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The Line: Even for Senate GOP, Every Cloud Has a Silver Lining

It would be hard to blame Republican Senate campaign strategists if they spent the first 11 months of the 2008 cycle curled up in the fetal position.

The year started badly -- 22 Republican seats up for reelection compared with just 12 for Democrats -- and went downhill from there.

Sen. Wayne Allard (R-Colo.) announced his retirement and was followed out the door by Sens. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), John Warner (R-Va.), Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) and, of course, Larry Craig (R-Idaho) -- creating a wealth of opportunities for Democrats in what was already a target-rich environment.

Living up to his reputation, Sen. Chuck Schumer (N.Y.), head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, is making it even more difficult for Republicans by recruiting a series of top-tier candidates and raising money like it grows on trees.

As of today, Democrats have at least five "A" candidates: Two former governors -- Mark Warner in Virginia and Jeanne Shaheen in New Hampshire, along with Reps. Tom Allen in Maine, Mark Udall in Colorado and Tom Udall in New Mexico.

Republicans, and this is being somewhat generous, have two top recruits -- a true blue chipper in former Gov. Mike Johanns in Nebraska and a potentially strong recruit in party-switching state Treasurer John Kennedy in Louisiana. (We'd be open to an argument on Rep. Heather Wilson of New Mexico as a top recruit, but she faces a very tough primary fight against fellow Rep. Steve Pearce.)

On the money front, the news is also bad for Republicans. At the end of September, the DSCC had raised $42 million with nearly $23 million left in the bank. The National Republican Senatorial Committee, by contrast, had raised $23 million through September and had just $8.3 million in the bank. Democrats' three-to-one cash-on-hand advantage is daunting for any Republican candidate hoping to get some air cover from the national party.

Taken together, it's been a bad year. But ...

... Several developments this week suggest that there are a few breaks in the clouds for Senate Republicans.

First, Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) announced he would seek reelection in 2008, ending months of rumors about his political future. While Mississippi has had a clear Republican tilt at the federal level for the last several decades, an open seat would have been yet another potential GOP headache -- especially with popular former state Attorney General Mike Moore (D) looming as a potential candidate.

Line Highlights

  • Moving Off The Line: Nebraska
  • Moving On: Kentucky
  • Moving Up: Alaska, Minnesota, New Mexico
  • Moving Down: Colorado, Maine, Oregon

The second piece of good news for Republicans came out of Nebraska, where Omaha Mayor Mike Fahey (D) announced he would not run for the seat Hagel is vacating in 2008. Fahey is the second prominent Democrat to remove himself from consideration; former Sen. Bob Kerrey did the same a few weeks ago. Without Kerrey or Fahey, Democrats are likely to turn to Scott Kleeb, who ran unsuccessfully for the open 3rd District House seat in 2006. Kleeb is an up and comer but should be considered an underdog against either Johanns or state Attorney General Jon Bruning (R) in the general election.

A few positive developments do not mean Senate Republicans aren't still headed for a very tough election next November. They are. But two potentially competitive seats came off the board this week and, in a cycle like this one, that may make this Republicans' best week yet.

To the Line!

10. Kentucky: OK, we admit we're intrigued by the prospect of a serious race in the Bluegrass State. While we believe Democrats are trying to read too much into how Ernie Fletcher's loss in the governor's race last week impacts Sen. Mitch McConnell's (R) reelection chances, there is clear evidence that the Senate minority leader could be in for a real race next fall. McConnell's decision to hit the television airwaves this month with ads touting his leadership role and what it means for the state is a tacit recognition on the part of his campaign that this race could be real. Much depends on the identity of the Democratic nominee. State Auditor Crit Luallen is the first choice of national Democrats, and a recent poll put her well within striking distance of McConnell. If Luallen decides against the race, Democrats will have to turn to a second-tier of candidates, including including state Attorney General Greg Stumbo, 2006 congressional candidate Andrew Horne and wealthy businessman Greg Fischer. Regardless of who Democrats nominate, McConnell will be ready. He is as tough a campaigner as they come, and this race will likely be expensive and bloody. (Previous ranking: N/A)

9. Alaska: Everyone in Alaska seems to be waiting for the other shoe to drop. For Republicans, that means waiting and wondering who else will be ensnared in the Veco scandal that has already claimed several GOP elected officials. For Democrats, the means waiting and wondering whether Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich -- son of the late Alaska Congressman -- will run. If Sen. Ted Stevens (R) runs for reelection, the Veco scandal continues to grow and Begich gets in, this race will move up The Line. If any of those three things doesn't happen, this could well be an easy hold for Republicans. (Previous ranking: 9)

8. Maine: This race continues to confound us. Is it a replay of the 2006 Rhode Island Senate race, where Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R), a moderate by any standard, is dragged to defeat simply because of the "R" by his name on the ballot? Or is it a mirror image of Sen. Susan Collins's (R) 2002 race, in which a much-hyped Democratic challenger failed to convince Maine voters that the incumbent is really more conservative than she says? We honestly don't know. Rep. Tom Allen is the best candidate Democrats could have fielded against Collins but has considerable ground to make up over the next year. Poll after poll shows Collins not just ahead by 20+ points but enjoying well over 50 percent support. There's no question her numbers will come down as the race engages and Allen seeks to tie President Bush's unpopularity and the war in Iraq around her campaign. But Collins is in as strong a shape as any northeastern incumbent could ask for one year out from Election Day. (Previous ranking: 7)

