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The Friday Line: A Way Early Look at the '08 Senate Races

The Fix is nothing if not forward-looking. With the 2006 election now 10 days past, it's time to begin handicapping the races to come in 2008.

We'll begin today by looking at the 10 most competitive Senate races, with a post next week on the 10 biggest House targets.

A cursory evaluation of the 2008 Senate playing field shows Democrats seemingly well-positioned to build on their 51-seat majority. Of the 33 seats up for reelection, just 12 are held by Democrats. And of those 12, only two Democratic incumbents received less than 54 percent of the vote in 2002 -- Sens. Tim Johnson (S.D.) and Mary Landrieu (La.). Johnson took 50 percent in his victory over John Thune (who went on to beat Tom Daschle two years later), while Landrieu won a December runoff against Republican Suzie Haik Terrell with 52 percent of the vote.

Republicans must defend 22 seats and have more obvious vulnerabilities. At first glance, just three GOP senators -- Norm Coleman (Minn.), John Sununu (N.H.) and Wayne Allard (Colo.) -- look vulnerable, as each won in 2002 with less than 54 percent of the vote. But the complicating factor for Republicans is that there are a number of rumored retirements that may come before 2008, creating more open-seat opportunities for Democrats. GOP incumbents on the retirement watch list include Allard, as well as Thad Cochran (Miss.), Pete Domenici (N.M.), Chuck Hagel (Neb.), Jim Inhofe (Okla.) and John Warner (Va.).

For the first Senate Line of the '08 cycle, we have decided not to rank the races from most likely to switch parties to least. With so many potential retirements and so few candidates actually declared for these races, it's too tough to rank vulnerability just yet. So the races are listed alphabetically -- for now.

To the Line!

Colorado -- Wayne Allard (R): Allard has yet to make a decision on whether he will run for a third term in 2006. He had previously pledged to serve just two terms, and his meager campaign cash balance -- $119,000 -- seems to suggest he will keep that oath. Regardless of whether Allard runs, Democratic Rep. Mark Udall is in the race and is the likely frontrunner; he showed more than $1.2 million on hand just prior to this month's election. Another name mentioned is Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, but after his long -- and ultimately unsatisfying -- flirtation with the 2006 governor's race, we aren't waiting with bated breath. Should Allard step aside, expect former GOP Reps. Scot McInnis and Bob Schaeffer to look seriously at running. Former Gov. Bill Owens's name will also be mentioned but that seems like a longshot at the moment. Given Democrats' gains in the last two cycles in Colorado -- picking up two House seats, a Senate seat and the governorship -- this will be one of the marquee races of the cycle.

Louisiana -- Mary Landrieu (D): For the next year, NO ONE in Louisiana will pay attention to this race. Why? Because all eyes will be focused on Gov. Kathleen Blanco's (D) reelection race, which is likely to wind up being a rematch against Rep. Bobby Jindal (R). Blanco eked out a win in 2003, but her handling of hurricane recovery has cast major doubts on her chances to win a second term. Once the governor's race concludes next November, the focus will finally turn to the Senate race. That delay should accrue to Landrieu's advantage, as she can spend this year stockpiling funds in hopes of scaring away a potential rival. Should Jindal lose to Blanco, he would be an obvious choice to challenge Landrieu. And Republican Reps. Jim McCrery and Richard Baker -- newly minted members of the House minority -- may also be more open to a statewide bid than in years past. Regardless of the Republican nominee, the demographics of Louisiana ensure this will be a very close contest.

Massachusetts -- John Kerry (D): "If" is the operative word in this race. IF Kerry decides to run for president in 2008 and IF he gives up his seat to do so, then we will see a historic free-for-all among Democrats for the right to replace him. Reps. Marty Meehan, Barney Frank, Stephen Lynch and Ed Markey have all made clear they are interest in a Senate bid and have been squirreling away hundreds of thousands of dollars in their House accounts to be used to jumpstart a Senate race. Meehan is the leader of that pack with nearly $5 million in the bank, but it's unlikely that even that large a warchest will scare away other potential competitors. No Republican names have been floated; outgoing Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey's (R) dismal showing this fall in the governor's race may serve as a deterrent to other ambitious GOPers in this ultimate blue state.

Minnesota -- Norm Coleman (R): Coleman is the Republican that Democrats love to hate. Maybe it's because he was a former Democrat, maybe because he pulled off an unlikely victory over Walter Mondale in 2002 following the death of Sen. Paul Wellstone (D). Whatever the reason, beating Coleman will be a high priority for Democrats in 2008. Comedian Al Franken (D) has long insisted he will challenge Coleman, but it remains to be seen whether the entertainer will follow through on his boast. National Democrats may be hoping that he stays out, as a figure as divisive as Franken could well ensure Coleman a second term. A number of other Democrats have been mentioned: Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, Rep. Betty McCollum, wealthy attorney Mike Ciresi and 2006 gubernatorial nominee Mike Hatch. Coleman is bracing for a fight; he had $1.8 million on hand at the end of September.

