Sabatos Crystal Ball

SENATE SENSIBILITIES – The October 2008 Update

Democrats Continue on a Roll

Larry J. Sabato, Director, U.Va. Center for Politics October 2nd, 2008


There are a few changes to report in the nation’s Senate races since we last reviewed them in July-almost all of them in favor of the Democratic candidates. Yet the fundamental outlook hasn’t changed terribly much. The Democrats will pick up a fair number of 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.

Democrats are on target to add a minimum of four seats. They may gain as many as seven or eight. Unlike some other prognosticators, however, we still believe the Democrats are unlikely to gain the nine seats required to hit the magic number of 60 needed to shut down filibusters. Actually, Democrats need an additional ten seats to get to 60. Does anyone really count Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) as a reliable party vote on much of anything, especially in national security matters and foreign policy?

As we noted in our earlier analyses, 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 now certainly not going to generate a seventh 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 regular 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 23 of them seems set, 11 of them Democrat and 12 of them Republican.

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

Therefore, the early outlook is for another very good year for the Democrats. The Crystal Ball has Democrats in line for pick-ups in Virginia, New Mexico, Colorado, and Alaska, in that order of likelihood. Oregon, Kentucky, and North Carolina comprise the second tier of possible Democratic gains, with Oregon and North Carolina’s GOP incumbents already involved in toss-up races. The third tier states, Maine and Minnesota, are both quite a stretch for Democrats, though not impossible, with Minnesota more likely than Maine to fall from GOP hands.

In sum, the Democrats are on track to win somewhere between four and eight additional Senate seats. While we will predict every contest by November 4–and call all toss-ups definitively–our estimate in early October is that Democrats most probably will capture a total of six seats, bringing them to 57 of 100 (counting Joe Lieberman at the moment.) That is a more than respectable haul for one election night–but it is a few seats from the sixty reliable votes needed to tame the chaotic Senate.