Sabatos Crystal Ball


Will Dems hold on to the slimmest of margins?

Isaac Wood and Larry J. Sabato, U.Va. Center for Politics July 19th, 2007


As of yesterday, there were exactly 475 days left until Election Day 2008. Since the Crystal Ball‘s last Senate update, filed exactly 600 days before the election, there have been a number of interesting developments that merit mention. To begin with, there will now be a total of 34 seats on the ballot, instead of the 33 originally planned. This, of course, is a result of Wyoming Senator Craig Thomas’s passing.

Per the Seventeenth Amendment and Wyoming state election law, newly appointed Senator John Barrasso will face a special election on the same day as the 33 “Class Two” Senators who are up for re-election in 2008. [Note to students: Since only a third of the Senate is up every two years, the senators were divided into three “classes”, right from the beginning of the Republic, so that the elections could be properly staggered. Class Two comes up in 2008.] Whoever wins the election will inherit the rest of Thomas’s term which, as a Class One senator last elected in 2006, lasts until 2012. Those four years are almost as good as a whole term for entrenching an incumbent, so don’t expect Barrasso to get a completely free pass. Even though he will be a bit weaker than a typical incumbent in 2008, Barrasso is a substantial favorite in GOP-dominated Wyoming. His focus must be on pleasing conservative GOP activists in the Cowboy State. If not seriously opposed in the primary–and some of the big players like almost-Senator Tom Sansonetti (the GOP’s preferred choice for the seat who was not chosen by Democratic Governor Dave Freudenthal) have pledged their support to Barrasso already–the new senator will be the favorite in November. However, Barrasso may–may–have to worry about a primary opponent, including top-three replacement candidate former state Treasurer Cynthia Lummis, former U.S. Attorney Matt Mead, and Wyoming House Majority Leader Colin Simpson. As for the general election, Wyoming was the second Reddest state in 2004 and the Reddest in 2000, with Bush garnering 69% of the vote both times, so the odds of a Democratic takeover are still slim, especially since Governor Freudenthal has said he will not run.

What about the national picture? The Republicans will have to play defense with 22 seats, while the Democrats will be defending only 12. This disadvantage is lessened slightly when you take into account the large number of those seats that are considered to be safe or that will likely favor the incumbent’s party. When looking only at seats that the Crystal Ball considers to be “probably competitive”, however, the Republicans will still have to defend five seats and the Democrats only two. As of the moment, there has been just one announced retirement, Republican Senator Wayne Allard of Colorado, but more open seats could be on the ballot by Election Day, as at least four Republicans and one Democrat may be considering retirement. If the Republicans have to defend more open seats in November 2008 than do the Democrats, this would certainly put a damper on their hopes of regaining the Senate majority, a task that already appears considerable.

“Likely” to “Safe” Republican – 17 Total

State Incumbent
Alaska Ted Stevens (possible if unlikely retirement)
Alabama Jeff Sessions
Georgia Saxby Chambliss
Idaho Larry Craig (possible retirement; will remain GOP seat)
Kansas Pat Roberts
Kentucky Mitch McConnell
Mississippi Thad Cochran (possible retirement; appears to be running again)
Nebraska Chuck Hagel (possible retirement)
New Mexico Pete Domenici (less safe than usual due to U.S. Attorney scandal)
North Carolina Elizabeth Dole
Oklahoma Jim Inhofe
South Carolina Lindsey Graham
Tennessee Lamar Alexander
Texas John Cornyn
Virginia John Warner (possible retirement; 50-50 odds)
Wyoming John Barrasso (special election)
Wyoming Michael Enzi

“Likely” to “Safe” Democratic – 10 Total

State Incumbent
Arkansas Mark Pryor
Delaware Joe Biden
Iowa Tom Harkin
Illinois Dick Durbin
Massachusetts John Kerry
Michigan Carl Levin
Montana Max Baucus (perhaps no Democrat is ever safe in Montana)
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 (possible retirement) Dem

Several Republican incumbents have seen their prospects for reelection lessen, if only slightly, since the last update. In Alaska, Senator Ted Stevens has recently been ensnared in a FBI investigation that also has targeted his son. The focus of the probe is unclear, but even if Stevens is eventually cleared, voters might still demand an explanation. Stevens is also 83 years old, so retirement is not entirely improbable, but unless the investigation takes a turn for the worse, expect him to be on the ballot in November. In Nebraska, Chuck Hagel is now likely to face stiff primary opposition from Attorney General Jon Bruning, and Democrats are optimistic about Omaha Mayor Mike Fahey. While no recent Democratic nominee for president has ever even carried a Nebraska congressional district, let alone the entire state, Nebraska has elected Democrats as senators with some frequency. In North Carolina, Elizabeth Dole has looked a bit shaky–at least to Democrats–but state Democrats have come up empty-handed in candidate recruitment. Tarheel state Democrats are opting to keep their current jobs or concentrating on gubernatorial bids, knowing that picking up a Senate seat in a Red state in a presidential election year is easier said than done.

As for the safe and likely to be reelected Democrats, there has been much less to analyze, as most of these Democrats have stayed out of the headlines. Delaware Senator Joe Biden continues his bid for the White House, but given his current poll position, he will likely call it quits in plenty of time to defend his Senate seat. In Iowa, Senator Tom Harkin has since put to rest retirement rumors, announcing that he will run for a fifth term.

