These are the last Senate rankings of the 2008 cycle, published on November 2nd. For earlier rankings, check here.
There are no more doubts that Democrats will have a significantly expanded majority in the 111th Congress. A grand total of five GOP-held seats are now rated likely or safe Democratic: Virginia, New Mexico, Colorado, New Hampshire and Oregon. (As I explain below, Jeff Merkley’s now being clearly favored is not due to the size of his lead as much as to the fact that Oregon’s Election Day has by and large already passed.)
While an upset is certainly possible in some of the races listed above, most of Tuesday’s Senate action will take place in 7 states: Alaska, North Carolina, Minnesota, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi and Louisiana. Some of them are currently leaning for one party or another, but all remain highly competitive.
The Senate races that look the tightest heading into Election Day tend to overwhelmingly break towards one party, and this year it is these seven seats that are likely to heavily break one way or another. To get to 60 seats, Democrats need to win five of them - and at least two (Mississippi and Kentucky) appear to be trending away from them in these final days of campaigning. And that Georgia’s race could head to a runoff is of course the biggest Senate wild card, potentially prolonging the fight all the way until December 2nd.
Democrats should also not ignore Louisiana, a state about which little is said though the two parties genuinely disagree about the state of play. There has been very little non-partisan polling of the race, and the bottom line is that this is the first truly competitive statewide election occurring after Katrina displaced New Orleans residents. No one really knows how to poll the state, and though Senator Mary Landrieu is favored going into Tuesday’s vote, an upset cannot be ruled out.
A reminder about the meaning of these ratings: A race that is classified as “leaning” remains highly competitive and the opposite result would not be surprising; the rating is merely meant to indicate that one candidate has gained an edge. A race is classified as “likely,” meanwhile, when the opposite result is still conceivable but would be considered a huge upset. Finally, a race is classified as “safe” when an upset would shock the very core of American politics.
Outlook: Democratic pick-up a net 6-11 Senate seats.
History of Campaign Diaries’s Senate rankings:
- October 25th: Dems lead in 6 GOP-held seats, hope to sweep 11 (rating changes, full rankings)
- October 12th: Make it eleven (rating changes, full rankings)
- September rankings: Democrats have 9 targets and GOP banks on McCain
- July rankings: Democrats still looking for new targets
- May rankings: The map shifts towards Democrats
- January rankings: GOP prospects improve in a few seats
- November ‘07 rankings: Republicans push back but remain in tight spot
- October ‘07 rankings: Everything breaks for Democrats
- August ‘07 rankings: How high can Democrats rise?
Last updated on October 25th: Barack Obama is leading the state’s presidential race by double-digits in the latest polls, so what is the chance that Mark Warner stumbles? Jim Gilmore’s campaign has been a catastrophe from the start, and the state GOP will regret having barred Tom Davis’s path to the nomination.
2. New Mexico (Open)
Last updated on September 23rd: While polls have long shown Tom Udall crushing Steve Pearce, the NRSC had not given up hope and had reserved $2.7 million of air time in the state to help Pearce. Yet, the Republican committee canceled that reservation earlier this week, signaling that they were no longer planning to contest New Mexico and admitting that the odds of Pearce coming back are too low for the GOP to spent its meager resources on this race. That said, Pearce is counting on independent groups to attack Udall, and Rasmussen’s September survey found a tightening race.
3. Colorado (Open)
Last updated on October 25th: In what has been one of the most puzzling races of this cycle, nothing that either candidate did was moving poll numbers. Mark Udall remained consistently ahead by single-digits for more than a year despite expectations that he would be able to rapidly pull away. Even the revelations about Bob Schaffer’s connection to Jack Abramoff and the abortion and sweat-shop labor controversies that surrounded his trip to the Mariana Islands failed to significantly help Udall. Similarly, the GOP thought they were making progress when the public mood turned in favor of oil drilling; Republicans believed that would hurt Udall, who is a staunch conservationist, and even Udall must have thought the same thing since he abruptly reversed his stance on drilling in the late summer. Yet, Udall’s defensive summer position made no dent in his modest polling lead.
