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The Friday Senate Line: A New Number One

Wow. We knew that September was going to be a crucial month when it came to determing the Senate landscape, but so much has happened since the last Line that it took even us by surprise.

Republican Sens. John Warner (Va.) and Chuck Hagel (Neb.) announced their retirements; former Democratic Gov. Jeanne Shaheen (N.H.) and Mark Warner (Va.) announced their candidacies; former Nebraska Democratic Sen. Bob Kerrey is seriously considering a race.

Taken as a whole those developments have Democrats increasingly optimistic about significantly widening their majority in 2008 -- maybe even to a veto-proof filibuster-proof 60 seats. A fundraising email sent Wednesday by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) was titled "Sixty is all it takes" and argued "party is poised to gain the 60 seats necessary to stop Republican filibusters and bring our families and neighbors home from this war."

We're not quite there yet but there's no question Democrats are poised to make gains in 2008. How big depends on whether races in places like Kentucky and North Carolina truly become competitive.

As always, the number one ranked race is the most likely to switch parties -- and, yes, we do have a new number one this month. Scroll down to see which race it is and, while you're there, offer your own thoughts in the comments section.

To the Line!

10. South Dakota (Currently D): By all outward appearances Sen. Tim Johnson is running for re-election. He returned to his home state earlier this month, nearly a year after undergoing emergency brain surgery, to a warm welcome from politicians of both partisan stripes. Johnson seems committed to running again and if he does then this race won't stay on the Line for long. But, we want to hear him make a formal announcement before we drop the race entirely. (Previous ranking: 9)

9. Alaska (Currently R): The story isn't getting any better for Sen. Ted Stevens (R). Former VECO executive Bill Allen testfied last week that he had tasked several of his employees to take part in the remodeling of Stevens' home. Stevens continues to insist the he paid for any and all renvoations done to his home but we're of the "where there's smoke, there's fire" school of politics and it seems like things are going to get worse for Stevens before they get better. Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich (D) seems content to sit on the sidelines until the Stevens' situation plays out a bit more, but our guess is that he runs. If so, this could be a barn-burner. (Previous ranking: 10)

8. Minnesota (R): The first time we ranked the 2008 Senate races earlier this year, Minnesota came in at number two. So why has it dropped all the way to eighth over the intervening six months? A combination of factors including a number of other seats across the country that have grown more vulnerable during that time, the growing sense that Coleman is positioning himself as well as he can on the war in Iraq and the continued lack of faith in some quarters of the Democratic party that either 2000 candidate Mike Ciresi or comedian Al Franken can oust the incumbent. After a trip to Iraq earlier this month, Coleman jumped behind a proposal by Sen. John Warner (R-Va.) that calls for a modest troop withdrawal by the end of the year but enforces no hard timetable for the withdrawal of all American troops. Will that position be enough to satisfy Minnesota voters? (Previous ranking: 7)

7. Nebraska (R): On its face, the newly open Nebraska Senate seat shouldn't be competitive. President Bush carried the state by 29 points in 2004 -- one if his largest margins in the country. But, the potential candidacy of former Sen. Bob Kerrey (D) has Democrats believing they can not just be competitive but win in the Cornhusker State. Kerrey has expressed interest in a return to the Senate and met with Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Charman Chuck Schumer (N.Y.) last week. Recent comments about needing to consider the impact the race might have on his family have led some to specualte that Kerrey will decide not to run. But we would caution against making any predictions about Kerrey. He is one of the most enigmatic and unpredictable politicians of recent vintage and seems to revel in that reputation. If he does decide against the race, Democrats will quickly turn to Omaha Mayor Mike Fahey who is a Kerrey protege. Republicans, meanwhile, have to feel some satisfaction at former Gov. Mike Johanns' decision to resign as Secretary of Agriculture to make the race. Johanns starts out as the frontrunner in the primary but will face a stiff test from aggressive and ambitious state Attorney General Jon Bruning and former Omaha Mayor Hal Daub. If Kerrey gets in and Johanns struggles in the primary, this race could well move up the Line. (Previous ranking: 8)

6. Maine (R): It's already getting petty in Maine. First, Sen. Susan Collins' (R) chief of staff called on Rep. Tom Allen (D) to stop employing a tracker to record the Senator's public statements. Come on. Tracking candidates has been standard operating procedure for the last several cycles and isn't going to end anytime soon. Then the Maine Democratic party called on Collins to honor her two-term limit pledge and retire from office in 2008. Not going to happen and, if history is any guide, voters won't care a lick. The underlying dynamic in this contest is unchanged by all of this back and forth. This race is almost certain to come down to a referendum on how independent Collins truly is from the national Republican party. Her campaign believes her 12 years in office show a politician with a long record of standing against party orthodoxy; Democrats argue that the "R" after Collins' name is all they need to tie her to an unpopular President and his party. (Previous ranking: 6)

