Sunday, May 11, 2008

Predictions: Senate Races 2008

Most recent update: October 17
Two years ago I had the distinction of correctly predicting the outcome of every race in the Senate. Democrats picked up five seats and gained the majority. I expect to enjoy 2008 just as much as I did 2006.

A whopping 35 Senate seats are up for grabs this year. Both Mississippi and Wyoming will be electing TWO senators thanks to early retirements by Republicans in those states. Republican prospects this year are very bleak. The GOP will find its meager resources stretched to the limit as it attempts to defend 23 seats versus only 12 for the Democrats, and this at a time when it is also coping with a shrinking base of support among voters and attempting to manage their friend George W. Bush, the most unpopular President ever.

Here's a list of all the competitive races. I'll be updating my overviews of each race as the spirit moves me.

Rating: Likely Democratic takeover.
Republican: Ted Stevens (incumbent)
Democrat: Mark Begich
Overview: (5/11) Let's face it, Ted Stevens is Alaska. The 84-year old Senator has been part of Alaskan politics since before it became a state. So why is Stevens in trouble? For the past several years, his office has been connected to numerous scandals involving influence peddling. In 2007, the FBI and IRS raided Stevens' home as part of a broad federal investigation of political corruption in Alaska, and he is under continued scrutiny from the Justice Department for his ties to an Alaska energy services company, Veco, whose chief executive pleaded guilty in early May 2007 to a bribery scheme involving state lawmakers. Stevens faces Mark Begich, the current mayor of Anchorage. Begich has championed the fight against global warming, and will certainly give Stevens a run for his money. An indictment of Stevens would probably seal the deal for Begich. Short of that, however, Stevens will be hard to beat. He's a household name in a Republican state, and Democrats have fared quite poorly in Alaska in the last couple of election cycles.
(7/26) Upgrading this race from Leans Republican to Toss Up. The most recent poll shows Begich now holding an 8% lead over Stevens, at the same time that Alaska Republicans are now trying to cope with a scandal involving Governor Sarah Palin. Begich now has a good chance of winning.
(8/2) Upgrading this race from Toss Up to Likely Democratic Takeover. This past Tuesday, Stevens was indicted on seven counts of failing to disclose thousands of dollars in services he received from the Veco Company in return for influence. As a result, Republican chances for holding onto this seat probably just fell off the table. Stevens is still likely to win the Republican primary, as the new anti-Stevens vote will be divided among several candidates. The most recent general election poll however shows Stevens now trailing Democrat Mark Begich by 21 points.
(9/12) The picture on this race has become somewhat clouded, but Begich is still likely to win. Palin's candidacy helps Stevens, obviously. It is unclear whether Stevens' corruption trial will take place before the election, and what effect that will have on the race.
(9/20) Jury selection in Stevens' trial begins Tuesday. VECO founder Bill Allen, who plead guilty to bribery and corruption charges and who is cooperating with federal authorities, is set to testify against Stevens saying his firm intentionally gave Stevens money in violation of federal election laws. In Stevens' mind, apparently, he will be acquitted just before the election and go on to victory. This seems highly unlikely, but since Begich leads Stevens only narrowly in the polls despite Stevens' indictment, anything's possible.
(10/10) The outcome of this race will be determined by whether Stevens is found guilty in his ongoing corruption trial. The prosecution has finished making its case. The evidence presented is incredibly damning to Stevens. Unfortunately, the Justice Department's presentation has also been a comedy of errors that has already resulted in the Judge repeatedly chastising them and throwing out some of the evidence.
(10/18) A combative Ted Stevens took the stand Friday in his nearly complete trial, in which he is charged with deliberately failing to report gifts from Veco Corp's Bill Allen. Oddly, Stevens seemed to admit his own guilt, as he claimed to have repeatedly asked for bills for the things Veco gave him. I presume Stevens will be found guilty next week, but when celebrities are put on trial, one should always expect the unexpected.

