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Friday Senate Line: Two Classes of Races

Sens. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Harry Reid (D-Nev.) could face tough races in 2010 but don't have opponents yet. AP photos by Nell Redmond and Lauren Victoria Burke

A close look at the potentially competitive Senate seats in 2010 makes one thing clear: there is a split between the "for sure" contests and the "yes, but" races.

The first class includes five races -- all of which are certain to be closely fought and narrowly decided in 2010. Three are open seats (Ohio, Missouri and New Hampshire) and two feature damaged incumbents (Kentucky and Connecticut) trying with varying levels of success to rehabilitate themselves.

The second group is the potential races -- the seats where an incumbent is vulnerable but no challenger has emerged or where a state's demographics suggest that a real race is possible if not probable just yet.

Friday Line

Turning that second group into races of the first class is the task of the next six months for both national party committees.

The success of Senate Democrats in the 2008 cycle was built in part on their ability to take second-tier races like Georgia, North Carolina and Kentucky and transform them into serious contests even as possible Republican targets like South Dakota, Arkansas and Montana fell off the competitive map.

Bookmark this Line. Go back to it at the start of 2010 and see how many of the races ranked between #6 and #10 today have turned into real contests. That will tell you how big (or small) the Senate Democratic majority could be in 2011.

As always, the race ranked number one on the Line is the most likely to switch sides in 2010. Your kudos and critiques are welcome in the comments section below.

Coming off the Line: Louisiana, Illinois

Coming on the Line: North Carolina, Nevada

10. North Carolina (R-controlled): State Attorney General Roy Cooper's decision not to run in 2010 makes Sen. Richard Burr's (R) path to a second term next fall easier. But, polling in the state seems to suggest that voters are far from sold on Burr and national Democrats seem to be committed to finding a serious candidate. Their two best remaining options are Reps. Heath Shuler and Mike McIntyre -- both of whom have conservative voting records in the House that would make it difficult for Burr to cast them as liberals. (Previous ranking: N/A)

9. Florida (R): With Gov. Charlie Crist (R) now officially in the race to replace Sen. Mel Martinez, Democrats' chances for a pickup dip considerably. Polling out this week showed Crist with a wide lead over former House Speaker Marco Rubio in the Republican primary and against Rep. Kendrick Meek (D) in a general election. Could Crist turn out to be a paper tiger? Sure. But we see no evidence of it yet. (Previous ranking: 7)

8. Pennsylvania (D-controlled): Sen. Arlen Specter's (D) party switch changes everything. While Specter has gotten off to a very rocky start in his first three weeks as a Democrats, his re-election chances got a major boost when former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge passed on the race, and the White House and Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee seem committed to ensuring that Specter is the party's nominee. Rep. Joe Sestak (D) continues to mull a bid but if the Employee Free Choice Act gets rewritten, Specter votes for it and labor lines up behind him, it's hard to see Sestak's path to the nomination. Former Rep. Pat Toomey is almost certain to be the Republican nominee but has yet to prove that he can appeal to independent and Democratic leaning voters. (Previous ranking: 2)

7. Nevada (D): Yes, we know that Republicans don't have a top-tier candidate (or any real candidate at all) against Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. And, yes, we know, that Rep. Dean Heller (R) is very unlikely to challenge Reid in 2010. But, it's impossible to ignore the fact that Reid's numbers are weaker than all but two incumbents -- Chris Dodd and Jim Bunning -- running for re-election next November. And, given the serious races that the two most recent party leaders (Tom Daschle in 2004, Mitch McConnell in 2008), it's very hard for us to believe that Republicans won't put a serious candidate/campaign together against Reid. Reid is a very savvy politician and isn't an easy out but his standing in the state is not good right now. (Previous ranking: N/A)

6. Colorado (D): We're not really sure where to put this race as appointed Sen. Michael Bennet is still largely unknown in the state but has done a good job -- so far -- of avoiding a serious Democratic primary and raising money ($1.4 million raised in the first three months of 2009.) Republicans, too, have struggled to find a serious candidate with former Rep. Bob Beauprez, who ran a disastrous 2006 campaign for governor, and Aurora City Councilman Ryan Frazier, who even Republicans admit might be too green for such a big race, looking at the contest. There hasn't been much credible polling in the race but the numbers that are out there suggest that if Republicans can get a credible candidate this will be a real race. (Previous ranking: 8)

5. Ohio (R): New polling in the Buckeye State Senate race shows Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher (D) and Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner (D) leading former Rep. Rob Portman (R) in hypothetical general election matchups. Republicans attribute those early leads to the fact that Portman is still little known statewide, and believe Democrats are headed for a fierce primary between Fisher and Brunner. (Brunner publicly re-asserted her commitment to the race recently after a rumor started that she might run for the Ohio Supreme Court.) (Previous ranking: 6)

