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The Friday Line: GOP's Worrisome Senate Landscape

Democrats should be optimistic -- if not yet elated -- about their prospects for gaining Senate seats this fall as takeover opportunities for their party continue to dominate The Fix's Friday Line.

Republican incumbents hold the top five slots this week -- meaning they represent the five Senate seats up for grabs this fall most likely to change party control. The vulnerability of so many incumbents from a single party is an anomaly in recent cycles in which gains by either party have generally come in open seats.

What makes the 2006 cycle so troubling for the GOP is a combination of political atmospherics (Ohio, Missouri and Rhode Island), personal unpopularity (Montana) and a confluence of the two (Pennsylvania).

Even with five incumbents facing major battles for reelection, Democrats don't have an obvious sixth pick-up chance, a necessity if they hope to retake control of the chamber next year. Democrats believe they can add a sixth targeted incumbent by this fall -- in the form of Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl (R) -- but we remain skeptical about how truly vulnerable Kyl is.

Remember: The no. 1 race on the Line is the most likely to switch parties in the November midterm elections. Feel free to submit your own rankings in the comments section below.

To the Line!

10. New Jersey: Sen. Robert Menendez (D) beat his GOP opponent to the punch on the Dubai ports deal controversy, bashing the proposal from the get-go and working diligently to become a leading voice on the matter for his party. State Sen. Tom Kean Jr. was nowhere to be found. The ports controversy sums up Democrats' views about the race: Menendez is a consummate politician and legislative operator, while Kean is an inexperienced kid who happens to have a good-as-gold last name. Kean has time to get his campaign sea legs under him, but not much. One other potential problem for Kean is that with five GOP incumbents in serious reelection races, he is likely to fall down the priorities list for the already under-funded National Republican Senatorial Committee. (Previous ranking: 8)

9. Maryland - OPEN (Democrat Paul Sarbanes is retiring): For Lt. Gov. Michael Steele (R) to win this race, he needs to run a near flawless campaign and get several breaks. The last month was a difficult one for Steele in both regards as he was forced to apologize for comparing stem-cell research to medical experiments conducted by the Nazis, and lost both his campaign manager and communications director in what appeared to be a blow-up between state-based operatives and the national party. Democrats still have an extremely crowded primary field, but Rep. Ben Cardin looks more and more like the nominee. We are keeping this race on the Line for now, but if Steele commits any more major gaffes it may drop out of the top 10 entirely. (Previous ranking: 6)

8. Nebraska: We weighed whether to put Sen. Ben Nelson (D) or Washington's Sen. Maria Cantwell (D) in this slot, but decided on Nelson. Why? Because we just couldn't ignore President Bush's 33-point victory in the Cornhusker State in 2004 or Nelson's narrow margin over a lackluster candidate in 2000. Nelson is an extremely smart politician with a staff that knows politics, and he's not likely to give former Ameritrade executive Pete Ricketts (the likely Republican nominee) many openings. Nelson's recent endorsement by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is a sign of just how difficult it will be for Republicans to paint him as just another national Democrat. But given the state's huge demographic tilt against Nelson's party, we still expect this race to close considerably if Ricketts wins the GOP primary. (Previous ranking: N/A)

7. Tennessee - OPEN (Republican Bill Frist is retiring): The lone open seat currently held by a Republican slides up two slots on the Line largely because of Republican missteps in other states. Rep. Harold Ford Jr.'s (D) latest TV ad, which talks about the Dubai ports deal despite the fact that Tennessee is landlocked -- shows an understanding on the Democrat's part that he needs to take risks if he hopes to pull off an upset here. The Republican primary between former Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker and former Reps. Van Hilleary and Ed Bryant still seems headed toward a nasty conclusion. (We get a press release daily from Bryant bashing Corker.) If Corker, the most moderate of the three candidates, wins the August primary, Republicans will likely hold the seat in the fall. But if either Hilleary or Bryant is the nominee, Ford has a real chance. (Previous ranking: 9)

6. Minnesota - OPEN (Democrat Mark Dayton is retiring): This is by far Republicans' best pick-up opportunity at the moment, even this seat is by no means a slam-dunk for the party. Hennepin County Attorney Amy Klobuchar has effectively eliminated her competition for the Democratic nomination. Rep. Mark Kennedy has long had the Republican field to himself. Both campaigns are raising millions of dollars, but this race doesn't seem likely to engage in any meaningful way until late summer or Labor Day. It's hard to see how a Republican House member beats a well-known Democrat in a blue state in the current political climate, but Kennedy deserves kudos for the solid campaign he has run to date. (Previous ranking: 6)