Over the past month, however, the race appears to have decisively broken in Udall’s favor. The economic crisis has hurt Republicans across the country, and nowhere more so than in open seats. In a supreme sign of confidence, the DSCC announced this week that it was pulling out of the state, no longer believing that Udall needed their help. The NRSC did the same yesterday, pulling its ads out and shifting the resources it had devoted to helping Schaffer to other more salvageable seats. While Colorado might not be as much of a lock as New Mexico and Virginia, it has become highly unlikely that Schaffer can pull off an upset.
4. New Hampshire (Incumbent: John Sununu)
Last updated November 2nd: For a few weeks in September, It looked like Sununu might be climbing back as he regained his footing among independents, aired hard-hitting ads attacking Shaheen’s gubernatorial record and portrayed himself as an energetic maverick; but the economic crisis and the GOP’s collapse in late September halted any momentum Sununu might have been enjoying.
Besides that short period of shifting momentum, this race has been remarkably stable for more than a year. Former Governor Jeanne Shaheen was already dominating incumbent Senator John Sununu before she announced her candidacy. In fact, she has only trailed in only two polls - an ARG poll from December 2007 and a Rasmussen poll from September 2008; both surveys had Sununu up big, and both seemed like complete outliers. (ARG and Rasmussen’s next surveys corrected themselves and showed Shaheen regaining a commanding advantage.) While Shaheen’s edge isn’t big enough for a Sununu comeback to be ruled out, it is hard to conceive of an incumbent prevailing after being consistently stuck in the low 40s and a GOP hold would have to be considered as one of the biggest upsets in modern politics.
5. Oregon (Incumbent: Gordon Smith)
Last updated on November 2nd: Sen. Gordon Smith has been aware that he is vulnerable since the first days of the cycle and has done his best to prepare, but the environment is simply too toxic for Republicans - particularly in a blue state like Oregon. All polls suggest that Obama will crush McCain in the state, significantly outperforming Al Gore and John Kerry, a clear sign that Oregon’s independent voters are behaving like Democrats. The DSCC has been hammering Gordon Smith for months for his proximity to George Bush and for his party label, and it is remarkable that all of Smith’s ads touting his bipartisanship (some of which were quite effective) have not protected him. As if that was not enough, the Democratic surge of the past seven weeks has perhaps damaged no Republican as much as Gordon Smith.
That said, the new likely take-over rating is somewhat deceiving: It is not meant to describe the size or the ease of a Merkley’s victory (in fact, I only moved the race out of the toss-up column eight days ago) as much as the fact that it looks like Merkley has already won the race. As the entire voting in Oregon is conducted via mail, which means that the vast majority of voters have already sent in their ballot. Election Day has already passed in the state, and a number of polls released over the past few days show that Gordon Smith has remained stuck in the low 40s, trailing widely among those respondents who said they had already voted. Merkley’s margin will not be large enough for a Smith victory to be ruled out, but the incumbent Senator would have to perform very well among the last batch of mailed ballot to keep his seat.
6. North Carolina (Incumbent: Elizabeth Dole)
Last updated on October 5th: In my July ratings, I wrote that “the DSCC has been looking for more seats to contest, and has made a clear choice that North Carolina has the most potential.” Within a matter of weeks, the DSCC’s involvement has transformed the race into one of the year’s most heated - and most surprisingly so. While we certainly knew that Senator Dole was vulnerable, Democrats were certainly not expecting for the incumbent’s standing to collapse so easily. Dole led by double-digits through July, but a hard-hitting campaign by the DSCC painting Dole as ineffective and lacking clout with brutal spots (here are the first and second) took care of Dole’s numbers. (When Dole aired an ad portraying Hagan as a yapping dog, the DSCC fired back by comparing Dole to a smoking car.) The race quickly became a toss-up by the end of August.
