A look at the 2008 Senate races, mid-October edition

10/16/2008 04:49 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

With the election less than 3 weeks away from us, it's time for another look at all the 2008 Senate races. There are 35 seats up for election because of a scenario in Wyoming and Mississippi where both seats are up, due to the passing of Craig Thomas and the resignation of Trent Lott, respectively. Obviously, quite a few of the races are considered "safe" for the incumbent. So what are the competitive races?

Again, just to be clear, I don't do predictions. Every time I do, horrible things happen. So I won't even make an actual prediction on the Virginia Senate race, because doing so would effectively jinx Mark Warner. So, I'll rank these in terms of tiers. The top tier will be the races where the party holding the seat has a legitimate chance of switching (but I ain't guaranteeing anything). The second tier are races that could become top tier races, but are not at this point. Tier III are ones where a major event would need to happen for the seat to come into play. And the safe seats? Well, Mike Gravel has a better shot at winning the presidency than those incumbents have of losing their races.

This is meant to be a primer for both newcomers and political junkies alike, so some of the information may seem repetitive for you junkies out there. Also see my previous September diary to see what things have changed since my last update. Previous rankings are in parentheses.

Note: The RNC looks to be getting into the Senate races to prop up some of their candidates and keep Democrats from getting to 60 Senate seats. If they decide to end up dropping a moneybomb into a particular race, then that can quickly change the dynamics I've written up below.

Tier I

1. Virginia (1): Former popular Governor Mark Warner (D) is still cruising. Former unpopular former Governor Jim Gilmore (R) hasn't even gotten above 35% in any poll taken since early September, and Warner cannot get below 55%. Move along. Nothing to see here. This is about as lopsided as you're gonna get, but still, no official predictions from me.

2. New Mexico (2): Rep. Tom Udall (D) is running against Rep. Steve Pearce (R). Outside groups like the Club for Growth had been pouring money into this state attacking Udall, and the polling had shown the race getting a bit closer. But more recently, Udall's re-opened his massive lead. Pearce has not gotten above 41% since early September, while Udall has been consistently over the 50% mark at the same time. The NRSC cancelled their TV advertising in this state last month, leaving Pearce and the 527s to fend for themselves. Udall also still has a massive cash on hand advantage over Pearce.

3. Colorado (4): Rep. Mark Udall (D) is Mo Udall's son, and Tom Udall's cousin. He'll face off against former Congressman Bob Schaffer (R). Schaffer had previously lost the GOP primary for that Senate seat back in 2004 to Pete Coors. Schaffer has been known for his close ties to Jack Abramoff and human rights abuses on the Marianas Islands. Right-wing groups had been attacking Udall with ridiculously false ads, which hurt his numbers, but recently the polls are showing Udall slowly but surely increasing his lead over Schaffer. This has caused Schaffer's campaign manager to start attacking the pollsters when their numbers are unfavorable to Schaffer. That's not a sign of a winning campaign. To make things worse for Schaffer, those right-wing groups like Freedom's Watch have now pulled out of the Colorado Senate race.

4. New Hampshire (3): Former Governor Jeanne Shaheen (D), who John Sununu (R) beat in 2002 along with some illegal phone-jamming on Election Day for which several GOP operatives went to prison, has led Sununu in almost every single poll taken in 2008. General rule of thumb: any incumbent polling under 50% in an election poll is in trouble. Add to that, the fact New Hampshire strongly went blue in 2006 all over the place, kicking out both Republican Congressmen and flipping over 80 seats in the state House, giving Democrats control of both state legislature for the first time since 1910, and Sununu has to be considered the most endangered incumbent. But he won't go down easily, and the polls are starting to tighten a bit. Sununu also still has a significant cash on hand advantage. That money will probably make this race closer, but given how much New Hampshire has changed, I'm not sure how much that money advantage will help Sununu.

5. North Carolina (5): Amazing. The polls are showing a complete reversal of fortune starting in August. Kay Hagan (D) has been climbing steadily in the polls, while incumbent Elizabeth Dole (R) has been steadily falling. This, as Obama's numbers similarly are growing in North Carolina. The DSCC's ads against Dole have been quite effective in framing a theme of ineffectiveness about Dole. You even have Republican insiders say Dole is "virtually certain" to lose. This has caused Dole to throw the kitchen sink in negative attack ads against Hagan. Interesting fact, Hagan is the niece of the late Lawton Chiles, the longtime Senator and Governor of Florida, who came from behind to win re-election to the governorship in 1994 by defeating Jeb Bush.

