The Friday Line: Senate Races to Watch
Beginning today, The Fix unveils a weekly feature: the Friday Line. Each Friday this blog will look at the 2006 Senate, House or gubernatorial playing field. The top 10 races will be listed with No. 1 being the seat most likely to switch parties and No. 10 the least likely. These lines will be updated regularly and -- as always -- comments, quibbles and even (gasp!) compliments are welcome. The Senate kicks things off.
1. Pennsylvania -- Republican Rick Santorum: No incumbent in either party faces a more daunting challenge to win reelection as Santorum. A slew of recent independent polls have shown him trailing state treasurer Bob Casey Jr. (D) by double digits -- never a good sign for a two-term senator. Casey also outraised Santorum in the third quarter -- $2 million to $1.7 million -- although the incumbent still has a hefty cash-on-hand lead. This race is sure to tighten. One thing to note is that Casey -- unlike Santorum -- has never been tested on such a high-profile stage. But, as of today, Santorum looks like he is in trouble.
2. Rhode Island -- Republican Lincoln Chafee: Chafee faces double trouble: He has drawn a serious primary challenge as well as two potential Democrats who have been elected statewide. The National Republican Senatorial Committee has come up guns a-blazing against Cranston Mayor Steve Laffey (R) with a major ad buy attacking Laffey for his alleged hypocrisy on the oil and gas industry. A strong NRSC presence runs the risk of tying Chafee too tightly to the national Republican Party, a dangerous gambit in a state that Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry (D) won by 21 points last year. Waiting in the wings for Chafee (or Laffey) are former state attorney general Sheldon Whitehouse (D) and Secretary of State Matt Brown (D). Whitehouse seems to have the inside track at this point.
3. Minnesota -- OPEN, Democrat Mark Dayton is retiring: Democrats probably have a better chance of holding this as an open seat than they did if Dayton had sought reelection, but it is still Republicans' best pickup chance next year. The White House and National Republican Senatorial Committee helped clear the field for Rep. Mark Kennedy (R), while Democrats must pick between two primary candidates -- Hennepin County Attorney Amy Klobuchar and Patty Wetterling, who was the party's nominee last year for the 6th District House seat. If wealthy trial lawyer Mike Ciresi decides to run (an open question), the Democratic math becomes even more complicated. (Ciresi lost to Dayton in the 2000 Senate primary.)
4. Missouri -- Republican Jim Talent: Score a major recruiting coup for Democrats here as they convinced state auditor Claire McCaskill (D) to make the race against Talent. McCaskill is coming off a near-miss gubernatorial loss in 2004 and should be able to put together the money to be competitive with Talent. This race will be a test of whether Missouri is still a toss up between the parties or whether it has completed the transformation into a red state.
5. Montana -- Republican Conrad Burns: This race just seems destined to be close. Couple Democrats' seeming resurgence in the state with Burns's ties to lobbyist Jack Abramoff and this has the makings of a barnburner. Establishment Democrats seem to believe that state senate president Jon Tester would be a tick too liberal as their general-election nominee. They prefer State Auditor John Morrison. We'll wait to see how this plays out, but Burns has all the marking of an endangered incumbent.
6. Maryland -- OPEN, Democrat Paul Sarbanes is retiring: Republicans landed a top recruit in Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, while on the Democratic side the field seems to grow by the day. Rep. Ben Cardin's (D) second straight big fundraising quarter ($900,000 raised) should help him cement his frontrunner status, but former representative Kweise Mfume remains a wildcard in the primary (Mfume headed the NAACP until this year). Given the state's strong Democratic lean, this is a state Democrats should hold. But Steele's profile as an African American Republican and the ongoing investigation into an illegal search of Steele's credit report by Democrats complicate the equation.
7. Ohio -- Republican Mike DeWine: After months of failing to recruit a candidate against DeWine, Democrats now have one more than they need. Iraq war veteran Paul Hackett and Rep. Sherrod Brown are in the race on the Democratic side, and so far neither has blinked. Brown seems the better bet for Democrats in the general election, but he may be too liberal for Ohio voters. Hackett is the national party's darling these days as he nearly won a GOP-leaning seat in an August special election. The state is ground zero of Republicans in the 2006 election, and DeWine may find himself swept up in a Democratic tide, should one develop.
8. Washington -- Democrat Maria Cantwell: Sure, Republicans didn't convince near-governor Dino Rossi (R) to challenge Cantwell, but they seem thrilled with the early performance of former Safeco insurance CEO Mike McGavick (R). McGavick raised more than $700,000 in the third quarter -- none of which came from his own pocket. Cantwell beat Sen. Slade Gorton (R) by just more than 2,000 votes out of more than 2.2 million cast in 2000 and spent much of the past five years paying off personal debts accrued from that race. McGavick remains something of a question mark as a candidate, but we're willing to give him the benefit of the doubt right now.
9. Nebraska -- Democrat Ben Nelson: Yes, we know Republicans didn't get either their first choice (former governor Mike Johanns) or their second choice (ex-Nebraska Cornhuskers coach and current-Rep. Tom Osborne) into this race. And yes, we know Republicans now have a three-way primary without a clear frontrunner. But we also know George W. Bush won Nebraska by 33 points in 2004 and Nelson barely eked out a win in 2000 despite a lackluster campaign by his Republican opponent.
10. Tennessee -- OPEN, Republican Bill Frist is retiring: We've waited for most of the past year for either Van Hilleary or Ed Bryant to drop from the GOP primary race. Neither has. If Bryant and Hilleary both stay in and divvy up the conservative vote in the primary, former Chattanooga mayor Bob Corker (R) will be the beneficiary. If either former House member drops from the race, the remaining candidate could unify conservatives and beat the better-funded Corker. Democratic Rep. Harold Ford Jr. is keeping his head down and raising money --$519,000 in the third quarter alone. Given the state's Republican tilt, it's an uphill battle for Ford regardless of the Republican nominee, but he is a strong candidate and could make this competitive.
If every Senate seat listed above changed hands in 2006 -- and I'm NOT saying they will -- the Republicans would still keep their majority.
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