Monday, October 13, 2008

U.S. Senate Projection: Sixty Seats Within Grasp

A mere 22 days out and it’s time to look at the battle for the U.S. Senate and, much more importantly, the Democrats' effort to capture sixty seats in the Senate.

Nearly every top tier race has moved towards the Democrats.  Some races previously not on the radar are suddenly competitive (like Georgia), although a few longshots that Democrats once had hopes for (like Tennessee and Idaho) have faded to safe GOP territory. The only Democratic held seat that was initially thought to be competitive was in Louisiana where the perpetually endangered Mary Landrieu was in a tight race. Recent polling, however, shows Senator Landrieu moving into a comfortable lead.

Let’s run down the Senate seats in order of their likelihood to switch parties:

Virginia (Strong Democrat): Political writers have long run out of ways to say Mark Warner has a lock on this seat. He’s currently performing better among Republicans than Republican Jim Gilmore is among Independents. Retiring Senator John Warner (a Republican) is publicly still undecided. Ouch!

New Mexico (Strong Democrat): Congressman Tom Udall is running away with this Republican-held open seat over right-wing Congressman Steve Pearce. The nasty GOP primary between Pearce and Congresswoman Heather Wilson will likely cost the Republicans one or both of those House seats. The NRSC has already pulled out of New Mexico where Udall has consistently led by 15 points or more.

New Hampshire (Strong Democrat)Jeanne Shaheen jumped out to an early, big lead when she announced her candidacy against John Sununu, but the race has closed a bit as of late. Sununu is personally well-liked, a fact that might keep him from the fate that befell Pennsylvania's Rick Santorum two years ago. However, increasingly blue NH is no longer well-aligned with Sununu ideologically and Shaheen is still a solid favorite. The principal volatility in this race is provided by the Granite State’s large number of independent voters.

Colorado (Leans Democrat): Another Udall is likely to help the Democrats on their road to 60. This time it’s Colorado Congressman Mark Udall (Tom's cousin) who has posted somewhat narrow but still solid leads over “Big Oil” Bob Schaffer throughout the campaign. A just released poll from PPP has Udall over 50% with a 10 point advantage. If Udall wins, Colorado, like Virginia, will have gone from solid red territory only a few years ago to having two Democratic Senators and a Democratic Governor.

North Carolina (Leans Democrat): While initially considered a long-shot by many observers, Kay Hagan has opened up a solid lead over nationally known and prominent Republican incumbent Elizabeth Dole. The DSCC has been hammering Dole with some of the best and toughest ads of the cycle and even top Republicans (and respected neutral observers like Chuck Todd) doubt she has much of a chance to come back.

Alaska (Leans Democrat): Despite some closing in polls, the presence of Sarah Palin on the ticket and the conventional wisdom that Stevens’s trial isn’t going as well as hoped for the prosecution, we still think Mark Begich has a slight edge in this contest. However, this race is unlikely to be a blowout (think Montana 2006). This is still a very fluid contest as Stevens' trial will likely be concluded by election day. He could be convicted or exonerated just as Alaska voters go to the polls. There are lots of variables in this one.

Oregon (Tossup): Jeff Merkley has been surging lately and Gordon Smith has been sinking. Smith still has a somewhat moderate profile and, up until fairly recently, Merkley’s campaign struggled to get traction. This is certainly one of the closest Senate races in the nation, but Merkley has the momentum and will certainly benefit from a strong Obama showing in the state. In the end, this contest could closely mirror the 2000 Washington State Senate race when Al Gore's coat-tails helped Maria Cantwell over the finish line to defeat then-incumbent Slate Gordon.

Minnesota (Tossup): I've long been extremely skeptical of Al Franken’s chances of unseating Norm Coleman, but I’ve slowly been proven wrong. Polling in this race has been very erratic with independent Dean Barkley’s candidacy making this race a nightmare to poll or predict. That said, however, the most recent numbers and the momentum are now on Franken’s side.  A recent brouhaha over Brooklyn-born Norm Coleman's suits (yes, his suits!) has not helped the incumbent Republican. Watch Coleman's campaign manager struggle in this painful press avail:

Kentucky (Tossup): Bruce Lunsford’s ability to make his campaign about the economy and McConnell's ties to Big Oil have made this race a surprising tossup in recent weeks. With a united Democratic Party behind him and plenty of money to compete down to the wire, Lunsford is waging a fierce battle against the current Republican incumbent and Senate Minority Leader. He might well pull off the upset of the 2008 election.

Mississippi (Tossup - barely): Interim Republican Senator Roger Wicker has failed to build a sustainable lead over former Democratic Gov. Ronnie Musgrove in a race that should have been an easy GOP win. In fact, Wicker has been unable to get over the critical 50% mark in any of the recent polls. With economic issues at the forefront, Obama surging in national polls and a very large African-American turnout expected in rural Mississippi, Musgrove has a fighting chance to unseat Wicker.

Georgia (Tossup - barely): Probably the most surprising recent development in any Senate race has been the sudden tightening of the contest between incumbent Republican Saxby Chambliss and Democratic challenger Jim Martin in the Peach State. It remains to be seen if Chambliss' considerable financial advantage (read: avalanche of TV spots) can help him regain the large lead he once had.  Although this race could still fairly be categorized as lean GOP, we are moving it to (barely) tossup not only because of the most recent polling but also on the strength of sky-high African-American turnout in early voting. This election may come down to Martin's ability to raise enough money to run an effective media campaign in a state where media buys are more expensive than in most of the rest of the southeast. ElectBlue has now added the Georgia race to our list of targeted US Senate contests.

Idaho (strong GOP): In spite of conservative third and fourth party candidates on the ballot, Republican Jim Risch seems to have attracted previously skeptical GOP voters in the race to fill the seat left vacant by retiring Republican Senator Larry 'wide-stance' Craig. Democratic candidate Larry LaRocco trails by double digits. 

Tennessee (strong GOP): Previously high hopes by Tennessee Democrats for Bob Tuke in his race against incumbent Republican Senator Lamar Alexander have evaporated. Underfunded and lacking a strong, united Democratic Party, the Tuke campaign has been stillborn. Look for a double digit Alexander win in the Volunteer State.

Although Senate races in Texas, South Carolina, Maine, Nebraska and Oklahoma have closed considerably in recent weeks, Republican incumbents in those states still look safe.

The DSCC’s path to 60 is still alive and well, just in mutated form. It's looking increasingly likely that Democrats could extend their majority to super-sixty by winning both Oregon and Minnesota.  Even more encouraging is the fact that Martin, Lunsford and Musgrove are all well positioned to surprise their Republican opponents in November.  These races are the new path to a filibuster-proof Senate majority for a President Barack Obama.

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