2008 Senate -- In For A Rough Ride

An exhaustive rundown of the state of play in the Senate from one of our election gurus. -Patrick

I hate for this first post to be something of a downer, but I would hope it would be taken here as more of a wake-up call. The need for a site like NextRight is all the more pressing, because talk of a filibuster-proof Democratic majority is no longer idle speculation. The odds of an effectively-filibuster-proof Democratic majority (57-59 seats) are probably around 40% right now; the odds of a truly filibuster-proof Democratic majority are probably at 10%.

Read on.

Just as a little bit of background, for the past two cycles, I ran myelectionanalysis.com. In 2004 I nailed every state, on average at .6% of Bush’s eventual vote total. I was off by two in the Senate, and got the House exactly at 232. In 2006 I predicted a 50-50 Senate (I thought the trend was strong enough in RI for Chafee to pull it off, which was about the worst 50-50 Senate that I could imagine), and I had Dems winning the House in early summer of 2006 (I had it at 224; I underestimated the number of otherwise safe incumbents like Leach and Hart who hadn’t prepared for a wave year). So I’ve predicted good Republican years and bad Republican years. I’m not always gloom-and-doom.

Below is my chart of how I currently see the races. The categorizations are simple. Safe means that I can't envision the other side winning. "Likely" means that it is almost impossible for me to see the other side winning. For example, in VA it would require either Warner being named the Veep candidate or the absolute collapse of the Obama campaign. For NJ it would require a major gaffe by Lautenberg (not impossible, given his age), and probably also require the collapse of the Obama campaign (which I don't view as impossible), and Dick Zimmer winning the primary. I’m also assuming Lautenberg’s approvals haven’t improved much from 2006, when they were consistently in the 30s.

There are some "tweeners" in the safe category -- ID, KS, and NE on the Republican side and SD, MA, and IA on the Dem side -- races that could conceivably be competitive given the quality of the opposition, the nature of the state, and/or problems with the incumbent (have you seen Kerry's approval ratings lately?). But I think it is extraordinarily unlikely that these races become competitive, even if it is plausible.

Given that, Democrats basically start this cycle out with a floor of 51 seats. The problem for Republicans is that there is only one Democratic race really in play. An additional 11 Republican seats, not counting Virginia are in various states of play.

Lean races mean that it is not difficult to imagine a victory by the other side, but that the playing field currently favors one candidate or the other. NH (RCP Shaheen +9.6) and NM (RCP Udall +19 and +21) are races that could be placed in the "Likely" category. But I think that Udall is awfully liberal for New Mexico (he's a co-sponsor of Kucinich's Department of Peace for crying out loud), and Sununu has a massive cash advantage over Shaheen. Given her three terms as governor, she is something of an incumbent herself, which is why her polling numbers showing her over Sununu don't bother me as much as did similar numbers for Santorum in 2006. And McCain will likely perform well in these states. I expect the Dems to win these races, but it wouldn't take an act of God for them to lose, as with the "likely" category.

On the Republican side, KY and TX are two races where polling has showed challengers within a few points of the incumbent. Setting aside the recent poll showing him losing, the balance of the KY polls show McConnell leading by single digits but below 50%. Neither incumbent has had great approval ratings. That said, the incumbents have a massive cash-on-hand advantage over their challengers. I suspect they will pull through, if for no other reason than the partisan affiliation of their states and Obama's likely poor performance there. These races strike me as kind of Kyl-Pederson in 2006.

An argument could be made for placing ME, (RCP Collins +about 13) MN (RCP Coleman +6.3), and/or OR in the Slight Lean category. But as I said, this is where I suspect that things will end up, not where I necessarily think things are now. ME is almost certainly placed correctly; I think that Collins is a good fit for her state; indeed a better fit than Allen who is very, very liberal. Remember, Maine ain't Rhode Island. MN and OR are closer calls, but given Franken's troubles (which are just now beginning and unlikely to let up, I think) and Smith's persona (his approvals are now back over 50%), I expect they'll win. Of course, its hardly good news that at this point we are at 53 Democrats, with four Republicans to evaluate and only one Democrat.

Which brings me to the "Slight Lean" category. These are really tossups, but not calling a state is for wussies as far as I'm concerned. I give Udall the slight edge in CO (RCP Udall +8.3, probably inflated somewhat by what looks to be an outlying poll) and Landrieu the slight edge in LA, although no one really knows how things will look in November. CO is trending blue, but I'm not sure it is trending liberal; remember, this state voted to ban gay marriage, deny civil unions, and nearly voted against raising the minimum wage in 2004. The formula for CO Democrats has been to run moderate Democrats like Ritter and Salazar; 2008 will be a test to see if things can be pushed farther to the left. I could easily see either race flipping. Similarly, in Louisiana former Democrat John Kennedy is a very strong challenger for Landrieu. But I can’t help but think that strong African American turnout at the Presidential level is going to hurt his chances, and probably offset any Katrina advantage he may have. So we’re at 55 Democrats.

That leaves Dole, Wicker, and Stevens. I don't have to go into the problems for the three of them. Stevens seems the most likely to lose (all polls show him at 46% or below), although Begich has baggage of his own that hasn’t been explored, and Lisa Murkowski trailed in polls for most of 2004 before winning against Knowles. Wicker has time to right the ship, and Musgrove is a former Governor who arguably should be treated as more of an incumbent than Wicker for purposes of polling, so the fact that Wicker is well below 50% isn’t that big of a concern (Latest poll is a Dem poll showing Wicker down 8). But Musgrove will also likely benefit from a huge black turnout from the Obama campaign. That leaves Dole in NC (RCP +3.4). I think she is in real trouble. Recent polling has her within generally only a few points up on Hagan, and generally below 50% against a little-known state Senator. Part of the polling problem is that Kay Hagan just won a competitive primary, and is benefitting from good publicity from that. But Dole isn't an especially gifted campaigner, and this state will likely have massive African American turnout as well in 2008. That's trouble.

So in short, as of right now I expect Dems to come out with a 55-seat majority. But it wouldn't take a great leap for them to get to 58. Beyond that, even 63 would be within the realm of possibility.

Combined with an Obama presidency, and what is likely coming in the House, that should make conservatives very, very uncomfortable, with or without a Hillary Clinton majority leadership.

So what is to be done about this? I leave that discussion for others; for now, I’m just here to discuss the fix we’re likely to find ourselves in come November.

 

Safe R

Likely R

Lean R

Slight Lean R

Slight Lean D

Lean D

Likely D

Safe D

AL

 

KY

AK

CO

NH

NJ

AR

GA

 

ME

MS (2)

LA

NM

VA

DE

ID

 

MN

NC

     

IA

KS

 

OR

       

IL

MS (1)

 

TX

       

MA

NE

           

MI

OK

           

MT

SC

           

RI

TN

           

SD

WY(1)

           

WV

WY(2)

             
               

11

 

4

4

2

2

2

10

26 not up

     

 

   

39 not up

 

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