4. Missouri (R): With each passing month, the Republican race gets more complicated. The latest development: St. Louis University political science professor Thomas Schweich is being mentioned as a candidate, and has already got into a tiff with Rep. Roy Blunt, who, at this point is the only announced GOPer in the field. As the super Steve Kraske (of the K.C. Star) wrote of the incident: "The problem with Blunt's attack wasn't the substance, but the timing. It quickly legitimized Schweich as a serious threat -- the last thing Blunt wants." Did we mention that former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman, who ran a surprisingly strong primary campaign for governor in 2008, is likely to run as well? Somewhere Secretary of State Robin Carnahan, who has cleared the Democratic primary field, is smiling. (Previous ranking: 5)

3. New Hampshire (R): There appears to be almost no movement in this race, which is a problem for Senate Republicans. The repeated attempts -- unsuccessful, so far -- to convince retiring Sen. Judd Gregg (R) to reconsider speak to the weakness of the GOP bench in the state. Neither Gregg nor former Sen. John Sununu will run and Republican recruiters don't yet have an obvious plan b (or is that plan c?) yet. Rep. Paul Hodes (D) has yet to impress as a candidate but he appears to be in the right place at the right time. (Previous ranking: 4)

2. Connecticut (D): Sen. Chris Dodd's (D) last month has been the best one of the year to date. While that's not saying much, it's a start in the attempted rehabilitation of the once-unbeatable incumbent. Dodd got very good headlines in the local papers for shepherding President Obama's credit card reform bill to passage, a reminder to Connecticut voters that his seniority in the Senate can be helpful to the state. And, Republicans seem headed to a primary fight between former Rep. Rob Simmons and former Ambassador Tom Foley. Still, Dodd's poll numbers are atrocious and strategists on both sides acknowledge this will be a very close contest. (Previous ranking: 3)

1. Kentucky (R): What else can be said about Sen. Jim Bunning (R) that he hasn't already said? He continues to insist that he is running for a third term in 2010 despite having told Secretary of State Trey Grayson (R) to form an exploratory committee to raise money for a bid of his own. And, Bunning still seems FAR more interested in savaging Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) than he does in figuring out how to get re-elected. While Grayson confidantes say he is in the race to stay, he is timid to speak out -- afraid to offend Bunning into running, which is a somewhat inauspicious beginning for a man who wants to be in the Senate. Democrats are headed toward a terrific primary between Lt. Gov. Dan Mongiardo and state Attorney General Jack Conway. This race isn't complicated: if Bunning is the nominee, then Democrats win. If not, then this is a toss up race. (Previous ranking: 1)

By Chris Cillizza  |  May 22, 2009; 1:32 PM ET
Categories:  The Line  
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Next: Wag the Blog Redux: Understanding Elizabeth Edwards


Let's not forget Heath Shuler's awful performance with the Washington Redskins.

Posted by: Simon23p | May 26, 2009 4:05 PM | Report abuse

"This race isn't complicated: if Bunning is the nominee, then Democrats win."

I FEAR you may be right on this one. *SIGH* OsiSpeaks[dot]com

Posted by: KYJurisDoctor | May 25, 2009 11:31 PM | Report abuse

In general, I agree with Chris' comments however, I don't think Connecticut and Nevada as too high and North Carolina is too low. If we learned anything in 2008, an unknown can win handily over an incumbent in North Carolina, while Nevada literally has no one and an extremely unpopular republican incumbent governor running in 2010. While New Hampshire has a weak slate, the Republican's have nobody at this point. My order would be:

1. Kentucky
2. New Hampshire
3. Missouri
4. Ohio
5. Connecticut
6. North Carolina
7. Colorado
8. Nevada
9. Delaware* Should Castle Run
10. Pennsylvania

The one potential race that is NOT getting nearly enough attention, is the potential Texas Special Election when Kay Bailey Hutchison resigns. If she does not resign until the fall, the special election would be in May 2010 and Perry will likely appoint somebody as far to the right as he is and the bruising KBH v. Perry primary could undermine that candidate - especially if the Democratic party clears the field for a governor candidate and they clear the field to get someone like Houston Mayor Bill White to run against whomever Perry appoints for Senate, creates the potential for a major upset to allow the Democratic party to win the senate seat. I actually think there is a good 40% or so chance of happening. I think after the 2010 Election, the Democratic party will have somewhere between 64-66 senators given the way things look now.

