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ON THE TRAIL: SENATE 2006 RACE RATINGS Are Democrats Creeping Into Contention? By Chuck Todd, NationalJournal.com ? National Journal Group Inc. Wednesday, June 22, 2005
With just under 18 months to go until Election Day 2006, things continue to look up for Senate Democrats. The ingredients -- violence in Iraq, the uneven economy and partisan tension -- are there for the party to make a comeback after two cycles of GOP dominance.
The ingredients are there for Democrats to make a comeback after two cycles of GOP dominance.
Iraq, the number one issue for voters, is devouring the Republican Party. And with no new moment to look for that doesn't have the word "withdrawal" in it, it's hard to see how the situation improves before next November. We've caught Saddam Hussein, we've turned over power, we've held elections and the level of violence appears to be the same to the lay voter. We've been writing for months that at some point, Iraq was going to hurt the Republicans as much as it helped them in 2002. They lucked out in 2004, but 2006 is a whole new ballgame.
With at least six legitimate targets for the Democrats, the Senate is officially in play for the first time this cycle. We're not na?ve. Minnesota and Maryland won't be easy for the party to defend. Add North Dakota and Democrats have their work cut out for them. But on the plus side, Republicans haven't found A-list recruits in places like Nebraska, Washington and Florida. While those three seats won't be easy for the Democrats to defend, things could be much worse.
And with that, our latest rankings. Remember, these seats are ranked in order of vulnerability to a party switch, i.e., the top-ranked race is the seat we view as most likely to flip to the other party, while the bottom-ranked race is the seat we see as the least likely:
1. Pennsylvania (Santorum-R) 2. Rhode Island (Chafee-R) 3. Minnesota (Open-D) 4. Maryland (Open-D) 5. North Dakota (Conrad-D) 6. Montana (Burns-R) 7. Florida (Nelson-D) 8. Tennessee (Open-R) 9. New Jersey (Open?-D) 10. Nebraska (Nelson-D) 11. West Virginia (Byrd-D) 12. Arizona (Kyl-R) 13. Missouri (Talent-R) 14. Michigan (Stabenow-D) 15. Washington (Cantwell-D) 16. Vermont (Open-I) 17. Ohio (DeWine-R) 18. Indiana (Lugar-R) 19. New Mexico (Bingaman-D) 20. Maine (Snowe-R) 21. Virginia (Allen-R) 22. Nevada (Ensign-R) 23. New York (Clinton-D) 24. Wisconsin (Kohl-D) 25. Wyoming (Thomas-R) 26. California (Feinstein-D) 27. Mississippi (Lott-R) 28. Connecticut (Lieberman-D) 29. Hawaii (Akaka-D) 30. Delaware (Carper-D) 31. Texas (Hutchison-R) 32. Massachusetts (Kennedy-D) 33. Utah (Hatch-R)
1. PENNSYLVANIA Rick Santorum (R) Last ranking: 2 The only incumbent up in 2006 who consistently polls behind his announced opponent is Santorum. For that reason alone, we have to move him into the top spot. Bob Casey Jr. (D) may not be tough enough to win, but it's possible that Santorum is just carrying too much baggage to take this swing state. However, questions about Casey date back to 2002 when he not only lost a primary for governor, but suffered a double-digit defeat to Ed Rendell. Plus, he was dragged into this race. Will there be enough fire from him once this thing gets down and dirty?
2. RHODE ISLAND Lincoln Chafee (R) Last ranking: 1 Speaking of baggage, Chafee's certainly carrying a lot of it. And it's the weight of that baggage, not the worthiness of his Democratic opponents, that makes him so vulnerable. Democrats are down to their third and fourth choices in Sheldon Whitehouse and Matt Brown. And it's likely that the nastiness of the Democratic primary will be just the thing Chafee needs to survive. If you think all this reads as if it's a replay of the 2000 campaign, you're not alone. In that campaign, Democrats failed to get their first or second choices and were stuck with a nasty primary. The only difference this cycle is that Chafee might have to deal with a primary challenge of his own. If that happens, Democrats may find an opening.
3. MINNESOTA Open Seat ? Mark Dayton (D) is retiring Last ranking: 3 In nearly half of the in-play Senate races, Democrats must deal with a primary before they can unite against the GOP. In this race, that primary is not just a problem for the party but for one of the party's leading interest groups, EMILY's List. With both Patty Wetterling and Amy Klobuchar running, the pro-choice women's campaign group faces a dilemma. While the group has tried to encourage Wetterling to seek the state's open 6th District seat, she's not taking the bait.
