Republicans have top-tier opportunities to pick-up 7 Senate seats: Arkansas, Colorado, Delaware, Illinois, Nevada, North Dakota and Pennsylvania. Their prospects of winning most of these races have improved in recent months, but the overall number of seats they are contesting has remained the same since the summer. (While North Dakota was added following Byron Dorgan’s retirement, Connecticut was removed after Chris Dodd’s.)
But in the wake of Scott Brown’s upset in Massachusetts’s special election, the GOP is dreaming expanding the Senate map further. To take back control of the chamber, Republicans now need to pick-up 10 seats, which means they have to go after at least 3 additional races - and then hope to sweep all and not lose any of their own. While that is obviously a very tough feat, it doesn’t mean the NRSC shouldn’t try: In 2008, the DSCC was so determined to put 9 seats in play that it poured in millions in North Carolina’s Senate race before there was strong evidence that Kay Hagan could pull it off, and the party did pick-up a total of 8 seats.
Of course, not all map expansion efforts work - even in the most favorable of environments: Again in 2008, Senator Susan Collins was challenged by a top-tier Democratic candidate in a blue state in a very tough environment for her party and in a presidential year; she never even once looked like she would have to break a sweat. In short: Republicans might be able to win in many more places than is typical next year, but some incumbents will be out of reach no matter how big recruitment coups they pull.
Besides the 7 seats I listed above, Democrats are defending 11 seats: CA, CT, IN, HI, MD, NY-A, NY-B, OR, VT, WA, WI. 4 of those do seem to be off-limits: Mikulski’s Maryland seat, Schumer’s New York seat, Leahy’s Vermont seat, Wyden’s Oregon seat. That does leave 7 seats that we should keep track of - so let’s get right to them.
This race used to be a top-tier opportunity for the GOP, but now Attorney General Richard Blumenthal is heavily favored, and polls have been showing him crushing his well-known Republican opponents (the same who were leading Dodd) by margins ranging exceeding 20%. Furthermore, Blumenthal is a far more established presence than Martha Coakley was in Massachusetts and seeing his Bay State colleague’s downfall should ensure he doesn’t rest on his laurels. But the fact is that it is an open seat in which the GOP has well-financed candidates it is happy with. In short: it would be foolish for Democrats to act like Connecticut is in the bag. I find it unlikely we’ll end up spending much time talking about this race, but the surest way for Democrats to endanger their hold on Connecticut is to assume that to be true.
This is arguably the most obvious seat on the list because it is the only one that should have been competitive by now: No one doubts that appointed senator Kirsten Gillibrand is vulnerable. Yet, the NRSC has met numerous recruitment failures here (Giuliani, King, Molinari) and the candidate they look like they might end up with does not look strong enough to mount that threatening a race. Does that mean Democrats are out of the woods? Certainly not, as there are several ways in which New York could join the list of highly competitive seats.
First, if the red wave is truly huge Blakeman could catch fire and become a threat. Second, Pataki could still enter the race; he is not expected to do so, but that would hardly be the cycle’s biggest surprise. Third, the Harold Ford factor could give the NRSC an opening: If he were to run as an independent, the GOP nominee could win a 3-way race with a plurality of the vote. In fact, Rasmussen just released a poll finding that in such a contest Ford would receive 10%, with Gillibrand at 39% and a generic Republican at 34%. (Also: If Ford beats Gillibrand, does that count as a Dem hold or a pick-up for Lieberman’s caucus-of-one?)
Boxer might be the first incumbent Republicans turn to in the hope of contesting another seat, and this for a very simple reason: they already have a field of credible contenders, which is more than they can say for the states I discuss below. Carly Fiorina, Chuck DeVore and new entree Tom Campbell are running hard for the GOP nomination, and while DeVore is probably too far to the right to compete in California the newest primary poll shows he is fading away since Campbell’s entry: The Field Poll has the former representative at 30%, Fiorina at 26% and DeVore at only 6%, which is excellent news for the NRSC.
Boxer looks more or less vulnerable depending on which pollsters we ask. This week alone, we received two California polls. Rasmussen had a pessimistic outlook for Boxer, who struggled to post a significant lead: She led 46% to 43% against Fiorina, 46% to 42% against Campbell ad 46% to 40% against DeVore. The Field Poll, meanwhile, gives Boxer stronger margins: 48% to 38% against Campbell, 50% to 35% against Fiorina and 51% to 34% against DeVore; the survey also has Boxer’s approval rating at a solid though not impressive 48/39.