Posted by: robbygtx | May 24, 2009 6:45 PM | Report abuse

I believe that the current issues won't be the 2010 issues.. it's a long time and many voters decide at the last minute, with a few weeks of the election.

Furthermore, party affiliation in an increasingly lopsided environment may give way to 'a slate of issues'.. depending upon the temperament of any particular State or District.

Posted by: newbeeboy | May 23, 2009 4:01 PM | Report abuse

Chris you left off NY. Gillibrand is going to have a hard time winning the primary if one of the three who say they are running against her decide to rally around them.

Posted by: PatrickNYC1 | May 23, 2009 2:34 PM | Report abuse

Andy's NC comments have been prescient in the past.
Thanks, Andy.

In the last week when I have only been able to drop in rarely, BB has succinctly answered several questions I would have been prompted to ask if I could have visited more often. Thanks, BB.

TX is still not competitive for Ds. But John Sharp, on his personal strengths, would make a credible run for Senate. I had said before the Prez election that 45%
for BHO would be a moral victory - a huge increase over Kerry's numbers. He topped 44% as I recall.
For Sharp, 44% would be surprisingly low. So I give him a chance. A conservative D in the Bentsen - Bullock mold, he is coherent, thoughtful, and has a proven track record as a fiscal magician, in the better sense.

Posted by: mark_in_austin | May 23, 2009 9:12 AM | Report abuse

Liz Cheney who worked for the State Department during the Bush/Cheney Admin. publically denouncing Pres. Obama's release of torture photo's. Photo's that could possibly date back to 2004 and Donald Runsfeld. What are we arguing here? I say what's most important about these torture day's are, for them to just go away. Reason? If the argument isn't that, what we have learned is that.

On May 11, 2004, the website of the militant group Muntada al-Ansar posted a video with the opening title of "Abu Musa'b al-Zarqawi slaughters an American", which shows Berg being decapitated. Al-Zarqawi had an association with the terrorist group Al-Qaida, as does Muntada al-Ansar. The video is about five and a half minutes long.

The video shows Berg surrounded by five men wearing ski masks and shemaghs. A lengthy statement is read aloud. The statement says that Berg's killing was in direct retaliation for the abuse of prisoners by U.S. troops at Abu Ghraib prison. The masked men then converge on Berg and decapitate him with a knife. A scream can be heard as men shout the Takbir: "Allah Akbar".

Posted by: opp88 | May 22, 2009 10:24 PM | Report abuse

In case anyone is wondering, Zouk copied that post from American Thinker. So, Chris Fox, Zouk has no power of reasoning. Just schoolyard insults and the power of copy and paste.


Posted by: FairlingtonBlade | May 22, 2009 10:16 PM | Report abuse

These must be the most bizarre times in American history. You have a former V.P. Dick Cheney, his daughter and wife, all coming out publically on any news/cable network in an attempt to defend the Former V.P.’s usage of torture policies. Policies used during i.r.a.q.i war, considered illegal and unlawful by many Law Communities across the globe. The United States has never witness this type of behavior before by any prior Admin… freaking bizarre!

Posted by: opp88 | May 22, 2009 10:05 PM | Report abuse

The political scientist you list as a possible Republican candidate in Missouri teaches at Washington University, not Saint Louis University

Posted by: copyeditoratlarge | May 22, 2009 6:24 PM | Report abuse

If I was a Republican (not a chance in hell) I wouldn't want Reid to go away, in fact I would donate to his re-election campaign. Reid is the best friend a minority party Repub could ask for.

Posted by: DrainYou | May 22, 2009 4:07 PM | Report abuse

Unsurprisingly, zouk has the reasoning power of a toddler

Posted by: chrisfox8 | May 22, 2009 3:51 PM | Report abuse

First, Obama proclaimed that the Bush Administration's approach for fighting terrorism was "neither effective nor sustainable", but didn't bother to prove it. I guess we should completely ignore the fact that said approach has kept us safe for the last seven-plus years. Furthermore, he asserted that the "ineffective" approach has managed to alienate our nation around the world and consequently we've lost the cooperation of other nations to partner with us to prevent further attacks. You mean the same nations who are miraculously still working with us on our borders and abroad to prevent further attacks?

Second, we should believe that the means of interrogation employed and our detention centers at Guatananomo Bay have served as recruitment tools for terrorists. Theoretically, this claim could be viable, but unfortunately an inconvenient truth imposes its will on that assertion. As evidenced by the attacks from the early 1990s to the early 2000s, terrorists were a threat to our nation before we even had enhanced interrogation techniques, a Department of Homeland Security, Guantanomo Bay, or any of the other measures created by the Bush Administration as a response to the fact that this nation was not cognizant to the war on America perpetrated by them. Moreover, Guantanomo has only served to weaken our national security by emboldening our enemies if you believe that because the president says it's so.