6. Oregon (7): Oregon House Speaker Jeff Merkley (D) is challenging incumbent Gordon Smith (R). Smith seems worried, as his commercials have him embracing Barack Obama and John Kerry and Ted Kennedy and Ron Wyden (Oregon's Democratic Senator) and fighting Bush! Then, he turned from trying to prop up his own record to smearing Merkley with a misleading ad implying that Merkley is pro-rapist. Stay classy, Gordon. (It of course misrepresents what actually happened, and when it was introduced as a stand-alone bill, Merkley of course voted for the tougher penalties.) Smith trying to tie himself to Democratic politicians has gotten so ridiculous that the DSCC has stepped in with a TV ad mocking Smith for doing so, and showing his real record. This is probably because the polls now show Merkley pulling into a nice lead over Smith. In an interesting twist, Smith is actually a cousin of the two Udalls running for Senate.

7. Minnesota (8): Norm Coleman (R) won this seat in 2002 only after Paul Wellstone (D) died just a few weeks before the election. Comedian Al Franken got the DFL (basically the Democratic Party for Minnesota) nod. The recent polling has been friendlier to Al, with every poll taken in October now showing Al Franken in the lead, as Coleman's own numbers keep falling. Much of the fall seems to come from the impact of Independence Party (not to be confused with Alaska's secessionist version) candidate Dean Barkley (who was appointed to the Senate when Wellstone died), who is pulling in a significant chunk of the vote. And while Franken's numbers have also fallen with some of his support going to Barkley, it seems that Coleman is losing even more support. There's also yet another story about Coleman getting lots of free stuff from yet another big GOP donor, which led to a bizarre press conference with Coleman's aide repeateding the same rote denial sentence for three minutes straight. In what seems like a McCain-like campaign stunt, Coleman has also just suspended all negative ads coming from his campaign, and is urging Franken to do the same. Of course, the NRSC isn't stopping its negative ads against Franken.

8. Alaska (6): 84-year-old Ted Stevens (R) is seeking a sixth term, but he has been indicted on 7 felony counts for not disclosing the gifts (over $250,000 worth) he got from oil company Veco Corp. Democrats got their top choice when Anchorage mayor Mark Begich entered the race. His father Nick Begich was a former Congressman, who was killed in a plane crash along with House Majority Leader Hale Boggs (D-LA) in 1972. Now while the polls had already shown Begich leading Stevens before the indictment, Stevens was still able to easily win his primary at the end of August, and combined with McCain's Sarah Palin pick, the polls have suddenly gotten much friendlier to Stevens, and I don't think it was from his primary win over some no-name challengers. And to complicate matters, the federal prosecutor was somehow so incompetent that key pieces of evidence against Stevens were thrown out, greatly increasing Stevens' chances of getting off scot free. Non-partisan polling now shows Begich only up by 2 or 3 points, with Rasmussen actually showing Stevens having regained a slim lead. Still, the incumbent Stevens is under the 50% mark.

9. Georgia (NR): Former state representative Jim Martin, the 2006 Democratic Lt. Gov. nominee, thankfully won the Democratic primary over DeKalb County CEO Vernon Jones (see previous update as to why Jones would've been a horrible candidate). Starting with the economic collapse, poll after poll showed a completely different race, with Martin only behind by a statistically insignificant margin. Early voting and African-American turnout may make a difference in this race, as well as the presence of the Libertarian Senate candidate, given that Libertarian presidential candidate Bob Barr is from Georgia, and will likely shave off some points from Chambliss's right flank. Martin, however, does not have much cash on hand. Good news is the DSCC is going to be helping him out with TV ads against Chambliss. Remember, Chambliss ousted Vietnam veteran and triple amputee Max Cleland (D) in 2002 by running a despicable ad blending the images of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein into Cleland's face, earning him the nickname "Shameless Saxby".

10. Kentucky (11): Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) is now a top target of the Democrats. Wealthy businessman Bruce Lunsford (D) can afford to self-fund, and he'll need to, with McConnell's HUGE warchest of over $9 million. In just the last month, the polls have suddenly shown Lunsford gaining significant ground on McConnell. The DSCC has responded by coming in to Lunsford's aid also.

