First Senate rankings: Republicans once again stuck in defense

Over the past two cycles, Republicans lost 13 Senate seats (14 if Al Franken emerges victorious in Minnesota). And the GOP’s Senate nightmare is set to continue for the third cycle in a row: 2004 was a great year for Senate Republicans, so they have many more vulnerable seats to defend in 2010.

No matter what the political environment will be in two years, Republicans are looking to spend yet another cycle playing defense and Democrats are more likely than not to gain the one or two seats they will need to finally achieve a filibuster-proof majority.

The ramifications of Barack Obama’s victory have given the GOP new life in Delaware, Colorado, Illinois and New York, but that cannot obscure this simple statistic: Of the cycle’s 10 most vulnerable Senate seats, only two are currently in Democratic hands. Those are tough numbers for Republicans to face given how few seats they have already been left with.

That said, a number of Dem-held seats could become competitive under the right circumstances, and a tremendous recruiting job on the part of the NRSC would allow Republicans play offense. They have no room for error: They will need Arnold Schwarzenegger in California, John Hoeven in North Dakota, Linda Lingle in Hawaii, Mike Castle in Delaware, Mark Kirk in Illinois. Such a dream team of Republican candidates would shuffle up the deck and put Democrats in a difficult position.

Even with such a dream team, however, it is unimaginable that the GOP could conquer a Senate majority. The GOP’s objective will be to position itself well for 2012, a natural time for offense and a cycle in which Democrats will have a disproportionate number of seats to defend due to their successes in 2000 and 2006.

Needless to say, 22 months remain before the 2010 Election, and a lot will happen recruitment and retirement-wise in the coming months. In fact, I can identify only three seats (ID, UT and NY [Schumer]) with no conceivable scenario under which they would be competitive. Even VT and CT could become interesting if popular Republican Governors jump in! Underlying these rankings, then, are dozens of assumptions: It is for instance very unlikely that Govs. Douglas and Rell will challenge Sens. Leahy and Dodd and it is more plausible that Gov. Sebelius runs. We should expect many surprises to dramatically shuffle these rankings throughout 2009.


For now, we can proceed with the following breakdown, with some uncertainty due to the unresolved Coleman-Franken race:

  • Safe Democratic: 47-48
  • Safe/Likely Democratic: 55-56
  • Safe/Likely/Lean Democratic: 58-59
  • Toss-ups: 3
  • Safe/Likely/Lean Republican: 38-39
  • Safe/Likely Republican: 33-34
  • Safe Republican: 31-32

Outlook: A 1-5 seat gain for Democrats.

Toss-ups (3 R, 0 D)

1. Kentucky (Jim Bunning)

A former baseball star, Bunning has never fully grown into his politician costume - so much that Republicans would most certainly be helped if Bunning decided to retire. His failure to raise much money combined with his age (he will be 79 by the next Election Day) has sparked speculation that he will do so - and the NRSC is certainly hoping to get such good news.

Bunning won his first two terms in extremely tough races, by 0.5% in 1998 and 1.4% in 2004. No one was paying attention to that latter race until the closing weeks of the campaign. But Bunning’s numbers collapsed in the closing stretch due to a number of bizarre incidents and senior moments. There is no reason for Bunning not to repeat such faux pas this year, and his lack of stature makes him an appealing target - even a state that has been trending Republican.

A number of Democrats are likely to jump in the race whether or not Bunning runs for re-election (in fact, some declined to run against McConnell in 2008 hoping to have a clearer shot at Bunning). Lieutenant Governor Daniel Mongiardo (Bunning’s 2004 opponent) has acknowledged that he is looking at the race; other potential candidates include Rep. Chandler, who many consider as the strongest Democrat and state Auditor Crit Luallen.

2. Pennsylvania (Arlen Specter)

Arlen Specter is one of the Senate’s most powerful Republican members, but he is also highly endangered - if he even chooses to run for re-election. Unfortunately for Republicans, an open seat would improve nothing: Unlike in Kentucky, the seat’s vulnerability is not related to the incumbent’s unpopularity and Specter’s retirement would only increase Democratic prospects.

If Specter chooses to seek another term, he could face as competitive a primary as a general election. Former Rep. Pat Toomey, who Specter defeated by less than 2% in a nasty primary in 2004, is considering another run; Toomey now heads the conservative Club for Growth and considers Specter a “Republican in Name Only.” Indeed, the incumbent has a moderate profile and his vote over the next two years could make him even more vulnerable to a challenge from the right (Democrats have high hopes for Specter to join them on card-checks, for instance). In addition, a significant number of moderate Republicans have left the party since 2004 and will be unable to vote for Specter in the state’s closed primary.

Democrats would love nothing more than to face Toomey in the general election, as they are convinced that he is too conservative to be elected statewide. But they are also confident about challenging Specter, and the Democratic primaries could be as entertaining as the GOP’s. Hardball host Chris Matthews is considering a run and should announce his intentions in the coming weeks; at least two House members, Reps. Allison Schwarz and Patrick Murphy, could also jump in. All would make strong challengers, and a number of polls have already found Specter and Matthews in a toss-up.