Since then, Hagan has inched ahead in a number of polls, with her lead extending as much as a 9% in the latest PPP survey! To make matters worse for Dole, Hagan will benefit from Obama’s turnout machine while McCain’s ground game is minimal in the Tar Heel state. Somewhat surprisingly, Republican operatives are very pessimistic about this race, dropping quotes in a multitude of press outlets about how bad Dole’s situation is. Though there is no question that Dole’s campaign has been strikingly weak and its attakcs on Hagan have failed to catch on, polls do not justify such a high level of despair. The race remains highly competitive, and it could easily find its way back to the toss-up column in upcoming weeks. For now, however, Hagan is riding the DSCC advertisements and Obama’s momentum in the state, and that is proving a lethal combination.
7. Alaska (Incumbent: Ted Stevens)
Last updated on November 2nd: Ted Stevens’s conviction radically transformed the Alaska Senate race. The incumbent Senator had fallen in a hole after his late July indictment but had managed to battle his way into a dead heat. His electoral fate looked to be entirely dependent on the outcome of his high-profile trial, and Stevens would probably have won re-election had he been acquitted; but it took a reconfigured jury only a few hours to find him guilty on all seven counts on Monday. Since then, bad news has accumulated for Stevens: Rasmussen and Research 2000 found him trailing by 8% and 22% respectively, and countless Republicans called for Stevens’s resignation - including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Alaska Governor Sarah Palin. Their repudiation helps the Democratic argument that Stevens is too discredited to even be able to bring back earmarks to the state.
In any other state and against any other incumbent, a late October conviction and such pile-up by members of one’s own party would be enough to swing the race to the safe takeover category. But this is Ted Stevens, perhaps the politician that has the most towering dominance on his state’s politics anywhere in the country. The now-convicted felon is trying to rally Alaskans around him by arguing that the trial’s verdict was the work of outside forces trying to influence Alaska. While Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich is now clearly favored, Stevens’s political obituary should not be written before Tuesday night.
Toss-up (2 R, 0 D)
8. Minnesota (Incumbent: Norm Coleman)
Last updated September 23rd: The media chose the Minnesota Senate race as this cycle’s marquee match-up more than a year ago, before there was any evidence of whether the contest would live up to the hype. In 2006, the Casey-Santorum battle was similarly drummed up but it turned out to be a relatively dull race without much movement. But this time the expectations were spot on: No Senate race has been as heated and as nasty as the all-out war between Al Franken and Norm Coleman.
For much of the spring, Coleman put Franken on the defensive with a series of controversies on Franken’s past - and his best summer efforts to keep the conversation on these issues were boosted by the fact that a Democrat started airing even harsher spots against Franken’s “record of degradation of minorities and women.” But Franken has effectively turned the table on Coleman by hitting the incumbent’s ethics in a series of spot (here’s part 1 and part 2) that conclude with “stay tuned for more,” in an attempt to transform Coleman’s ethical misconduct in some sort of eagerly-awaited mini-series. And Franken has also relied on the DSCC, which has become increasingly involved in the race and is airing ads tying Coleman to the Bush Administration - the Democrat’s most predictable strategy this election year.
We have long known that this election would be defined over which campaign manages to put the spotlight on his opponent: Democrats want to make this a referendum on Coleman’s party label, and Republicans want to make it into a referendum on Franken’s past. As Democrats have made progress over recent months, the comfortable lead Coleman posted throughout the summer has melted. SUSA (which had found Coleman up outside the MoE since March) now has a 1% race, and Minnesota Public Radio recently found Franken ahead by as much. It’s no surprise, then, that Coleman just unleashed his harshest negative ad yet, attacking Franken’s temperament in an effort to put the spotlight back on the Democrat.
