Six long months have passed since my previous rankings of the 2010 Senate races, and the situation remains favorable to Democrats. The GOP, which has more tough seats to defend, is set to once again lose seats - a situation made all the more likely in recent months by a wave of Republican retirements in Missouri, Ohio, New Hampshire, Florida and Kansas. This deluge of open seats explains why the four most vulnerable races of these rankings - and five of the top six - are held by Republicans.
And yet, the GOP’s situation has improved in recent months - a trend made evident by these Senate rankings. At the end of December, only 2 of the top 11 races were held by Democrats; now, the DSCC has to defend 5 of the top 11 - nearly an even balance. (Of course, Arlen Specter’s party switch, which gives Democrats an additional seat to defend, artificially accentuates that trend.)
For one, Republicans look stronger in a number of states they need to defend. Kansas, which looked like one of the party’s most endangered open seats at the beginning of the year, has completely disappeared off our radar screen. Republican Senators in Louisiana, Arizona and Iowa were all considered endangered, but Democratic chances in these states have been fading. As for Florida, Charlie Crist’s candidacy is a spectacular victory for the NRSC as it goes a long way towards saving the seat; it’s easy to forget how unlikely such a scenario looked earlier this year.
Second, Republicans are playing more offense than expected, which is mostly due to the Democrats’ self-inflicted wounds. In a stunning political collapse, the once-safe Chris Dodd has become one of the cycle’s most vulnerable incumbents. In at least three other states, Republicans have an unexpected shot because of the actions of Democratic Governors. In Illinois, Blagojevich could weigh on Democrats; in Delaware, the appointment of a Beau Biden placeholder opens the door wide for Mike Castle; and in Colorado, Michael Bennet enters his first election more unprepared, untested and vulnerable than other appointments would have.
(As has been the case in recent cycles, however, Republicans are failing to take advantage of some of their opportunities because of recruitment woes. This is most striking in Nevada, Colorado and Arkansas - but also in states defend like New Hampshire.)
All in all then, Democrats are still more likely than not to expand their majority. Yet, the door to yet another round of significant gains is closing - especially when we factor in the fact that these contests will play out in the midterm election of a Democratic president. Perhaps most significantly, and this is not something I was prepared to say earlier this year, Republicans have managed to position themselves in a competitive position in enough races that it is possible to envision them forcing a draw - perhaps even netting a seat! - if the national environment favors them.
|Safe GOP||Likely GOP||Lean GOP||Toss-up||Lean Dem||Likely Dem||Safe Dem|
This gets us to the following breakdown:
- Safe Democratic: 49
- Safe/Likely Democratic: 56
- Safe/Likely/Lean Democratic: 59
- Toss-ups: 5
- Safe/Likely/Lean Republican: 36
- Safe/Likely Republican: 35
- Safe Republican: 31
Outlook: A 1-4 seat gain for Democrats.
Toss-ups (4 R, 1 D)
1. New Hampshire (Open) Last ranking: 6
The comical sequence of events that led to Judd Gregg’s retirement notwithstanding, the situation in the Granite State is fairly straightforward. Republicans have to defend an open race in a state that has been drifting leftward and in which their bench has been decimated, giving the DSCC its best shot at picking-up a Senate seat. To make matters worse for the GOP, Democrats have already rallied around Rep. Paul Hodes while Republicans have no candidate whatsoever. Former Senator John Sununu is mentioned but he has shown no indication that he is considering the race; other options are former Rep. Charlie Bass and former Governor Steve Merrill.
At the present moment, the most likely scenario is that the NRSC fails to land a credible recruit and is forced to turn to a second-tier candidate, allowing Hodes to coast to an easy victory. If one of those higher-profile politicians were to jump in, the GOP would have a fighting chance but even then Hodes would start with the upper-hand. While he is not well-known enough to crush the opposition, Hodes should prove a solid campaigner - not to mention that early polls show him with a lead. As for Sununu, he just suffered a crushing electoral defeat as an incumbent, so why does the GOP think he can do better in 2010?
2. Missouri (Open) Last ranking: 4
To comfort themselves over Kit Bond’s retirement, Republicans should tell themselves that his Senate seat would have been vulnerable even if he had ran for re-election. Yet, Democratic prospects certainly shot up when the race opened. Secretary of State Robin Carnahan, a well-known politician with a powerful last name, is as formidable a candidate as Democrats could have fielded; early polls show her with the lead.
