Sabatos Crystal Ball

The Big Picture for 2006

More Real Competition (Potentially) for Senate and Governor

Larry J. Sabato, Director, U.Va. Center for Politics July 14th, 2005


Everyone is focused on the Supreme Court now, with good reason, but just below the surface the campaigns of 2006 are heating up. Perhaps 16 of the 33 U.S. Senate contests and 19 of the 36 Governor’s races may be competitive and interesting. Therefore, about half of the big dogs on the ballot are worth following closely. That’s impressive, and far better than election watchers ever get in the U.S. House.

Of course, it is highly unlikely that all these contests, or even most of them, will produce party turnovers or incumbent defeats. As we get nearer to Election Day 2006, the number of fiercely competitive races may well decline–unless the public is in a surly mood, as in 1974, 1980 or 1994, when the number of tight races expanded as we approached the election. We won’t know the driving components of public opinion until mid-way through 2006, and we might not recognize a voter tsunami or sixth-year itch, if there is one, until October of 2006.

The Crystal Ball has updated our “outlook briefs” for all major Senate and Governor races, and the individual profiles tell the tale so far. Collectively, there is more hope than was earlier justified for partisan jousting. That’s not to say Democrats will be taking control of the Senate–possible but very unlikely–or that Democrats will be capturing a majority of Governorships–possible but not currently probable. Still, both parties appear to be making strong attempts to give themselves a chance to win in states not currently leaning in their direction. This is healthy for them, obviously, but also healthy for the system. More Americans may have a real choice in high-level races come November of 2006.

In the Senate, four incumbents already have serious challenges to their reelections: Bill Nelson (D-FL), Conrad Burns (R-MT), Rick Santorum (R-PA) and Lincoln Chafee (R-RI). Santorum is undeniably, for the moment at least, the most threatened Senate incumbent in the nation. The other three begin their battles as slight favorites for another term. These endangered four may well be joined by at least eight other senators: Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Jim Talent (R-MO), Kent Conrad (D-ND), Ben Nelson (D-NE), Mike DeWine (R-OH), Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Robert Byrd (D-WV) and Jon Corzine (D-NJ) or his appointed Democratic replacement, should Corzine be elected to the Garden State’s Governorship this autumn. Why is there doubt about these seven? For most, the identity of their eventual opponent is unclear. But all could conceivably be in trouble, given the right mix of competition and conditions.

Add to these twelve the four open Senate seats, where the incumbents have chosen to retire: Maryland (currently D), Minnesota (D), Tennessee (R) and Vermont (I, but effectively D). At the moment, only Minnesota could be termed on the cusp of a party flip, from Democratic to Republican, but the other contests remain fluid enough that, in the absence of incumbency, anything could happen. As always, the strengths and weaknesses of the eventual party nominees will be critical, but for now, those assessments must wait.

Of the 16 possibly competitive Senate seats for 2006, ten are Democratic and only six Republican. That should give Democrats pause. It’s early, and the mix of true contests will change in the sixteen months before the election. Yet it is already crystal clear that Democrats will have to depend upon a sixth-year itch in November 2006 in order to take control of the Senate. Only an intense public fervor of anti-Bush or anti-GOP Congress sentiments would permit Democrats to win all or almost all the close ones, while picking off a couple of currently “safe” Republican senators.

Now to the Governorships…In most election years the statehouses are more competitive than the Senate, and 2006 is turning out to be no exception. There are many reasons: Governors are in the hot seat almost daily, and as executives, they often have to make the most controversial decisions alone–taking the brunt of the criticism. Senators enjoy collective responsibility, can hide behind multiple votes on virtually every issue, and are watched far less closely in their home states by both the press and public than are Governors. Of course, there is no doubt which is the more rewarding job. Fewer Governors are running for the Senate these days, and most of those who do, and win, would gladly switch back to their previous position if given the chance. It is only a modest exaggeration to say that the difference between the two high offices is the distinction between “talking” and “doing.” The American electorate understands this, and greatly prefers Governors to Senators as potential Presidents.

Incumbent Governors up for reelection in 2006 are in various degrees of trouble in thirteen states: Frank Murkowski (R-AK), Bob Riley (R-AL), Arnold Schwarzenegger (R-CA), Sonny Perdue (R-GA), Rod Blagojevich (D-IL), Kathleen Sebelius (D-KS), Mitt Romney (R-MA), Robert Ehrlich (R-MD), Dave Heineman (R-NE), George Pataki (R-NY), Ted Kulongoski (D-OR), Ed Rendell (D-PA) and Jim Doyle (D-WI). Of these, Murkowski, Romney and Pataki may not seek reelection. Nebraska’s Heineman, who succeeded to the office when President Bush chose Governor Mike Johanns (R) to be his new Secretary of Agriculture in early 2005, may not even be nominated; football legend and Congressman Tom Osborne (R) is leading Heineman by landslide margins in public polls concerning the GOP gubernatorial primary. In addition, there are six states where the current Governor either cannot run for another term or has chosen not to do so: Arkansas (currently R), Colorado (R), Florida (R), Iowa (D), Nevada (R) and Ohio (R). Three of these (AR, IA and OH) may well switch party control of the statehouse. In no state is the incumbent party in worse shape than the Buckeye State, where two-term Republican Governor Bob Taft has rock-bottom popularity, and he and his party are dogged by scandals (read more in OH Gov and OH Sen). After a long period of near one-party GOP control, Ohio may well be ripe for significant change, with major implications for the 2008 war for the Presidency.

In total, then, there are twelve currently Republican Governorships that are mildly to very endangered, compared to just six Democratic Governorships. (We are excluding Nebraska, since the winner of the GOP primary for Governor is practically certain to win in November.) With the current national balance at 28 GOP Governors and 22 Democratic ones, it is far from impossible that Democrats could gain an even split or even a narrow majority of the statehouses, come November 2006. Before Democratic spirits soar too high, though, it is also entirely possible that Democrats will fall further behind in November 2005, if Republicans pick up either or both of the Governorships of New Jersey and Virginia.

The Crystal Ball now invites you to go from the general to the specific. Take a look at the individual Senate contests and Governor’s races. National trends, especially in statehouse battles, can be deceptive. While off-year elections such as 2006 frequently have a national tide, the country’s results are just a patchwork of state elections. “States rights” may be fading in other respects, but in elections, federalism is still front and center!

Crystal Ball staffers Matt Smyth and Robin Cook contributed to the 2006 Senate and Governor updates and analysis.