Senate Outlook

Posted: November 4, 2006 in 2006 Elections, Senate


Control of the Senate will hinge on ten races. The incumbents in all but three of them are Republicans. The Tennessee race is for the seat being vacated by Bill Frist to run for president in 2008, the Maryland seat is being vacated by retiring Democratic Senator Paul Sarbanes, and the New Jersey seat is the one that used to belong to Jon Corzine, now held by Bob Menendez who is defending it in his first Senate campaign.

The races are:

  • Arizona
  • Maryland
  • Missouri
  • Montana
  • New Jersey
  • Ohio
  • Pennsylvania
  • Rhose Island
  • Tennessee
  • Virginia

A state-by-state analysis follows:

Arizona
Incumbent – Sen. Jon Kyl (R)
Challenger – Fmr. Arizona Democratic Party Chairman Jim Pederson (D)

The race had been written off by both parties until recently when the DSCC dropped $1 million on TV ad time in Arizona markets and sending in Bill Clinton following what they say are promising early voting numbers. This could just be a bluff to make Republicans commit money and resources to defend another Senate seat. The Republicans are doing the same thing with last minute ad buys in Michigan to try to take out Debbie Stabenow.

Although Democratic governor Janet Napolitano is cruising to re-election, I don’t think Pederson is going to be able to ride her coattails.

Prediction: Kyl wins by 5-10 points.

Maryland
Incumbent Party – Rep. Ben Cardin (D)
Challenger – Lt. Gov. Michael Steele (R)

Republicans are enthusiastic about this race, but I think New Jersey is a better pickup chance for them as far as blue states go. There may also be a down ballot effect at play here, because of Steele’s role as Gov. Bob Ehrlich’s deputy. Ehrlich is behind in the polls to Democratic challenger Martin O’Malley, and some of that may be rubbing off on Steele.

Prediction: Cardin wins by 7-12 points.

Missouri
Incumbent – Sen. Jim Talent (R)
Challenger – State Auditor Claire McCaskill (D)

This race has been in the news a lot recently because of the recent Michael J. Fox ad on stem cell research supporting Claire McCaskill which drew the ire of Rush Limbaugh, who proceeded to make it a national issue by attacking Fox on his radio show.

The race is a true tossup, with recent polls showing both candidates leading within the margin of error. President Bush hit the campaign trail for Talent today, and it might help him. This one will go down to the wire, and might be the race that ultimately decides which party controls the Senate next year.

Prediction: Talent wins by 1-2 points.

Montana
Incumbent – Sen. Conrad Burns (R)
Challenger – State Sen. Jon Tester (D)

This race had been written off by the Republicans until the last week or so, when polls showed the race tightening. Now, Senate campaign committees and outside groups from both parties are dumping dollars into Montana airwaves for a round of last minute ad buys. Check out this amusing anti-Tester ad from the Free Enterprise Fund: “Brokebank Democrats.”

The problem with Burns is that he has one of the highest disapproval ratings of any U.S. Senator, and Democrats are hammering away at him over his Jack Abramoff connection. Montana has been tilting towards the Democrats for the past several years, with a popular Democratic governor and a Democratic majority in both houses of the state legislature.

Given the state’s political climate, along with the widespread “throw the bums out” attitude that seems to be building across the country, I think Burns is done.

Prediction: Tester wins by 1-5 points.

New Jersey
Incumbent – Sen. Robert Menendez (D)
Challenger – State Sen. Tom Kean Jr. (R)

This is the most endangered Democrat-held seat. State Republicans (and perhaps to a similar degree, the electorate at large) are not happy with the Democratic party. People still remember the scandals from Jim McGreevey’s administration, which came back into the news after McGreevey published a memoir and the state supreme court voted in favor of gay marriage.

Kean has been good at making ethics and corruption an issue against Menendez, and that has certainly hurt him in the polls, most likely among independents.

This shouldn’t be a close race, but there are three things working in Menendez’s favor. 1) Remember polls in 2004 showing New Jersey a toss up? Both Bush and Kerry sent surrogates to fight it out, but New Jersey went to Kerry 53-46, 2) Governor Jon Corzine has a 60 percent approval rating according to a recent poll, in spite of having raised taxes, and 3) The anti-incumbent, anti-Republican mood in the country, combined with the fact that New Jersey is a blue state, Menendez should be able to hang on.

Prediction: Menendez wins by 5-10 points.

Ohio
Incumbent – Sen. Mike DeWine (R)
Challenger – Rep. Sherrod Brown (D)

In less than two years since Ohio voters secured President Bush’s re-election by about 110,000 votes, the state has become politically hostile territory to state and national Republicans.

Rep. Bob Ney pleaded guilty to corruption charges and resigned from Congress today before beginning to serve a jail sentence next year. Democrats are running challengers to Republican incumbents all over the state, including Deborah Pryce, the fourth highest ranking House Republican.

