The GOP holds 49 seats in the United States Senate. I tend to be on the more optimistic side, but the map in 2008 makes me very concerned. The GOP has to defend vulnerable seats in Maine, New Hampshire, Virginia, Minnesota, Nebraska, Colorado, and Oregon. This is not counting possible open seats in New Mexico and Alaska.
In Oregon and Maine, the GOP has ostensibly popular incumbents. Both Gordon Smith and Susan Collins have won re-election in 2002 by convincing margins. While Democrats in Oregon have failed to find a top-tier recruit and settled on a state legislator, Maine Democrats have rallied around one of the state’s two Representatives. Both Smith and especially Collins have solid approval ratings. They would seem to be the frontrunners for re-election, and the polls show they are.
The problem for both Smith and Collins is that both could become the next Jim Talent. A smart politician, Talent was unable to overcome the political tide and lost re-election by narrow margins to the essence of mediocrity – Claire McCaskill. Ominously, neither Smith nor Collins is running for re-election in red Missouri either. They remain the ahead for now, but both would benefit immensely from continued good news from Iraq to take the steam out of their challengers.
In New Hampshire, the polls indicate that a re-match between former Democratic Governor Jean Shaheen and Republican incumbent Senator John Sununu would be a landslide for the Democrat. In no state was the 2006 carnage worse for the GOP than in New Hampshire. Sununu, of course, has to take heart that Shaheen has not yet committed to running. He is unquestionably the most vulnerable GOP incumbent this election cycle.
In Minnesota, Norm Coleman is running for re-election. A popular incumbent and former Mayor of St. Paul, Coleman will face two extremely liberal Democrats in his bid for a second term. I am not convinced that either Democrat has what it takes to defeat Coleman, but this is Minnesota after all. It has a nasty habit of voting for liberal clowns. If 2006 is any indication, even a strong Republican nominee does not stand a chance if the news from Iraq is bad.
We now move to the open seats – Virginia, Nebraska, and Colorado. We will have a better idea what will happen in the Old Dominion this week when Mark Warner decides if he is running or not. Republicans seem set to have a primary or convention to decide whether their nominee will be former Governor Gilmore or Congressman Tom Davis. I much prefer the later. A long-time Congressman from Northern Virginia, Davis is probably our best chance to hold the Senate seat were Warner to run.
Many conservatives apparently prefer Gilmore. This would be a disaster, and I would write the seat off were he to be nominated. It was Gilmore’s incompetence that resulted in the string of Democratic victories that have brought the GOP from holding both Senate seats and the Governor’s mansion in January of 2000 to losing first the Governor’s mansion in 2001, again in 2005, losing the other Senate seat in 2006, and now fighting for its life to hold this one. Gilmore’s presidential bid never took off, and only a fool would believe he has a fighting chance against Warner.
Popular Governors are not unbeatable in Senate races, as we shall see in the next race. But they cannot be defeated with unpopular former Governors. Gilmore left the Governor’s mansion with mediocre approval ratings, the candidate of his party defeated to succeed him. Warner left the Governor’s mansion with extremely high approval ratings, the candidate of his party succeeding him, despite his being well to Warner’s left. Davis might not be perfect, but he is a fresh face, unsullied by the Gilmore disaster, and capable of competing with Mark Warner vote for vote in vote rich Northern Virginia. Logically, there can be no question – it’s either Tom Davis or Senator Mark Warner.
In Nebraska, Chuck Hagel was the come-from-behind victor in 1996 against incumbent Governor Ben Nelson. Hagel has since annoyed just about every Republican with his criticism of the President and the war in Iraq. One poll showed him losing the GOP primary to the State Attorney General. He did not help himself with rumors he might run for President as an independent. Hagel has decided not to seek a third term, and the race to succeed him is wide open.
The Democratic nominee would seem to be former Governor and former Senator Bob Kerrey. Having last won an election in Nebraska, convincingly so in 1994, Kerrey would seem to be the strongest nominee Democrats can find. That is, until today. It seems that Kerrey was very close to the corrupt Democratic fundraiser Norman Hsu, recruiting him for the New School board of trustees and calling him a “terrific member.” (It will be nice to use Jack Abramoff smears back on Democrats since it seems just about every single one of them has taken at least one donation from Hsu.)
The Republicans right now have two possible nominees – the Attorney General and a wealthy businessman. They may be joined by a third – popular former Governor and present Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns. I was not entirely happy with the President when he selected Johanns after winning re-election because it took him out of contention to challenge Ben Nelson for re-election in 2006. But all would be forgiven were Johanns to run for the open Senate seat. As this write-up correctly states, “Johanns would certainly come in as the front-runner, both in the GOP primary and in the general.”
In Colorado, as in Virginia, Republicans are fighting to hold on after losing the other Senate seat and the Governor’s mansion. Democrats in the Mountain State have flourished as late, even taking two Congressional seats from Republicans. Much of the blame goes to former Governor Bill Owens, who the National Review once proudly proclaimed to be the future of the Republican Party.
Their 2008 nominee will be Congressman Mark Udall. Unlike Salazar and Ritter, Udall is a self-proclaimed liberal. The Republican nominee seems to be former Congressman Bob Shaffer. A poll from 2006 had Shaffer trailing narrowly, and I expect the Democratic Presidential nominee to run well here in 2008. It will take an extremely effective and competent campaign from Shaffer to buck the trend here and hold the seat. Shaffer, of course, lost the Senate nomination in 2004.
I do not believe Democrats have the slightest chance in either Idaho or Wyoming. If the GOP were to find itself struggling in either state, the game is up.
We do not know what will happen in Alaska and New Mexico as both GOP incumbents may have problems with law enforcement. Democrats have no bench to speak of in Alaska, so the Republican nominee will be heavily favored were Stevens to step aside, especially in the context of a Presidential election year. New Mexico poses a more serious problem, unless the GOP coaxes one of its two Congressmen to run. For now, both seats remain in the GOP column.
Of course, it is a truism that the best defense is a good offense. At present, the GOP does not have. This could change. The recruitment of Governor Mike Rounds in South Dakota, Congressman Steve King in Iowa, Treasurer John Kennedy in Louisiana would drastically improve things. Finding someone to challenge Max Baucus in Montana would help, as would a retirement in New Jersey or Delaware. Above all, it would be nice if the NRSC could start matching Chuck Schumer in the fundraising race. The latest numbers have been abysmal.
The GOP simply cannot afford another 2006 in which six incumbents lost re-election. It will be 2012 before the GOP reasonably has a chance at 55 Senate seats again. That is, however, if the GOP does not lose another 6 seats again this year. Strong campaigns, solid fundraising, and searing attacks on Democratic challengers might work, but what would really help the Party is a strong Presidential candidate and, above all, a change in public sentiment on Iraq. That can only happen with continued good news on the ground and the report of such news to the American people.