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Friday Senate Line: Republican Recruits?

For months, it appeared as though Senate Republicans would seriously contest only one Democratic-held seat this November as a combination of fund-raising struggles and failed recruitment took seat after seat off the table.

Of late, the horizon has brightened -- slightly -- for Republicans as candidates (or potential candidates) have emerged in New Jersey and South Dakota, two states where the Democratic incumbents seem potentially vulnerable.

In New Jersey, developer Anne Evans Estabrook (R) has put her money where her mouth is -- donating $1.6 million to her campaign against Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D), who polling suggests has worn thin on New Jersey voters. And, in South Dakota, former Lt. Gov. Steve Kirby (R), a potential self funder in his own right, continues to mull a race against Sen. Tim Johnson (D), with a decision expected as soon as next week. South Dakota gave President Bush 60 percent of its vote in 2004 and is one of the most Republican states in the country currently represented by a Democrat.

Neither race makes the Line this month, however. Why? Because while both Estabrook and Kirby have the personal wealth to make their candidacies interesting, both also have considerable flaws that complicate Senate Republicans' ability to tout them as A-list candidates.

Estabrook is VERY green as a candidate. Need evidence? Watch this -- and pay particular attention to the Estabrook's "answer" on gun control. Um, not good.

Kirby has lost two high-profile Republican gubernatorial primaries; he came up short in 1994 against Gov. Bill Janklow and in 2002 lost a bitter three-way race to Gov. Mike Rounds. Those defeats may well tarnish Kirby's ability to unite Republicans this time around. And, while Kirby ponders, Democrats are making sure he knows just what awaits him if he becomes a candidate.

While the jury is still very much out on both Kirby and Estabrook, the fact that the National Republican Senatorial Committee is recruiting these self-funders in potentially competitive states is a sign that they recognize what they are up against in this election. Senate Democrats have a massive financial edge and many more potential targets (23 Republican seats are up in November compared to just 12 for Democrats).

The best way for the NRSC to combat these problems is to try to put a few more Democratic seats in play. Will it work?

The Line is below. As always, the number one race is the most likely to switch parties in November. The Line is intended as a conversation starter, not a conversation closer, so use the comments section below to offer your thoughts.

To the Line!

10. Kentucky: Attorney Andrew Horne's decision to bow out of the Democratic primary race makes wealthy businessman Bruce Lunsford's path to the nomination easier. Lunsford, who has run unsuccessfully for governor twice, is clearly the choice of the state and national party but still must get by first-time candidate Greg Fischer. Waiting for Lunsford is Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) -- one of the best funded and smartest politicians in the Senate. Democrats argue that Lunsford's past races have not negatively impacted how he is viewed in the state; Republicans retort that Lunsford is badly damaged goods. Democrats are on the rise in Kentucky, having just taken back the governor's mansion last year, but McConnell is a very tough candidate to beat. (Previous ranking: 10)

9. Oregon: This race is the most difficult for us to analyze. National Democrats continue to insist that Sen. Gordon Smith (R) is vulnerable because of the Democratic nature of the state and the fact, they argue, that the Republican incumbent hasn't made much of an impression with voters. Democrats also seem to believe that state Rep. Jeff Merkley is an A-list candidate but he continues -- to our mind -- to struggle to get positive press clips. (Witness the recent hubbub over Merkley's decision to raise money when the state legislature was in session.). Merkley still has to be considered the front-runner in the primary race with activist Steve Novick but the underdog doesn't seem likely to go away. (Previous ranking: 8)

8. Maine: It's hard to see how the race between Sen. Susan Collins (R) and Rep. Tom Allen (D) doesn't wind up being close. Maine is a Democratic-leaning state in an election year that seems to favor Democrats at the national level -- and particularly in the Northeast. But, this race is far tougher for Democrats than it appears on paper -- a fact The Fix was reminded of earlier this week when glancing at a copy of "Equality", the magazine of the Human Rights Campaign. "Senate Ally: Maine's Susan Collins" read a headline on the cover; an adoring two-page q & a was inside. Collins has spent years establishing her moderate credentials, making it a tough task for Allen to cast her as a parrot of President Bush. (Previous ranking: 7)