3. Florida (Open)

Unpopular Senator Mel Martinez knew he was the Democrats’ number 1 target in the next cycle and chose not to even try holding on to his seat. His mid-November retirement announcement throws a lifeline to Republicans who have a far stronger bench in the state than Democrats.

The GOP’s dream candidate is former Governor Jeb Bush. Jeb left the office in 2006 with high approval ratings and national ambitions, but he will have to deal with his unpopular last name. Republicans insist that Jeb has never been handicapped by his brother’s troubles, but this is somewhat disingenuous: Jeb has not faced voters since 2002, a year in which Dubya was still highly popular. It is difficult to know how formidable Jeb would be now that the Bush name has become so toxic.

Meanwhile, Democrats hope to recruit Alex Sink, the state CFO. Sink announced she would not run but Martinez’s unexpected retirement caused her to reconsider her decision; Sink has already met with DSCC officials in Washington. The consensus appears to be that Sink is unlikely to run if the race appears too difficult, so a Jeb candidacy could be enough to scare her away.

Both parties have many other potential candidates, but none that has enough stature to clear the primary field. In other words, both parties could feature divisive battles if Bush and Sink do not run, and this could be an important factor in the general election: Florida holds September primaries, leaving a bruised nominee very little time to turn around and contest the general election.

Lean Retention (6 R, 3 D)

4. Missouri (Kit Bond)

Kit Bond has won four senatorial elections in Missouri, but the highest share he ever received was 56% in 2004. That statistic alone sums up Bond’s vulnerability, and the incumbent could face a top-tier challenger in 2010 if the DSCC manages to recruit Secretary of State Robin Carnahan - the latest prodigy of Missouri’s illustrious political dynasty; a recent Research 2000 poll found Bond leading Carnahan by 4%. Other potential candidates include Robin’s brother Russ and
state Auditor Susan Montee.

That said, Bond can count on the once-bellwether state’s increasingly reliable Republican nature. That John McCain prevailed in Missouri when he lost in all other competitive states (including Indiana) suggests that the state GOP still knows how to win elections.

5. Colorado (Unknown)

Senator Ken Salazar’s appointment to the Interior Department complicates Democratic efforts to hold on to the seat, but Salazar was already up for re-election in 2010 and he himself looked vulnerable. Going forward, it is difficult to handicap the race before we know who Democratic Governor Bill Ritter will appoint as Salazar’s successor. Interestingly, the different contenders are split along more substantive lines than in Illinois and New York, by which I mean that differences in policy preferences and ideology are part of the Colorado conversation.

Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper and Rep. John Salazar are conservative Democrats, and the former has antagonized unions; Rep. Ed Permlutter is closer to labor; former Senate candidate Ted Strickland is a top executive as a health insurance company; and state House Speaker Romanoff and Rep. Diana DeGette have a more liberal profile. Mark Udall demonstrated that CO can elect progressive Senator, but Ritter himself is conservative. That makes it difficult to imagine him choosing someone like DeGette and it might be enough to give the advantage to Hickenlooper.

Whichever Democrat Ritter chooses will have one major advantage in 2010: The GOP’s thin bench. The Republicans’ dream candidate is former Governor Bill Owen, yet Owens - who left office in 2006 - might no longer be formidable: A recent poll showed him handily defeated by Hickenlooper and Salazar. Not to mention that Owens passed on an open seat in 2008, so why would he now challenge an incumbent? Other potential Republican candidates include former Rep. McInnis, former football star John Elway and Rep. Tom Tancredo. (The latter faces clear electability issues in the general election, but Republicans are worried he would be hard to beat in the primary.)

6. New Hampshire (Judd Gregg)

Over the past three cycles, no state has shifted blue as dramatically as New Hampshire. In 2004, Democrats unexpectedly picked-up the governorship. In 2006, they shocked the political world by unseating the state’s two Republican House members and seizing both chambers of the state legislature. In 2008, Jeanne Shaheen toppled Senator Sununu, leaving Judd Gregg as the Democrats’ only target in what used to be a Republican stronghold.

A number of Democrats are looking at this race - perhaps too many. The DSCC’s dream candidate is popular Governor Lynch who just won re-election with 70% of the vote; however, Lynch has to seek re-election again in 2010 so he would have to give up the governor’s mansion to challenge Gregg. Two other candidates who are eying the race Rep. Paul Hodes and Rep. Carol Shea-Porter. Hodes is often described as the strongest competitor, but Shea-Porter is regularly underestimated. She could prove a formidable candidate if she can repeat statewide her district-level exploits.

7. North Carolina (Richard Burr)

This is North Carolina’s cursed Senate seat: It has switched parties in the past five elections, and Democrats are hoping to prolong the streak by defeating freshman Senator Richard Burr. Democrats have a very deep bench in North Carolina. Most often mentioned are Attorney General Roy Cooper, former Attorney General Richard Moore, outgoing Governor Mike Easley, Rep. Heath Shuler. And the list goes on: Any number of contenders jumping in would make this a top-tier race. In fact, a recent PPP poll found Cooper leading Burr, a worrisome early sign of vulnerability for the incumbent.