Last updated on November 2nd: Who knew that Saxby Chambliss was this vulnerable? Late late spring, there were many other candidates to join the group of highly competitive Senate contests: Maine, Texas, Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Idaho… Democrats were too busy figuring out what was happening in a divisive primary in Georgia to think ahead to the general election. But some polls showed potential immediately after Jim Martin’s nomination - and that was before the financial crisis undercut Chambliss’s defenses along with those of Republican candidates nationwide.
With Libertarian Allen Buckley holding in the mid single-digits, the most plausible scenario is that no candidate crosses 50%, sending incumbent Senator Saxby Chambliss and former state Senator Jim Martin in a high-stakes high-profile runoff. Very few October polls have found any breathing room between the two candidates, with Martin doing significantly better among registered voters - a model that Georgia’s early voting data suggests could be closer to Tuesday’s vote. And with this stunning boost in African-American turnout, an outright Martin victory on Tuesday is perhaps more plausible than Chambliss’s crossing 50%.
Both parties have poured in millions in the final stretch, but all of that will pale in comparison to the resources that will be invested if the race goes in the runoff. It is doubtful that Barack Obama, if he becomes President Elect, would want to be associated with the race too closely as a defeat would then risk undermining his mandate before he even starts governing, but there is no question that the state will be swamped by both parties’ top surrogates. It’s an open question as to who would be most favored by a runoff. On the one hand, Republicans would have an easy time arguing that Democrats should not be given full powers if Obama is elected and if his party makes Senate gains elsewhere; on the other hand, special elections tend to favor whichever party is more enthusiastic - and in 2008 that would be Democrats.
10. Mississippi (Incumbent: Roger Wicker)
Last updated November 2nd: Senator Roger Wicker has been slowly improving his re-election prospects ever since he was appointed Senator 11 months ago, confirming the Democrats’ contention that Gov. Barbour’s ploy to delay this special election from March to November was meant to help Wicker. The NRSC has put few Democratic candidates on the defensive as much as Musgrove: They have hammered him on his gubernatorial record, accused him of costing the state jobs and of being involved in shady transactions, taken veiled shots at his family life and at his efforts to change the state flag to no longer reflect any Confederate heritage, and described him as an “out of touch” liberal who supports Hillary-esque policies and the homosexual agenda.
In one of the GOP’s most ingenious tricks, they have sought to weaken Musgrove’s hold on the black vote. On the one hand, they are charging that Musgrove supports Barack Obama to lower his support among white voters; and they are exploiting the fact that Musgrove cannot appear to close to Obama or to African-American voters to run ads on black radio accusing Musgrove of neglecting African-Americans. The two latest polls (conducted by Rasmussen and Research 2000) showed Wicker pulling ahead to a high single-digit lead, suggesting that the Republican offensive has been working.
All of this said, victory remains in sight for Ronnie Musgrove, and the race is only moving to the “lean” category. The former Governor has been elected statewide before, and he enjoys strong name ID. The DSCC has heavily invested in the race and has sought to drive up the importance of economic issues by waging a populist campaign - for instance accusing Wicker of voting to increase his pay raise. Most importantly, black turnout is a big unknown here: If African-Americans vote at a higher pace (as they have been in the early voting of other Southern states) and boost their share of the electorate, all bets are off.
11. Kentucky (Incumbent: Mitch McConnell)
Last updated on October 12th: We have known that Mitch McConnell is highly vulnerable since polls released in the fall of 2007 showed him barely beating a number of Democrats. Yet, many top-tier Democrats passed on the race and Bruce Lunsford simply did not seem a strong enough candidate to make it this tight (nor would he be a reliable enough Democrat for progressives to get excited over). But the race has been highly engaged for months, with both candidates running vicious ads (Lunsford has been particularly smart by contrasting McCain’s reformist image to McConnell’s insider status).
Over the past few weeks, polls have shown the gap has closed, with Mason Dixon going as far as showing a tie; most other pollsters show McConnell leading in single digits. The DSCC has just gone up on air against McConnell, further proof that Democrats are determined to bring down the Senate’s Republican leader. In the context of the financial crisis, it might no longer matter how good or bad a candidate is as long as he has a “D” next to his name; as the Senate Minority Leader, McConnell is that much more likely to suffer from voter anger about Washington and about Republicans.