7. Alaska: Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich's decision to form an exploratory committee -- a precursor to a widely expected bid against Sen. Ted Stevens (R) -- gives Democrats a real opportunity to win a seat in which they have no business even being competitive. Begich is a very well known commodity in the state thanks to his two terms as mayor of the biggest city in the Last Frontier and his famous last name. (Begich's father, Nick, was an Alaska congressman who disappeared in a plane crash in the early 1970s.) Add to that the ongoing lobbying scandal that has torn the Republican party to shreds and even ensnared the heretofore revered "Uncle Ted." Alaska is a Republican state through and through and in a presidential year should act like it. But, Begich's candidacy and Stevens's problems means this is a race to watch. (Previous ranking: 9)

6. Minnesota : Comedian Al Franken (D) continues to impress, winning the endorsement of the state's Service Employees International Union earlier this week -- a decision that further consolidates the support of organized labor behind him heading into the party convention in June. Roughly 1,400 Democratic delegates will pick between Franken, attorney Mike Ciresi and professor Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer; all three candidates have pledged to abide by the results of the convention and Franken has emerged as the clear favorite. Sen. Norm Coleman (R) is well-funded and savvy but Republicans who believe they will caricature Franken as a Hollywood liberal running as a lark would do well to take the Democrat more seriously. (Previous ranking: 5)

5. Louisiana: Talk to a handful of Republican strategists who are closely involved with Senate races and they generally grant that this election cycle is going to be very tough for their side. And yet, to a person, they express total confidence in their chances of ousting Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) in November. Why? The argument is as much about the demographics of the state as it is about the Republican candidate -- state Treasurer John Kennedy. Following Hurricane Katrina, Republicans argue, large numbers of black voters in the New Orleans area left the state, never to return. Without that reliably Democratic vote, Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) won without a runoff in 2007 -- a major boost for Republicans' hopes against Landrieu who has never won with more than 52 percent of the vote. (Previous ranking: 6)

4. Colorado: The big news out of this race over the past month -- for political junkies -- is that Dick Wadhams appears set to take over former Rep. Bob Schaffer's (R) campaign. Wadhams has experienced tremendous highs (his service as manager for South Dakota Sen. John Thune's upset win over Democrat Tom Daschle in 2004) and tremendous lows (his stewardship of Virginia Sen. George Allen's disastrous re-election bid in 2006) in recent election cycles. Wadhams, a Colorado native, has been nearly perfect in the campaigns with which he has been associated in his home state. Can he keep the streak alive in Schaffer's up hill fight against Rep. Mark Udall (D)? Expect the phrase "Boulder liberal" to become a staple of Wadhams' vocabulary between now and November. (Previous ranking: 4)

3. New Hampshire: Remember last month when we disregarded an American Research Group poll that showed Sen. John Sununu (R) leading former governor Jeanne Shaheen (D) by 11 points? Take a look at a new survey from the University of New Hampshire that puts Shaheen at 55 percent and Sununu at 37 percent. Um, yeah. It's clear that unless something drastic changes in this race, Sununu is in serious trouble of losing his re-election bid. (Previous ranking: 3)

2. New Mexico: The race between Reps. Steve Pearce (R) and Heather Wilson (R) is the early front-runner for primary campaign of the cycle. Both candidates have real electoral bases, both will raise plenty of money and neither is afraid of throwing a punch. Watch for this race to heat up considerably between now and the June 3 primary. While The Fix is fascinated with the prospects for the primary, the contest is less appetizing for Republican strategists. That's because Rep. Tom Udall (D) has cleared out his side of the race and starts the general election against either Wilson or Pearce with a clear advantage. (Previous ranking: 2)

1. Virginia: Mike Henry, former deputy campaign manager for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's presidential campaign, just inked a deal to manage former governor Mark Warner's 2012/2016 bid for president. What's that? Oops. Henry is managing Warner's sure-thing bid for the Senate seat being vacated by John Warner (R) this fall. Riiiiiight. (Previous ranking: 1)

By Chris Cillizza  |  February 29, 2008; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  The Line  
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