Democratic hopes were surely boosted by the results of the 2008 election: Barack Obama, Beverly Perdue and Kay Hagan’s victories suggest that Democrats have identified a roadmap for statewide victory. And that will certainly help the DSCC recruit a top-tier challenger.

8. Nevada (Harry Reid)

It is hard to believe how much Harry Reid’s fortunes have improved since early November. Once considered one of the cycles most endangered incumbents, Reid enjoyed two strokes of luck when his top two potential challengers were damaged. First, Lieutenant Governor Brian Krolicki was indicted on charges of misappropriation and falsification of accounts; this all but eliminates him from the Senate race. Second, Rep. Jon Porter lost his House seat, 48% to 42%; he is still considering a Senate run, but he will have a harder time mounting a solid and well-financed campaign.

That said, Reid remains highly vulnerable and for a very simple reason: He is deeply unpopular. A recent Research 2000 poll showed him with an approval rating of 38%; that’s deadly territory. The GOP might not have enough of a bench to guarantee a top-tier challenger, but Reid could be defeated by any credible Republicans. That same Research 2000 poll showed Reid leading Porter 46% to 40%; needless to say, it is not a good sign for the Senate Majority Leader to only manage such a narrow lead against someone who lost with barely 42% of the vote in his own re-election race.

9. Louisiana (David Vitter)

This is perhaps the most perplexing race of the cycle, and it is no surprise that it is occurring in the state that hosted the most perplexing contest of the past cycle (Landrieu-Kennedy). Once considered a rising Republican star, David Vitter would have had nothing to worry about if he had not gotten mixed up in the D.C Madam’s prostitution ring; last year, Vitter was forced to issue an apology and acknowledge a “very serious sin.”

In any other state, that might be enough to end a politician’s career. But once proudly Democratic Louisiana has given itself almost entirely to the Republican Party - so much so that there is only one Democrat left in the House delegation and Senator Mary Landrieu only prevailed by 5% in 2008 despite Democratic assurances that she was in no real danger.

Is there a Democrat who could rise to take advantage of Vitter’s scandal? Lieutenant Governor Mitch Landrieu is a Democrat - but he is also Mary’s brother, and it is doubtful any state would elect two siblings as its Senators. The DSCC’s recruiters will surely start with Secretary of State Jay Dardenne and Rep. Charlie Melancon. But they will have to first answer this simple question: Can Democrats still win a truly contested election in post-Katrina Louisiana?

10. Ohio (George Voinovich)

The first question mark is whether Senator George Voinovich (a two-term Senator who served two gubernatorial terms in the 1990s) runs for re-election. Retirement rumors have been swirling, and an early exit would dramatically alter the field of play. Ohio is one of the country’s closest swing states, so we would surely be treated to a top-notch Senate battle.

For now, however, Voinovich has been preparing for another run: he already has more than $2.5 million in the bank! This does not mean that Democrats will be scared away. They have made big gains in the state over the past two cycles, conquering most of the statewide offices, defeating a Republican Senator in 2006 and picking-up four House seats. A number of Democrats could make this race a top-tier contest, starting with Lieutenant Governor Lee Fisher and Rep. Tim Ryan.

11. Kansas (Open)

The situation created by Sam Brownback’s retirement is strikingly simple. Either term-limited Democratic Governor Sebelius jumps in and this race skyrockets to the top of the rankings; or she stays away and Democrats have no hope of winning their first Kansas Senate race in since 1936.

For now, the DSCC has reason to hope: Sebelius looked certain to join Obama’s Administration and a Cabinet appointment would have barred her from running. But her decision to abruptly withdraw her name from consideration increased the speculation that she is looking to jump in the Senate race.

Republicans, meanwhile, are preparing for a heated primary between Reps. Jerry Moran and Todd Tiahrt. Moran has already announced his candidacy while Tiahrt is only mulling a run. Both have a conservative profile, but their opposition could ignite the Kansas GOP’s famously nasty ideological split with Tiahrt in the role of the movement conservative. This would help Sebelius’s general election prospects.

12. Illinois (Unknown)

The Blagojevich scandal has injected complete chaos in this race. The only thing we know for sure is that there will be an election in November 2010. What we do not know is whether there will be an election before then.

Over the past week, Democrats have been backing away from calling a special election to fill Barack Obama’s seat, meaning that the most likely scenario is for the seat to remain vacant until Democrats manage to remove Blagojevich from office. It would then be up to currently-Lieutenant Governor Pat Quinn to appoint a Senator - either a caretaker or a Democrat willing to run for re-election in 2010. It is impossible to handicap the race before knowing who Quinn might appoint.