Onto the exciting stuff: the competitive seats. In Colorado, Democrat Mark Udall’s likely opponent will be Bob Schaffer, a former U.S. representative and unsuccessful 2004 Senate candidate.Republicans have coalesced behind Schaffer, across the state and nationwide, but Colorado has been trending Democratic. Udall may have a tiny initial edge.

In Louisiana, the stage is set for a showdown between incumbency and demography. Post-Katrina Louisiana looks a lot Redder than the pre-Katrina state, but the Crystal Ball is well aware of the folly of betting against incumbents, so the slight early lead belongs to Senator Mary Landrieu.

Maine Senator Susan Collins also has the incumbency advantage and broad personal popularity. However, Maine and national Democrats hit a recruiting home run on May 8, when Rep. Tom Allen announced he would challenge Collins. This race should be watched carefully for signs of a 2006-like trend that produces Blue victories even against well-liked Red incumbents.

Minnesota presents an interesting electoral dynamic as the Democrats have a three-way race to pick their nominee and Senator Norm Coleman has also been threatened with a primary. Minnesota should vote Democratic in a presidential year–we’ll leave aside for now the VP possibility of GOP Governor Tim Pawlenty–so Coleman will have his work cut out for him. The identity of the Democratic candidate really matters here, though, and the party needs a strong nominee. Coleman is aggressive, tenacious, and may be tougher to beat that Democrats now think.

New Hampshire political watchers are waiting for the other shoe to drop in the Senate race there, as Senator John Sununu would see his reelection odds become a tossup or worse if former Democratic Governor Jeanne Shaheen chooses to enter the race. (In early trial heat polling match-ups, Shaheen leads Sununu by wide margins.) Other Democrats, even some who have already declared their intentions to run, have indicated they would clear the way for her to challenge Sununu. A Shaheen candidacy, especially one with no expensive primary, should be of great concern to Sununu, given the Democratic landslide of ’06 in the Granite State and the continuing deep unpopularity there of President Bush and the Iraq war.

Oregon Senator Gordon Smith remains in the same category as Collins, Coleman, and Sununu as another Republican representing a Blue state in a presidential year. In a tribute to the power of presidential coattails, Smith is endangered even though the DSCC has come up empty so far in its search for a heavy-hitting, high name-ID candidate. Smith has smartly moved to oppose Bush and the Iraq War, however, and he’s a master of survival in a tough state for any modern Republican.

South Dakota is also something of a wild card, with Senator Tim Johnson not expected back on the Hill until September following his well-publicized health problems. There has been no announcement about whether Johnson will run again, and such an announcement is unlikely to come before he resumes his regular duties in the fall. On the Democratic side, the state’s at-large Representative, Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, appears to have the primary field to herself if Johnson retires, since former Senator Tom Daschle has shown no signs of making another bid. For Republicans, things are much more uncertain, with the current Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and state senate Majority Leader all considering running, but waiting for more information about Johnson’s condition and whether he will seek reelection.

The Crystal Ball’s brutal bottom line is that Republicans will be playing much more defense than Democrats, and so the early betting line favors continued, perhaps enhanced, Democratic control of the Senate. Nonetheless, the yet-to-be-determined national political climate of fall 2008 is as critical as it is unpredictable.

We leave you with a question to ponder: If, as currently seems somewhat likely, the Democrats are favored to hold both houses of Congress in ’08, will this give voters pause in electing a Democratic President–especially if the nominee is the controversial Hillary Clinton? In modern times, Americans have often built in an additional check and balance undreamt of by the Founders. They prefer divided party control of the White House and the Congress so that no party holds sway, and the politicians will all oversee and limit one another. Maybe Bush and Iraq are enough to elect Democrats across the board in ’08. Or maybe the Democratic edge in the national legislature is a hidden card that the Republican presidential nominee will be able to play in what may be an uphill battle to secure the White House for a third consecutive GOP term.

After several e-mails from astute readers, the Crystal Ball has some more information about the authenticity of Senator George Aiken’s supposed Vietnam-era quote that the United States should “declare victory and go home.” Professor George Conyne of the University of Kent recalled “I’m as sure as I can be that I read the famous Aiken quote, on which you invite comment, in a piece on Aiken in the Christian Science Monitor when he was still a senator (so before 1975)- I think you’ll agree that the Monitor does [not] make quotes up.” Professor Conyne also recalled, accompanying the article, “a photograph of Senator Aiken sitting with his fist supporting his cheek at what I think was a hearing of the Senate Committee of Foreign Relations.”

Another fascinating recollection came from J. Paul Giuliani, who said, “My father and George Aiken were friends for many years. In fact, my father, Peter Giuliani, was a member of Aiken’s first campaign committee in the 30s when he ran for Governor and won. The quote attributable to Senator Aiken was coined by my father. Somewhere I have a handwritten note from the Senator thanking my father for giving him that famous one-liner. I remember someone showing me a clipping from the Baltimore Sun around the same time in which George Aiken identifies ‘my friend Pete in Vermont’ as the author of the quip. The Senator also recognized my father as the author of a more famous Aikenism: ‘Either impeach him [Nixon] or get off his back!'”

Case closed? We will leave that up to the judgment of our esteemed readers. If anyone can send us a copy of either article mentioned by these readers, we would be much obliged and further comments are always welcome as well.