11. Mississippi-B (9): Roger Wicker (R), appointed by governor Haley Barbour (R) on New Year's Eve after Trent Lott (R) resigned to become a lobbyist, was previously the Congressman from MS-01. That's the seat that Travis Childers (D) won in May. That has to be a shot in the arm for former Governor Ronnie Musgrove (D), though Wicker has shown himself to be a prolific fundraiser. The latest polls still show this to be a pretty tight race, with Wicker slightly up but still under the 50% mark. It may all come down to the African-American turnout in this state. The 2004 exit polls showed they made up 34% of the electorate. So if black turnout increases, that should benefit Musgrove. And because this is technically a special election (to fill out the remainder of Lott's term), there will be no party identification on the ballot in November. That can actually work to our benefit in a state like Mississippi. The GOP is worried about this race, as Governor Haley Barbour (R) tried to bury the race at the bottom of the ballot, even after the local county district races. The problem is that Mississippi election law clearly states that races for national office are supposed to be at the top of the list. This went all the way to the Mississippi Supreme Court, which asked Barbour nicely to follow the law, which he actually did!

Tier II

I decided, for the sake of my own sanity, not to try to rank the Tier II and III races. These are given in alphabetical order, by state.

Maine: Rep. Tom Allen (D) is running to challenge Susan Collins (R). But he just hasn't seemed to be able to gain much traction. Collins has worked hard to craft her moderate credentials. The most recent polls still have Collins at about a double-digit lead over Allen.

Texas: Netroots Democrats got the challenger they wanted to face John Cornyn (R). State rep. and Texas National Guard Lt. Col. Rick Noriega (D) served in Afghanistan after 9/11, and was chosen to coordinate relief efforts in Houston after Hurricane Katrina. The few polls on this race (Rasmussen seems to be the only one polling it) show Cornyn slipping a little bit recently, though he's still at the 50% mark. The big problem for Noriega is still fundraising for a huge state like Texas, though an appearance from Bill Clinton should help.

Tier III

Idaho: With Larry Craig (R) retiring after his airport bathroom... ah... incident, it's looking like a rematch between Lt. Governor Jim Risch (R) and former Congressman Larry LaRocco (D), who lost the 2006 Lt. Gov. race to Risch by a sizable 58%-39% margin. The latest polls are not kind to LaRocco. At this point, wild card independent rancher Rex Rammell won't be anywhere near enough to help out LaRocco.

Kansas: Pat Roberts (R) is up against former Congressman Jim Slattery. There had been high hopes for Slattery, but the polls have not been kind to him. This is about to fall into safe territory, even with Slattery's innovative new ad.

Louisiana (10): Mary Landrieu (D) was considered the most endangered Democratic incumbent in 2008. But the NRSC just pulled out of this race, leaving turncoat John Neely Kennedy (R, no relation to the Kennedy family in Massachusetts) to fend for himself. The sparse polling shows Landrieu still holding a sizable lead. The Republican tilt of the state is the only thing keeping this race from falling even further into safe territory.

Nebraska: With Chuck Hagel (R) retiring, former governor Mike Johanns (R) quit his job as Bush's Agriculture Secretary to run for this seat. The netroots were thrilled when rancher and history professor Scott Kleeb (D) threw his hat in the ring. While Kleeb lost the NE-03 House race in 2006, that district is the most Republican in Nebraska, and Kleeb got a higher-than-expected 45% of the vote. That's had a lot of people thinking he would actually win in the other two districts, and thus a statewide race. Of course, that didn't take into account how he'd be running against the former governor. The last two Rasmussen polls show Kleeb has gained ground, but that means he's only down by 14 points instead of being down by over 25 points.

Oklahoma: James Inhofe (R) is being challenged by state senator and netroots favorite Andrew Rice (D), who lost his brother in the 9/11 attacks. They could not be farther apart when it comes to energy and environmental issues. The latest polls show Rice has improved his numbers a bit. Still, losing by 13 points instead of losing by over 20 points is still a loss, even if Rice almost matched Inhofe in Q3 fundraising.

Democratic safe seats
Arkansas (Mark Pryor)
Delaware (Joe Biden)
Illinois (Dick Durbin)
Iowa (Tom Harkin)
Massachusetts (John Kerry)
Michigan (Carl Levin)
Montana (Max Baucus)
New Jersey (Frank Lautenberg)
Rhode Island (Jack Reed)
South Dakota (Tim Johnson)
West Virginia (Jay Rockefeller)

Republican safe seats
Alabama (Jeff Sessions)
Mississippi (Thad Cochran)
South Carolina (Lindsey Graham)
Tennessee (Lamar Alexander)
Wyoming (Michael Enzi)
Wyoming (John Barrasso)

So there you have it, my personal rankings for the 2008 Senate races, as they stand with less than 20 days to go. These are my picks, and I'm sticking with them... until my next update, at least.

Feel free to rip me apart in the comments, telling me I don't know what the hell I'm talking about, how could I possibly put a certain race in Tier II or III when it's so obviously a top tier race, why I'm being too optimistic in some seat, etc. Have at it. :-)


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