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How Bad Is It For Senate Republicans?

In the course of 24 hours earlier this week, the 2008 Senate landscape subtly shifted.

First, former South Dakota lieutenant governor Steve Kirby (R) decided against challenging incumbent Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.).

Then, no Republican candidate filed to challenge Sen. Mark Pryor in Arkansas -- a state that President Bush carried with 54 percent in 2004 and that is likely to go Republican again in 2008.

Finally, Mike Ciresi dropped his bid for the Democratic Senate nomination in Minnesota, a decision that allows Al Franken (D) to focus full-time on Sen. Norm Coleman (R) for the next nine months.

For Republicans, these events, which all occurred on Monday, removed all hope of a serious challenge to Pryor and likely ended any chance of an A-list candidate emerging against Johnson. While many Republicans believe Franken will be a weak general election candidate, even the most loyal GOP strategists acknowledge that they would have preferred a costly and extended Democratic primary fight.

"Senate Republicans are in a huge hole that only gets deeper by the minute," said one senior Republican strategist who closely monitors Senate races.

The raw numbers paint a depressing tableaux for GOPers. Republicans must defend 23 seats in November, compared with only 12 for Democrats. Of the 23 Republican seats up this cycle, five are open while two -- Wyoming and Mississippi -- feature an appointed senator on the statewide ballot for the first time.

Democrats, by contrast, have no open seats and a single Democratic incumbent -- Sen. Mary Landrieu (La.) -- in serious electoral peril.

On the fundraising front, the numbers are no more encouraging. At the end of January, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee had $30 million in the bank, while the National Republican Senatorial Committee, by contrast, had collected just $13 million by that same time.

Curt Anderson, a Republican consultant who served as one of the lead strategists at the NRSC during the 2006 cycle, equated the 2008 Senate playing field to being dealt a "bad, bad hand" -- one that is almost impossible to draw your way out of.

"It's really not quite as bad as people think it is," added Anderson. "The problem in the Senate this time is 95 percent something that is no one's control and that is the races that are up."

That's true -- to a point.

There's no question that of the three Senate classes who stand for reelection every two years, this group is by far the most challenging for Republicans. In 2010, 19 Republican seats and 15 Democratic seats will comprise the playing field; by 2012, however, 22 Democrats and two Independents who caucus with Democrats (Sens. Joe Lieberman and Bernie Sanders) will stand for reelection, while just nine Republicans will do the same.

But simply because this cycle's deck is stacked against them does not mean that Senate Republican should be entirely forgiven for not pulling a few aces out of their sleeves. (Thus ends a bad, and extended, card playing metaphor.)

Of the 12 Democrats seeking reelection, half are in states that President Bush won in 2004. In several of these states -- like Montana (59 percent) and South Dakota (60 percent) -- the president won by wide margins. Only in Louisiana, however, have Republicans recruited a top-tier candidate to challenge the incumbent.

In Senate Republican recruiters' defense, they have landed a handful of a solid recruits (Louisiana, Nebraska, New Mexico) and Democrats have missed some chances to recruit their first-choice candidates -- former senator Bob Kerrey of Nebraska being the most prominent example.

Some Republican strategists say the goal of the cycle -- in truth -- is not to regain control of the chamber but rather to limit the extent of their losses in hopes of positioning themselves for a comeback in 2010 and then a full-scale battle for control in 2012.

"Do we gain seats? Very doubtful," said one prominent Republican consultant involved in Senate races. "I don't see how [Democrats] get to 60."

That comment captures very clearly the goal of Senate Republicans: Keep Democrats under 60 seats, the magic number that allows the majority to break filibusters and truly control the chamber (and pass the agenda of a potential Democratic president).

While a lot has been spoken and written about the possibility of Democrats getting to 60 seats, the truth is that such a goal became something close to a pipe dream when Kerrey decided against a run in Nebraska.

Democrats are in a strong position to win open seats in Virginia and New Mexico; the party has to feel good about Colorado's open seat; and Democrats expect to do well against incumbent Sen. John Sununu in New Hampshire. If they score wins in all four, they still need to pick up five more seats to get to 60 -- assuming they can reelect Landrieu, a major question mark at the moment.

Could they beat Republican incumbents in Oregon, Maine, Alaska and Minnesota on a good day? Sure. But that still leaves them a seat short of 60.

Senate Republicans are headed for a very difficult November -- that much is clear. But that doesn't mean Democrats will run roughshod across the electoral landscape. Much can change in nine months. Races that once looked like sure things can get competitive in a hurry.

By Chris Cillizza  |  March 13, 2008; 1:14 PM ET
Categories:  Senate  
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