But all bets are off if there is enough pressure for Democrats to be forced to call a special election in the spring of 2009, stripping the Governor of his appointment powers. A special election would be a wonderful opportunity for Republicans to pick-up a Senate seat: Democrats face a divisive primary, their nominee would be plagued by the taint of the Blagojevich scandal, and GOP Reps. Kirk and Roskam could jump in the race without having to fear losing their House seats.

Likely retention (8 D, 2 R)

13. California (Barbara Boxer)

California’s 2010 gubernatorial election is an open race since Arnold Schwarzenegger is term-limited. This is both good news and bad news for Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer. On the one hand, Schwarzenegger is free to challenge Boxer. On the other hand, ambitious California Republicans are far more likely to try their luck in the gubernatorial race - meaning that Arnold could be all Boxer has to worry about. Whether this race is competitive, then, is likely to depend on the Governator’s decision.

That said, the first obstacle to an Arnold candidacy could be the GOP primary, as a conservative Republican could try and derail him. Arnold has angered conservative during his gubernatorial tenure, and California’s Republican primaries have tended to be a minefield for moderates. Another factor could be Diane Feinstein’s possible gubernatorial candidacy. This could lead Arnold to wait for Feinstein’s Senate seat to open up rather than challenge Boxer.

14. Delaware (Open)

This race is a special election that is being held because of Joe Biden’s resignation. The state’s Governor appointed a caretaker (longtime Biden aide Edward Kaufman) in an obvious effort to save the seat for state Attorney General Beau Biden, who is currently serving in Iraq. This transparently nepotistic maneuver has angered the entourage of outgoing Lieutenant Governor Carney, who was hoping to get the appointment. Kaufman has already confirmed that he will not seek re-election in 2010, so Delaware Democrats could be treated to a contentious primary battle between Carney and Beau.

The GOP’s only shot at the seat is to recruit Rep. Mike Castle, a popular Republican who has represented the state’s at-large seat since 1992. If Castle passes on the race (he is old and with health issues), the Democratic primary will likely decide the final winner; if Castle jumps in, we could have a highly competitive and somewhat unpredictable race on our hands.

15. Hawaii (Daniel Inouye)

The most relevant question in this race is not whether Democratic Senator Daniel Inouye will run for re-election but whether Republican Governor Linda Lingle will attempt to move to Washington. Lingle is term-limited and cannot stay in the Governor’s mansion past 2010, so she has nothing to lose by attempting a senatorial run. The GOP has no bench in Hawaii and Lingle’s victory in 2002 was a breakthrough for state Republicans. Lingle is popular enough that she would be a very credible Senate candidate.

That said, Hawaii remains a staunchly Democratic state, and for a Republican to win a federal state is a difficult proposition. Lingle would face a particularly uphill climb if she faces Inouye, who has been serving in Congress since Hawaii achieved statehood in the 1950s. Inouye would be running for his ninth term in 2010, at age 86, and he recently announced that he would run again.

The GOP’s best case scenario is for Inouye to retire and Lingle to jump in the race - and even then Hawaii’s overwhelming blueness would make the race no better than a toss-up for the GOP. If Lingle faces Inouye, she would have a shot at an upset but Inouye would start as the very clear favorite. And if Lingle does not run, the seat will quickly fall down the rankings.

16. New York (Unknown)

This race is a special election to fill the reminder of Hillary’s Clinton term; the winner will face re-election again in 2012. It is difficult to handicap the race until Governor Paterson announces his pick sometime after Hillary Clinton is confirmed as Secretary of State in January - though I have repeatedly cautioned not to regard Caroline Kennedy as the most electable option. Her campaigning skills are so untested and her public record is so small that she could prove an electoral disaster just as easily as a political goldmine. There is also the possibility that Paterson appoint a caretaker who would not run for re-election in 2010.

Any Democratic candidate would be helped by the simple fact that New York’s Republican Party is moribund, and there are few Republicans who can hope to be competitive statewide. One is Rudy Giuliani, but after his catastrophic presidential campaign the former New York City Mayor no longer looks formidable; Giuliani is also said to be more interested in a gubernatorial run.

Another Republican who is openly considering the Senate race is Rep. Peter King, one of the state’s three remaining Republican House members. King would undoubtedly be a credible enough candidate to exploit any Democratic mistakes, particularly if Paterson appoints a political novice; but this is New York, and King is unlikely to get very far without Democratic help.

17. Iowa (Chuck Grassley)

Tom Vilsack’s nomination as Secretary of Agriculture clarified the situation in this race by removing from consideration the only Democrat who would have given five-term Senator Chuck Grassley a run for his money. If Grassley runs again, he is unlikely to face a difficult race; but Grassley is on everyone’s retirement watch - and an open seat in this increasingly blue state would become one of the Democrats’ top takeover opportunity.

18. North Dakota (Byron Dorgan)

Like Kansas and Hawaii, the competitiveness of this race is contingent on the candidacy of one man and one man only: Governor John Hoeven. If Hoeven declines to run, popular Democratic incumbent Byron Dorgan will cruise towards re-election. If Hoeven jumps in the race, this will become a battle of political titans.

