Sabatos Crystal Ball


The '08 battles for the U.S. Senate

Larry J. Sabato, Director, U.Va. Center for Politics June 19th, 2008


Lots of exciting changes have occurred in the nation’s Senate races since we last reviewed them in December 2007. Yet overall, the outlook hasn’t changed much. Democrats will pick up seats to pad their slim 51-to-49 margin. They are defending a mere 12 seats, and all their incumbents are running again. The Republicans have drawn the short straw, trying to protect 23 seats with five incumbents retiring in a tough political environment for the GOP.

It is still too early to project the exact size of expected Democratic gains, but it will be a major surprise if Democrats fail to add at least three or four seats. The total of projected Democratic gains may well rise considerably, possibly five to seven, depending on the electoral conditions prevailing in the fall. The GOP’s only real hope in Senate contests is that John McCain wins the Presidency handily, generating coattail in some key match-ups. In any event, the Democrats currently seem unlikely to hit the magic number of 60 seats, needed to shut down filibusters. (That assumes all 60 Democrats would stick together on key votes. Good luck.)

As we noted in an earlier analysis, the Senate has changed party control six times: in 1980 (D to R), 1986 (R to D), 1994 (D to R), 2001 (R to D), 2002 (D to R), and 2006 (R to D). This is no longer a rare event. Still, 2008 is virtually certain not to generate a seventh such shift. Let’s go to the states and see why.

The following map shows the current party control of each state with a Senate election in 2008. Thirty-three regularly scheduled contests will take place in 2008, along with two special elections, in Mississippi and Wyoming.

As usual, there are many contests that are not competitive. Of the 35 Senate seats on the ballot, the winning party for 24 of them seems set:

State Incumbent Likely Result
Arkansas Sen. Mark Pryor Democratic
Delaware Sen. Joe Biden Democratic
Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin Democratic
Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin Democratic
Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry Democratic
Michigan Sen. Carl Levin Democratic
Montana Sen. Max Baucus Democratic
New Jersey Sen. Frank Lautenberg Democratic
Rhode Island Sen. Jack Reed Democratic
South Dakota Sen. Tim Johnson Democratic
West Virginia Sen. Jay Rockefeller Democratic
State Incumbent Likely Result
Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions Republican
Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss Republican
Idaho OPEN (Sen. Larry Craig retiring) Republican
Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts Republican
Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell Republican
Nebraska OPEN (Sen. Chuck Hagel retiring) Republican
Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran Republican
Oklahoma Sen. Jim Inhofe Republican
South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham Republican
Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander Republican
Texas Sen. John Cornyn Republican
Wyoming Sen. Mike Enzi Republican
Wyoming (sp.) Sen. John Barrasso (appointed) Republican

Of these 24, 13 are Democratic and 11 are Republican. No doubt, two or three of these contests may become more competitive than expected as new events unfold in the summer and the general election. For example, in Texas, early polls have shown Sen. John Cornyn to be weak, though Texas’ statewide Republican majority still appears intact.

Now let’s take a look at the same map of the 2008 Senate races, but this time with the states colored according to their current Crystal Ball outlook. The two states with a double-header (Mississippi and Wyoming) are divided by a broken line, while an asterisk indicates a turnover given the current outlook, with a seat moving from one party to the other.

It is the eleven hottest Senate elections that will determine the final tally in 2008. Here is a brief run-down of each, with a tentative winner indicated, where possible.

Therefore, the early outlook is for another strong Democratic year, though it remains to be seen just how strong. The Crystal Ball has Democrats in line for pick-ups in Virginia, New Hampshire, Colorado, and New Mexico. Surprisingly, Alaska is definitely obtainable for the Democrats, and Mississippi is very much on the radar screen, too. If 2008 turns out to be strongly Democratic at the presidential level, Democrats might be able to grab one or more of the seats up in Maine, Minnesota, North Carolina, and Oregon, though currently we have Republicans leading in all four states. (The GOP leads in Minnesota and North Carolina are already shaky.) To balance the likely Democratic gains, Republicans have a single Democratic seat in Louisiana to target–and we rate that race as currently leaning Democratic.

Democrats will unabashedly celebrate this electoral picture. To Republicans who find this assessment depressing, we would note two facts. First, it is still unlikely that Democrats will get the sixty Senate votes necessary to shut off filibusters-the essential requirement to actually control the Senate on most controversial matters. Second, if Democrats gain substantially in the Senate, then probably a Democratic President is being elected. This could set the stage for Republican gains in the critical redistricting midterm election of 2010, or in 2012, when Democrats will be defending a whopping 24 of 33 seats up that year. What goes around comes around, and the cycles of politics are not to be denied.