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Friday Senate Line: Fading Incumbents

Incumbency in politics is a very strong thing. Holding elective office means access to skilled staff, a treasure trove of campaign cash and the sort of name identification with voters that money can't buy.

And so, it's a somewhat remarkable development that the three top Senate races in this month's Line are all held by incumbents.

In two of the three cases, self-inflicted wounds are to blame.

Kentucky Sen. Jim Bunning (R) has been erratic, at best, over the last few months and seems far more interested in fighting with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) than in raising the money he needs for reelection.

In Connecticut, Sen. Chris Dodd (D) has been in free fall for the better part of the last year -- the result of a hopeless presidential bid (in which he moved his family to Iowa for a time) as well as entanglements with scandal-tarred companies like Countrywide and AIG.

Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter's (R) problem is not of his making, but rather is the result of the shifting demographics of the state. President Obama's massive voter registration effort in Pennsylvania last fall led many moderate Republican voters to re-register as Democrats, robbing Specter of a vital piece of his base and making him extremely vulnerable to a primary challenge from conservative former Rep. Pat Toomey.

As always, the number one ranked race is the most likely to switch parties next November. The comments section is the place for your kudos and critiques of our picks.

To the Line!

10. Louisiana (R-controlled): Every day that Democrats fail to land a top tier challenger against Sen. David Vitter (R), his vulnerability drops as he continues to rake in cash ($2.5 million on hand at the end of March). On paper, Vitter's admission of involvement in a prostitution ring should make him a top target -- particularly given his emphasis on social conservative issues in past campaigns. But, no serious Republican seems to want to take him on in the primary and Democrats continue to mill about without anyone jumping in. Our best is that Shaw CEO Jim Bernhard, who has wanted to run statewide for the last several years and has personal money, winds up being the Democratic candidate. But, it's hard to see Vitter losing right now. (Previous ranking: 8)

9. Illinois (D-controlled): Former commerce secretary Bill Daley's decision not to run further strengthens the hand of Illinois state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias. Giannoulias put together an extremely strong first quarter of fundraising and is doing the legwork to ensure that he is the establishment pick. State Attorney General Lisa Madigan (D) has said she has no interest in running for the Senate in 2010 and appointed Sen. Roland Burris (D) is an afterthought at this point. If Senate Republican recruiters can convince Rep. Mark Kirk, a terrific fundraiser, to run, then this could be a competitive race. Even so, Giannoulias would have to be considered the favorite. (Previous ranking: 10)

8. Colorado (D): Appointed Sen. Michael Bennet (D) deserves credit for putting together a very impressive -- $1.4 million -- fundraising quarter especially when one considers that he's never really been in elective office before. Republicans still believe he is among the most vulnerable of incumbents, however, due to the fact that he remains a virtually unknown commodity in the state. As evidence of Bennet's weakness, Republicans point to a new Public Policy Polling survey that shows 41 percent of Colorado voters disapprove of the job he is doing while 34 percent approve. (PPP is an automated polling service based out of North Carolina so take these results cum grano salis.) Republicans biggest problem in the race is the lack of a top-tier candidate. Former congressman Bob Beauprez is looking at the race but many within the party seem most excited about Aurora City Councilman Ryan Frazier. (Previous ranking: 9)

7. Florida (R): Gov. Charlie Crist (R) has gone from a long shot to run for the Senate to a near certainty, according to conventional wisdom in the Sunshine State. Crist has said little about a run for the seat being vacated by Sen. Mel Martinez (R) and isn't expected to announce a decision until the legislature closes its session next month. Still, with a looming budget crisis in the state and polls that suggest he will waltz to the nomination, it's hard to see how Crist passes up the Senate race. While Crist would be a strong favorite in a general election, Rep. Kendrick Meek (D) has impressed as a candidate -- consolidating organized labor behind him and showing very solid fundraising ($1.8 million on hand at the end of last month). (Previous ranking: 7)

