Friday Senate Line: Two Classes of Races
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.
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)
May 22, 2009; 1:32 PM ET
Categories: The Line
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