7. Oregon: National Democrats are convinced that Sen. Gordon Smith is headed for defeat next November. Last month they released a poll conducted for the DSCC that showed 30 percent of the sample planned to vote to reelect Smith while 41 percent either were open to considering someone else (25 percent) or were set on voting to "replace" Smith (16 percent). The problem for Democrats at the moment is that their preferred candidate -- state House Speaker Jeff Merkley -- hasn't wowed just yet. Merkley's $294,000 raised in the third quarter was only OK, and he continues to be dogged by liberal activist Steve Novick's primary challenge. We expect Merkley to win the primary relatively easily, but Novick can make trouble for Merkley on the left. This race could well move up The Line in the coming months, but we just don't see it yet. (Previous ranking: 6)

6. Minnesota: The more we talk to strategists on both sides of the aisle, the more convinced we are that we've been underestimating Sen. Norm Coleman's vulnerability. Coleman, himself, has done nearly everything right -- raised millions of dollars, cut a moderate image in the Senate, and from early on understood he was in a tough race. But Minnesota returned to its progressive, anti-war roots in a big way in 2006, as Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D) turned what was once expected to be a competitive open seat race into a blowout. While Republicans like to paint comedian Al Franken (D) as a caricature, the truth is he has run a solid and substantive campaign to date and has proven his capacity to match Coleman's fundraising. Mike Ciresi (D), who ran unsuccessfully in the 2000 primary, is starting to show signs of life and should never be underestimated given his considerable personal wealth. (Previous ranking: 8)

5. Louisiana: Now that the governor's race is over, Sen. Mary Landrieu's (D) reelection race will begin in earnest. The fact that Rep. Bobby Jindal (R) won the governor's race without a runoff is sure to energize Republicans about their chances against Landrieu, and we hear that John Kennedy will officially be in the race soon. Democrats pooh-pooh Kennedy's candidacy, and it's true that he wasn't the first choice of Senate GOP recruiters. But Landrieu only narrowly won against Woody Jenkins in 1996 and Suzie Haik Terrell in 2002 -- neither of whom were world beaters as candidates. Louisiana's demographic changes over the past five years (including the exodus following Hurricane Katrina) have benefited Republicans. This is by far the GOP's best pick-up opportunity. (Previous ranking: 5)

4. Colorado: Colorado drops another slot on The Line this month. The downward trajectory isn't because we think Republican prospects have improved markedly here, but rather because when compared the demographics of Colorado to those of the states ranked higher, it's clear there is a larger Republican base here than elsewhere. After a slow start, Mark Udall's fundraising has picked up nicely; he brought in more than $1.1 million in the third quarter and now has $3.1 million in the bank. Former Rep. Bob Schaffer (R) is holding his own on the fundraising front, with $801,000 raised and $1.1 million in the bank. Given the open-seat problems Republicans have in Virginia and New Mexico, national Republican could well choose to focus their financial firepower on Colorado -- a state that looks like it could stay in the GOP column if the right sort of race is run. (Previous ranking: 3)

3. New Mexico: Just as Democrats looked to be running out of options in their search for an alternative to Albuquerque Mayor Martin Chavez, Rep. Tom Udall (cousin to the Colorado Senate candidate) decides that he is interested in running for the Senate after all. Udall won't make a formal announcement but he is in and Democrats should be thrilled. Polling released by Udall's campaign showed him over 50 percent against both Reps. Heather Wilson and Steve Pearce and with a 20-point margin over Chavez in a hypothetical Democratic primary. Chavez is angry about being passed over by national Democrats and could make things uncomfortable for Udall. But it's hard to see Chavez raising the money to really make Udall nervous in a primary, and it's clear that the national party establishment is firmly behind the congressman. Wilson and Pearce seem headed for an epic primary fight; most Republicans believe Wilson, who has shown an ability to run and win in a swing district for years, is the stronger general-election candidate. (Previous ranking: 4)

2. New Hampshire: Sen. John Sununu (R) is in serious trouble. His race against Jeanne Shaheen is already drawing comparisons to the 2006 Pennsylvania race between Rick Santorum (R) and Bob Casey Jr. (D). In that contest, Casey led by high single digits as soon as he got into the race, a margin that largely held up over the course of the campaign and ended with Casey crushing the two-term incumbent 59 percent to 41 percent. A CNN/WMUR survey conducted in early October seemed to promise the same fate for Sununu; he trailed Shaheen 54 percent to 38 percent, an exact replica of a survey the companies took in July. Worse for Sununu was the fact that 40 percent of the sample gave him favorable marks while 37 percent rated him unfavorably. Shaheen's fav/unfav was a far healthier 56/25. Sununu is a savvy pol and will do everything he can to close the gap. But this race may well already be over before. (Previous ranking: 2)

1. Virginia: Start warming up the bus. This one is all over. Barring some sort of unforeseen political catastrophe, Mark Warner will be the next senator from the commonwealth. Rep. Tom Davis's decision not to run for the Senate leaves former Gov. Jim Gilmore as the almost-certain nominee. And after the results of last week's state elections in Virginia, it's hard to even find a Republican who thinks Gilmore has a chance. (Previous ranking: 1)

By Chris Cillizza  |  November 16, 2007; 1:05 PM ET
Categories:  Senate , The Line  
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