The Toledo Blade
uncovered a major scandal involving a prominent Republican fundraiser with ties to Governor Bob Taft. Taft now has an astonishing 80 percent disapproval rating in a recent Quinnipiac poll.

Secretary of State Ken Blackwell is running for governor and is falling behind his Democratic rival Ted Strickland by nearly 30 points according to the same Quinnipiac poll.

The RNC and RNSC have seemingly given up on DeWine, having pulled all advertising from the state airwaves during the final two weeks of the election. Another issue which will fire up state Democrats is a ballot initiative to raise the minimum wage.

The writing is on the wall clear for all to see – Ohio is not the place to be if you’re a Republican this year. Besides taking over the governor’s mansion, I’d say it’s likely that the Democrats are going to take the majority of the state’s congressional delegation, effectively laying the political groundwork for 2008.

Prediction: Brown wins by 5-10 points.

Pennsylvania
Incumbent – Sen. Rick Santorum (R)
Challenger – State Treasurer Bob Casey (D)

Santorum has one of the highest negative ratings in the country, only slightly ahead of Conrad Burns. He has trailed Casey by double digits in most polls this year and he has been unable to change the dynamic of the race or make his case to Pennsylvania voters.

Issues about his state residency, a Republican effort to collect signatures and finance a Green Party candidate to siphon Democratic and liberal votes off from Casey, Santorum crowing about having found weapons of mass destruction, and making a bizarre analogy comparing the Iraq war to the Lord of the Rings have energized state Democrats.

Santorum should start updating his resume and look for a lobbying job.

Prediction: Casey wins by 8-12 points.

Rhode Island
Incumbent – Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R)
Challenger – Rep. Sheldon Whitehouse (D)

Chafee narrowly survived a primary challenge from conservative Cranston mayor Steve Laffey earlier this year. As the other New England centrist to face a primary challenge this year [behind the more high-profile race in Connecticut] Chafee has to run a delicate balancing act. He had to convince primary voters that he was genuinely a team player and a loyal Republican, and once he was re-nominated, he had to convince the electorate at large that he could be independent of the Senate Republican leadership and President Bush on issues such as the John Bolton nomination and global warming.

Rhode Island is not friendly territory to Republicans or President Bush, and voters may simply want to send a resounding “NO!” message to Washington, regardless of whether they like Chafee or not. Chafee said as much in one of his most recent ads.

Prediction: Whitehouse wins by 7-12 points.

Tennessee
Incumbent Party – Mayor Bob Corker (R)
Challenger – Rep. Harold Ford Jr. (D)

This race has been looking competitive for the past few weeks, and has the dubious distinction of having been the focus of one of the most controversial ads of this political season. I think that Ford will come close but I don’t think he’ll be able to pull it off.

Prediction: Corker wins by 1-5 points.

Virginia
Incumbent – Sen. George Allen (R)
Challenger – Former Secretary of the Navy James Webb (D)

This has been one of the most interesting Senate races to watch this year, in the same way that you can’t help watch or stare at the scene of an accident when you’re driving in your car. This race should have been a slam dunk for Allen, a springboard for the 2008 presidential campaign. Instead, he is fighting for his political life and he should be considered damaged goods by GOP activists, operatives, and fundraisers when it comes to his political ambitions. Bob Novak recently wrote he thinks Allen is going to lose because he let the race devolve into a “circus campaign,” and I think he’s right. All of Allen’s major problems in this race are self-inflicted, either by himself (i.e. the Macaca incident) or his people (the Mike Stark incident).

Prediction: Webb wins by 1-5 points.

One politically interesting scenario which would be amusing to watch and incredibly frustrating to both parties is if Joe Lieberman is re-elected as an independent and we have a tied Senate at 49-49-2 [the other independent in that formula would be Vermont’s Bernie Sanders who is replacing retiring independent James Jeffords].

Given the amount of Republican money and volunteers he’s taken during the general election, I think it’s almost a given that they will call in favors if Lieberman gets re-elected, regardless of whether the Democrats take over the Senate or not.

The nightmare scenario for Democrats would be if both parties lock up their caucuses in a vote for a contentious issue [i.e. Iraq, a Supreme Court nomination]. Sanders will vote with the Democrats, but if Lieberman wavers to the Republican side, that would put the vote at 50-50 and give Cheney the tie-breaking vote.

If that scenario happens, Lieberman would wield enormous political influence in the Senate. He would be a de facto second Senate president, with the ability to play kingmaker on a variety of bills.

Senate Prediction: Democrats win 8 out of the 10 races I discussed, for a net gain of 6 seats (the number they need to take control of the Senate) and a Senate tally of 49 Democrats, 49 Republicans, and 2 Independents.

I will have my assessment on the races for the House of Representatives done soon.

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