Republicans, by contrasty, are set to go through a nasty primary between Rep. Roy Blunt and former Treasurer Sarah Steelman, who has already blasted her rival as another “white guy in a suit.” Their expected showdown will fit in the ready-made narrative of the GOP’s civil war (movement conservatives take on the Republican establishment) and that should only heighten the battle’s ferocity. Given that Missouri holds its primaries relatively late, the eventual nominee will only have a few months to mend the fences. (This doomed Republicans in the state’s 2008 gubernatorial race.)
On paper, then, Carnahan has a clear edge - but I do not believe this race should be rated as anything but a toss-up for now. Not only is Missouri a difficult state for Democrats, but we are talking about a midterm election with a Democrat in the White House. If the political environment favors Republicans by next year, independents should shift rightward and Carnahan will automatically face a complicated race, whatever her personal appeal, whatever Blunt’s insider status, whatever the perception of Steelman as extremist.
3. Ohio (Open) Last ranking: 10
George Voinovich’s retirement ensured that Ohio will be one of the most important battlegrounds for the fourth cycle in a row: An open seat in such a closely divided state is sure to be competitive, but Democrats start the race with a narrow advantage. First, Ohio has trended blue over the past few years and the GOP will have to reconquer voters that decisively turned against them; early polls showing the Democratic candidates posting a healthy lead suggests the electorate has not warmed towards Republicans.
Second, I remain skeptical that former Rep. Rob Portman will be as formidable a candidate as the GOP is claiming. The former president will not be as powerful repellent in 2010 as he was in 2008, but Portman’s ties to Bush are too extensive for time to simply wash them away: As trade representative and head of the OMB under the Bush administration, he helped craft the economic policies of Bush’s second term. Third, Democrats have two top contenders in the race: Lieutenant Governor Lee Fisher and Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner. Ohio’s primary will be held early enough (May 2010) that this should not hurt them in the general election; if anything, it could keep Democrats in the news at a time Portman will struggle for attention.
4. Kentucky (Jim Bunning) Last ranking: 1
The closest thing we have to an even-odds toss-up, Kentucky’s Senate race is as unpredictable as Jim Bunning. For months, Bunning has been repeating that he will run for re-election but no one is taking him at his word. By continually undercutting him, McConnell and Cornyn have been trying to harass him into retirement and depress his fundraising. This has prompted stunningly enraged reactions from the irascible Senator but the strategy looks to be fruitful: Bunning, who looks increasingly cornered, recently opened the door to quitting if he does not meet his fundraising goals over the next few months. Needless to say, that will only increase the NRSC’s determination to block funding sources.
If Bunning somehow manages to hold off the pressure, his party’s refusal to believe in him combined with senior moments should do him in - not to mention the fact that Democrats have landed two strong recruits: Attorney General Jack Conway and Lieutenant Governor Dan Mongiardo are locked in an establishment-splitting battle that will be resolved early (May) enough not to leave lasting wounds. If Bunning retires, Republican prospects will improve. While the race would remain highly competitive, Kentucky’s red bent could kick in to carry a non-Bunning nominee across the finish line; Secretary of State Trey Grayson looks like the GOP’s best bet.
5. Connecticut (Chris Dodd) Last ranking: 32
At the beginning of the year, Dodd looked like he would coast to re-election. Now, he looks to be one of the two most endangered incumbents of the cycle! What happened? As the chairman of the Banking Committee, Dodd was left particularly vulnerable by the financial sector’s implosion. Some of the criticism he received, for instance on the AIG bonuses, was unfair; but that controversy damaged him only because others came before it: His shady mortgage deal, his coziness with banking executives and contributions he received from companies that are part of the current mess. All of these issues are sure to be revisited in the 2010 campaign.
Republicans are sure to capitalize on this stunning collapse as they have already recruited credible candidates: former Rep. Rob Simmons, former Ambassador Tom Foley and state Senator Sam Caligiuri already in the race. Dodd’s obvious big advantage is that Connecticut is a blue state and the voters he needs to reconquer typically vote Democratic. Thus, they should prove willing to listen to Obama when he vouches for Dodd, as he did recently by crediting his work on the credit card bill. Obama’s praise were featured in Dodd’s first ad, which speaks to his basic argument: Not only he has not been too cozy with the banking industry, but he has taken a leading role in fighting abuses of the system.