Despite the state’s Republican lean, Dorgan is a popular incumbent with the advantage of seniority (not to mention that he is the chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on energy and water issues). And North Dakota is not as reliably red as it once was: John McCain did end up winning the state, but Obama mounted a very solid effort. Will that be enough to scare Hoeven away?

19. Washington (Patty Murray)

In 2004, Republicans made a lot of noise about challenging Patty Murray and they extensively touted their candidate, Rep. Nethercutt. But in what was otherwise a good year for Senate Republicans, the often-underestimated Murray easily won re-election. Since then, Washington has grown even more reliably Democratic, giving Barack Obama a crushing margin over John McCain and handing Governor Gregoire an easier-than-expected victory in 2008. The GOP’s bench in the state is stretched thin, and there is little reason for the party’s few credible potential candidates - Rep. Reichert, for instance - to try their luck.

20. Wisconsin (Russ Feingold)

Senator Russ Feingold is a perennial Republican target, though he won a relatively easy re-election race in 2004. To make this race competitive, the GOP would need to find a very strong recruit and hope that the national environment pushes them. After all, Feingold is a longtime Democratic incumbent sitting in a blue state - and one in which Barack Obama crushed John McCain. Unfortunately for Republicans, they have a weak bench in Wisconsin. Potential candidates include state Attorney General John Van Hollen and Rep. Paul Ryan, a rising Republican star who is only 38 and might not want to endanger his career in such a difficult race.

21. Arizona (John McCain)

There is no question that Senator John McCain is vulnerable. He failed to get 50% in last spring’s Super Tuesday Republican primary and he ended up winning the state by single-digits against Barack Obama after being forced to schedule an emergency last-minute campaign stop. That said, McCain looks relatively secure. For one, McCain remains a force in Arizona politics and he now has two years to reestablish his popularity with independents.

Second, Governor Janet Napolitano’s nomination as Barack Obama’s Homeland Security Secretary removed McCain’s top potential challenger - and one that was already handily defeating him in early polls. Third, most ambitious Democrats are likely to jump in the gubernatorial race rather than launch an unlikely challenge to McCain. A retirement would naturally dramatically alter the playing field, but for now McCain has been positioning himself to run for re-election.

22. Arkansas (Blanche Lincoln)

In 2008, Arkansas Republicans did not even field a candidate against Democratic Senator Mark Pryor. Can they do better against Blanche Lincoln, who will run for a third term in 2010? The state has been clearly drifting in the GOP column, and Republicans desperately want to contest this seat. That said, Arkansas remains a reliably Democratic state at the local level, and the Republican bench is very weak. That explains why the race is ranked so low.

Some Republican names have been circulating - most notably that of interim prosecutor Tom Griffin, who was involved in the US Attorney’s scandal two years ago. (The GOP’s dream candidate is former Governor Mike Huckabee, but he is too wrapped up in preparations for a 2012 presidential run to risk it all in a difficult Senate race.)


23. Georgia (Johnny Isakson)

Saxby Chambliss’s re-election race suggested that Democrats have a path to unseating Republican incumbents in the Peach State (Martin received 46% of the first round vote) but it also demonstrated how red a state Georgia remains (Chambliss crushed Martin by 15% in the runoff). In 2010, Democrats might not suffer from as abysmal a turnout of their share as they did on December 2nd, but the share of the African-American vote is unlikely to be as high as it was on November 4th - and Democrats still have no clear roadmap to winning statewide races in Georgia.

They have no obvious candidate either. A recent PPP poll found Isakson under 50% against two potential challengers, Rep. Jim Marshall and Attorney General Thurbert Baker. There is little pointing to either considering a run.

24. South Carolina (Jim DeMint)

A Senator’s first re-election campaign is always the trickiest one, which is the only reason to think Democrats have any hope of unseating Jim DeMint. South Carolina is a heavily Republican state in federal races and it has gone increasingly red at the state-level as well, meaning that Democrats have a thin bench and no obvious candidate.

25. Alaska (Lisa Murkowski)

In 2008, Alaska proved that it was one of the most reliably Republican states of the country. Embattled GOP Rep. Don Young scored one of the biggest upsets of the cycle by defeating top Democratic challenger Ethan Berkowitz, and convicted felon Ted Stevens came within a few points of winning re-election. Sure, Young and Stevens are both towering titans of Alaskan politics - a title Lisa Murkowski cannot claim. But it would take nothing short of a Murkowski indictment for Democrats to have a shot - and even then, they have a rather thin bench.

On the other hand, the Republican primary could be one of the most entertaining races of the cycle if Sarah Palin decides to challenge Murkowski. (The GOP’s former vice-presidential nominee defeated Lisa’s father Frank in the 2006 gubernatorial primary, and one of the reasons Frank Murkowski was so unpopular then was that he appointed his daughter Lisa to replace him in the Senate.)