Mississippi -- Thad Cochran (R): This race is on the Line as long as Cochran continues to mull the possibility of retirement. No longer the chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee, Cochran is not expected to make a decision any time soon. But the $351,000 in his campaign account should be somewhat worrisome for Senate GOPers. If Cochran does leave, Rep. Chip Pickering (R), who was ready to run in 2004 if Sen. Trent Lott (R) had stepped aside, would be the GOP frontrunner. Democrats' preferred candidate is former state Attorney General Mike Moore, who may be the only one who could win this seat in GOP-friendly Mississippi (Moore gained national prominence in the '90s for leading the fight against the tobacco companies). If Cochran decides to seek a 6th term, he wins.

Montana -- Max Baucus (D): Despite the recent Democratic gains in the state, Baucus will still likely be a marked man in 2008. Montana voters went for President Bush by 20 points in 2004 and nearly handed Sen. Conrad Burns (R) a win last week in spite of his numerous verbal gaffes. Democrats have always privately fretted that Baucus is slightly too liberal for the state, but he has managed to hold the seat for the past 28 years. Much of Baucus's vulnerability rests on whether or not Rep. Denny Rehberg (R) decides to run. Rehberg challenged Baucus in 1996 and lost 50 percent to 45 percent; he was elected to the state's at-large House seat four years later. Rehberg has said publicly that he will not challenge Baucus, but he is likely to come under considerable pressure to do so. And while he currently holds a seat on the Appropriations Committee, Rehberg may well lose it in the Democratic-controlled 110th Congress -- a potentially powerful impetus to take a flyer on a statewide bid. Former Montana Gov. Marc Racicot is Republicans' dream candidate but seems unlikely to rejoin the partisan fray.

New Mexico -- Pete Domenici (R): Like Mississippi, the competitiveness of this contest rests on whether Domenici decides to run for a 7th term. Domenici, 74, has been in ill-health for several years and because of the Democratic takeover this year will no longer chair the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Domenici has pledged to run again, but few strategists believe that is the final word. Should he retire it could well set off an extremely competitive Republican primary between Reps. Steve Pearce and Heather Wilson. Pearce, the more conservative of the two, would likely start out as a slight frontrunner. The picture is far less clear for Democrats, as Rep. Tom Udall -- cousin of Colorado's Mark -- has shown little interest in a Senate bid.

Nebraska -- Chuck Hagel (R): Hagel has made little secret of his interest in a presidential run in 2008, and if fundraising is any indication he isn't planning to stay in the Senate if he does decide on a national bid. Hagel had just $114,000 in his campaign account at the end of September. Nebraska is tough-sledding for Democrats, but there is some optimism that in an open-seat scenario Omaha Mayor Mike Fahey (D) could make a credible statewide candidate. Fahey is currently in his 2nd term and has made no announcement about his future plans. A parade of Republicans would likely be interested in an open seat, including Reps. Lee Terry and Jeff Fortenberry; state Attorney General Jon Bruning is also mentioned.

South Dakota -- Tim Johnson (D): It's hard to imagine Republicans finding a stronger challenger than Thune to try and topple Johnson. Johnson's 2002 victory -- albeit it by the narrowest of margins -- proved his appeal in the state. In many ways Johnson's low-key demeanor is a more natural fit for the state than the more charismatic and high-profile leadership of Sen. Tom Daschle (D), who was ousted by Thune in 2004. The one obvious Republican candidate would be Gov. Mike Rounds, who was easily reelected to a second term last week. He will likely be heavily recruited to consider a challenge to Johnson -- especially since the state gave President Bush 60 percent of its vote in 2004. Rumors that Johnson may retire persist -- fueled by his marginal $651,000 cash-on-hand total.

Virginia -- John Warner (R): Until Warner makes up his mind to retire or run again, this race is in a holding pattern. Warner has held the seat since 1978 and it's his as long as he wants it. But after the 2006 losses, Warner will no longer chair the Armed Services panel and, at age 79, may decide to call it a career. If he does, Rep. Tom Davis (R) is chomping at the bit to run but may not have the primary field to himself as a more conservative candidate could well jump in. Democrats pine for former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner (D) to make the race, but it seems strange that Warner would back out of a presidential bid in 2008 only to run for Senate that same year. The wins by Mark Warner, current Gov. Tim Kaine and Sen.-elect Jim Webb in the first have of this decade show that Virginia is no longer a Republican-leaning state. If John Warner steps aside, expected an all-out brawl.

As always, The Fix's comments section is open below for your take.

By Chris Cillizza  |  November 17, 2006; 5:30 AM ET
Categories:  Senate , The Line  
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Next: Happy Thanksgiving: Resting Up for '08

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