Lean Retention (1 R, 4 D)
6. North Carolina (Richard Burr) Last ranking: 7
This Senate seat has switched parties in the past five elections and Richard Burr’s weak poll numbers are giving Democrats hope of prolonging the streak. Not only is Burr struggling in head-to-head match-ups against prominent Democrats, but his name recognition is surprisingly low for someone who has served in Congress since 1995. Yet, Democrats were dealt a significant blow when Attorney General Roy Cooper somewhat unexpectedly ruled out a run and they are still not sure of making this a competitive race.
Democrats still have a deep bench: Potential candidates include Secretary of State Elaine Marshall, Reps. Mike McIntyre and Bob Etheridge, former state Speaker Dan Blue and former state Senator Cal Cunningham. Many of them would make viable contenders, though none would start in as strong a position as Cooper - far from it. This might not have mattered in 2008, when low-profile Kay Hagan proved a strong campaigner, but the circumstances will be very different next year. Burr might be more vulnerable than Elizabeth Dole on paper but he will benefit from a less toxic environment. His vulnerability primarily stems from his lack of stature - but North Carolina remains a swing state whose voters should prove open to voting to a generic Republican in a midterm election.
7. Colorado (Michael Bennet) Last ranking: 5
Newly-appointed Michael Bennet has only had a few months to introduce himself to his constituents. While that means he will have the opportunity to solidify his standing in the coming months, we just don’t know whether Bennet, who has never ran for office before, has the campaigns skills to make his introduction a successful one - not to mention that Republicans will have a chance to define him before he has had a chance to make a lasting impression. Factor in that CO remains a swing state whose independent voters could easily turn against Democrats and that Bennet is doing more to upset labor groups than to court them. The result: Bennet is one of the cycle’s most endangered incumbents.
His saving grace could be the GOP’s recruitment woes: We already know that it is highly unlikely the NRSC will manage to field a top-tier candidate as 3 names are left: Councilman Ryan Frazier, former Rep. Bob Beauprez and DA Ken Buck. All three come with liabilities: Beauprez’s electability is under question because of his big defeat in the 2006 gubernatorial race while Frazier and Buck are untested in anything resembling a large-scale political campaign. But remember that the same is true for Bennet. Ritter chose an unknown Democrat to send to the Senate and that means that the GOP will have a shot even with a low-profile recruit. A recent poll found Bennet trailing Beauprez and narrowly leading Frazier and Buck, a sign that he will be vulnerable as long as he draws a credible opponent.
8. Pennsylvania (Arlen Specter) Last ranking: 2
The clear underdog in the Republican primary against Pat Toomey, Senator Arlen Specter switched parties to preserve his career. That boosted Democratic ranks by one - but they were already favored to pick-up the seat, so much so that Specter’s switch might actually improve Republican prospects by making it possible for the GOP nominee not to be Toomey but a more electable Republican. Tom Ridge’s decision to rule out a run was a truly major blow for the NRSC, as he led Specter in a number of polls, but the party has other options.
Also, any Republican nominee - including Toomey - would have a uniquely good opportunity if he were to face Specter in the general election: Since there is no presidential election to draw voters to the polls, how could Democrats ensure there is high enough turnout in Philadelphia, in minority precincts, among liberal voters? As such, dumping Specter could be a wise electoral move for Democrats - not to mention that the incumbent’s center-right ideology is in no way compatible with that of the party’s mainstream (reports to the contrary fly in the face of the available evidence). While the White House and Ed Rendell’s pressure got Joe Torsella and other prominent Democrats not to run, Rep. Joe Sestak looks undaunted and should provide a tough challenge.
9. Delaware (Open) Last ranking: 14
Governor Ruth Minner’s decision to appoint Biden aide Paul Kaufman to the Senate - a transparently nepotistic effort to save the seat for Attorney General Beau Biden - could come back to haunt Democrats. Republican Rep. Mike Castle is now considering jumping in the race; some sources say he is leaning towards doing so. His entrance would make this seat one of the most vulnerable of the cycle as Castle, a popular politician who served two terms as Governor and has represented the entire state in the House since 1992, would be a formidable contender. (Two recent polls show Castle handily beating Biden.)