12. Louisiana (Incumbent: Mary Landrieu)
Last updated September 23rd: Much like Mississippi’s Wicker, Mary Landrieu stands to benefit from the added exposure for incumbents that came with Gustav and she is already running an ad touting her work on damage prevention. However, she also could lose more from the demobilization of New Orleans. That city is essential to statewide Democratic victories in this state, will residents be thinking about the election in the coming week and can they be organized?
Gustav aside, Landrieu has enjoyed a strong summer. Her campaign has relentlessly and effectively pounced on Kennedy, using his party switch to blast him as a “confused” and flip-flopping politician in a series of hard-hitting ads. And in a clear sign that Louisiana’s politics tilt to the right, the Landrieu campaign mocked Kennedy for supporting “liberal John Kerry” in 2004. These efforts are aimed at cutting Kennedy’s support among conservatives, feed resentment among Democratic voters and make him look unprincipled to independents - that was, after all, one of the central claims of Kennedy’s campaign. As a result, Kennedy has been forced on the defensive and Landrieu has taken a comfortable lead in the most recent poll.
13. Maine (Incumbent: Susan Collins)
Last updated September 23rd: This is not a race that is making much noise - and that’s bad for Democrats considering they have been failing to put in the competitive category. The DSCC has not canceled its $5 million reservation on state airwaves, but it’s already mid-September and there is still no sign of Democratic willingness to go after Susan Collins. Tom Allen’s ads have been positive biographical spots, but that will not get the job done against a popular incumbent. If they are not given a convincing reason to throw Collins out, Maine voters are likely to stick with the incumbent, and it is really not surprising that Allen continues to trail widely in the most recent polling - 17% and 19% in the latest Rasmussen and Research 2000 surveys.
14. Oklahoma (Incumbent: Jim Inhofe)
Last updated September 23rd: Democrats have been eying this race for a while, but the only sign that it might be competitive is an internal DSCC poll that finds Inhofe up by 9%. The other two surveys from the state (Sooner and SUSA) find Inhofe crushing his challenger by more than 20%. At the very least, Inhofe is taking Andrew Rice seriously to air an attack ad portraying Rice as too liberal for Oklahoma; but in a red state like this one, that l-word is a tough accusation to recover from, and Rice would need the DSCC’s help to have a chance. That does not look like it will be happening.
15. Idaho (Open)
Last updated on September 23rd: Lieutenant Governor Jim Risch is performing as he has to perform to win the election - but not enough to discourage Democrats. Two summer polls have Risch’s lead hovering at the double-digit mark, but stuck way under 50%. That has some Democrats hoping and the DSCC is reportedly starting to take a look at this race. A third poll released this week has Risch leading by 28%, though it does include independent and conservative candidate Rex Rammell.
Indeed, the GOP is reportedly worried Rammell might siphon votes away from Risch. Rep. Sali is said to have contacted Rammell and two other conservative candidates, urging them to drop out of the race. But the GOP’s attempt to kick Rammell off the ballot failed in early September, as the state Supreme Court upheld Rammell’s petition. Now, LaRocco is trying his best to raise Rammell’s profile. While Risch continues to refuse to debate, LaRocco and Rammell held a debate - an opportunity for both to make this as much of a three-way race as possible. Summer polls are finding Rammell getting only in the mid-single digits.
16. New Jersey (Incumbent: Frank Lautenberg)
Last updated on September 23rd: As is usual in New Jersey, polls are all over the place, from an 18% lead for Lautenberg to a 1% lead for Zimmer (in a Club for Growth poll). Most surveys are finding the Democratic incumbent hovering around the 10% mark. In New Jersey’s peculiar political universe, for a Democrat to lead by 10% in September is as large a lead as he can hope for. But the state GOP has got to believe that they will at some point break their New Jersey curse.
