Sabatos Crystal Ball


Down to the Wire Again?

Larry J. Sabato, Director, U.Va. Center for Politics February 15th, 2007


Three of the last four election years have produced squeaker results in the Senate contests. In 2000 the parties emerged from November in a 50-50 tie, broken by new Vice President Cheney in the GOP’s favor in 2001. Just five months later, the Republican-to-Independent/Democratic switch of Senator Jim Jeffords of Vermont gave the Senate to the Democrats, 51-49. The post-9/11 election of 2002 flipped the Senate narrowly back in the Republicans’ direction, 51-49. Five Southern Democratic retirements in 2004 resulted in five GOP pick-ups, as the Republicans soared to a 55-45 Senate majority. This was a short-lived bump, of course, and the Democrats grabbed six Republican seats in 2006 to restore the 51-49 Senate produced by Jeffords. Since 1994 Congress’ upper chamber has remained closely contested, and in the seven general elections over the past dozen years, the GOP has on average secured 52.5 seats to the Democrats’ 47.5.

At least to judge by the early line-up, it will be a surprise if the Senate doesn’t remain highly competitive after November 2008, with neither party having anywhere near the sixty reliable votes needed to run this balky, idiosyncratic institution–the saucer that cools the hot brew in the House teacup.

The Democrats have a couple of obvious factors moving in their favor. First, the simple mathematics will give them at least a slight advantage. In the Senate class of 2008, there are 21 Republican seats and only 12 Democratic ones. Almost inevitably, there will be more takeover opportunities for the Democrats come campaign season. Second, the macro forces in 2008, while unpredictable, could well give a lift to Democratic candidates again. One must strain to see Iraq turning into a plus for the GOP; it is easy to forecast how this unpopular war could weigh Republican candidates down, just as in 2006. There were individual elements to the defeats of all six GOP Senate incumbents in ’06, but the one common essential was the burden of President Bush and Iraq.

On the other hand, there really aren’t scads of obvious, vulnerable targets on either side in ’08. Yes, seemingly solid incumbents can become exposed quickly in a stormy environment. Still, 23 of the 33 seats are being contested in Red Republican States. That partly explains the 21R to 12D split in the seats up in ’08. At the same time, this fact provides only so much comfort to the GOP. Just to pick two examples, if Democratic Maine can have two Republican Senators and Republican Montana can have two Democratic Senators, then anything is possible, given the atmospherics of the election year and the quality of the candidates.

The biggest imponderable is the presidential campaign. Senators like to think they are immune from the coattail effect. They are not. Certainly, coattail has a greater impact on open seat races, such as the ’04 Southern contests mentioned earlier, where the Bush reelection margin pushed Republicans over the finish line in states such as Florida and Louisiana. Yet a large margin for one party’s White House contender can add a few Senate seats all by itself. And then there are all the usual macro forces that are unpredictable but often determinative, including scandals that may arise, or the shape of each state’s economy (if it’s good, the incumbent claims credit, and if it’s bad, the challenger makes the incumbent take some blame). Fear of the unknown keeps both parties on their toes.

This early in the game, we hesitate even to categorize Senate races for 2008. Which senators will retire? Which senators will attract trouble or commit devastating gaffes before the campaign is finished? What will the quality of the challenger turn out to be in each race? How about the comparative financial war chests of the candidates and the national party senatorial committees? (With money, as in so many other aspects of life, size matters.)