5. Oregon (R): State Rep. Jeff Merkley (D) formally announced against Sen. Gordon Smith (R) this week with much of the Democratic political establishment backing him. While it's clear that the state and national party prefers Merkley as their nominee, Steve Novick, who has built something of a following in the netroots, has shown no signs of dropping his candidacy. It's hard to imagine Novick beating Merkley in a primary but he could force the state legislator to spend some money and answer some tough questions -- including why he voted for a 2003 resolution expressing support for the war in Iraq and President Bush. An independent poll conducted last month showed Smith at 38 percent, double Merkley's 19 percent, while independent candidate John Frohmayer took 7 percent. That's a whole lot of undecideds -- never a good thing for a two-term incumbent. (Previous ranking: 5)

4. Louisiana (D): Sen. Mary Landrieu remains the lone Democratic incumbent in any real peril at the moment. Louisiana has been trending toward Republicans for several cycles and that trend should continue with the likely election of Rep. Bobby Jindal (R) as governor later this fall. Republicans have settled on their candidate -- party switching state Treasurer John Kennedy (R) -- and believe that he will ultimately wind up as a better quality candidate than either Suzie Haik Terrell or Woody Jenkins, who ran against Landrieu in 2002 and 1996, respectively. (Trust us, that's a pretty low bar.) With Jindal in the governor's mansion, the state Republican party is almost certain to be better funded and organized than in Landrieu's previous races in which she failed to crest 52 percent of the vote. We've long argued that given the difficulties that this cycle poses for Senate Republicans, they must find places to play offense. Louisiana is their surest bet. (Previous ranking: 3)

3. Colorado (R): The open seat race between Rep. Mark Udall (D) and former Rep. Bob Schaffer (R) drops two slots this month but the fundamental dynamic of the race remains unaltered. Republicans are already beginning to paint Udall as a "Boulder liberal" while Democratsd are making the counter argument that Schaffer is far more conservative than the average Colorado voter. Having huddled with Schaffer earlier this week, we came away impressed by his plainspokeness and his -- to our mind -- smart strategic plan to run as a reform-minded candidate. Republicans are pushing back hard on the idea that this race is Udall's to lose. Schaffer's campaign released a poll that showed him trailing Udall by just two points in a three-way race. And they make the argument that the Democrats who have been elected in the last few years have run as conservatives, putting to lie the idea that the state had fundamentally changed its ideological underpinnings.(Previous ranking: 1)

2. New Hampshire (R): Shaheen's decision to seek a rematch against Sen. John Sununu (R) wasn't surprising but it was monumental in terms of Democrats' chances in the state. Shaheen's candidacy led to the other two serious Democrats -- Portsmouth Mayor Steve Marchand and former congressional candidate Katrina Swett -- to drop out of the contest, decisions that allow the former governor to focus all of her money and time on Sununu. Shaheen starts this race as the favorite, with polling showing her ahead by somewhere between five and 15 points. Republicans believe they have a perfect blueprint to use against Shaheen -- the successful campaign they ran against her in 2002. (The National Republican Senatorial Committee has even started re-running ads that aired in the '02 race against Shaheen on a new website.) The problem with that logic? In 2002, President Bush and the Republican brand were at their acme; today, at least in New Hampshire, the reverse is true. (Previous ranking: 2)

1. Virginia (R): The announcements by Republican Sen. John Warner (retirement) and former Democratic Gov. Mark Warner (running) make this seat the new number one on the Line. Mark Warner left office in 2005 with stratospheric job approval ratings and little has changed since then. Republicans insist that Warner is vulnerable to charges of flip-floppery (he said as a candidate he would not raise taxes, but did once he was in office) and we believe them. The problem is that even if they can take some of the shine off of Warner, he still has plenty of cushion over either Rep. Tom Davis or former Gov. Jim Gilmore who seem almost cerrtain to engage in a costly fight for the GOP nod. Virginia's demographic shift isn't as drastic as some Democrats would have you believe but Warner's strength outside of northern Virginia will be hard for Republicans to counter. (Previous ranking: 4)

By Chris Cillizza  |  September 21, 2007; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  The Line  
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