Rating: Likely Democratic takeover.
Republican: Bob Schaffer (Wayne Allard retiring)
Democrat: Mark Udall
Overview: (6/12) Times have changed in Colorado. The once conservative state has been trending Democratic for the last several years, leaving Republicans at a disadvantage for this year's open seat Senate race as well as for the Presidential election. Popular Congressman Mark Udall will be facing former Congressman Bob Schaffer. Schaffer has been out of the limelight for a few years, and he brings a lot of baggage to the campaign as he has in the past been cozy with convicted felon Jack Abramoff. Recently Schaffer has become known for an embarrassing campaign commercial which accidentally showed a picture Mt. McKinley while Schaffer was talking about Colorado's Pike's Peak. Democrats will also be getting a boost in Colorado from the National Convention in Denver this August. Baring any major mistakes, both Barack Obama and Mark Udall will win in Colorado this year.
(9/12) This race is fairly close, but Schaffer's campaign is generating remarkably little enthusiasm. That's good, because it's vital that we keep Colorado Republicans as disinterested as possible, given that Colorado has become critical to Barack Obama's campaign.
(10/18) The National Republican Senatorial Committee is pulling out of this race. Game over, Udall wins.

Rating: Leans Republican hold.
Republican: Saxby Chambliss (incumbent)
Democrat: Jim Martin
Independent: Allen Buckley
Overview: (9/30) Saxby Chambliss is the Republican that Democrats love to hate. In 2002, he defeated incumbent Democratic Senator (and triple amputee) Max Cleland after running an ad showing Cleland's picture next to that of Osama bin Laden and questioning Cleland's commitment to American security. Yes, that's right, Chambliss won based on questioning the patriotism of a veteran who lost both legs and an arm in Vietnam. Thanks a lot, Georgia. Anyway, Chambliss was expected to be able to sleepwalk to reelection this year against likely Democratic nominee Vernon Jones. Jones however was defeated in the primary by Jim Martin, long-time member of the Georgia House of Representatives and Vietnam veteran. This race wasn't on any one's radar until recently because of Martin's low name recognition and Chambliss' huge lead in the polls. Newly released polls now show the race as a dead heat. Another headache for Chambliss comes in the form of Libertarian Allen Buckley. Buckley is running as a neo-Klansman, and he's bound to siphon off some of the white racist vote in Georgia that would otherwise go Republican. Buckley has taken a hard-line position on immigrants he doesn't like, saying, "The U.S. has a tremendous illegal immigration problem, and the projected population growth (largely Hispanic) is huge." He suggests that the United States should, "limit future immigration," and, "allow for future immigration in a manner that admits people of all races on a more proportionate basis."
(10/10) The Democratic Party is dead serious about winning this one, and Martin is quickly building support. We've got a great chance here.
(10/18) This race is tied, and both National parties are pouring in support. Republicans are counting on superior voter turnout to win this one, as John McCain still leads by 6% in the polls. Expectations are changing however, as Georgia has already begun voting and is seeing huge turnout by Obama supporters. According to one poll, "Among the 18% of Georgia voters who tell SurveyUSA they have already voted, Obama leads by 6 points." Wow.

Rating: Likely Republican hold.
Republican: Mitch McConnell (incumbent)
Democrat: Bruce Lunsford
Overview (9/30) On paper, Mitch McConnell is unbeatable. He's Senate minority leader, has a war chest of nearly $10 million, and he's running for a fifth term in red-state Kentucky. His opponent, Bruce Lunsford, has been a fixture in Kentucky state politics for 30 years, but has never held elective office. So why am I even writing about this race? Well, if two recent polls are to be believed, this race, incredibly, is now a dead heat. Lunsford has been portraying himself as a fan of John McCain, who is very popular in Kentucky, while tying McConnell closely to President Bush, who is unpopular in Kentucky (and everywhere else). I don't actually expect Lunsford to win, but he deserves credit for forcing McConnell to work hard for his reelection, and for keeping him from using his time and resources to help other Republicans in tight races.
(10/10) This race has tightened to within the margin of error. For Democrats, this would be the sweetest victory of all in the Senate, as McConnell has been the organizer of all the Republican filibusters that have kept Congress from actually doing anything useful for the last two years. This one may still be a bridge too far, but it's certainly not impossible.

