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The Line: Another Early Look at the Senate Playing Field

The 2008 cycle got much more interesting earlier this week when comedian/liberal activist/radio show host Al Franken announced that he is running for the Democratic nomination for Senate in Minnesota.

Franken's announcement was decidedly subdued and serious, a tone that suggests the author of "Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot" is planning to run a real campaign. "Over the next 20 months I look forward to proving to you that I take these issues seriously," Franken said in an eight-and-a-half-minute video address.

He won't be alone in the race, however, as wealthy trial lawyer Mike Ciresi announced the formation of an exploratory committee two days before Franken officially entered the race. Ciresi spent roughly $6 million of his own money on a bid for the Democratic nomination in 2000 but came in second place -- well behind Mark Dayton. Ciresi has said he plans to raise money from individuals for this race.

As The Fix wrote earlier this week, it's still hard to gauge whether Franken or Ciresi would be the better general-election candidate against Sen. Norm Coleman (R). If the national political environment remains as bad as it currently is for Republicans, it may not matter.

Minnesota is clearly one of Democrats' best pick-up chances in 2008, along with the open seat in Colorado and two New England seats -- New Hampshire and Maine -- where Republican incumbents are trying to stem the growing Democratic tide in the region.

The ten Senate races below are ranked alphabetically for now. By this summer (or maybe even a little bit before then) we should know enough about the shape of the field to rank them.

To the Line!

* Colorado: Here's what we know: Rep. Mark Udall (D) and former Rep. Scott McInnis (R) are running for the seat being vacated by Sen. Wayne Allard (R). What we don't know is whether former Rep. Bob Schaffer, who ran unsuccessfully against beer magnate Pete Coors in the 2004 Senate primary, will decide he has another race in him. And, if he decides not to run, will conservatives find another candidate to back or just line up behind McInnis? The Fix keeps hearing that Schaffer is leaning against the race. If he decides not to run, keep an eye on Secretary of State Mike Coffman. He may be the choice to carry the conservative flag in the primary.

* Louisiana: The full-court press is on to convince Rep. Richard Baker (R) to run against Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) next November. Democrats and Republicans agree that Baker would be Landrieu's most formidable opponent, and it would seem as though he has little reason to remain in the House with Republicans in the minority. If he wants to win, Baker needs to get in and start raising money. He had just $37,000 in the bank at the end of 2006, compared with $852,000 for Landrieu. If Republican can get Baker to run, which looks more likely than not at the moment, this is their best pick-up chance of the cycle.

* Maine: The last Senate Line noted that we continue to hear rumors that Rep. Tom Allen (D) was not entirely committed to challenging Sen. Susan Collins (R). Immediately after we wrote that, The Fix's inbox was flooded with notes insisting that Allen is running. We're convinced. While Allen isn't the most charismatic candidate, he is a proven vote getter -- having held southern Maine's 1st District since 1996. And he starts the race on equal financial footing with Collins: Allen ended 2006 with $502,000 on hand while Collins had $436,000.

* Minnesota: The Fix can't wait to see how Franken's candidacy plays out. His announcement struck the right message, which can be boiled down to: I'm not a typical politician but that doesn't mean I don't care deeply about the direction of the country. Franken's fame brings pluses and minuses -- he should be able to raise money rather easily, but he must prove to voters that his candidacy isn't a gag. The likelihood of a Democratic nomination fight between Franken and Ciresi should help the political novices polish their messages and organize their fundraising efforts. Both men have pledged to abide by the results of the party's convention, meaning that there will not be a potentially destructive September '08 primary.

* Mississippi: Until Sen. Thad Cochran makes his decision, we can't leave this race off The Line. If Cochran decides not to run -- and we keep getting rumors that he will retire -- then this seat has the potential to be competitive. Former state Attorney General Mike Moore is by far Democrats' strongest nominee, and insiders say he is inclined to run for an open seat. Rep. Chip Pickering (R) has been waiting for years for an open Senate seat and would likely have a clear shot at the Republican nomination. Cochran said recently he'll make a decision around Dec. 1, 2007. Ugh.

* Nebraska: Predicting Sen. Chuck Hagel's (R) political future is an unenviable task. He continues to leave open the possibility that he will run for president in 2008. If he makes a national bid, he will likely pass on a Senate reelection race. Even if Hagel decides against running for president, he could retire. If Hagel does leave, former Nebraska Gov. Mike Johanns (R), who is the current Secretary of Agriculture, would likely run and clear the GOP field. Democrats want Omaha Mayor Mike Fahey as their candidate, and he recently left the door open to a possible bid. A Johanns-Fahey match-up would be one for the ages.

* New Hampshire: Need evidence of how big a target Sen. John Sununu (R) has on his back? The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee paid for an ad in the Manchester Union Leader hitting him for his vote against allowing debate to proceed on a Senate proposal condemning President Bush's plan to send more troops to Iraq. Democrats still hold out hope that Gov. John Lynch (D) will consider the race, but that seems like a long shot. Portsmouth Mayor Steve Marchand and former congressional candidate Katrina Swett are already running for the Democratic nomination. Stonyfield Yogurt founder Gary Hirschberg has set a March 5 deadline to make a decision about his candidacy.

* New Mexico: Sen. Pete Domenici (R) sought to put to rest retirement rumors by insisting earlier this week that not only is he running but that he will begin to raise money shortly the campaign. It's not that we don't believe him, but we still aren't convinced. Senators regularly insist early in the cycle that they will of course be running again, only to bow out later on when the rigors of running a campaign become more apparent. (Look at Sen. Jim Jeffords's insistence that he would run again in 2006 only to eventually decide to step away.) If Domenici does retire, look for Democrats to put heavy pressure on Gov. Bill Richardson (D) to run -- that is, if Richardson's presidential bid fails to catch fire.

* Oregon: The exclusion of Oregon from our last Line was an oversight of gross proportions. Sen. Gordon Smith (R) -- like Coleman, Sununu and Collins -- represents a state won by John Kerry in 2004. Like Sununu, Smith was a target of the DSCC's recent print ad campaign, and Democratic strategists insist his reelection numbers are soft. Democrats don't have a candidate yet, although a number of state legislators appear to be interested. If we know DSCC Chairman Chuck Schumer, he won't rest until a credible candidate emerges and announces against Smith. The demographics of the state make this a top target for Democrats.

* South Dakota: Democrats are doing everything they can to set the stage for Sen. Tim Johnson (D) to run for reelection in 2008. Seven of his colleagues have committed to hold a series of events to raise money for the senator, who remains hospitalized following brain surgery late last year. If Johnson runs, it's not likely Republicans field a serious candidate against him. If Johnson chooses to forgo a race for a third term, the open-seat contest would likely pit Gov. Mike Rounds (R) against Rep. Stephanie Herseth (D).

The comments section below awaits your reaction.

By Chris Cillizza  |  February 16, 2007; 7:40 AM ET
Categories:  Senate , The Line  
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