2006 Senate leans Democratic

Larry J. Sabato
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Posted: Jan 26, 2006 3:05 PM

If the Democrats want to win the Senate, they need a big wave--the kind of tsunami they got in 1974 and 1986, or that the Republicans received in 1980 and 1994. Rough surf won't do the trick, and at least at the start of 2006, November looks to be full of white caps but no Maui-style waves for the party out of power.

This sea forecast can change in either direction over the next ten months, obviously. Yet our first 2006 midterm election survey of the Senate contests suggests only a small craft advisory. In subsequent weeks, we'll look at the U.S. House and the 36 Governor's match-ups to create a benchmark for this year's Crystal Ball analysis. As we do so, the Crystal Ball urges our readers to keep in mind one of the most telling lessons of U.S. electoral history: When the American people decide to make a change, they do it. They don't care that the forecasters and the prognosticators say it isn't likely. They find a way to make the change happen, even if--on paper--there aren't enough competitive districts or states to produce a party turnover.

It will be a surprise if 2006 is not a Democratic year, with the only question being how Democratic. After all, this is the fabled sixth-year election of the Bush presidency (read more in the Crystal Ball's look at the Sixth Year Itch in the Senate), and President Bush has been in deep trouble on a host of subjects, from Iraq to Katrina to scandal. Presidential popularity is an overarching key to the 2006 results. The current betting is that Bush will be below 50 percent come November, but who knows? He could be at 35 percent or 55 percent by then, and it is easy to construct scenarios that would produce either result as events in the New Year unfold.

So for now, we'll stick to a race-by-race analysis of the "War for the Senate." This will give us a starting point for another unpredictable year in American politics.

As usual, many of the contests appear over before they begin. We stress the word appear. A few of the favored candidates might well lose in the end, but at the moment there's no reason to think any of them are in trouble. The list of Secure Senators follows:

"Secure" Republicans (8)

Indiana - incumbent Richard Lugar (R)
Maine - incumbent Olympia Snowe (R)
Mississippi - incumbent Trent Lott (R)
Nevada - incumbent John Ensign (R)
Texas - incumbent Kay Bailey Hutchison (R)
Utah - incumbent Orrin Hatch (R)
Virginia - incumbent George Allen (R)
Wyoming - incumbent Craig Thomas (R)

"Secure" Democrats (10)

California - incumbent Dianne Feinstein (D)
Delaware - incumbent Thomas Carper (D)
Hawaii - incumbent Daniel Akaka (D) or Rep. Ed Case (D)
Massachusetts - incumbent Ted Kennedy (D)
Michigan - incumbent Debbie Stabenow (D)
New Mexico - incumbent Jeff Bingaman (D)
New York - incumbent Hillary Rodham Clinton (D)
North Dakota - incumbent Kent Conrad (D)
Vermont (I/D) - Rep. Bernie Sanders (I/D)
Wisconsin - incumbent Herb Kohl (D)

Slightly more than half the Senate seats are--for now--off the table. Somehow, in the remaining 15 Senate contests, Democrats must find a way to net the six additional seats they will need to control the Senate. (Today's Senate is 55R, 45D with Jeffords, and Vice President Cheney would break a tied 50-50 Senate in the GOP's favor.) So the Democrats need six new seats. From where might these six seats come?

Vulnerable Republicans?

The only lean-Democratic switch at the moment is in Pennsylvania, where Senator Rick Santorum (R) is trailing Bob Casey, Jr. (D) by wide margins in most surveys. Santorum has better candidate skills than Casey, though, and incumbency has its privileges. Reports from reliable observers in the Keystone state also say that Santorum has finally tired of shooting himself in the foot, has holstered the gun, and has gotten engaged in the toughest challenge of his career. So this contest is not yet a write-off for the GOP, and Santorum has comeback potential.

Moderate-liberal Republican Senator Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island faces difficult primary and general election challenges. He's a slight favorite for reelection, but this is a heavily Democratic state, so the Democrats have a real chance here.

Ohio is a Republican disaster area, thanks to the enormous unpopularity of Governor Bob Taft. While Taft may have the greatest negative effect on GOP chances to hold his statehouse seat, Senator Mike DeWine's race for reelection also has the potential to become competitive. DeWine begins as a shaky favorite, pending the outcome of a potentially divisive Democratic primary match-up to choose his opponent. Yet if there is any Democratic tsunami in 2006, the wave will break first over Ohio.

Montana's crusty GOP Senator Conrad Burns has substantial ties to the scandal-drenched lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Nearly defeated for reelection in 2000, Burns is a major Democratic target in a state that has seen a drift to the Democrats.