If Castle does not run, however, the GOP would have no other candidate to turn to: the race would drop down the rankings and Biden would be the overwhelming favorite to win his father’s old seat. It does not even look like he would have to worry about a competitive primary: Former Lieutenant Governor John Carney, who had senatorial ambitions, decided to run in the House seat instead.
Likely retention (8 D, 4 R)
10. Florida (Open) Last ranking: 3
The NRSC scored one its biggest recruitment coups in years in convincing Governor Charlie Crist that he would be better off in Congress. A lot has been written about why Crist might not be invincible, but make no mistake about it: He starts as the overwhelming favorite. The most recent poll shows him demolishing Republican Marco Rubio and Democrat Kendrick Meek by 35% and 31%, respectively.
Crist’s first test will come in the Republican primary. Hoping to capitalize on the base’s anger at Crist’s moderate positions, Marco Rubio is mounting a strong challenge from the right and he has already secured valuable endorsements like that of Mike Huckabee. Crist’s vulnerability should not be overstated: Polls show he remains popular within Republicans and much of the party’s establishment is rallying around him. Yet, Crist has more to fear than defeat: Florida’s primaries are held in late August, which will leave him little time to recover if he spends the summer of 2010 courting conservatives and focusing on Rubio.
By contrast, Democrats look to have settled on their nominee: Rep. Kendrick Meek is the only prominent Democrat currently in the race and almost all the other politicians who were mulling a run have backed out. This is obviously a testament to Democrats running away from a face-off with Crist, but it is also a reflection of Meek’s unexpectedly strong first few months on the trail. To score an upset, Meek will need to capitalize on Republican divisions and hope that the economic crisis makes Floridians sour on their Governors. That should prove a difficult task - but not an insurmountable one.
11. Arkansas (Blanche Lincoln) Last ranking: 22
Blanche Lincoln’s poll numbers are mediocre and she represents an increasingly conservative state. Yet, Democrats remain dominant at the state level (they hold all statewide offices and supermajorities in both chambers of the state legislature) and the NRSC has few potential candidates to court. The party’s best bet - former U.S. Attorney Tim Griffin - somewhat unexpectedly announced that he would not run and 71-old state Senator Kim Hendren is no longer sure of pursuing the race after he drew fire for calling Senator Schumer “that Jew.” State Senator Gilbert Baker and and Safe Foods CEO Curtis Coleman are also mentioned, but none of these Republicans are strong enough to guarantee a competitive race.
One potential wild card is that the left’s anger at Lincoln (more than any other Senator, she is responsible for endangering EFCA) could fuel a primary challenge - perhaps against Lieutenant Governor Bill Halter, mentioned as a potential candidate. It is also possible for the Green Party to get a strong enough result to complicate Lincoln’s general election calculations.
12. Louisiana (David Vitter) Last ranking: 9
Just a few years ago, David Vitter’s political career looked to have been fatally wounded but the stars are aligning for his re-election campaign. His poll numbers bear little trace of the D.C. Madam’s scandal; Louisiana has continued drifting to the right since Vitter became the state’s Republican Senator since Reconstruction in 2004; and the Senator’s efforts to court conservatives have paid off as it now looks like he will escape a nomination fight: Secretary of State Dardenne is the only Republican that has yet to rule out a run, and he is not expected to jump in the race.
The lack of a competitive Republican primary is a problem for the DSCC: If no conservative voice emerges to attack the Senator’s past actions, Vitter will enter the general election unscathed and the D.C. Madam will remain a distant memory for Louisiana voters. That would not put Democrats in a good position - provided they even recruit a credible contender. None appears willing to declare a race for now, though Shaw Group CEO Jim Bernhard and state Sen. Eric LaFleur have potential; the Democrats’ strongest bet is likely Rep. Charlie Melancon, who is said to be reconsidering the race. If one of them jumps in, Louisiana could still rise in these ratings.
13. Nevada (Harry Reid) Last ranking: 8
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s numbers look as dismal as ever: A credible challenger could put the Senator in a very precarious position. Yet, the GOP’s recruitment woes have boosted Reid’s re-election prospects and given him hope that he might only face token opposition: former state Senator Joe Heck is running for Governor, Lieutenant Governor Brian Krolicki is indicted and former Rep. Jon Porter joined a lobbying firm in DC. While some Republicans are hoping that Rep. Dean Heller jumps in, he is believed to be eying the gubernatorial race.