Right now, it appears Klobuchar has the best shot at garnering that key endorsement. And, should Klobuchar secure the backing of the state party, Wetterling has promised not to run in the primary. That's not the case with self-funding Kelly Doran, who has no plans to participate in the party endorsement process and has every intention of contesting the actual primary.
All this Democratic action allows GOP Rep. Mark Kennedy to continue stockpiling cash. While there have been rumors he could still face a primary challenge, it appears this former Rep. Vin Weber boomlet started by the state's right-leaning blogs is nothing but hot air.
4. Maryland Open Seat ? Paul Sarbanes (D) is retiring Last ranking: 24 Maryland's strong Democratic nature is the only thing keeping this race as low as fourth. Likely GOP nominee Michael Steele is the real deal, and the field of Democrats is underwhelming. The combination could be enough for Steele to pull off the near-impossible. At a minimum, this is going to be a real contest.
The Democrats' two best candidates -- Martin O'Malley and Doug Duncan -- are running for governor , leaving the party with a field of good, but not great, alternatives. Democratic Rep. Ben Cardin has all the respect in the world from his state colleagues, but he hasn't had a competitive race in nearly 25 years. Is he up for this? Former NAACP President Kweisi Mfume has plenty of problems that could worsen when the second quarter Federal Election Commission report is released. Rep. Chris Van Hollen is the wild card. He's the only battle-tested Democrat in the field. Van Hollen may have the best chops for what will be a very competitive general against Steele.
5. NORTH DAKOTA Kent Conrad (D) Last ranking: 7 The longer GOP Gov. John Hoeven stalls, the more convinced we become that he's leaning toward a run. It appears he's trying to hold off "lame-duckdom" in his gubernatorial term for as long as possible by announcing a bid as late as possible. Hoeven won't need a lot of money to make this race competitive so he can afford to wait until the end of the year.
6. MONTANA Conrad Burns (R) Last ranking: 17 One of the more surprising primary problems facing the Democrats is here. Auditor John Morrison and state Senate President Jon Tester are both solid recruits, particularly since Burns is always a slow closer. It's unclear which Democrat would give Burns the tougher race. Apparently, Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D) is whispering good things about both candidates because we've heard from partisans in each camp who claim the governor is behind them.
7. FLORIDA Bill Nelson (D) Last ranking: 6 If Nelson were the political juggernaut some Florida Democrats want us to believe he is, we'd have this seat ranked lower. But he's not. Nelson has always benefited from weak GOP opponents and, should he win re-election, that reputation will only grow thanks to GOP Rep. Katherine Harris. Divisive political figures don't normally do well in Florida, which is why we're having trouble picturing Harris actually winning. Still, Nelson's not the best campaigner, and we fully expect the former secretary of state to keep this race very close. If the GOP has wind in its favor next fall, she could pull the upset.
8. TENNESSEE Open Seat ? Bill Frist (R) is retiring Last ranking: 5 We know we're supposed to believe Democratic Rep. Harold Ford Jr. doesn't have a chance, but we're not there yet. Fresh off of a disastrous announcement week thanks to his uncle's arrest, Ford decided to roll the dice by going up with the very first TV ad of the 2006 cycle. This is the type of move that should convince Republicans that Ford's not going to be the pushover they expected. Spending a lot and focusing on Iraq, not his biography, tells potential Democratic donors that Ford is serious.
Meanwhile, the GOP primary appears to be no closer to being sorted out. While Bob Corker's fund-raising abilities seemed impressive early on, this next quarter should tell us which one of the two conservative candidates, Van Hilleary or Ed Bryant, will be Corker's chief challenger.
9. NEW JERSEY Open Seat? ? Jon Corzine (D) is running for governor in 2005 Last ranking: 10 Until we know Corzine's fate, this race is still undeveloped. That said, state Sen. Tom Kean Jr. is getting a great head start as the potential GOP standard-bearer while the three likely Democratic replacements -- Reps. Bob Menendez, Frank Pallone and Rob Andrews -- remain locked in limbo. It's a bizarre situation for the three Democrats -- raising money for a potential primary while also making a case to the one voter who matters most, Corzine.
There was a lot of pushback from supporters of the other two major Democrats when we wrote earlier that Menendez seemed to be the perfect successor. But Corzine could shock all three contenders and name a caretaker, a prospect that may not thrill the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. For now, the incumbent's got to focus on the task at hand, a gubernatorial campaign that will be tougher than many Democrats realize.