5. Missouri: Democrats appear to have found a wedge issue in Missouri -- stem-cell research. An initiative to prohibit Missouri's state government to pass any law that's stricter than the current federal policy banning most stem-cell research will be on the ballot this fall. As a sign of the political potency of the issue, Sen. Jim Talent (R) recently dropped his support for a bill that would ban all forms of human cloning -- including embryonic stem cell research. State Auditor Claire McCaskill (D) has run a sound campaign, raising the millions she'll need against Talent and picking her spots to engage the incumbent. We still tend to believe that national mood is everything here. If the playing field nationally remains tilted toward Democrats, McCaskill will likely win. If the mood is less negative toward Republicans than it is today, Talent should be in fine shape. (Previous ranking: 5)

4. Ohio: Democrats got a boost when Iraq war veteran Paul Hackett left the contest just before the filing deadline. While Hackett went out with a bang -- attacking national party leaders for allegedly showing favoritism toward Rep. Sherrod Brown -- the practical effect of his decision is that Brown can spend the next eight months talking about Sen. Mike DeWine (R) rather than worrying about a primary fight. Although national Democrats clearly got what they wanted by clearing the primary field for Brown, his long voting record in Congress is likely to be a major issue in the campaign. Republicans insist that Brown has taken a number of positions that place him far to the ideological left of the average voter in the state. If outgoing Gov. Bob Taft's (R) job approval numbers remain below 20 percent on Election Day, however, it may not matter. (Previous ranking: 4)

3. Montana: Just when we debated dropping Sen. Conrad Burns (R) to a slot below DeWine, the Vanity Fair interview with disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff hit the Web. In the piece, Abramoff alleges that there were close ties between his lobbying firm's staff and Burns's Senate office. If you live in Montana, you can expect to see Abramoff's comments on your television screen in the near future. For the moment, Burns is the only candidate on the air with a new radio ad that touts his ability to bring pork -- and jobs -- to the state. State Auditor John Morrison continues to lead the fundraising race over state Sen. Jon Tester and as of today appears to be the likely Democratic nominee. In many ways, it matters little who carries the Democratic flag in the fall. The race will be a referendum on Burns and whether voters see him as an asset or an embarrassment to the state. (Previous ranking: 3)

2. Rhode Island: Former state Attorney General Sheldon Whitehouse's path to the Democratic nomination got easier over the past ten days as Secretary of State Matt Brown's campaign was roiled by allegations of illegal donations. Brown's problems have effectively curtailed the momentum he appeared to gain after an unconventional strategy of running a heavy rotation of early television ads. Brown was having problems raising money before these allegations came to light and it seems likely the negative publicity will further the chilling effect. What does this all mean for Sen. Lincoln Chafee's (R) chances at reelection? If Whitehouse is able to husband resources he might have had to spend on a serious primary fight with Brown, he will be better positioned to defeat either Chafee or Cranston Mayor Steve Laffey (R) in November. We continue to think Chafee's best shot at winning reelection is to run as an independent, although he seems entirely disinterested in that gambit. We'll know for sure when filing closes on June 28. (Previous ranking: 2)

1. Pennsylvania: Sen. Rick Santorum (R) can't seem to catch a break in this race. Presented as the public face of lobbying reform, Santorum's office admitted earlier this week that the meetings with lobbyists he had cancelled at the end of January were still going on -- albeit off the Capitol grounds. It's a long shot to sell Santorum as the face of reform, but this revelation further complicates those efforts. After meeting state Treasurer Bob Casey Jr. (D) recently, The Fix was generally impressed with both his political acumen and recognition of the difficulties of running a campaign against the savvy Santorum. But we continue to hear whispers that Casey is not all he is cracked up to be, and, if he wins this fall, it will be by a scintilla. Still, polls show Casey leading Santorum by double digits -- an extremely treacherous position for any incumbent. (Previous ranking: 1)

Check out The Fix's last Friday Line on Senate races.

By Chris Cillizza  |  March 10, 2006; 8:32 AM ET
Categories:  Senate , The Line  
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