26. Maryland (Mikulski)

If longtime Senator Barbara Mikulski runs for re-election, she will be unlikely to face a serious Republican opponent: She is an entrenched incumbent in a solidly Democratic state. But Mikulski is rumored to be eying retirement. An open seat could create a competitive race, though Democrats would start with the upper-hand.

27. Oregon (Ron Wyden)

Democratic Senator Ron Wyden is finishing his second full term, and it’s hard to see him in much danger in 2010. First, Wyden is a popular incumbent - so popular, in fact, that Republican Senator Gordon Smith touted his relationship with Wyden in his 2008 campaign ads. Second, Oregon reconnected with its reliably Democratic roots this year, giving Barack Obama a huge victory and making it that much more difficult to envision a GOP comeback.

It’s unlikely Wyden will attract top opposition; Gordon Smith might be the only credible Republican candidate, but how could he defeat an incumbent he himself praised when he couldn’t win his own re-election race?

28. Alabama (Richard Shelby)

First elected as a Democrat in 1986, Senator Shelby switched parties in 1994. Since then, the South has become the GOP’s only safe refuge and Democrats have had a tough time in Alabama. That said, they performed exceptionally well in 2008, picking-up AL-02 and holding on to conservative AL-05. Ambitious state Democrats - like Agriculture Commissioner Ron Sparks, Rep. Arthur Davis and Rep. Bobby Bright - are more likely to jump in the gubernatorial race than to challenge Shelby.

29. South Dakota (John Thune)

Democrats would love to defeat freshman Senator John Thune, but it’s difficult to see who could defeat Tom Dashle’s 2004 slayer. Often mentioned as a future presidential or vice-presidential candidate, Thune represents a staunchly Republican state and he already had $3,730,617 in the bank at the end of the third quarter of 2008. Furthermore, he no longer has to worry about Dashle seeking a rematch since the former Senate Majority Leader is now Obama’s HHS Secretary. One potential Democratic candidate is Rep. Stephanie Herseth, who is said to be eying a higher position. But Herseth would be much better served running for Governor or waiting for Tim Johnson’s retirement from the state’s other Senate seat.

30. Indiana (Evan Bayh)

Democratic Senator Evan Bayh is a popular - and very entrenched - incumbent who is unlikely to draw serious Republican opposition. He served two terms as Governor and then won two senatorial elections - in 1998 and in 2004. And if this was not enough to keep potential challengers at bay, he enters 2009 with a huge war chest: As of September 30th, Bayh had $11 million of cash on hand.

Furthermore, Indiana is no longer the staunchly conservative state of Bayh’s first election: Barack Obama stunningly prevailed in the state, a shift of 21% since the 2004 election. The hundreds of thousands of new registrants that have now been brought into the mix will help all Indiana Democrats in the years ahead.

31. Oklahoma (Tom Coburn)

In any other state, as conservative and controversial a Senator as Tom Coburn would be in grave danger. But Oklahoma became the country’s reddest state in 2008: John McCain won every single county and Senator Inhofe demolished promising Democratic state Senator Andrew Rice. The only threat to Coburn’s reelection is Democratic Governor Brad Henry, who will be term-limited out his job in 2010. Unfortunately for the DSCC, Henry has rather emphatically declared that he is unlikely to run for Senate, citing the stress it would put on his family life.

32. Connecticut (Chris Dodd)

Democratic Senator Chris Dodd’s approval ratings are not particularly high (48% in a recent Quinnipiac poll) and his position on the Senate’s Banking Committee could give Republicans an opening to link him to the financial mess. That said, Connecticut is a heavily Democratic state, Dodd is a five-term incumbent and Republicans have no obvious candidate other than Governor Jodi Rell. This is a similar situation as in Vermont: Rell is up for re-election in 2010, so she would have to give up her relatively safe job for a very difficult race.

33. Vermont (Pat Leahy)

Now that Democrats are durably in the majority, Democratic Senator Pat Leahy gets to chair the Senate’s Judiciary Committee - and for that reason alone he is likely to run for re-election in 2010. The only Republican who could potentially cause him some headaches is Governor Jim Douglas. But Douglas has to run for re-election in 2010, so why would he abandon his relatively safe job for a quixotic effort to topple Leahy?

34. New York (Chuck Schumer)

The Empire State’s Republican Party is moribund, Chuck Schumer is a popular Democratic incumbent with remarkable fundraising skills and, to the extent that any credible Republicans with statewide ambitions can be found, they are far more likely to jump in the two other New York races that will be on the ballot in 2010: the gubernatorial race and the special election for Hillary Clinton’s Senate seat.

35. Idaho (Mike Crapo)

In 2004, Senator Mike Crapo won re-election with more than 99% of the vote as he was running opposed. Finding a candidate to run would already represent progress for Democrats.

36. Utah (Bob Bennett)

Three-term Senator Bob Bennett will remain Utah’s Senator for as long as he wants to be.