6. Ohio (R): Fundraising totals for the first three months of 2009 were a telling sign of strength in this open seat race. Former Rep. Rob Portman (R) delivered on the high expectations for his candidacy with $1.7 million raised and another $1.4 million transferred from his House account. Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher (D) also crested the $1 million raised plateau -- far outdistancing Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner (D) who brought in just $200,000. If Brunner can't find a way to stay more competitive with Fisher, she is likely to face significant pressure from state and national Democrats to abandon her candidacy. Either way, a Fisher-Portman race is the most likely one right now, and that has all the makings of a great one. (Previous ranking: 6)

5. Missouri (R): This race drops a few places in the Line only because several others states have grown more competitive since we last ranked the contests. Secretary of State Robin Carnahan (D) spent the first three months of the year fundraising and it showed as she brought in just over $1 million during that time. Rep. Roy Blunt (R), on the other hand, spent more of his time making public appearances around the state and putting his operation together and it showed: $560,000 raised. While Blunt believes he will have little trouble raising the money he needs for the race, his unimpressive showing between January and March virtually ensured that former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman will primary him. Steelman announced yesterday she is forming an exploratory committee for the race and is being advised by John Weaver and Ben Ginsberg -- two GOP heavyweights. (Previous ranking: 3)

4. New Hampshire (R): This seems to be a seat no one really wants. Sen. Judd Gregg (R) has received entreaties to rethink his retirement decision but has demurred. Former Sen. John Sununu (R) and Rep. Carol Shea Porter (D) have decided against running. And, the only serious candidate in the race for either side -- Rep. Paul Hodes (D) -- raised a disappointing $265,000 between Jan. 1 and March 31. Despite his fundraising take, Hodes will be the Democratic nominee. Can Republicans convince a top-tier candidate into the race? (Previous ranking: 1)

3. Connecticut (D): There are signs that Sen. Chris Dodd (D) has hit rock bottom and is starting the long climb back now. Dodd brought in more than $1 million in the first quarter of the year (a vast improvement over his showing in the final three months of 2008) and watched as his likeliest challenger, former Rep. Rob Simmons, decided against raising any money in the quarter -- essentially granting Dodd a $1.4 million headstart. Couple the money with the fact that Simmons is likely to face former Ambassador Tom Foley, who has personal money to spend, in the GOP primary, and the outlook starts to look slightly more optimistic for Dodd. Still, when a poll shows an incumbent down by 16 points, it's never a good sign. (Previous ranking: 4)

2. Pennsylvania (R): There are very few neutral observers of Pennsylvania politics who believe that Sen. Arlen Specter will beat former Rep. Pat Toomey in next year's Republican primary. While most don't believe the situation is as dire for Specter as a new Rasmussen Reports poll suggests, it's clear that the last several years have thinned the ranks of moderate Republican voters in Pennsylvania, making Specter's path to reelection very difficult. As for us, we have seen Specter prove everyone wrong too many times to totally write him off, but he has no better than a 50-50 shot at winning the nomination. The Democratic field is still unsettled. Former National Constitution Center head Joe Torsella raised a solid but not spectacular $600,000 in the first quarter while Reps. Joe Sestak ($3 million on hand) and Allyson Schwartz ($2 million on hand) made sure they would be positioned to run if they decided to do so. Smart Pennsylvania Democrats believe neither ultimately will but either one would make for a formidable primary foe for Torsella. State Rep. Josh Shapiro also continues to mull a run for the Democratic nomination. (Previous ranking: 5)

1. Kentucky (R): Sen. Jim Bunning (R) promised a "lousy" fundraising quarter and boy did he deliver. Bunning collected a measly $263,000 in the first quarter and closed March with $376,000 on hand. Not good. It's likely that those numbers will further embolden Republicans weighing a primary challenge to Bunning including state Senate president David Williams. What's less clear, however, is whether the conservative Bunning can be beaten in a Republican primary race. Retirement rumors also continue to dog Bunning and just as often as they pop up, he knocks them down. Democrats are headed toward a terrific primary fight between Lt. Gov. Dan Mongiardo and state Attorney General Jack Conway, a race that even partisans of both men acknowledge is a toss up. If Bunning is the Republican nominee, Mongiardo or Conway would be heavily favored to return the seat to the Democratic column. (Previous ranking: 2)