Rating: Likely Democratic hold.
Democrat: Mary Landrieu (incumbent)
Republican: John Kennedy
Overview: (9/8) This race was supposed to be the Republicans' one chance to pick up their first Senate seat since 2004. The Gulf coast is the only place in the country that's shown any sign of trending Republican in the last four years, and that's only because of the population exodus from Hurricane Katrina. Democrat-turned-Republican John Kennedy, the state's Treasurer, has not been able to get any traction against the moderately popular Landrieu. I begin to wonder if 2010 will be the third election in a row where the Republicans fail to pick up any Senate seats.
(10/18) News this week from the race in Louisiana showcased the desperation and confusion of the Republican Senate Committee. First they announced that they were pulling their meager resources out of this race. Then some other Republicans got mad, so they are maybe changing their minds. Whatever. They're still going to get creamed.

Rating: Likely Republican hold.
Republican: Susan Collins (incumbent)
Democrat: Tom Allen
Overview: (6/26) Republican fortunes have been on the wane for years in New England. One of the few remaining bright spots for the GOP in the northeast has been it's success in holding down both on Maine's Senate seats for the last 14 years. This year, Susan Collins will be attempting to win a third term against Democrat Tom Allen. Allen deserves credit for giving up a safe seat in the U.S. House to challenge Collins. He's a very likable candidate and a sharp campaigner, but his battle against Collins is likely to remain uphill all the way. Incumbent senators with approval ratings above 50% rarely lose their reelection bids, and Collins currently holds a favorable rating of 65%, despite the fact that she refused to do anything whatever to investigate misconduct by contractors in Iraq while she was Chairman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. On the bright side, Allen has been slowly but steadily closing the polling gap between Collins and himself all year, and he should also benefit from Obama beating McCain in Maine by ten points or more. I expect Collins will win this one, but if she makes any major mistakes, anything goes.
(9/12) A new poll of the Presidential race in Maine shows Obama with a whopping 14 point lead. Unfortunately, Collins still leads Allen in this Senate race by a similar margin. I don't know exactly why Allen's campaign has failed so badly, but it has. This one's over.

Rating: Toss up.
Republican: Norm Coleman (incumbent)
Democrat: Al Franken
Independent: Dean Barkley
Overview: (6/26) My full post on this race can be found here.
(8/9) Post-Palin-pick polling in Minnesota shows Obama now holding a double-digit lead over McCain, and the most recent poll of this Senate race shows Franken leading by one. The stuff I'm reading on this race seems to think that Coleman still has the inside track to hold onto this seat, but if the polling numbers above continue to hold up for the next two months, Franken is well-positioned to win.
(9/20) The new monkey wrench in this race is the candidacy of Dean Barkley. Barkley is an old buddy of former Governor Jesse Ventura, and he already has high name recognition in Minnesota. Recent polls show Barkley grabbing as much as 14% of the vote. I think he will take votes away from Coleman and Franken about equally. On the one hand, his Reform Party roots appeal mostly to disaffected Republicans, on the other hand, Barkley is ardently against the war in Iraq, which appeals to progressives who don't care for Al Franken. This race is completely up in the air, and has gotten very nasty, because support for both Coleman and Franken has seemed to ebb and flow with every little scandal that comes along.
(10/3) Here's my update of this race in the context of other stuff going on in MN.
(10/10) I can't believe I get to say this, but: Al Franken is winning this race. Franken is ahead in 4 of the last 5 polls, and Coleman is being pummelled by a new lobbyist scandal. Depending on who you want to believe, Obama is ahead of McCain in Minnesota by either 18 points or by only 1 point, but I've got a good feeling about this one.

