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The Line: Virginia Senate Seat Now in Play

So much changes from week to week now in the battle for the Senate that it's hard even for The Fix to keep up. But two recent developments since our last Line are worthy of special mention.

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Sen. Lincoln Chafee's (R) surprisingly strong primary victory over Cranston Mayor Steve Laffey (R) increases Republicans' chances of holding the Rhode Island seat. National Republicans insisted that a Laffey victory would have forfeited the seat to Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse, a belief that explains their all-out effort on Chafee's behalf.

In Virginia, a new independent poll shows Sen. George Allen (R) with just a four-point lead over former Secretary of the Navy Jim Webb (D). While we have been skeptical about this race for months (Webb seems at times to be an unwilling candidate and inconsistent fundraiser), we can't ignore numbers like this. So for the first time this cycle, Virginia makes the Line.

As always, the No. 1 race is the most likely to switch parties. Kudos and criticisms are welcome in the comments section below.

To the Line!

10. Virginia: The Fix lives in Virginia, but living and working inside the Beltway makes it tough to analyze just how much damage Allen's "macaca" moment did to his chances of winning reelection. According to a new Mason-Dixon poll, the answer is quite a bit. While Allen still holds a lead over Webb, it has narrowed considerably since earlier this summer, and now even Republicans privately acknowledge that the incumbent is in jeopardy. Allen's campaign is taking this race very seriously -- as evidenced by the press conference on Wednesday that drew attention to an article Webb penned in the late 1970s that argued against women serving in the military. We're interested to see how Webb -- not a thick-skinned person by nature -- weathers this body blow from Allen. (Previous ranking: N/A)

Candidate Profiles/Links/Fundraising: Allen, Webb | Virginia Political Profile

9. Washington: We don't see much evidence that ex-Safeco Insurance chief Mike McGavick (R) has bounced back from the hubbub over a drunk-driving incident he disclosed on his campaign's blog a few weeks back. As Fix friend Jennifer Duffy of the Cook Political Report has pointed out, the incident undermined McGavick's attempts to introduce himself to voters as a different kind of politician (in his admission, he appeared to be playing it too cute by half). We're not ready to totally write off McGavick's chances yet. Sen. Maria Cantwell (D) is vulnerable (she beat Sen. Slade Gorton by just 2,000 votes in 2000) and McGavick is extremely wealthy; combine those two factors and you see why Washington remains on the Line. (Previous ranking: 8)

Candidate Profiles/Links/Fundraising: Cantwell, McGavick | Washington Political Profile

8. Maryland: If you believe polling (and we do), Rep. Ben Cardin's win in Tuesday's Democratic primary makes it more difficult for Lt. Gov. Michael Steele (R) to win the seat being vacated by Paul Sarbanes (D). The only way for Steele to win in a state as Democratic as Maryland is to win considerable numbers of crossover votes, which seems like a tough proposition with a candidate as inoffensive as Cardin as the Democratic standardbearer. That said, there is a MAJOR charisma gap between the two candidates, and Steele will be as well-funded as any non-incumbent in the country. (Previous ranking: 7)

Candidate Profiles/Links/Fundraising: Cardin, Steele | Maryland Political Profile

7. Tennessee: Rep. Harold Ford Jr. (D) had a good last week. First came the news that former Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker (R) will have to testify next month about his role in a land acquisition deal with Wal-Mart -- a fact Democrats immediately sought to exploit as evidence of questionable ethical practices by the Republican. Then Ford launched his latest ad, which is set in a church and continues to effectively drive home the message that he is not a traditional Democrat. "Here I learned the difference between right and wrong," says Ford in the commercial. "And now Mr. Corker's doing wrong." For all of Ford's campaign skills and Corker's recent struggles, this is still the South -- where Democrats have won only two open-seat Senate races since 1996. (Previous ranking: 9)

Candidate Profiles/Links/Fundraising: Corker, Ford Jr. | Tennessee Political Profile