Remain New York banker John Chachas, former state Rep. Sharron Angle and state Senator Mark Amodei - the latter of which looks like the GOP’s most promising prospect. Reid is too powerful and too well-funded a politician to fall to low-profile opponents and he thus looks less vulnerable than he did at the start of the cycle. Yet, he should not get too comfortable: All it would take for him to get as endangered as ever is for the NRSC to convince Porter to leave his cushy new job, to persuade Heller that a Senate race is an appealing option or for Amodei to reveal himself a formidable campaigner (the Hagan of the 2010 cycle).
14. Illinois (Roland Burris) Last ranking: 12
The competition over this Senate seat has been chaotic ever since Governor Rod Blagojevich was arrested in early December; today, it remains very difficult to predict who might occupy Obama’s seat come January 2011 since too many of the state’s key players have yet to clarify their plan. The most important decision belongs to Attorney General Lisa Madigan: Her entry would make her the overwhelming favorite but she looks far more interested in the gubernatorial race.
After Madigan, the most important politician to follow is Rep. Mark Kirk, as his decision will tell us whether Republicans have a shot at contesting the race. A recent poll shows that Kirk would be very competitive but the GOP lacks another viable candidate. As for a Democratic primary sans Madigan, it should prove highly suspenseful. The establishment should split between Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias and Chris Kennedy, whose main qualification is his last name; Schalowsky’s decision not to run leaves an opening for another left-leaning, labor-friendly Democrat to benefit from those divisions and clinch the nomination.
One politician whose decision should have little influence on the race is Burris. He has been able to outlive the media’s attention span but that does not make him a viable candidate - nor does it get him rid of the Blago scandal. If he runs, his only chance at the nomination would be to score a small plurality in a very crowded primary - but that would be such an unmitigated disaster for Democrats that the DSCC will surely work to ensure it does not happen.
15. New York (Kristen Gillibrand) Last ranking: 16
The competitiveness of New York’s Senate race remains impossible to predict: Kirsten Gillibrand could face a highly difficult race just as she could face no credible opposition. Her first test, of course, will come in the Democratic primary. A few months ago, state Democrats looked so frustrated at Gillibrand’s appointment that many looked likely to either back a challenger or at least stay neutral. But the situation has changed dramatically over the past few weeks as Barack Obama and Chuck Schumer dialed up the pressure on Gillibrand’s rivals to withdraw.
With Steve Israel, Scott Stringer and Carolyn McCarthy’s unexpected exits, Gillibrand has one obstacle left, but it is a major one: Rep. Carolyn Maloney. (I remain skeptical that Jose Serrano is as serious about running.) Either Maloney does not run and it is hard to see who or what could prevent Gillibrand from winning a full Senate term, or she does jump in the race and sets up a battle royale as she would have the funds, seniority and endorsements to capitalize on liberal angst and put together a winning coalition of downstate and Hispanic voters. But will she be able to wage battle against the Democratic establishment?
Gillibrand’s name recognition and poll numbers remain low enough that she might also have to worry about the general election: Rep. Peter King and Governor George Pataki are both eying a run. Surveys show Gillibrand leading the former but tied or trailing against the latter. She should gain ground as her name recognition improves but she could still be in some danger depending on how the next year plays out - especially if David Paterson tops the Democratic ticket.
16. Arizona (John McCain) Last ranking: 21
Ever since Janet Napolitano joined Obama’s Cabinet, no viable Democrat has been rumored to be considering challenging John McCain. And yet, the former presidential candidate could face a tough race: Chris Simcox, the head of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, has announced that he will run in the Republican primary. As I explained in this post, Simcox should not be underestimated: As the 2008 campaign revealed, enough Arizona Republicans distrust McCain that a prominent conservative like Simcox could pull an upset by rallying voters around his far-right proposals and reminding them why they distrust their Senator.
This primary is certainly not guaranteed to be competitive but it undoubtedly has the potential to get explosive - and it could give the DSCC an opening. If it looks like Simcox has a chance to win the nomination, a credible Democrat is sure to plunge in the race and a suspenseful Republican showdown and a win-win situation. If Simcox somehow scores the upset, he would have a tough time winning the general election; if McCain survives, he might do so diminished, wounded and having alienated conservative voters. In short, it would be political malpractice for Democrats not to field a credible candidate - but whom?