Rating: Leans Republican hold.
Republican: Roger Wicker (incumbent appointed following Trent Lott retirement)
Democrat: Ronnie Musgrove
Overview: (6/7) Trent Lott ran and won reelection in 2006 but resigned in December of last year in order to start a lucrative lobbying career. Republican congressman Roger Wicker was appointed to fill the seat, with a special election to be held this fall for the remaining four years of the term. The situation has already caused the Republicans one serious headache, as Democrat Travis Childers won the special election for the congressional seat vacated by Wicker. Now the GOP is in more trouble in Mississippi as the Democrats have nominated former Governor Ronnie Musgrove, and recent polls have shown the race to be a dead heat. Normally, Democrats wouldn't have much a chance in a race like this in Mississippi in a Presidential election year, as lopsided support for the Republican ticket would create benefits for other Republicans down the ballot. This year however, Mississippi can expect a close race for its electoral votes as African-Americans, who constitute more than one-third of the electorate in the state, turn out in huge numbers for Barack Obama. Musgrove has also won a statewide race in Mississippi, while Wicker has not. This one will be close.
(8/9) Musgrove's campaign is just not getting off the ground. This poll pretty much says it all. Wicker leads among white voters 71% to 22%. We can't even get one white person in four to support our candidate in this state? Sheesh. Changing this one from Toss up to Leans Republican hold.
(9/30) Not much has changed in this race, and if there's no big news by election day, I'll be calling this one for Wicker. There's an interesting wild card however. It's possible that Obama and Musgrove have more support than the polls indicate, simply because it's difficult to get accurate polling information from the impoverished people of Mississippi.
(10/10) The only recent poll of this race shows Wicker leading only 49-47. It's possible that the collapse of John McCain's chances might allow Musgrove to ride to victory on Obama's coattails.
(10/18) Wicker still holds a slight lead in the polls. However, the results of early voting in other Southern states is changing expectations. Georgia and North Carolina are already voting, and seeing an incredible turnout among African-Americans. If the same pattern holds in Mississippi, Musgrove will get a boost. This one's still to close to call.

New Hampshire
Rating: Likely Democratic takeover.
Republican: John Sununu
Democrat: Jean Shaheen
Overview: (8/9) has a perfect summary of this race, so I'm just going to quote it in full and leave it at that: "Sen. John Sununu (R-NH) had not really been on the radar until Nov. 7, 2006, when a political tsunami hit New Hampshire. Gov. John Lynch (D) was reelected with the largest margin in state gubernatorial history at the same time two totally unknown Democrats knocked off the state's two sitting Republican House members. The Democrats also swept to power in both houses of the state legislature for the first time since 1874. In this environment, the rematch between three-time governor Jeanne Shaheen (D) and Sununu is likely to be very different than Sununu's 2002 4% victory over Shaheen. Early polling gives Shaheen a double-digit lead. Sununu has the additional burden of being a strong supporter of the war in Iraq, a highly unpopular position in New Hampshire. At this point, the seat leans strongly Democratic."
(9/30) John Sununu is unique. He's the only seriously endangered Republican Senate incumbent who's seen his polling numbers improve, rather than deteriorate, over the last month or two. McCain has also put up some good numbers recently in New Hampshire. I'm still confident Shaheen will win, but it's not in the bag yet.
(10/18) There was a time last month when Republican prospects in New Hampshire actually looked pretty good, with McCain holding a small lead in the polls. That time has passed. Looking good for Shaheen.

New Mexico
Rating: Guaranteed Democratic takeover.
Republican: Steve Pearce (Pete Dominici retiring)
Democrat: Tom Udall
Overview: (9/8) All three of New Mexico's incumbent Congresspersons jumped into this open seat race this year. Congresswoman Heather Wilson was expected to win the primary on the Republican side, but was narrowly defeated by the far more conservative and less popular Congressman Steve Pearce. The Republican Party has announced that they are pulling their ad buys in this race, which means they're conceding.
(9/12) Oh yeah, forgot to mention. This is a win-win for Democrats as the House seats Wilson and Pearce gave up to run in this race are both in play. Democrats are likely to win one and possibly both. Additionally, it's good that enthusiasm for Republicans down the ballot and Republican spending on advertising in New Mexico are both low, because New Mexico is another swing state that has become vital to Obama's strategy to win the Presidency.