6. Missouri: There may be no Senate race in the country -- with the possible exception of Pennsylvania -- that is drawing as much national attention and interest as this one. Witness the back and forth over the past week. Democrats sent far and wide a YouTube video of Sen. Jim Talent (R) talking quite frankly about the use of the word "amnesty" in the illegal immigration debate. For their part, national Republicans picked up on a comment made by state Auditor Claire McCaskill to the effect that President Bush had abandoned African Americans in Louisiana during Hurricane Katrina. Putting the rhetorical warfare aside, The Fix feels more and more strongly that while this race will be close, Talent will ultimately prevail. Talent's base in the St. Louis area makes it difficult for McCaskill to build a winning coalition. To get over 50 percent, she needs to overperform in the state's more rural areas -- a tough proposition for any Democrat in the Show Me state. (Previous ranking: 5)

Candidate Profiles/Links/Fundraising: McCaskill, Talent | Missouri Political Profile

5. New Jersey: Fresh off a spate of news stories about the role he played in securing federal funding for an organization that paid him rent, Sen. Bob Menendez (D) finds himself in another potential pickle. Two Republican state legislators have filed an ethics complaint regarding his work to block the merger of Univision and the Hispanic Broadcasting Company -- action he took while he owned stock in a rival company. Menendez has dismissed both issues as nothing more than partisan politics, but the problem for him is that the conversation in the race is currently about ethics -- the issue where Menendez is weakest. Still, New Jersey is among the most expensive states in the country in which to advertise, and Menendez has a huge cash-on-hand edge over state Sen. Tom Kean Jr. Menendez has problems, but will Kean have the cash to capitalize? (Previous ranking: 6)

Candidate Profiles/Links/Fundraising: Kean Jr., Menendez | New Jersey Political Profile

4. Rhode Island: Sen. Chafee's win results in a one-spot drop for the Rhode Island race in this week's rankings. Chafee's ability to identify and convince unaffiliated voters to support him was essential to his primary win and he will need to reproduce that effort to have a chance against former state Attorney General Sheldon Whitehouse (D) in the fall. The problem for Chafee is that Rhode Island is a strongly Democratic state in a strongly Democratic year. If he is as unwilling to run negative ads in the general election as he was in the primary, he will almost assuredly lose the race. Chafee must figure out a way to highlight his political independence without appearing to be a man bereft of any conviction at all. (Previous ranking: 3)

Candidate Profiles/Links/Fundraising: Chafee, Whitehouse | Rhode Island Political Profile

3. Ohio: Republicans are growing increasingly pessimistic about Sen. Mike DeWine's (R) chances of winning reelection due to the toxic environment in the state for GOPers. Rep. Sherrod Brown (D) cast a number of votes during his time in Congress that will allow Republicans to label him a liberal, but it looks increasingly unlikely that it will not matter. DeWine is caught up in something much greater than any individual campaign; voters in Ohio are hungering for change and view Democrats as the party better able to give it to them. One X-factor in this race is the heavy involvement of the Republican National Committee, which is cosponsoring television ads that attack Brown on immigration and is likely to fund a massive get-out-the-vote operation. (Previous ranking: 4)

Candidate Profiles/Links/Fundraising: Brown, DeWine | Ohio Political Profile

2. Montana: In any other cycle, Sen. Conrad Burns (R) would be the No. 1-ranked race on the Line. How did Burns get into such dire straights? His connection to disgraced former lobbyist Jack Abramoff set the stage, but it is Burns himself who is to blame for his current political problems. Voters in Montana appear to be embarrassed by Burns's regular misstatements and foibles, and are ready to make a change. State Sen. Jon Tester (D) is more liberal than the average Montana voter, but all he needs to do between now and Nov. 7 is not make any big mistakes that would force voters to see the race as a choice between a devil they know and a devil they don't. (Previous ranking: 2)

Candidate Profiles/Links/Fundraising: Burns, Tester | Montana Political Profile

1. Pennsylvania: State Treasurer Bob Casey Jr.'s formula to beat Sen. Rick Santorum (R) isn't terribly complex. Witness the Democrat's latest ad: A narrator notes that Santorum votes with President George W. Bush 98 percent of the time while an image of the two men is shown on screen. The message? If you like Bush and his policies, vote for Santorum. If not, vote for Casey. In campaigns, simple messages are often the most effective. The Fix has watched Santorum long enough to never count him out, but this race continues to look very difficult for him to win. (Previous ranking: 1)

Candidate Profiles/Links/Fundraising: Casey, Santorum | Pennsylvania Political Profile

By Chris Cillizza  |  September 15, 2006; 10:30 AM ET
Categories:  Senate , The Line  
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Next: Maryland Senate: Can the GOP Win With Steele?

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