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The Line: 2008 Gets a Bit Tougher for Senate Republicans

The somewhat surprising retirement announcement made by Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) earlier this week took an already difficult political cycle for Republicans and turned it into something closer to a nightmare.

Should he have run for a seventh term in 2008, Domenici would have been easily reelected -- even though some Democrats were making noise about his potential vulnerability.

Defending an open seat is a whole other challenge for Republicans. New Mexico is one of a handful of swing states at the presidential level -- President Bush won it by less than 6,000 votes in 2004 and former vice president Al Gore won it by just 365 votes four years earlier.

Then there's the fact that Republicans face the prospect of an expensive and hard-fought primary between Reps. Heather Wilson and Steve Pearce. The one bright spot for the GOP is that unlike open-seat contests in Colorado and Virginia, Democrats have so far failed to unify behind a candidate. Albuquerque Mayor Martin Chavez is in already; Lt. Gov. Diane Denish is pondering a Senate run, though most neutral observers expect her to run for governor in 2010. Democratic operatives are playing coy on the recruitment game here, so we suspect there may more than meets the eye.

So where does New Mexico rank on this month's Line? Scroll down for the answer. As always, the No. 1 ranked race is the most likely to switch party control next November. The comments section awaits your added insight.

To the Line!

10. Nebraska (Currently Republican): Former Sen. Bob Kerrey (D) always keeps you guessing. After promising a swift decision on a candidacy following Sen. Chuck Hagel's (R) retirement decision, Kerrey has dithered for the better part of the last month and, according to those closest to him, has yet to make up his mind. Everything remains on hold until he does. If Kerrey runs, he will likely clear the Democratic field; if not, national Democrats will immediately seek to convince Omaha Mayor Mike Fahey to run. Even if Kerrey runs, however, Democrats have to be considered the underdogs, given former Gov. Mike Johanns's decision to leave the Bush administration and become a candidate. Johanns will face a serious primary fight from state Attorney General Jon Bruning. But assuming he is able to fend Bruning off, Johanns will cast a large shadow in the general election. The top of the ticket could well matter here. John Kerry took just 33 percent of the state's vote in the 2004 presidential race; it's hard to see Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton or any of the other leading Democrats performing much better. (Previous ranking: 7)

9. Alaska (Currently R): It's no fun to be Sen. Ted Stevens (R) these days. He is embroiled in a federal ethics investigation, and his poll numbers are in a slow-but-steady decline. Meanwhile, the popular Democratic mayor of Anchorage (whose late father served as the state's congressman) is actively considering a bid. Stevens continues to insist he has no plans to retire, and the $460,000 he raised over the last three months shows he is still keeping his options open. If Stevens's ethics situation worsens, however, expect Mayor Mark Begich to get into the race and cast himself not as a partisan (an unsound strategy in a state that gave George W. Bush a 25-point victory in 2004) but as a reformer. In 2006, Gov. Sarah Palin (R) ran on a reform platform -- and against many of the graybeards in her party -- and remains the most popular politician in the state. (Previous ranking: 9)

8. Minnesota (Currently R): Give comedian-turned-candidate Al Franken (D) this: He knows how to raise money. Franken collected north of $1.9 million over the past three months. He continued to maintain a high burn rate (likely because of a heavy dependence on direct mail fundraising) but ended the period with $2.4 million in the bank. Whether it's his fundraising or some other factor, national Democrats appear to be coming around on Franken as a candidate. A recent independent poll showed, however, that Minnesota voters aren't sold yet. Just 27 percent had a favorable opinion of Franken while 34 percent had an unfavorable opinion. Mike Ciresi, who placed second to Mark Dayton in the 2000 Democratic Senate primary and is back for another race, didn't score much better with a 20 fav/15 unfav score. While incumbent Sen. Norm Coleman's numbers (52/35) weren't stratospheric, they were positively healthy compared to his potential rivals. Remember, Coleman only has to be better than the guy he is running against. (Previous ranking: 8)

7. Maine (Currently R): The Fix got a chance to sit down with Rep. Tom Allen (D) earlier this week to discuss his race against Sen. Susan Collins (R). Allen, who has held the state's 1st District since 1996, came across as reasonable and well aware of the challenge before him. Collins is regarded as a likeable moderate by Maine's voters. What Allen must do is turn the race into a referendum on President Bush and Iraq rather than a personality contest between himself and Collins. Collins has consistently been underestimated in her political career, but Allen is clearly the toughest challenger she has faced. This should be a great race. (Previous ranking: 6)