North Carolina
Rating: Toss Up
Republican: Elizabeth Dole (incumbent)
Democrat: Kay Hagan
Overview: (6/7) This race is turning out to be the sleeper of 2008. Libby Dole has an extraordinary résumé, and it has been presumed that she could keep the Senate seat she won in 2002 for as long as she wants it. Unfortunately for her, politics is a game of What have you done for me lately?. And what Dole has done lately is serve as chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. Under her disastrous leadership, the GOP lost control of the Senate. I don't know if North Carolinians care about that or not, but they do have a long record of quickly tiring of incumbent office holders and replacing them. Dole's opponent is state Senator Kay Hagan. Hagan is a savvy politician, and a recent poll showed her actually holding a small lead over Dole. Given that Dole's name recognition is much higher that Hagan's at this stage of the game, this shows that Dole is in serious trouble.
(6/26) Downgrading this race from Toss Up to Leans Republican hold. All the polls are now showing Dole with a big lead, barring any major change in the race, she'll win.
(8/9) Maybe I spoke to soon. Hagan has been running an effective campaign that has brought her into a tie with Dole in the polls. Also of note is the Obama campaign's all-out effort to win North Carolina's 15 electoral votes, which helps Hagan as well.
(9/20) This race continues to trend in favor of Hagan. Dole is bleeding support in the polls, and if she's going to win, she needs to hope that the McCain campaign can recover from its recent slide and get Republicans energized. Changing this race from Leans Republican hold to Toss up.
(9/30) According to the polls, Hagan now leads Dole in this race. Increasingly, the Dole campaign seems demoralized. I strongly suspect that Dole surrounds herself with old folks that she and Bob have known for decades, and not the kind of young go-getters needed to sustain a energetic campaign. Obama is now tied with McCain in North Carolina, and Democrats are fired up.
(10/10) The McCain campaign says that Dole is "virturally certain to lose." now gives Hagan a 63% chance of winning. We've almost sealed the deal on this one.

Rating: Toss up.
Republican: Gordon Smith (incumbent)
Democrat: Jeff Merkley
Independent: Dave Brownlow
Overview: (8/2) Gordon Smith is in trouble and he knows it. His favorability ratings are weak, and in order to be relected this fall he would need plenty of crossover voters as Obama is sure to defeat McCain in Oregon. His best bet would have been if the Democrats had difficulty rallying around a candidate. Earlier this year it looked like that might happen, as Oregon Speaker of the House Jeff Merkley managed only a narrow win over activist Steve Novick for the Democratic nomination. Since then however, the Merkley campaign has made great strides. The most recent polling shows Merkley now in the lead, and Smith is clearly getting desperate. How desperate? Incredibly, he's running to the left, trying to remind voters how close he is to Obama and John Kerry and how he (supposedly) has criticized President Bush. During the 1990's and early 2000's, I saw a lot of Democrats run to the right, too scared of their own shadows to stick to their principles. But as Harry Truman said, "Given the choice between a Republican and someone who acts like one, the people will vote for the real Republican every time." On that same note, I think Smith's jump to the left will hurt him more with his conservative base than it will bring some Democrats to his cause.
(9/12) Who is Dave Brownlow, and why is he polling at 6% in the Oregon Senate race? Brownlow is the nominee of the right-wing Constitution Party, and his support is not really a surprise. With both the Republican and the Democrat in this race embracing Barack Obama, conservatives need somewhere to go. Ironically, although Brownlow is the far-right candidate in the race, he happens to be against the war in Iraq. Three candidates from three different parties, and not one of them supports Bush's war. Sorry, George. If this Democratic-commissioned poll is to be believed, Smith's approval numbers are sinking fast, and Merkley now holds a small lead in this race. Older polls are less sanguine about Merkley's chances. Some good news however can be found in the first poll of the Presidential race since in Oregon since the conventions, which suggests that Obama still has a healthy lead. Possibly Obama can help Merkley win. This one is very, very close.
(9/20) The hits just keep on coming for Gordon Smith. It was revealed this week that Smith's frozen food business has been employing undocumented immigrants, despite Smith's denials. Smith has long taken a hard-line stance against illegal immigration. I'm not yet ready to predict that Merkley will win. However if nothing changes in this race by November, I will be predicting a Democratic victory.
(10/18) Merkley leads by 5 in the polls. Barring major news in this race, it's over.

Rating: Guaranteed Democratic takeover.
Republican: Jim Gilmore (John Warner retiring)
Democrat: Mark Warner
Overview: (9/8) Warner and Gilmore are both former Governors, and Virginia is a highly-competitive swing-state. Warner, however, is a popular rising star for the Democrats while Gilmore is the unpopular symbol of a party in disarray. Warner leads in the polls by roughly a two-to-one margin.

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