing somewhere from 2 to 4 seats appears very likely.

    There will definitely be some interesting races, but they'll have to wait for another day.

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