2008 SENATE RACES, PART III: SEATS IN PLAY

Posted in Election 2008 on September 8th, 2008 by Ed

Nothing says these have to go in order from safest to least safe, so let's cut in line and do the fun races. There won't be many. As with Rick Santorum in 2006, once again we have an incumbent who is expected to suffer a double-digit loss. Open seats, usually a source of intense competition, offer little excitement this year. Three Republican open seats have essentially been conceded, leaving only a small number of action-packed races.

Screwed Incumbents

  • John Sununu (NH): Historically Republican New England is becoming a dangerous place to be friends with George W. Bush. After Sheldon Whitehouse downed Lincoln Chaffee in 2006 (RI) it was immediately clear that the uninspiring Sununu was in big trouble. NH is a different animal, but if Chaffee's widespread personal popularity could not save him it's hard to imagine Sununu surviving. Factor in his opponent, popular former Governor Jeanne Shaheen, and if there's anything Sununu wants to accomplish in the Senate he might want to do it soon.
  • NM Open (Domenici retirement): When Heather Wilson declined to represent the GOP (just like in 2006) this quickly became a laugher. Domenici's pending ethics censure from the US Attorney scandal sealed his fate, although let's be polite because he's also dying. Democratic Rep. Mark Udall looks unbeatable and the GOP is throwing in the towel. To quote NRSC Chair John Ensign, "You don’t waste money on races that don’t need it or you can’t win.” Congressman Steve Pearce is on his own.
  • CO Open (Allard retirement): This was a potentially epic contest until the GOP couldn't scrape up a challenger. An eminently contestable seat, I'm amazed that Bob Schaffer (last seen losing the 2002 race for this same seat in the primary) is the best they could do. Mark Udall – cousin of NM candidate Tom – looks like he will cakewalk, although the large conservative base south of Denver could make this competitive. A major failure in candidate recruitment and development for the GOP; begging friggin' John Elway to run doesn't count.
  • VA Open (Warner retirement): John Warner retired and is likely to be replaced by Mark Warner (no relation) with opposition from weak challenger Jim Gilmore. The story of the GOP's decline will have to be entitled What's the Matter with Virginia? The speed with which they went from the only game in town to an afterthought in this state is stunning.

    Toss-ups

  • Ted Stevens (AK): I was really tempted to call this one blue but AK remains a very Republican state. Needless to say, however, the septuple-indicted octogenarian is in serious trouble. The RNC is furious that he has refused to withdraw and Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich, who would have tested Stevens even sans indictments, now must be considered the favorite. Insert "series of tubes" joke here.
  • Norm Coleman (MN): The gut says Coleman will hold on, but I'm not sure how. Minnesota is so overwhelmingly liberal that Coleman's tenure in the Senate is a minor miracle to begin with. This is a remarkably tight race, literally a coin flip. Franken has money but has not run a good campaign, including some embarrassing revelations about his personal finances. This is the race most likely to go down to the wire. Expect "celebrity" Democrats to come out in force for this one – the Clintons, Biden, Obama, Feingold, Pelosi, and others will become very familiar with the Minneapolis airport. Will the GOP make a similar committment or will its manpower be too tied up in McCain? Does the GOP even have any big guns who Minnesotans wouldn't hate?
  • Gordon Smith (OR): Here's another Senator holding on in a very liberal state. With Obama likely to win Oregon by 20 points, the anonymous and none-too-popular Smith is definitely in trouble. His opponent is middling – State House Speaker Jeff Merkley – but he is running a good campaign based on Smith's record of support for Bush. If the coast (Portland, Eugene) turns out big, Smith's gone.
  • Mary Landrieu (LA): Everyone calls this a toss-up out of guilt for not including one Democrat on the list, so I'll join them. Yes, Landrieu is going to be tested. But the myth of black voters fleeing the state (hence screwing the Democrats) is widespread even though few New Orleans residents actually fled the state permanently. New Orleans, yes. Louisiana, no. Challenger John Kennedy is hard to take seriously; the Democrat switched parties on August 27 and announced his challenge to Landrieu on November 29. Polling provides little value in close races, but most existing polls show Landrieu up 10-15. The state is very red, but right now I see the 12-year veteran hanging on. Her support for offshore drilling (a politically popular stance at home) may have shifted things in her favor.

    So once again I feel compelled to apologize for the seemingly partisan tilt to this analysis, but in this case reality has a distinct liberal bias. Eleven of the mere twelve Democrats up in 2008 are as safe as can be and half of the 20+ GOP seats to defend are in hostile territory or lack quality challengers. When the NRSC essentially gives up on four GOP seats in June (NM, CO, NH, and VA) how in the hell am I supposed to come up with a scenario in which the party does well? The toss-up races are very important for the Republicans, as they represent the dividing line between a bad year and a beatdown of historic proportions. They're basically conceding 54 Democrats, which is very risky. With that as a baseline, they'll need to catch some breaks in the rest of the races or they'll be looking at 60. After the failure of the "firewall" in 2006 they can't actually be overconfident again, can they?

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