17 Responses to “First Senate rankings: Republicans once again stuck in defense”

  1. 1 Ogre Mage

    I am a Washington state resident and I would say Patty Murray is very close to being safe. She is a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee and chairs the subcommittee funding the Dept. of Transportation. This has allowed her to direct hundreds of millions of federal dollars to Washington state, especially for transportation — which is one of the state’s biggest problems. Given her ever increasing clout on Appropriations, her election to the senate leadership and the political trends in Washington state, she has gone from being in a pretty strong position in 2004 to extremely strong now.

    None of the Republican Congressmen are viable challengers to Murray. Hastings and McMorris are strongly conservative politicians whose appeal is limited to the GOP base (in Eastern Washington). Reichert’s political abilities are not as impressive as they might appear from a distance — he is generally regarded as the least powerful member of our Congressional Delegation. Dems would also have an excellent chance to pick up that Congressional seat if he vacates to run for Senate.

    The one individual who would force Murray to work hard is WA Attorney General Rob McKenna, who was reelected in 2008 with 59%. But McKenna is too smart to blow his career on a likely loss to Patty. There are strong rumors he is more much interested in running for governor in 2012.

  2. 2 Rob

    If the NRSC manages to get Arnold, Hoeven, Lingle, Castle, Kirk, it would REALLY put Democrats in a defensive position. It’s the midterm election of a Dem president, and Democrats could end up losing seats then.

  3. 3 Howard Hirsch

    Good grief, you could at least get your names right!!

    It’s KEN Salazar in Colorado, MARK Kirk in Illinois, JON Porter in Nevada, and EDWARD “TED” Kaufman in Delaware, and Chuck Grassley is in his FIFTH term, having been elected in 1980.

  4. 4 Panos

    Excellent job as always Taniel.
    Have a nice Christmas.

  5. 5 Taniel

    Ogre, I bet Republicans are at the very least going to make a lot of noise about challenging Murray, just like in 2004 - but thank you for detailed look at possible contenders. Howard, thanks for correcting my first name mistakes in a 6,000 word story and for reading through my rankings to find the mistakes. And Merry Christmas to you, Panos!

  6. 6 Jaxx Raxor

    Rob, in all of the races you mention it is not clear if the candidate will run and in many of them, they only make the race lean Democratic, not tossups. For example, Arnold and Lingle would still have a tought time against the incumbents (althrough if Inoyue retires in Hawaii, then Lingle’s chances jump considerably). Castle would be 71 in 2010, which would be pretty old for someone running as a first term Senator, and I don’t think he is willing to give up his house seat in a race in which he would be the underdog in. Kirk would definitly be strong in Illnois no matter when he ran, but it is much less likely that he would run in a 2010 election (as it would entail giving up his house seat) than in a no risk special election in 2009 (in which he WOULDN’T need to give up his House seat). Also, Hoeven in North Dakota is the least likely to run at all. Yes, if he did run against Dorgan it would be the most titatnic race in the Senate, but Hoeven wouldn’t be guarenteed of victory, unlike his races as governor. If he really wants to be a Senator, then he will probably wait for either Dorgan or Conrad to retire, and then jump in. In that situation, he would be overwhelmingly favored to win the Senate seat. No point in challanging an incumbent now.

  7. 7 KMKleff

    Missouri is not as reliably red as some would lead you to believe. In the past general election, Obama and Nader netted more votes than McCain and Paul.

  8. 8 Taniel


    I am not sure that says much about Missouri not being red considering that Obama won most other swing states. When Missouri goes red when Indiana and North Carolina are going blue, that does signal that MO is a far more solidly Republican state than it used to be.

  9. 9 Jaxx Raxor

    Missouri is not a solid Republican state.. if it was McCain would have won by a large margin, not barely. However, 2008 showed that Missouri’s status as a national Bellweather is over, and that in Federal elections at least, it is a lean Republican State.

  10. 10 Guy

    Taniel - I agree MO didn`t swing as much as the other “red” states like IN and NC but it was closer than in 2004 so it has moved a little more Democratic, but this may not last.

    You are correct that in North Carolina there is a very strong Democratic bench. Roy Cooper, the AG, is a very strong state wide candidate and I think Richard Moore is strong after doing a very good job as treasurer (second best state employee pension fund in the country).
    I didn`t want to disappoint you with no North Carolina comments!

  11. 11 Taniel

    I don’t mean to suggest that Missouri has Wyoming or Oklahoma red status. But it seems hard to argue that Missouri is a reliably Republican state if the GOP nominee won it this year on his way to a 7% deficit nationally and on his way to losing Nevada, New Mexico, Iowa, Colorado, Ohio, Florida, North Carolina, Indiana. Sure, Missouri can still go blue (and I did rank it fifth in my rankings), but it remains a tough state for any Democrat to win.

  12. 12 Steven

    It seems unlikely that Barbara Boxer could be unseated even if the Terminator did run.
    Keep in mind that because of his moderate voting record, California republicans (if they even exist) DESPISE Schwartznagger. His only base are fans of his movies, and the hollywood district of fellow stars. If he wanted to win that senate seat, he would have to campaign as hard as Tom Daschle and John Thune did in 2004. Even then, it could turn into a Franken Vs. Coleman.