By Chris Cillizza  |  April 24, 2009; 3:49 PM ET
Categories:  The Line  
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Next: Murphy Wins NY-20


I agree with most of what you posted Chris, however I do agree with the other posters on here that most of these selections were correct. However, I definitely agree with some of the other posters that Illinois should be replaced with North Carolina and be number eight (Colorado should be number nine on this poll since there is a much more formidable opponent emerging in North Carolina - Roy Cooper than there is in Colorado, where there isn't as deep of a bench (not to mention a governors race going on that is more likely to draw the top talent there).

Regarding the comments about that potential closeted gay in politics documentary possibly making Crist decide ultimately (and likely) not to run. I also think this documentary could potentially give John McCain problems in a primary (even if it is a Minuteman). Between his daughter Meghan coming out for same-sex marriage (and Cindy attending the Log Cabin Republican event with her) and the very real possibility that one of those closeted gay profiles will be McCain's best friend in the Senate Lindsey Graham. Remember that confrontation he had with Barbara Boxer during the stimulus debate - and Boxer calling Graham theatrical - youtube it (type boxer graham stimulus) - it is probably the gayest exchange I have ever seen in politics.

Posted by: robbygtx | April 25, 2009 8:07 PM | Report abuse

I would assume many more peeps are more concerned about the NFL draft.. there are few who spend much time dwelling on these contests.. sad, in a way.. politicians know that once elected, we largely ignore their performance and voting records..

Posted by: newbeeboy | April 25, 2009 3:44 PM | Report abuse

Chris, put Missouri #1 next time. Blunt is toast. There will be a nasty primary between Blunt and Sarah Steelman. The Blunt brand has been low since Gov. Matt Blunt refused to run for re-election because he knew he could never beat Jay Nixon. Roy's past association with the K Street crowd will all be rekindled again. Plus, he will be running against the most popular politician in Missouri, Robin Carnahan, daughter of former governor Mel Carnahan. Like I said, Missouri should be number one.

Posted by: rogden71 | April 25, 2009 9:24 AM | Report abuse

In Ohio the Republicans seem to believe Senator Sessions on winning strategy. Portman meets all the criteria:
Strong identification with George Bush, as well as strong identification with everything Bush was notorious for.
Sure to be liked and supported by Limbaugh, Cheney, and every other "Hell NO! Republican.
Strong support from the far right rank and file Republicans in the state, (thus his money numbers).
NO concept of just how the times and the politics of Ohio have changed as EVERY public entity seems to be in such financial difficulty that there isn't room in the Dispatch to cover every city or municipality looking to lay off workers.

Oh! And he was U. S. Trade representative during the collapse of the global economy, and so has absolutely nothing to show for his time in the Bush administration.

Like Dan Quayle, he is just another pretty face, except he DOESN'T look like a young Robert Redford. He will probably carry Warren County.

Posted by: ceflynline | April 24, 2009 8:55 PM | Report abuse

Republicans trotting out Beuprez again, that would be a hoot.

This was the candidate that during the 2006 gubernatorial race ran a photo-op with a horse. The result was shall we say Beauprez's face and the horse's face were in opposite directions, so he came out aligned on the wrong end of the horse. This was also the candidate that ran a photo-op in the (now defunct) Rocky Mountain News dressed up in a flight suit, yet had difficulty accounting for the fact that he never served in the military. The running joke in 2006 was that he was trying to lose the election.

Posted by: UnPatriotic | April 24, 2009 6:26 PM | Report abuse

Illinois and Louisiana should drop off the list; Burris isn't going to be the Dem nominee, so Illinois will stay blue, and there isn't really a credible challenger to Vitter.

