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The Friday Line: Arizona Cracks the Senate Rankings

The Fix wrote this week's Friday Line while traveling from D.C. to the gambling mecca of the United States, where I'll spend the weekend at the Yearly Kos convention and poking around Nevada's very interesting political scene.

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This week's Line looks at the battle for the Senate, where it's still possible (if not probable) that Democrats will regain a majority this fall. The slate of competitive races is largely unchanged from last month, although Arizona cracks the list this time, as real estate developer Jim Pederson has gained momentum in his contest against Sen. Jon Kyl (R).

Elsewhere this month, the Tennessee open-seat race slides down as former Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker has used an impressive advertising blitz to leapfrog ahead of former Reps. Ed Bryant and Van Hilleary in the Republican primary race. Corker is seen as the most electable of the Republicans in a general election fight against Rep. Harold Ford Jr. (D). The primary is Aug. 8.

Virginia remains the X-factor on the Line. On Tuesday, former technology lobbyist Harris Miller squares off against former Navy Secretary James Webb for the Democratic nomination to take on Sen. George Allen (R) in the fall. Key Democrats in Washington, including Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee chief Chuck Schumer, have endorsed Webb under the belief that only he -- a former top official in President Reagan's Pentagon -- can make a serious run at Allen. If Webb wins the primary (by no means a certainty as of this writing) Virginia could crack the next installment of the Friday Senate Line. Should Miller win the primary, however, the race becomes a longer shot for Democrats.

As always, the no. 1 race on the list below is the most likely to change parties in the fall. Kudos and criticisms are welcome in the comments section at the bottom of this posting.

To the Line!

10. Arizona -- Jon Kyl (R): Democrats have said over and over since the start of the '06 cycle that Kyl's polling numbers were soft and that, with a little bit of negative advertising, they would drop precipitously. Turns out they were basically right. Kyl remains the favorite in this contest, but Democrat Jim Pederson's campaign has made inroads thanks to a statewide television blitz. A Behavior Research Center poll conducted in early May showed Kyl at 40 percent to Pederson's 33 percent. That's way down from January, when Kyl led 55 percent to 26 percent. Immigration will be the issue in this race. Will voters side with Kyl's hard-line stance, or will they favor the "path to citizenship" approach endorsed by Pederson and the state's other senator, John McCain? (Previous ranking: N/A)

9. Maryland -- OPEN: Until the Democratic primary shakes out this fall, this race belongs on the Line. Republicans believe that Lt. Gov. Michael Steele (R) can beat either Rep. Ben Cardin or former Rep. Kweisi Mfume, the two Democratic frontrunners. From an objective point of view, the establishment candidate Cardin is probably the stronger of the two Democrats. So far, however, he has failed to energize Democrats in the state, and despite an incredibly poor fundraising performance, Mfume remains viable in the primary race. Steele remains untested on such a big stage, but the reports we hear out of his campaign are that he is ready for the spotlight. The fact that Steele is one of three African Americans running for statewide office as a Republican this year gives this race a lot of potential to become interesting in the fall. (Previous ranking: 9)

8. Tennessee -- OPEN: Former Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker's ad campaign has propelled him from a distant third to a clear first in the Republican primary, according to a poll conducted for his campaign. Using his huge fundraising edge, Corker has been on the air for the past month, well ahead of Van Hilleary and Ed Bryant. When the two former House members begin their own advertising campaigns, the race should narrow. Rep. Harold Ford Jr. has run a terrific campaign to date, but if Corker is the GOP nominee the Democrat may struggle to scoop up those voters in the moderate middle that he needs to win in this Republican-leaning state. It would be folly to underestimate Ford's political skills, however, so we are only dropping this race a single slot on the Line. (Previous ranking: 7)

7. New Jersey -- Bob Menendez (D): Despite Democrats' insistence that state Sen. Tom Kean Jr. (R) doesn't even belong in the same political league as Menendez, polls continue to show the two men running even. Neither is well-known by voters in the Garden State, and given the difficulty and cost of communicating in a state with no TV market of its own, that trend is likely to continue for the foreseeable future. Fix friend Stu Rothenberg has long argued that New Jersey is actually Republicans' best pick-up chance this cycle because recent political scandals, especially among Democratic officials, are likely to create "special circumstances" that would allow New Jersey to run counter to the national, anti-GOP mood. As a long-standing player in northern New Jersey's Democratic machine, Menendez could suffer just by association. Kean is positioning himself as a fresh-faced reformer, which could be a potent message for the state's voters. His fundraising needs to pick up, however, if he hopes to be competitive with Menendez on the airwaves this fall. (Previous ranking: 10)