Senator Jim Talent (R) is completing his first, short term, having been elected in 2002--a strong year for the GOP. Missouri is a swing state, and while it has a conservative cast, a Democratic trend could be felt here. Talent is not that well known and he has not yet secured the seat, given his brief tenure.

Majority Leader Bill Frist's retirement in Tennessee gives Democrats a shot at an open seat. The evaluations on this contest vary wildly, depending on the identity of the eventual GOP nominee in a three-way primary contest. Congressman Harold Ford, an African-American, will be the Democratic candidate, and his chances depend in part on how divisive the Republican primary turns out to be, as well as how conservative the GOP nominee is.

Some Democrats insist that wealthy businessman Jim Pederson has a chance to upend incumbent Senator Jon Kyl (R) in Arizona. This is a long-shot for the Democrats, but one that they might well need.

Vulnerable Democrats?

We've just reviewed the Democratic Senate wish list. They'd have to capture six of these seven seats and hold every single one of their own. And there's the rub. It's possible, but Democrats have some shaky seats themselves.

One of the shakiest is in Minnesota, where one-term Democrat Mark Dayton is retiring. Congressman Mark Kennedy will be the GOP nominee, and he is well funded and organized. The Democratic field has now been winnowing down, and most Minnesota Democrats seem to be betting on Hennepin County Attorney Amy Klobuchar. Minnesota is far more competitive than it was in the era of Hubert Humphrey's DFL, but the Democrats still have the edge here except in strong GOP years. 2006 is not going to be a strong GOP year. Nonetheless, Kennedy has a fighting chance to steal this seat from the Democrats.

Newly appointed Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey has the "D" next to his name in running for a full term, and that may be all that he needs in this increasingly Blue state. However, he's not the cleanest candidate around--though that rarely seems to bother cynical Garden State voters--and he may have primary opposition, followed by a tough challenge from state Sen. Tom Kean, Jr., the son of the former, popular GOP governor. It will be difficult to oust Menendez, but Kean has upset potential.

Senator Maria Cantwell (D) of Washington has not achieved real popularity in her first term, won in a squeaker in 2000, and she faces a sharp, wealthy Republican: Mike McGavick, the former CEO of Safeco. Again, though, Cantwell benefits from the luck of the draw in election years. Even a mild national Democratic drift in this basically Democratic state may be enough to deliver a second term for her.

Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson is the rare successful Democrat in this heavily Republican farm state. Still, he barely won against weak opposition in 2000, and so this contest bears watching, especially if the GOP nominee is former Ameritrade COO Pete Ricketts.

Maryland is another very Blue state, but Republican Michael Steele is not a typical GOP candidate. He is the African-American lieutenant governor, elected in 2002 with Governor Bob Ehrlich (R). The Democrats have a potentially divisive, multi-candidate primary to choose a successor to retiring Senator Paul Sarbanes (D). It's easy to imagine both Ehrlich, who is running for reelection, and Steele ending up in the loser's circle in a Blue state during a Blue year. But there's just a chance that both could win, and open seats like this one have to be monitored closely.

Republicans in Florida have had their eyes on the seat of one-term Democratic Senator Bill Nelson since Nelson won narrowly in 2000, and in this Red state, no Democrat will be safe. Still, the GOP has probably blown its opportunity, since its likely nominee, Congresswomen Katherine Harris of 2000 presidential recount fame, is too controversial and disliked to win. Nelson's real fear is that the Republicans will find a way to force Harris to withdraw, leaving him with a more threatening challenger.

Two other Democratic seats are on our "watch list," though both will very likely stay with the Democratic incumbents. In Connecticut, Senator Joe Lieberman has upset some Democrats with his support of the Bush Iraq policy, and former Republican senator and Independent governor Lowell Weicker is making noises about challenging Lieberman in a primary. A fratricidal battle between these two old adversaries--Lieberman took Weicker's Senate seat in 1988--creates a GOP opportunity, especially with GOP Governor Jodi Rell cruising to her first elected term. And in West Virginia, as long as his health holds up, Senator Robert Byrd (D) should win again handily. But he's 87, and sometimes the age shows.

The long and short of the "War for the Senate" in 2006 is this: Democrats are a good bet to pick up two or three seats net. But for Democrats to regain control of the Senate, almost everything has to fall just right for them. In politics, very occasionally those things happen--but only rarely do all the dominoes fall in one direction. And the Democrats will have to win the world championship of dominoes for the Senate to become theirs again this year.