6. Oregon (Currently R): We're of two minds on this race. On the one hand, rumors of a Democratic poll that shows Sen. Gordon Smith's (R) re-elect score in the toilet continue to -- ahem -- swirl. National Democratic strategists, who have been down this road before, insist that Smith's numbers at this point in the cycle closely resemble those of the Senate GOP incumbents who lost last year. On the other, state Rep. Jeff Merkley hasn't impressed to date; his $294,000 raised in the third quarter wasn't what we had expected given the amount of establishment support that has coalesced behind him quickly. And liberal activist Steve Novick continues to hang around (he ended September with $7,000 more in the bank than Merkley) and promises to distract Merkley from turning his full attention on Smith. Still, this is a Democratic-leaning state made more so by the war in Iraq and the related animosity toward President Bush. Smith, an able politician, must find a way to avoid paying the price for those feelings. (Previous ranking: 5)

5. Louisiana (Currently Democratic): Between LSU's football team and the increasingly nasty 2007 governor's race, there isn't much oxygen left for the 2008 Senate race. That may change after tomorrow -- an LSU lost to Auburn would foreclose any chance at a national championship, and a 50-percent-plus-one showing by Rep. Bobby Jindal (R) in the state's open gubernatorial primary will ensure that he is the next governor of the state. The longer Louisiana's voters are distracted by this year's campaign (political and on the gridiron), the better for Sen. Mary Landrieu, wants to keep the focus off of her for as long as possible. She continues to stockpile campaign cash ($3.4 million in the bank at the end of September) and position herself as a centrist in the John Breaux mold. Republicans remain confident, however, pointing to the state's demographic changes following Hurricane Katrina and the quality, they argue, of their expected candidate -- state Treasurer John Kennedy. As we've said before, Senate Republicans need to play offense somewhere in the country next year; right now, Louisiana is far and away their best option. (Previous ranking: 4)

4. New Mexico (Currently R): With so much uncertainty about Democratic field, it's hard to justify putting the newest open seat of the cycle any higher on The Line than this. Yes, Republicans are certain to face a divisive primary between Reps. Wilson and Pearce. And yes, the state appears to have moved in Democrats' direction over the past few elections. But the fact that national Democrats have continued to urge Denish to run despite Chavez's candidacy gives us some pause. Do Democrats believe that Chavez cannot beat Wilson or Pearce? If so, why not? We've been assured that the Democratic field is still very changeable and that the party has a number of irons in the fire. Time will tell. (Previous ranking: N/A)

3. Colorado (Currently R): We thought long and hard about swapping this race and New Mexico. But in the end, the state's recent electoral history -- Democrats have won the governorship, two House seats and a Senate seat over the last two elections -- and Rep. Mark Udall's continued strong fundraising ($3.1 million on hand at the end of September) keeps Colorado it in the third slot. Former Rep. Bob Schaffer (R) put together a very solid fundraising quarter of his own ($724,000 raised) and should benefit from a recent independent poll that showed the race is a dead heat. Don't forget: There are 135,000 more registered Republicans than Democrats in Colorado. Still, Udall has the edge at the moment. (Previous ranking: 3)

2. New Hampshire (Currently R): It's been a quiet few weeks in the New Hampshire Senate race -- to the benefit of incumbent John Sununu (R) after the national attention that former Gov. Jeanne Shaheen (D) generated when she announced her entry into the race. The fundamentals of this race make it very hard for Sununu to win. New Hampshire voters have clearly tired of the Bush administration and the war in Iraq (witness the defeat of the state's two Republican incumbents in 2006), and polling shows Shaheen with a solid and sustained edge. The most recent independent survey showed Shaheen with a 54 percent to 38 percent advantage over Sununu. More troubling than the head-to-head numbers, however, were the favorability ratings for the two candidates; 56 percent felt favorably about Shaheen with just 25 percent unfavorable. Compare that with a far less healthy 40/37 fav/unfav margin for Sununu. (Previous ranking: 2)

1. Virginia (Currently R): Let's see. Former Gov. Mark Warner (D) raised more than $1 million in the first 17 days of his candidacy. The Post's own poll put Warner 30 points ahead of both of his potential Republican opponents -- Rep. Tom Davis and former Gov. Jim Gilmore. Republicans recently opted for a convention rather than a primary, a move likely to favor the more conservative, but less general-election friendly Gilmore. Davis has started sending signals that he may not run for the Senate seat after all. Put simply: It's good to be Mark Warner right now. (Previous ranking: 1)

By Chris Cillizza  |  October 19, 2007; 5:00 AM ET
Categories:  Senate , The Line  
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