North Carolina should definitely go up.

I disagree on New York; whatever some people thought of Gillibrand at first, she has quite a ways before the primary, has voted solidly liberal since then, and has raised gazillions of dollars. She'll sweep the upstate vote and get a good chunk of the NYC, the rest going to Maloney and whoever else decides to get in. And there's little chance that a primary could harm Gillibrand in such a way as to be vulnerable to a Republican; all potential Democratic challenges would come from her left, and no Republican is going to go that route.

Posted by: SeanC1 | April 24, 2009 6:26 PM | Report abuse

Nice additions, though I thought Herseth Sandlin was leaning toward the governor's race in SD.

I agree with you and MichaelinSeattle that NC should be on the list instead of IL or maybe LA.

Hope the Ds decide to run a credible challenger to Specter/Toomey (read: not Torsella).

Posted by: mnteng | April 24, 2009 5:22 PM | Report abuse

"I didn't see anyone that I would miss.. on this list."

That is an interesting way to put it. And its not a bad point. Along those lines, I prefer Specter to Toomey; but if a moderate Dem wins, that could work out OK.

Posted by: bsimon1 | April 24, 2009 4:56 PM | Report abuse

I think you nailed these, Chris....with one exception. State Senator Sam Caligiuri is the strongest contendor in the GOP field and he will prevail in the primary.

Posted by: peressutti | April 24, 2009 4:56 PM | Report abuse

One should be highly skeptical of the significance of the PPP numbers for Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO). He was basically a complete unknown to most voters when appointed, and hasn't done anything to distinguish himself since. Coloradans simply do not know him and poll respondents are either reacting to the "D" following his name or the general state of the economy.

Having had much more exposure due to his running for office several times (most recently in his failed bid for the govenorship) the numbers for Beauprez are likely to be more accurate.

Posted by: glowing_plasma | April 24, 2009 4:55 PM | Report abuse

Excellent job Chris!

I take a couple of exceptions:

1. Move Illinois off your list. Barack's home state--despite the bevy of former gov's now making license plates--is not going to send a Republican to the senate.

2. Move North Carolina onto the list. Burr's reputation and fundraising are anemic. If the D's can find a solid candidate, this race will be competitive.

3. I think Charlie Crist is going to be in some major hot water over the increasingly vocal rumors that he's in the closet. And if Meeks continues to have the fundraising success and attention from former President Clinton (read: repentance for last year's primary), one could easily see a scenario where Christ bows out.

4. Don't be surprised if Alaska turns up on the radar... never misunderestimate Governor Palin...

Posted by: MichaelinSeattle | April 24, 2009 4:46 PM | Report abuse

I wonder if the Crist race will be affected by the new documentary about closeted politicians, highlighting Crist.

Posted by: PatrickNYC1 | April 24, 2009 4:30 PM | Report abuse

keep your eyes on New York and North Carolina. A LOT of NY Dems are upset with how Gillibrand was crowned, sorry--selected, and a decent primary opponent could crush her despite mad, mad fundraising (i just don't think Mahoney has the chops to take down a sitting Senator). If a strong GOP candidate emerges after a bloody Dem primary (don't doubt Rep. King could find some serious legs) NY could see it's first GOP senate victory since the d'amato days.

North Carolina saw two HUGE Democratic wins in '08 with Dole getting thrashed by an unknown and Obama making the state blue for the first time since '76. Sen. Burr's numbers are bad and the Democratic bench is surprisingly deep in NC, with AG Roy Cooper being the most formidable donkey.

Beyond that, Thune in SD might have problems if Herseth-Sandlin jumps in, but that's it.

Great work Chris.

Posted by: DavidKG | April 24, 2009 4:09 PM | Report abuse

I didn't see anyone that I would miss.. on this list.

Posted by: newbeeboy | April 24, 2009 3:58 PM | Report abuse

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