As proof that things will get worse before they get better on the right, let's take a too-early but not-really-too-early look at the 2010 Senate races. Yes, believe it or not, in 10 to 12 months the campaigns will become active and the races will begin to take shape.
There will be 35 races – Class III plus special elections for the Obama/Biden seats. That number could increase if a Senator from another class dies and requires a special election in 2010 to replace him or her. It could happen. Byrd is 91. Inouye, Akaka, and Lautenberg will all be 86. All four are Democrats. The GOP would have a good shot at replacing the elderly West Virginian with a Republican should Byrd give up the ghost.
Some Class III retirements have been announced or are expected. Sam Brownback (KS) is retiring. Ted Kennedy, Arlen Specter, and Jim Bunning will be 78, 80, and 80 in 2010. All are in poor health. One or all may opt to retire. Inouye will be 86. Yikes.
Of the 35 races, 19 are GOP-held compared to 16 currently occupied by Democrats. Again the numbers put the GOP in an uphill battle. Many of the 16 Democrats will be in cakewalk races – Leahy (who was in The Dark Knight. No, really.), Schumer, Lincoln, Mikulski, Reid, Bayh, Feingold – or in open races in states like IL, DE, or MA. Not a lot of vulnerable Democrats ready to be conquered.
The potential GOP pickups are few. Ken Salazar (CO) is beatable in theory, but the GOP has had a hell of a time conjuring up decent challengers (as evidenced by the recent Udall-Schaeffer beatdown) and the state took a turn for the blue in 2008. Chris Dodd (CT) was seriously affected by his Countrywide/Freddie scandal and could be vulnerable if challenged by Republican Governor Jodi Rell. I question whether she would surrender the security of the Governor's mansion to challenge a nationally-recognized incumbent Democrat in this climate. If she does, this will immediately be among the most hotly contested races. Otherwise, Dodd cruises. Barbara Boxer (CA) could face term-limited Governor Schwarzenegger. If nothing else, the race would be entertaining. Is he a legitimate threat or a sideshow?
The GOP also has some safe seats, including Shelby (AL), Bennett (UT), and Crapo (ID). But there is a whole mess of seats they are going to have trouble defending. Briefly:
The Kansas open seat. This is the early contender for race of the year. The GOP will probably nominate House member Todd Tiahrt. The Democrats will counter with wildly-popular but term-limited Governor Kathleen Sebelius. Yes, most competitive and entertaining race could be in…Kansas. Seriously. No Democrat but Sebelius could make this a race.
Murkowski (AK) is in for a fight. She is not popular, with considerable public resentment at the fact that her now-disgraced father appointed her to the seat. She won with just 49% of the vote in 2004. A strong Democratic challenger (none spring to mind – maybe Knowles again?) could topple her. Then again, so could a certain primary challenger.
Voinovich (OH) is in trouble. The Ohio GOP remains a mess and any one of a number of Democratic Reps could challenge him, as could Iraq War veteran and activist Paul Hackett.
Burr (NC) is the strongest early contender for the "Incumbent who loses by 15%" title. I bet the man has not slept in about three weeks. Elizabeth Dole just went down – by 10% – to a weak challenger. Dole is considerably better known, more powerful, and richer than Burr. Burr's challenger could be a powerhouse like Gov. Ensley or rising House star (and former NFL player) Heath Shuler. Yeah, it's early, but I'll go out on a limb and say Burr is about to get cornholed.
Jim "I'm Bat-Shit Insane" Bunning will be 79 and is in big trouble if he does decide to run. After a nobody got within 1% of Bunning in 2004, Congressmen Ben Chandler and John Yarmuth or Governor Steve Beshear are all in great position to topple Bunning if he defers retirement.
If Specter (PA) dies or retires this is almost certainly a Democratic pickup, but at the moment he claims he will run. Regardless of challenger strength, I have a hard time picturing PA voters casting an octegenarian six-term veteran with cancer out on the street.
Martinez (FL) won by a hair in 2004 and may not be so lucky again. Treasurer Alex Sink has already thrown his hat in the ring, but more well-known opposition could come from Reps. Debbie Wasserman Schultz or Robert Wexler. I have an unsubstantiated feeling that Wexler could pummel Martinez.
John Thune (SD) narrowly beat Tom Daschle in 2004 and could be in trouble against Stephanie Herseth or in a rematch with Daschle (unlikely).
David Vitter (LA) only won in 2004 because the Democrats ran three candidates thanks to Louisiana's unique election rules. Against a strong challenger, Senator Call Girls will be in trouble.
Races that could be exciting under a limited set of circumstances include:
Gregg (NH) is in trouble if Gov. John Lynch runs, but there's little incentive for him to do so against the popular Senator. No one else can test Gregg.
McCain (AZ) would have been in trouble against Gov. Napolitano (hypothetical matchups had him badly behind) but she accepted a Cabinet post, making her foray into 2010 electoral politics unlikely.
If 77 year-old Chuck Grassley (IA) retires, former Democratic Gov. Vilsack is the clear favorite to replace him – or perhaps challenge him.
Coburn (OK) could be threatened by (and only by) 45 year-old Governor Brad Henry, who was re-elected with an overwhelming 68% of the vote in 2006. He has stated that he will not run. If he does, watch out. But I suspect he is waiting for 2012 to take down Inhofe, at which point Gov. Henry will still be a mere 49 years old.
Democrats will not have Obama on the ticket to boost turnout, but implausably the party is in great shape to pick up even more seats in 2010. I have a hard time identifying a lot of vulnerable Democrats but no such trouble amassing a list of Republicans who won by a hair in 2004, which was a very favorable year for the GOP. If the first 18 months of the Obama presidency go well, the post-2010 Senate might be almost inconceivably lopsided. Republicans will need to mount something of a rally before 2010 in order to keep their numbers from dipping into the mid-30s. Ouch.