But your Crystal Ball is always up for early prognosticating, even if every prediction accompanied by a cautionary asterisk. So let’s construct our very first Senate categories for 2008:

“Likely” to “Safe” Republican (barring unexpected retirements) – 16 Total

State Incumbent
Alaska Ted Stevens
Alabama Jeff Sessions
Georgia Saxby Chambliss
Idaho Larry Craig (possible retirement)
Kansas Pat Roberts
Kentucky Mitch McConnell
Mississippi Thad Cochran (possible retirement)
Nebraska Chuck Hagel (possible retirement)
New Mexico Pete Domenici
North Carolina Elizabeth Dole
Oklahoma Jim Inhofe
South Carolina Lindsey Graham
Tennessee Lamar Alexander (possible retirement)
Texas John Cornyn
Virginia John Warner (possible retirement)
Wyoming Michael Enzi

“Likely” to “Safe” Democratic (barring unexpected retirements)- 10 Total

State Incumbent
Arkansas Mark Pryor
Delaware Joe Biden
Iowa Tom Harkin (possible retirement)
Illinois Dick Durbin
Massachusetts John Kerry
Michigan Carl Levin
Montana Max Baucus
New Jersey Frank Lautenberg
Rhode Island Jack Reed
West Virginia Jay Rockefeller

Probable Competitive Contests – 7 Total

State Incumbent Party
Colorado OPEN (Wayne Allard) Rep
Louisiana Mary Landrieu Dem
Maine Susan Collins Rep
Minnesota Norm Coleman Rep
New Hampshire John Sununu Rep
Oregon Gordon Smith Rep
South Dakota Tim Johnson Dem

It is nearly guaranteed that a few contests in the “Likely” to “Safe” categories will fall into the Competitive Contests column before it’s over. Stuff happens, including those pesky (to the party committees) retirements. Most of the Senators listed as “possible retirements” will end up running again, but a couple who do not could wreak havoc for party leaders. Of special concern to the GOP, five of six potential retirees are Republicans, and both Nebraska and Virginia would be strong candidates for party turnovers with the incumbents out of the race. Any open seat–even in so-called ‘safe’ environments–could be cause for worry, since the extra spending needed to hold such a seat might hurt the fundraising success of needy party nominees in other states.

For the moment, though, let’s focus on the seven potentially competitive Senate contests. We can immediately see that five of the seven problematic ’08 races are for Republican seats. Wayne Allard’s seat is a toss-up between the probable party nominees, Congressman Mark Udall (D) and former Congressman Scott McInnis (R). No Western state has moved further toward the Democrats recently than Colorado, though there is no guarantee that trend will continue. The difficulty for GOP Senators Susan Collins (ME), Norm Coleman (MN), John Sununu (NH), and Gordon Smith (OR) can be succinctly stated: they are Republicans representing Democratic states, and 2008 could turn out to be a year that encourages straight-party voting because of the intensity of Democratic dislike of the Iraq war and President Bush. Collins could have a tough foe in Congressman Tom Allen (D) if he decides to run, and the other three Republicans can count on fierce opposition as well. If the “R” next to these incumbents’ names turns into a scarlet letter in ’08, as it did for many Republicans in Blue States in ’06, one or more could lose.

So far, the only Democrats who seem to be in any trouble are Mary Landrieu (LA) and Tim Johnson (SD). Landrieu won her first two terms narrowly, and Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005 have sent many thousands of African-American Democrats to other states, perhaps permanently. Republicans sense an upset here, though Landrieu has proven to be a hardy survivor. Despite the firm GOP lean of his state and his close prior victories, Johnson is included on this short list mainly because of health issues, for now. Should be continue to recover nicely from his severe brain injury, and decide to run for reelection, he might end up riding a wave of sympathy and admiration to a third term without serious GOP opposition. But should Gov. Mike Rounds (R) decide to make the race, with or without Johnson in it, another South Dakota barn-burner is on the horizon. Without Rounds or Johnson in the picture, popular Congresswoman Stephanie Herseth (D) could hold this seat for the Democrats. At the moment, the South Dakota Senate contest is just a big question mark.

A fair reading of this essay will give Democrats more hope to retain the Senate than the Republicans to recapture control. It’s also not hard to see Democrats adding one or more seats to their paper-thin majority. Yet there’s plenty of time for the political fates to reverse course, and there is virtually no chance for a filibuster-proof Democratic Senate. The Crystal Ball will put a substantial wager on the senatorial saucer continuing to cool the hot House-blend after 2008.