17. Nebraska (Open)
Last updated in July: Considering this race keeps falling down the rankings, it is hard to believe that Nebraska was once ranked fourth. Chuck Hagel’s retirement created a short-lived opportunity for Democrats. Former Republican Governor Johanns soon jumped in the race and Democrats Bob Kerrey and Mike Fahey announced they would not run. Democrats nominated Scott Kleeb, a promising candidate who did surprisingly well in NE-03 in 2006. Yet, Nebraska remains very Republican and Johanns is as strong a candidate as the GOP could have run. Polls confirm that it will take a miracle for Kleeb to move to Washington.
18. Texas (Incumbent: John Cornyn)
Last updated October 25th: Late spring, Sen. Cornyn looked endangered, as a string of polls showed him barely ahead of Democratic challenger Rick Noriega, a state Senator who might not have been a top-tier candidate but was certainly credible enough to exploit Cornyn’s vulnerabilities. Unfortunately for Democrats, Noriega never caught fire, and Cornyn’s poll numbers - while not as stellar as they could be - put him safely ahead. The main factor that explains why Texas did not become more competitive while North Carolina, Kentucky and Georgia have joined the top-tier is money: It takes a lot of it to wage a campaign in the Lone Star State because of the high number of media markets one has to cover - many of which are very expensive. Noriega’s fundraising was not strong enough to get around that problem, and this also prevented the DSCC from moving in.
19. Kansas (Incumbent: Roberts)
Last updated October 25th: Democrats had some hope that former Rep. Slattery could make this a race, and some summer polls showing Republican Sen. Roberts under 50% gave them hope; even the Kansas press started noticing that there was a Senate race worth covering. But a wave of advertisement has allowed Roberts to regain his footing, despite a memorable ad by Slattery, and the incumbent is now leading by huge margins in the latest polls.
20. South Dakota (Incumbent: Tim Johnson; Last Ranking: 20)
Last updated October 25th: The race was kept in the potentially competitive category based on the possibility that Sen. Johnson’s health condition worsened and gave an opening to his Republican opponent, but Johnson has managed to coast his way to the election remarkably smoothly. South Dakota was once considered as one of the most competitive races of the cycle, but there has been nothing to see ever since Johnson announced he would run for re-election.
21. South Carolina (Incumbent: Graham)
21. Tennessee (Incumbent: Alexander)
22. Iowa (Incumbent: Harkin)
23. Alabama (Incumbent: Sessions)
24. Michigan (Incumbent: Levin)
25. Montana (Incumbent: Baucus)
At the beginning of the cycle, some Republicans were murmuring that Max Baucus would be a top target. That they managed to nominate an 85-year perennial candidate and former Democrat and former Green Party member Bob Kelleher just about sank any chances they had to make this race competitive.
26. Delaware (Incumbent: Biden)
Joe Biden’s name will appear twice on the Delaware ballot - in the presidential race and in the senatorial one. Biden is extremely unlikely to lose the latter, as his opponent is a little-known and weakly-funded Republican activist. Of course, the GOP would love to tie Biden up to Delaware and make the Senate race competitive enough to force him to campaign there rather than in presidential battleground states, but they should have thought about that sooner (and frankly, if there was any risk of that happening, the Obama campaign would have insisted that he give up his Senate seat). If Biden wins both elections and moves to the Naval Observatory, outgoing Governor Ruth will appoint his successor before leaving office in January. That successor would have to run for a full term in a special election in November 2010.
28. Massachusetts (Incumbent: Kerry)
29. Illinois (Incumbent: Durbin)
30. Wyoming (Incumbent: Barrasso)
31. West Virginia (Incumbent: Rockefeller)
32. Mississippi (Incumbent: Cochran)
33. Rhode Island (Incumbent: Reed)
34. Wyoming (Incumbent: Enzi)
35. Arkansas (Incumbent: Pryor)