Word has it that Republican fortunes this year have improved, especially for the Senate. However, because they were so low there was little else they could do but go up. That said, it is time for me to give my first run down of how the Senate is shaping up for November 2006. (And given my record last time, the pressure is on).
First, let's list the Senators that will almost certainly be back in D.C. come January. That includes Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), Robert Byrd (D-WV), Tom Carper (D-DE), Hillary Clinton (D-NY), John Ensign, (R-NV), Orrin Hatch (R-UT), Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX), Ted Kennedy (D-MA), Herb Kohl (D-WI), Trent Lott (R-MS), Richard Lugar (R-IN), Ben Nelson (D-NE), Olympia Snowe (R-ME), and Craig Thomas (R-WY). Although he is not a Senator (yet), Representative Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who is running for the seat vacated by retiring Jim Jeffords (who?), should also be put in the shoo-in category. Sanders is an avowed socialist, making him a perfect fit for the land of Ben and Jerry's.
Here are the competitive races:
Arizona: Democrat Jim Pederson, a shopping center developer, has poured $8 million of his own money into the Arizona race. Still, he can't seem to do any better than get within ten points of Senator Jon Kyl. Adding to Pederson's woes is that his 24-year-old son, James, was just sentenced to two years probation on drug charges. Leans Republican.
Connecticut: Conventional wisdom has it that Joe Lieberman will easily beat Ned Lamont in November, despite his loss in the primary. But recent polls aren't bearing that out. Both Rasmussen and the American Research Group show Lieberman with only a two-point lead. Lieberman likes to tout all the Republicans who support him, such as Jack Kemp. But I wonder, is this really the year to have members of the GOP campaigning for you, especially in Connecticut? Tossup.
Florida: Barely worth mentioning now that one poll shows Bill Nelson with a lead of more than forty points. All hope seemed lost when Katherine Harris won the GOP primary last Tuesday. Leans (heavily) Democrat.
Hawaii: No chance of this race going to the GOP, but there is an interesting development in the Democratic Primary, where Rep. Ed Case is challenging three-term Senator Daniel Akaka. After refusing to debate Case, Akaka finally gave in and agreed to a debate on a local PBS affiliate. Most commentators agree that Case won the debate. Polls are mixed. An OmniTrak Group poll showed Akaka with a wide lead, 55-35%, while Rasmussen showed Case with a slight lead, 47-45%. Since the primary is on September 23rd, I should pick a winner. My guess is Akaka hangs on.
Maryland: For a state that is pretty blue, Republican Lt. Governor Michael Steele looks to be in good shape. A recent Rasmussen poll showed his likely Democratic opponents with only small leads, with Ben Cardin ahead 47-42% and Kweisi Mfume leading 46-44%. Steele seems likely to fare best against Mfume, and the good news is Mfume seems to be surging going into today's primary. Still, with this likely to be a good year for Democrats, Steele needs a lead in the polls to move this race into the Toss Up category. My prediction for today's primary is Mfume wins. Otherwise, this race Leans Democrat.
Michigan: Senator Debbie Stabenow appears to be solidifying her position as frontrunner, with a recent Rasmussen poll showing her up 51-43% over her GOP challenger Mike Bouchard. Leans Democrat.
Minnesota: With Democratic Senator Mark Dayton declining to seek another term, and with Republican Rep. Mark Kennedy agreeing to run, this seemed like a great opportunity for a GOP pickup. But Kennedy has never led Democrat County Attorney Amy Klobuchar in any polls, and the general direction of the polls suggests that Klobuchar has widened her lead. If this trend continues, analysts will spend months wondering what went wrong for Kennedy. Leans Democrat.
Missouri: Until recently, former State Auditor and Democratic candidate for Governor Claire McCaskill either led or was very close to incumbent Senator Jim Talent in most polls. Two recent polls show Talent leading and hitting the 50% mark. Talent appears to be gaining ground. Worse for McCaskill, Bill Clinton, with his record of supporting a lot of losing candidates, paid a visit last Saturday. This race is very close to being put in the Leans Republican category. But not yet. Tossup.
Montana: Looks like scandal-plagued D.C. will claim at least one victim in GOP Senator Conrad Burns. State Senator Jon Tester has had small leads in most of the recent polls. He also seems far more likable than the crusty Burns. Don't count Burns out just yet, though. In 2000, Burns was in a tight race most of the way with rancher Brian Schweitzer and ultimately prevailed. Leans Democrat.
New Jersey: One would think that being an incumbent Senator would convey electoral advantages. One could say the same thing about being the son of a former popular governor. Yet neither Democratic Senator Bob Menendez nor his GOP challenger Tom Kean, Jr. can seem to build a consistent lead. Although the latest polls show Kean with a 4-to-5 point lead, the state is heavily blue and it is likely to be a good Democrat year. Leans Democrat.
Ohio: After years of lousy governance the Ohio GOP appears headed for an implosion, taking Senator Mike DeWine with it. Congressman Sherrod Brown has led in the last seven polls. Leans Democrat.
Pennsylvania: This is quickly becoming the most difficult race to handicap. Although Democratic State Treasurer Bob Casey has led in all the polls since February, in recent weeks Senator Rick Santorum has narrowed his lead to single digits. That combined with a devastating performance in his debate with Casey on Meet The Press, and everything seemed to be going Santorum's way. So what to make of the new USAToday/Gallup poll showing Casey with an 18 point lead? I'm inclined to dismiss it as a fluke, but it is still enough for me to put this in the Leans Democrat column for now.
Rhode Island: Senator Lincoln Chafee and former Democrat Attorney General Sheldon Whitehouse are polling very close. But Chafee first has to fend off former Cranston Mayor Steve Laffey, who is challenging Chafee in the GOP primary. Chafee may be the first incumbent Senator to go down to a Club for Growth-backed primary challenger, as a recent Rhode Island College poll shows Laffey leading 51-37%! Given that Chafee has done nothing to make the GOP base in Rhode Island happy (his flip-flop on U.N. Ambassador John Bolton being the latest such incident), I'm betting that Laffey wins the primary today. For the general election, this state Leans Democrat.
Tennessee: Most of the polls that have shown Democratic Rep. Harold Ford with a lead come from Democratic firms. Otherwise, former Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker appears to be in command. Leans Republican.
Virginia: It appears that the "Macaca" incident has cost Senator George Allen some support. Recent polls show the race tightening, with Democrat challenger Jim Webb taking a tiny lead in a Zogby poll. Yet the Macaca incident is the only news about the Senate race that most Virginians have heard up to now, so, it's not too surprising that Allen has slipped. Most Virginians have not yet gotten to know Webb, and Allen still has big dollars in the bank. Chances are that Allen's numbers will rebound, but until they do I will tentatively put this down as a Tossup.
Washington: Senator Maria Cantwell has led in every poll taken thus far. GOP candidate Mike McGavick recently revealed a 1993 DUI arrest, and his recollection was apparently at odds with the arrest report. He has also returned campaign contributions from executives of VECO Corporation, an oil company now under investigation by the FBI. Couldn't seem to get much better for Cantwell. Leans Democrat
We'll see where we are in a few weeks. Until then the GOP has a long way to go to prevent the loss of seats in the Senate.
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