6. Minnesota -- OPEN: Status quo rules in this race between Hennepin County Attorney Amy Klobuchar (D) and Rep. Mark Kennedy (R). Kennedy impressed us with his pragmatism and campaign savvy when we met with him not long ago, but Klobuchar is a seasoned politician in her own right. She could face a nuisance primary from veterinarian Ford Bell, but it won't matter. The general election should play out along very traditional lines: Kennedy will call Klobuchar a liberal; Klobuchar will call Kennedy a conservative. If they fight to a draw, Klobuchar will win. But should Kennedy score more points in that debate, he could pull off an upset. (Previous ranking: 6)

5. Ohio -- Mike DeWine (R): In any challenger's race to unseat an incumbent, there are peaks and valleys. Rep. Sherrod Brown (D) appears to be in a valley at the moment. Most knowledgeable insiders we talk with seem slightly down on his chances of defeating DeWine. Yes, the political climate in Ohio is shaping up as decidedly unfriendly toward Republicans, but DeWine can make a legitimate case that he is anything but a lockstep supporter of his party's agenda. At the same time, Brown is somewhat easily caricatured as a liberal, a picture that Republicans have already begun drawing. This race will likely move up again before November, but for the moment this seems like the right spot for it. (Previous ranking: 4)

4. Missouri -- Jim Talent (R): State Auditor Claire McCaskill (D) has made a believer out of us. Acknowledging that she focused too heavily on St. Louis and Kansas City during her unsuccessful 2004 gubernatorial race, McCaskill has devoted time and attention to rural Missouri this time around. The Democrat isn't likely to carry rural Missouri, but she realizes that if she can cut into Talent's margins there, she can put together a winning coalition. Talent seemed to be caught off-guard this spring on the stem-cell issue, a strange occurrence for the normally nimble politician. Talent has a top-notch campaign team that will ensure he runs a quality race. But this race is going to be extremely close. If ever Democrats can turn the Republican tide in Missouri, this is the year. (Previous ranking: 5)

3. Montana -- Conrad Burns (R): We were as surprised as anyone by state Sen. Jon Tester's blow-out win over state Auditor John Morrison in Tuesday's Democratic primary. While some Democrats fret that Tester may be too liberal to beat Burns, he doesn't carry the ethical baggage that weighed down Morrison. That's good, because it lets Tester stick to the Democratic gameplan of turning the election into a referendum on Burns and his relationship with disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff. A recent independent poll showed Tester with a narrow lead over Burns, an edge within the poll's margin of error but no less significant. This contest could well wind up in the no. 2 slot on the Line in coming months as we are convinced that Montana voters are fed up with Burns. (Previous ranking: 3)

2. Rhode Island -- Lincoln Chafee (R): Circle June 28 on your calendars. That's the last day for candidates to file for the Senate race. In theory, that day would be Chafee's final chance to abandon the Republican Party and run for reelection as an independent. Chafee and his allies insist there is no chance he will leave the party, but polling continues to show him as no better than an even-money bet in the Republican primary race against Cranston Mayor Steve Laffey. Former state Attorney General Sheldon Whitehouse has the Democratic primary field to himself and is concentrating on stowing cash for the general election. A three-way race between Chafee, Laffey and Whitehouse would be a political junkie's dream and could complicate what now looks like a strong pick-up opportunity for Democrats. (Previous ranking: 2)

1. Pennsylvania -- Rick Santorum (R): Sen. Santorum is finally on the air with ads (radio) that attack state Treasurer Bob Casey Jr. (D) as soft on immigration, a tacit recognition that his Democratic challenger currently holds the lead. Expect Santorum's ads to close the gap over the next few months, but the underlying numbers in the state make this a very difficult race for the incumbent. Much attention has been paid to Casey's lead in surveys testing a head-to-head match-up with Santorum. But as important are the large numbers of Pennsylvania voters who have soured on Santorum and are ready to make a change. A recent poll conducted for Gov. Ed Rendell's campaign (D) showed that 34 percent of voters had "warm" feelings about Santorum compared with 42 percent who had "cool" feelings. Uh oh! (Previous ranking: 1)

See The Fix's last ranking of Senate races here.

By Chris Cillizza  |  June 9, 2006; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  Senate , The Line  
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