17. Hawaii (Daniel Inouye) Last ranking: 15
84-year old Daniel Inouye insists that he will run for a ninth term in 2010. Given that Inouye has been in Congress as long as Hawaii has been a state, it’s hard to see imagine him facing a competitive re-election race. On the other hand, we should not rule out things getting heated if term-limited GOP Governor Linda Lingle jumps in the race since Inouye’s age opens the door to major gaffes and senior moments.
If Inouye decides to retire after all, Democrats will start with the upper-hand because of the state’s allegiance to their party (Obama received 70%) but Lingle would also be far more likely to jump in and make Hawaii’s Senate race a top takeover opportunity for the GOP. Fortunately for Democrats, there is currently little buzz surrounding an Inouye retirement or a Lingle challenge.
18. Georgia (Johnny Isakson) Last ranking: 23
As a Republican Senator from a red state, Johnny Isakson does not look to have much to worry but some Democrats have been monitoring the race. They point to Isakson’s mediocre approval rating, to Saxby Chambliss’s struggles in the 2008 cycle and to two recent polls that show the incumbent barely leading a number of Democrats. Yet, it is hard to see such third-tier races come into play since the environment will not be as toxic for Republicans as it was in 2008 - not to mention that no prominent Democrat (starting with those tested by the surveys mentioned above) are considering challenging Isakson.
Instead, most of the state’s viable Democrats are looking at the open Governor’s race. Now that former Governor Roy Barnes has announced he wants to claim his old job back, might one of the other potential contenders (Attorney General Baker, former Secretary of State David Poythress, House Minority Leader DuBose Porter, Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond) notice that Isakson’s polls numbers are mediocre and jump in the Senate race instead?
19. California (Barbara Boxer) Last ranking: 13
Barbara Boxer might not be the most popular of politicians - her re-elect numbers in the Field poll were mediocre - but she is a Democratic Senator in one of the bluest states in the country. Unless the environment gets so toxic for Democrats as it did for the GOP in 2006 and 2008, she should sail into a fourth term. And before even dreaming of big upsets, the NRSC needs to land a top candidate.
Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger all but ruled out a run earlier this year. Now, Republicans are now hoping to recruit Carly Fiorina, the former CEO of Hewlett-Packard who could pour some of her own money in the race. (Assemblyman Chuck DeVore is already running, but he does not have enough stature to endanger Boxer.) Even if Schwarzenegger or Fiorina enter the race, Democrats would not have much to worry about. Schwarzenegger, in particular, has become so unpopular that it is hard to see him as a viable contender. Two March polls found Boxer crushing both Schwarzenegger and Fiorina; in particular, the reliable Field Poll found her ahead by 24% and 30%, respectively.
20. Wisconsin (Russ Feingold) Last ranking: 20
Russ Feingold looks likely to coast to re-election. Wisconsin Republicans don’t have a deep bench to start with, so the fact that most of the party’s viable politicians are eying the gubernatorial race is not helping the NRSC put this Senate seat in play. The party’s best bet, 38-year old Rep. Paul Ryan, has ruled out challenging Feingold - though he has expressed more interest in going after Senator Kohl in 2012; state Attorney General John Van Hollen is sometimes mentioned, but he has not attracted much buzz in recent months. And it’s not like Feingold would suddenly find himself on the brink of defeat if the NRSC did recruit a top candidate: A three-term incumbent, he is a popular Democrat who represents a state Obama won by 13%.
21. Iowa (Chuck Grassley) Last ranking: 17
The cycle began with a wave of Republican retirements, and Democrats were hoping that Chuck Grassley would follow Kit Bond, George Voinovich and Judd Gregg’s lead. But Grassley has made it clear that he is planning to run for re-election - he struck a deal with Jeff Sessions in order to become the highest-ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee at the start of the next Congress - and deny Democrats a golden opportunity to pick-up an open seat. The DSCC does not look capable of mounting a strong challenge to Grassley; party activist Bob Krause is the only declared candidate and no prominent names are being brandished as potential contenders.