Even the Field Poll finds that Boxer can’t be considered safe, since she does not clear the 50% threshold against Campbell, who is confirming expectations that he would be the GOP’s best bet to win a statewide race. As such, here’s the good news for Democrats: Boxer is fully aware she needs to take the race seriously. She has stockpiled millions of dollars - $8 by the end of 2008 - which is more important here than in most states, especially as GOP candidates wil have to concentrate on each other for many more months; and she has been talking about the possibility she faces a tough race for months, thus preparing a campaign infrastructure. This is one Democrat who won’t be taken by surprise.
The GOP hasn’t been paying much attention to Russ Feingold, but they are now trying to recruit the one man who would make the race competitive: former Governor and former HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson, who said this week that he was looking at the race. (Note: This is being covered as a sign that Brown’s victory has altered the landscape but Thompson has been saying exactly the same thing since November.) While Thompson would make the race a top GOP opportunity, he is no John Hoeven, by which I mean that Republicans shouldn’t expect an easy pick-up. An October University of Wisconsin poll found that Thompson would lead Feingold 43% to 39% but a November PPP poll reached different conclusions: Not only did Feingold have a 50% to 41% lead, but Thompson had a mediocre favorability rating and he was the only one of 3 Republicans to trail in gubernatorial match-ups. So would he really be that formidable a candidate? (Another potential Republican candidate is Rep. Paul Ryan, but he recently hinted once more that his ambition lies in challenging Senator Kohl in 2012.)
That we are even discussing Evan Bayh as a Democrat who might potentially have to worry about his re-election race shows just how rough the landscape has gotten for his party. Yet, the NRSC is actively looking to recruit Rep. Mike Pence in the hope that the conservative congressman could give Bayh his toughest race in 20 years. Not only is Pence meeting with NRSC officials this week, but the Club for Growth is publicly urging him to take on Bayh; on the other hand, Pence-ally Tony Perkins just said it was unlikely Pence would get in. (Martin Stutzman and John Hostettler are both already challenging Bayh, but it’s hardly surprising that the NRSC is looking elsewhere.) My sense is that Bayh is just too established for Indiana voters to oust him no matter who he faces and no matter the state’s conservative bent; as such, I think a Bayh-Pence race would be the closest equivalent to Maine’s Collins-Allen. Yet, there’s no question that the last thing the DSCC wants is to worry about an incumbent that looked as safe as could be back in January 2009.
Republicans underestimated Senator Patty Murray in 2004, but the “Mom in Tennis shoes” had no trouble beating then-Rep. Neterhcutt in what wasn’t an easy year for her party. She’s now seeking a fourth term, and the GOP wasn’t expected to give the state much thought. But it will surely now take a look at whether it can recruit a credible candidate. The state has 3 Republican congressmen. Rep. Hastings is probably too old to run for Senate, Rep. McMorris Rodgers is very conservative; that leaves Rep. Reichert, who would probably be the NRSC’s best bet. While there hasn’t been much buzz surrounding Reichert, his spokesperson did not rule out the possibility. The other name that has been mentioned is Attorney General Rob McKenna; he’s been known to have gubernatorial ambitions, but the Senate wasn’t McCaskill or Warner’s priority either. The GOP’s highest-profile candidate at this point is former Washington Redskins player Clint Didier, but it would take quite a Democratic collapse for Didier to make this competitive.
Senator Dan Inouye announced in December 2008 he would seek another term in 2010. But since he will be 86 years old by Election Day, we cannot but ask whether he might still retire. (In the post in which I wrote about his statement, I wrote that an incumbent’s insistence that he should not retire should never be taken quite seriously, and I linked to a post I had just written expressing skepticism that Senator Bunning and Rep. Moore really meant their just-announced re-election plans; both have since then retired.) Hawaii’s filing deadline is July 20th, so it certainly is not too late for him to decide he wants to call it quits. At this point, it is late enough that this would be improbable, but it’s not impossible. If the seat were open, the GOP would have a good shot at convincing Governor Linda Lingle to jump in, which would make the race competitive no matter Hawaii’s blue bent.