  13. 13 Ronald May

    1. James Douglas ran against Leahy in 1992. He was out of office ( 1993-94) for those two years. Otherwise, he has held office since the early 1970’s. I believe that he could run against Leahy. He is old enough to retire if he loses.

    2. Connecticut-Gov. Rell had a bout with cancer and has recovered. Her husband also had cancer, and I do not know his status. I believe that since she in 2006 on her own right, that she will retire in 2010.

    3. Specter has recovered from two bouts with cancer. I think that his career will be decided more for medical than political reasons.

    4. Louisiana- I am also amazed that Vitter is not below Bush’s polling numbers . However, this is a state that considers Edwin Edwards as a hero. He once boasted that he lost $ 750,000 in Las Vegas. He thought that this was an asset. As a note, Dardenne is a Republican.
    As a note, Dardenne is a Republican.

    5. S.D.–Stephanie Herseth Sandlin’s grandfather was governor. Her father ran for governor. This is the job she really wants.

    6. N.C.–I believe that Burr is safer than most people think. I think Dole’s was more due to the perception of she being a Washington insider.

    7. N.H.–I believe Sununu lost due to allegations regarding the 2002 race which came out after the election. I also think that the job he really wants is the one his father had. I think he will run for Governor in 2008. I think that Gregg is in a strong position. The main obstacle is since the Republicans are in the minority, he may reitire.

    8.Ky. -The irony would be if the grandson of Commissioner Happy Chandler challenged Bunning.

    9. Mo.- Secretary of State Callahan is the most likely challenger since her seat is not up in 2010.
    I think Bond could retire for previously mentioned reasons for Republicans.

    10. Cal. –The possesses two interesting scenarios.

    a. Bobby Shriver (Democrat) might seek the Governorship. Maria’s husband might run against Boxer as a Republican.

    b. Feinstein could win the governership and Boxer lose the Senate seat. Then , Governor Feinstein appoints Boxer to her seat.

    11. Del–The Bidens pulled this same strategy for the son to become A.G. In the current polical climate ( Illinois) ther could be a backlash that would benefit Carney ( in the primay) or Castle ( in the general election ) .

  14. 14 Frank

    The scenarios presented completely ignore the state of the economy. Palin’s approval has already fallen 29% in Alaska and her giveaways have put the state in anticipated financial crisis. The state gets 90% of its revenues from oil taxes and royalties and the price per barrel of Alaska crude has dropped 80% since early July.

    Schwartzenegger could have similar problems. There are forecasts the state could be broke by February. CALPERS, the state employee retirement system, has lost 25% of its principal in the past six months. He has just had to join with Democrats to pass a budget/taxation package he called “illegal” a few weeks ago and is getting no help from Democrats.

    Alabama Representative Davis will get substantial exposure over the next two years due to his position on House Judiciary. He is extremely articulate and will be likely to be highly involved in prosecution of those Bush administration crooks who fail to get pardons. His first name is Artur, by the way.

  15. 15 Bill

    I find it hard to see how the Republicans could pick up the seat in Illinois. It has become a very Democratic state. The last time a Republican won a senate seat was when Peter Fitzgerald beat Carole Mosely Braun, who was very damaged goods, and she still got over 45% of the vote. Roskam is much too conservative to win a state wide election, and Mark Kirk is not that well known outside his district. Also, I think it is wrong that the Democratic candidate will be tarnished by the Blagojevich scandal. Everyone in Illinois knows that nost other Democrats can’t stand Blagojevich either. If there is a special election, Daley and co. can still get the vote out.

  16. 16 bpfish

    I disagree with most of the Likely Retention seats because most of them are predicated on the strongest possible challenger actually getting in the race. Boxer is safe unless Arnold runs. Lincoln is safe unless Huckabee runs. Beau Biden (assuming he runs) is safe unless Castle runs. Inouye is safe unless Lingle runs. Grassley is safe unless Vilsack runs. Dorgan is safe unless Hoeven runs. None of these are probably going to happen, so you might as well call them safe and update when the second-tier challengers jump in.

    Those in the Toss-Up and Lean categories and some others in the Likely category will be competitive no matter who runs.

  17. 17 Woody

    Barring a dramatic turnaround in the national political climate due to a worsening economy, national security problems, and/or mounting Obama mistakes, 2010 will be the culmination of a wave that began with Howard Dean in 2004. I believe Republicans will still be having trouble recruiting their governors to challenge popular Democratic incumbent senators. Open seats in IL, NY, DE, and CO will draw strong Dem candidates, who are likely to retain their seats. Sebelius seems to be on her way to taking the KS seat, and we already know the GOP will struggle in KY, PA, MO, FL, NC, and possibly NH and OH. Harry Reid’s situation seems safer after Obama won his state by 15%, and his potential challengers are dropping like flies. It seems plausible to envision a 6-seat gain for Democrats (making it 65-35), after which all DSCC energy and resources are devoted to playing defense in 2012 and beyond.

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