22. North Dakota (Byron Dorgan) Last ranking: 18
Small states rely on the seniority of their incumbents, and that is enough to make Byron Dorgan - the Chairman of the Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development and of the Committee on Indian Affairs - as safe as a Democrat can be in North Dakota. The only Republican who can threaten him is popular Governor John Hoeven.
In 2006, the NRSC already tried and failed to recruit Hoeven to run for Senate - that time against Kent Conrad. Since then, the state has moved significantly leftward: George W. Bush won the race by 27%, John McCain by only 8%. Even if Hoeven does run, Dorgan would start with the upper-hand: A poll conducted in February showed the Senator crushing the Governor 57% to 35%. Unless Hoeven’s internal polls are telling him something dramatically different, he is unlikely to launch in the race.
23. Washington (Patty Murray) Last ranking: 19
In 2004, Republicans made a lot of noise about challenging Patty Murray but the Senator easily won re-election in what was a generally good year for Republicans. Since then, Washington has grown even more reliably Democratic and how could a three-term Democratic incumbent lose re-election in a state that gave Barack Obama a 17% victory? Not only does the GOP have a thin bench in the state, but a recent poll showed that Murray wouldn’t have to worry even if the NRSC managed to recruit its top prospects - Rep. Dave Reichert and Attorney General Rob McKenna, neither of whom are expected to run.
24. South Carolina (Jim DeMint) Last ranking: 24
South Carolina Democrats never looked likely to mount a competitive run given the state’s sharp Republican turn, but the fact DeMint was a freshman gave them some hope of putting his first re-election race on the radar screen. Yet, the first few months of the cycle have seen little buzz surround potential challengers. Former Superintendent of Education Inez Tenenbaum recently took herself out of the running, and other Democrats (like former state party chair Joe Erwin) are understandably more interested in the open gubernatorial race.
25. Kansas (Open) Last ranking: 11
For now, this race is the Democrats’ biggest disappointments of the cycle. Governor Kathleen Sebelius would have made a formidable contender for this seat left open by Sam Brownback, with one poll showing her beating Rep. Jim Moran and Rep. Todd Tiahrt by double-digits, but Obama appointed her HHS Secretary. That move virtually rules out the possibility that Democrats win their first Senate seat in Kansas since the 1930s. Simply put, Democrats have no one else to run; and if they miraculously find a viable statewide candidate, they are likely to push him or her in the gubernatorial race.
This does not mean that the Senate race will not be competitive, only that the action will only happen in the Republican primary. While there is little policy disagreements between Moran and Thiart, their showdown could become the latest chapter in the Kansas GOP’s ideological war. Ever since his time as the state Senate’s Majority Leader, Moran has managed to bridge the conservative and moderate factions; Tiahrt, meanwhile, has the profile of a movement conservative with ties to pro-life groups. At least, the NRSC won’t have to worry about a nasty primary’s consequences on the general election.
26. Maryland (Mikulski) Last ranking: 26
Barbara Mikulski has long been rumored to be considering retirement though she has said she will run for re-election and the speculation is now dying down. If she does bow out of the race, Democrats will be favored to keep the seat though the race will rise in the rankings; if she runs for re-election, Mikulski will be one of the cycle’s safest incumbents.
27. Oklahoma (Tom Coburn) Last ranking: 31
On June 1st, Senator Tom Coburn announced that he will seek re-election. Given his profile as the Senate’s most conservative member, Democrats would have celebrated his departure even if his replacement had been sure to be a Republican (none of his potential replacements would have been as far to the right); add to that the fact that an open race would have been winnable for Democrats and Coburn’s decision becomes all the more disappointing for the DSCC.
Coburn is very heavily favored to win a second term. Not only is he popular in his home state, it also looks highly improbable that the DSCC can land one of the few Democrats who could potentially have a shot: Governor Brad Henry has made it clear that he does not want to move to Washington while Rep. Boren has no reason to give up his House seat for such a quixotic run.
28. Oregon (Ron Wyden) Last ranking: 27
Heading into the 2010 cycle, it looked unlikely that two-term Senator Ron Wyden would attract top opposition. Six months later, there is still little talk of Oregon’s Senate race. Not only do no potential challenger looks interested, but the one Republican who could potentially make things interesting - former Senator Gordon Smith - arguably took him out of midterm play by taking a job at a lobbying firm. Add to this the fact that Oregon reconnected with its Democratic roots last year, and it is difficult to envision how the GOP can endanger Wyden.