10. NEBRASKA Ben Nelson (D) Last ranking: 4 This state represents a great recruiting disappointment for the GOP, and the White House is to blame. By naming Mike Johanns secretary of Agriculture, President Bush took away one of the two Republicans who could probably beat Nelson. The other Republican, Rep. Tom Osborne, is running for governor and apparently has no interest in taking on his old friend. The state is Republican enough that any nominee could give Nelson a close race, but the Democrat's been pretty smart in handling himself so far. It's hard to see how the Republicans will make the case to Nebraska voters to fire Nelson.
11. WEST VIRGINIA Robert Byrd (D) Last ranking: 13 This race only cracks our top 12 because of the chance GOP Rep. Shelley Moore Capito may run. Word is her father, former Gov. Arch Moore, has been pushing Capito to join the race, and according to our sources, his advice is among the most influential to her. That said, Byrd's been taking no chances and is raising money at a surprisingly fast clip. Clearly Capito can give the incumbent a race; it's not clear whether she can actually win.
12. ARIZONA Jon Kyl (R) Last ranking: 16 It's not easy being the junior senator in Arizona and that fact more than any other probably contributes to the notion that Kyl is more vulnerable than he should be. The presence of a self-funding Democratic opponent, state Democratic Party Chairman Jim Pederson, will mean this could be a long cycle for Kyl. And John McCain (R) is a double-edged sword. While we fully expect Pederson to make the case that Kyl's "no McCain," Kyl will have no more powerful endorser toward the end of the contest than the popular senator.
The previous 12 races are the one that we're fairly convinced will remain competitive the entire cycle. These next nine depend solely on recruiting by the out party. Call them our "tweeners":
13. MISSOURI Jim Talent (R) Last ranking: 14 Auditor Claire McCaskill might actually make this a race. We're not convinced enough to move it out of our "tweener" section just yet, but should she announce, it's yet another sign the Democrats will be making a much more serious run at the majority than any of us would have expected six months ago.
14. MICHIGAN Debbie Stabenow (D) Last ranking: 9 National Republicans are still searching for a candidate while in-state party officials begin rallying around the Rev. Keith Butler (R). At the end of the day, we expect Stabenow's chances to depend more on the political health of Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm than any GOP Senate challenger.
15. WASHINGTON Maria Cantwell (D) Last ranking: 12 With almost-Gov. Dino Rossi all but out, Republicans probably are not going to be able to give Cantwell the race they would have liked. There are still a few interesting names circulating but nothing certain just yet.
16. VERMONT Open Seat ? James Jeffords (I) is retiring Last ranking: 27 Without the Democrats nominating someone, it's hard to see how the GOP stops Independent Rep. Bernie Sanders from becoming a member of the world's most exclusive club. Republican Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie or businessman Dick Tarrant might make things somewhat interesting, but we don't see it just yet.
17. OHIO Mike DeWine (R) Last ranking: 22 There's something going on in this state, and it's not pretty if you're a Republican. The scandal plaguing Ohio has nothing to do with DeWine, yet we can see a scenario where elected officials running in 2006 with an "(R)" next to their names are in big trouble. Democrats are still searching for someone to challenge DeWine, which is why this seat is still low on our rankings. But if either former Attorney General Lee Fisher or former Rep. Dennis Eckart runs, expect this race to move up.
18. INDIANA Richard Lugar (R) Last ranking: 31 The only reason we have this race in the "tweener" section is because of the sudden interest by former Democratic Rep. Tim Roemer. While we can't fathom Roemer actually beating Lugar, he is a respectable enough figure to make things a bit uneasy for the very popular Republican. This is an "icing" type race for the DSCC if Roemer jumps in.
19. NEW MEXICO Jeff Bingaman (D) Last ranking: 8 It looks like the GOP won't find a credible challenger to Bingaman, who is potentially vulnerable. This race could easily end up in snoozerville before the year is out.
20. MAINE Olympia Snowe (R) Last ranking: 15 Speaking of still searching, Democrats are doing just that in this state. Did someone say "snoozerville"?
21. VIRGINIA George Allen (R) Last ranking: 18 Democratic Gov. Mark Warner seems unlikely to run. No doubt some of Allen's potential GOP presidential rivals wish Democrats would find somebody to keep Allen busy next cycle but that doesn't seem likely.
Our "snoozer" section continues to get a little bigger. We'd like to officially welcome Herb Kohl and Kay Bailey Hutchison to the list since our last rankings.
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