Posted by: king_of_zouk | May 22, 2009 3:32 PM | Report abuse

Obama, the arrogant southpaw rookie, entered the match reeling from a defeat in the Senate and losing control of the message on national security, preempted the former vice president's pre-scheduled speech in order to throw the first punch.

Cheney, the poised and assured veteran who is accustomed to taking a punch, entered the match with no office to campaign for and no party to appease, only a sound "just the facts" argument that Jack Webb could appreciate.

In the course of his speech, Obama took the opportunity to remind us of his days as a law student, but he should have dusted off the textbooks from his courses in evidence before he spoke.

Remember Denzel Washington's famous line in "Training Day"?

It's not what you know; it's what you can prove.

Proof is defined as confirmation of fact by evidence.

The concept of evidence escapes present-day Obama because he believes so strongly in his gift: a commanding voice that delivers his ideological rhetoric with overbearing force.

The President actually expects us to believe his word should suffice sans evidence.

Posted by: king_of_zouk | May 22, 2009 3:31 PM | Report abuse

My comments on a few of the races:

10. North Carolina - This race should be higher up on the list. It is true that Democrats have yet to find a candidate. But Burr is suffering from anemic poll numbers and is serving in a state that both Barack Obama and Kay Hagan won in 2008.

7. Nevada - No news here and this should be lower on the list. Republicans have a weak bench in Nevada and Reid has pulled in a great fundraising haul. The people of Nevada may not like Reid but he has done a lot and brought an enormous amount of money back to the state.

6. Colorado - No idea how this one will turn out. Bill Ritter made a big mistake appointing Michael Bennet to this Senate seat when Ritter had so many other good Democratic candidates to choose from. Bennet may not even survive the Democratic primary.

5. Ohio - This is an interesting race to watch. Both Democrats lead Portman in the polls but their candidacies could lead to a divisive Democratic primary. While Portman may have cleared the primary and raised a lot of money, his connections with Bush and consistent lack of support don't bode well.

4. Missouri - Carnahan is a great candidate who has basically cleared the Democratic primary field. She is a good fundraiser as well. Blunt may be the consensus Republican candidate but people have begun to sour on his candidacy and some see him as another old name. Missouri always has close races and leans Republican in presidential races. But a divisive Republican primary can only help the Democrats.

3. New Hampshire - New Hampshire has been trending Democratic lately but Hodes should not rely on previous races. He needs to do a better job fundraising and campaigning.

2. Connecticut - Dodd needs to either keep his name out of the media or be portrayed constantly in a good light. Connecticut is a Democratic state but he needs to do a better job.

1. Kentucky - I really hope Bunning is the Republican nominee. His terrible polling results and fundraising give me hope that in 2010 Kentucky will have a new Democratic Senator.

Posted by: fable104 | May 22, 2009 3:04 PM | Report abuse

My take:

Too high on the line: CT (Dodd will recover in time, Simmons is second tier at best), NV (no one is going to challenge Reid) and possibly KY (I'm not at all convince Bunning won't retire or survive the primary). I think NH or MO should be #1.

Too low on the line: NC (a rapidly changing state, and Burr's numbers are worse than Dole's at this point); OH (I think Portman is more of a dud candidate, and his resume won't play well statewide)

One other race to watch is DE--if Castle gets in, it's a total toss-up.

I completely agree that CO is confusing. Ritter did a lousy job picking Bennet. Hickenlooper would have been a much better Senator and a lock for re-election. With CO, DE and of course IL, I now agree with Feingold that we should amend the Constitution to stop these stupid Governor picks.

Posted by: gregg91020 | May 22, 2009 2:30 PM | Report abuse

"t's very hard for us to believe that Republicans won't put a serious candidate/campaign together against Reid"

It's not hard to beleive at all. They don't have any serious candidates -- just clowns.

Posted by: drindl | May 22, 2009 1:50 PM | Report abuse

I think the race to watch is the NC race. Nobody (CC as the worst offender) gave any credence to the idea that Dole would get beat last year until two weeks before the election. The NC democratic party has done an excellent job in stacking their bench for the next decade with smart even-keeled folks, which sells very well in NC. Taken with a large (and now very motivated) black community and I think Burr could run into some serious trouble next year. This one may come down to how well the economy is doing 18 months from now. If it has turned a corner then Burr goes down, plain and simple.

Posted by: AndyR3 | May 22, 2009 1:49 PM | Report abuse

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