29. Alaska (Lisa Murkowski) Last ranking: 25
The biggest threat to Lisa Murkowski’s re-election was that Sarah Palin might challenge her in the Republican primary, but the Alaska Governor has made it as clear as possible that she will not do so. Compared to the fireworks that primary showdown would have produced, the general election looks like a formality for Murkowski.
In 2008, Alaska proved that it was one of the most reliably Republican states of the country and that it takes nothing short of a conviction on felony charges for voters to barely agree to kick out a GOP incumbent. And it’s not like not like Democrats have many candidates left to run against Murkowski: Knowles’ repeated losses probably disqualifies him and Ethan Berkowitz’s stunning 2008 failure does not inspire confidence. Might state Senator Hollis French, a potential candidate, be able to mount a decent campaign?
30. South Dakota (John Thune) Last ranking: 29
The DSCC’s one hope of forcing a competitive race in South Dakota is to recruit Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin. Contrary to expectations, she is indeed considering seeking a promotion - but she understandably looks more interested in running in the open gubernatorial race than in challenging the popular Thune. Even if Herseth Sandlin jumps in, Democrats should not expect a miracle: A recent poll showed Thune with a comfortable lead against the state’s lone House member.
31. Utah (Bob Bennett) Last ranking: 36
Believe it or not, Bob Bennett might actually face a tough re-election battle. Republican Attorney General Mark Shurtleff and Republican former Juab County Attorney David Leavitt are preparing to challenge the three-term Senator, and Bennett could run into trouble at the state’s Republican convention, where conservative delegates might hand him an embarrassing defeat that would set up an all-out war in the primary. Unfortunately for Democrats, they are in no position to take advantage of the GOP’s divisions.
Bennett’s saving grace could very well be Governor Jon Huntsman’s nomination as Ambassador to China: That triggered a special gubernatorial election that might look like a more attractive option to ambitious Republicans like Shurtleff. The same goes for Democrats: Even if Rep. Jim Matheson or Salt Like City Mayor Bob Baker decide they want to take a huge risk and jump in a statewide contest, they would be more likely to run in the special gubernatorial election triggered by Jon Huntsman’s nomination as Ambassador to China.
32. Alabama (Richard Shelby) Last ranking: 28
First elected as a Democrat in 1986, Richard Shelby switched parties in 1994. Since then, the state has become increasingly Republican; while Democrats were surprisingly successful in 2008, they have had trouble staying competitive. In 2010, no credible Democrat is even mentioned as a potential challenger to Shelby: Agriculture Commissioner Ron Sparks and Rep. Arthur Davis are running for Governor, Lieutenant Governor Jim Folsom is running for re-election, and Reps. Bright and Parker are too junior to be strong candidates.
33. Indiana (Evan Bayh) Last ranking: 30
Evan Bayh served two terms as Governor before winning two senatorial elections - in 1998 and in 2004. Heading into the 2010 cycle, he remains popular, has a huge war chest and he can take comfort in the fact that he no longer represents a ruby red state: Despite Bush’s 21% victory in 2004, Barack Obama pulled out a narrow victory - in the process registering thousands of voters that will help state Democrats in the years ahead. That is enough to keep potential Republican candidates at bay.
34. Vermont (Pat Leahy) Last ranking: 33
At the beginning of the cycle, I wrote that this seat would only pop on our radar screen if Leahy retires or if Governor Jim Douglas jumps in the race. Since then, neither man has shown any sign of considering such steps - and a January poll suggested that Leahy would have no trouble crushing Douglas if the Governor did choose to launch in this quixotic challenge.
35. New York (Chuck Schumer) Last ranking: 34
Even if New York Republicans manage to get their act together and find strong contenders willing to run statewide, they will target Kirsten Gillibrand and David Paterson - not Chuck Schumer, a popular incumbent and a formidable fundraiser who is sure to coast to re-election.
36. Idaho (Mike Crapo) Last ranking: 35
In 2004, Senator Mike Crapo ran unopposed and won more than 99% of the vote. Finding a candidate to run would already represent progress for Democrats; state Senator Nicole LeFevour was briefly mentioned but she ruled out a run.