Monday, January 09, 2006

Handicapping the 2006 Senate elections

There is much talk about the Republicans' recent ethics problems sweeping the Democrats back into the majority in the Senate and the House. So let's see how likely this is. First, let's look at the races that are very competitive:

Pennsylvania-Rick Santorum(R) is a bona fide nutcase conservative running against popular ex-governor Bob Casey. This is a blockbuster race. Really, I think both conservatives and liberals would be better off with Casey in office, but that's my opinion. Casey is a conservative Democrat, except you know, he doesn't think women should be strictly barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen. Emotional distaste for Santorum aside, Casey leads him in the polls and I just can't see Santorum running a charming enough campaign to win over a moderate-liberal state like Pennsylvania. Casey is mainstream for PA, Santorum is far right for Utah. I'm calling this one for the Democrats, which means they pick up a seat.

New Jersey-Bob Menendez(D) is an appointed incumbent, which equals vulnerable. To make matters worse for the Democrats, he's facing Tom Kean Jr., son of a very popular ex-governor. The Democratic Party in New Jersey has a corrupt reputation, while the NJ GOP has a reputation for clean government. Which is why even though this is a very liberal state, it's usually competitive and has seen Republicans like Kean and Christie Whitman become governor. I'm calling this one for the Republicans, which makes up for losing Santorum's PA seat.

Rhode Island-The most liberal Republican in the Senate, Lincoln Chaffee, is running here against a couple of strong Democratic contenders. Either one that gets the nomination is going to have a good chance to topple Chaffee. Sheldon Whitehouse, former state attorney general is the most likely Democratic candidate. I'm calling this one for the Democrats, which means we're back to a one-seat gain for the Democrats.

Vermont-Jim Jeffords is retiring. Fellow independent Bernie Sanders is running for his open seat. Sanders caught a break when Howard Dean said that the Democrats would not compete against him in order to not dilute the liberal vote while conservatives united behind the GOP nominee. Despite my distaste for socialists like Sanders, it's good to see the Democratic chairman have his party step aside rather than doing what they usually do: arrogantly call for the minor parties or independents to step aside. Sanders will likely face Brian Dubie, the Lt. governor. Sanders has the name recognition to win without major party backing, but I would imagine the GOP is licking it's chops at the prospect of facing a socialist and will pour money into this one. I'm still calling it for Sanders, but it's going to be a competitive race.

Tennessee-Another open seat, with Bill Frist retiring. Harold Ford, a rising star in the Democratic Party will probably be their nominee. The Republicans have a three-way contest between three pretty strong candidates. Yes, this is a red state, but Ford is a star and the Republican party is not associated with competence in this state. Phil Bredesen, a Democrat, is one of the most successful and popular Tennessee governors in recent memory. Gotta give it to Ford, which means the Democrats now have a two-seat pickup.

Ohio-Mike Dewine(R) is in serious trouble. He's not very popular and Ohio has two very strong candidates to choose from to oppose him, Paul Hackett and Sherrod Brown. Either one has a good chance to defeat him. Another pickup for the Democrats, putting them at +3.

Nebraska-Ben Nelson(D) is a Democrat in one of the most conservative states in the US. He also beat a nobody in 2000 with only 51% of the vote. Now he faces stiff opposition and could fall. What will probably save him is the fact that he's the most conservative Democrat in the Senate. I'm calling it for Nelson.

Minnesota-Mark Dayton(D) is retiring, so this is an open seat. Mark Kennedy(R) is the most prominent contender and has to be the favorite at this point. All of the likely Democratic candidates are of smaller stature and Dayton was deeply unpopular. That will slightly rub off on the Democratic contenders. I'm giving this one to Kennedy, and thus it's a Republican pickup. They are down to -2 at this point.

North Dakota-Kent Conrad(D) is the incumbent here, a Democrat in a very red state. He dodged a bullet when John Hoeven decided not to run. Hoeven is the most popular governor in the country and would have crushed Conrad. Which tells me that Hoeven might be considering a Presidential run. But that's the next topic. Conrad will however have to face Wayne Stenehjem, the state attorney general. That makes this race a toss-up. The Republicans want this one so bad they can smell it. I've got to give this one to Stenehjem. GOP is down to -1.

Now, let's look at races that are somewhat competitive:

Florida-Bill Nelson(D) is the incumbent here in this swing state. He's a solid Senator and pretty popular. The Republicans hopes of taking the seat depend a great deal on who the nominee is. The frontrunner, Katherine Harris, hasn't a shot in hell of beating Nelson. Mark Foley on the other hand would make put this race into the "toss up" column because of Foley's popularity and good reputation. If Harris is the GOP nominee, I favor Nelson. If Foley is the nominee, I've gotta give it to Foley by a whisker.

West Virginia-Robert Byrd(D) is the incumbent here running for, oh, his 189th Senate term or something. His likely opponent is Hiram Lewis, an Iraq war veteran. Certainly a longshot, but West Virginia is increasingly a red state and this is a classic battle between the old, stuffy, machine politics Byrd and the young energetic newcomer. Byrd also happens to be an old crook and former KKK member, although that's never hurt him with WV voters before. I have to call this one for Byrd, but there's a small chance Lewis could pull this one out.

Maryland-This race is for an open seat and has yet to fully shake out. The GOP nominee is probably Michael Steele, the Lt. Governor. He's a pretty strong candidate. The Democratic nominee will be either Ben Cardin or Kweisi Mfume. Cardin is a Congressman, Mfume is an ex-Congressmen and ex-NAACP head. I have to give the edge to Cardin if he's the nominee, to Steele if Mfume is the nominee. I'm calling this one for the Democrats. Since it's an open seat vacated by Democrat Paul Sarbanes, it's not net gain for anyone.

Montana-Conrad Burns(R) is one of the incumbents connected to Jack Abramoff, which could end in his downfall depending on how that scandal shakes out. Fortunately for Burns, his competition isn't that great. But this is one seat that the Democrats could pick up due to Abramoff fallout. I'm giving it to Burns, but this is another one that the Democrats have a longshot at.

Washington-Maria Cantwell(D) also dodged a bullet when Dino Rossi decided to forego a challenge to concentrate on a rematch with Gregoire in 2008. Good move, since Rossi is a future star who could someday be President. Governor is a much better thing to have on your resume than Senator. Cantwell will instead face Safeco CEO Mike Mcgavick. McGavick has a shot, but not all that much of one.

All the seats I didn't list are safe for the incumbents.

So crunching the raw numbers, it looks like a one seat gain for the Democrats in 2006. Of course, there are also wild cards, like the Florida race, the Maryland race, the Abramoff scandal, and the general fact that by fall 2006 the political situation may look very different than it does now. Iraq could be mostly won, the economy could be good. Or Iraq could be a disaster and the housing bubble could burst and drag down the economy. This one seat gain for the Democrats is only really a good prediction if everything stays pretty much the same, or what changes between now and 2006 doesn't really benefit either party.

Best case scenario for the Democrats would result in them gaining 5 seats. That's assuming they win every competitive race where they have an opportunity to take a seat from the GOP. Which means they stay in the minority. Sorry, guys.

Best case scenario for the GOP(assuming some very rosy things come fall) is a 9 seat gain. That's counting every competitive race where the GOP can pick up seats.

So I really don't see why the Democrats are so optimistic. The GOP has far more to gain from 2006 and not all that much to lose. The GOP is also on a winning streak, having won convincingly in 2002 and 2004. That losing streak will probably come to an end in 2006, but if 2006 ends up being a good year in Iraq and the economy, that 9 seat gain potential starts to loom large.