Friday, September 01, 2006

2006 Senate Elections Report: Handicapping the Races

As a Progressive covering the United States Senate, there's nothing I would love more than to predict a Democratic takeover of the Upper House and a return to the intended system of legislative oversight of the executive branch of the federal government. I would love to but, after studying the 33 Senate races for a few months, I'm reluctant to predict that a Democratic party so far down in their Senate numbers, can make up that much ground in one election.

It could happen but, well, let's take a look.

In the interest of giving you this information in reasonably digestible quantities -- there's only so many ways to make election analysis sexy and riveting -- I'm going to give you the basics of how the 2006 Senate races shape up, discuss which seats are pretty much locked-up already and where that leaves the overall picture leading to analysis of the pivotal races. On Tuesday, I'll go into the more exciting contests and what I see as the final outcome on November 7.

First things first: Article I, section 3 of the U.S. Constitution requires that the 100 Senators be divided into three "classes" for election purposes, with either 33 or 34 seats in those groups expiring every two years.

This year, 33 Senate seats have run their six-year course and, of those, there are 15 Republicans, 17 Democrats and one Independent. The current Senate roster stands at 55 Republicans, 44 Democrats and one Independent.

Please go here for a list of which Senate seats are up this year.

And here's how it breaks down:

When you start with the full 100 Senators and take away the 33 seats being contested, we hit election day in November with the remaining balance of the Senate set at 40 Republican and 27 Democrat -- a lousy and daunting view if you happen to be a Democrat.

This means that Democrats face the Sisyphean task of picking up 24 of the 33 contested seats to get to the 51 necessary for a controlling majority -- and we don’t want any stinkin' 50-50 ties with Dick Cheney, as President of the Senate, waiting in the wings to break any deadlocks.

At first glance, those numbers make me want to bury my head in a bucket of red-state bourbon, so let's look at what it will take for Senate Democrats to get to 51.

Here's my take on what I call the "locks" on each side to retain office. These are people like Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Hillary Clinton (D-NY) who could strangle a kitten on live television and still get reelected:

  • Daniel Akaka (D–HI): Finishing his second full term, Akaka was appointed in 1990 and has received over 70 percent of the popular vote in the last two elections. He will overcome the primary challenge from Lieberman-like Ed Case on September 23 and prevail in November.
  • Jeff Bingaman (D-NM): Bingaman has been there for four terms, is leading Republican Allen McCulloch by big numbers in all polls and will easily make it to a fifth term.
  • Robert Byrd (D-WV): He's just finishing his eighth full term -- yes, that's 48 years in the Senate -- and is a beloved elder with West Virginia voters. Like an athlete, if the 88-year-old Byrd stays healthy, he'll go all the way.
  • Thomas Carper (D-DE): Carper's only served one term, easily winning his seat in 2000. But he's lucky his siding with Joe Lieberman over Democratic nominee Ned Lamont in Connecticut happened so late in the primary cycle or he may have been challenged in solidly-blue Delaware. But without a serious Democratic challenger, he's back in easily.
  • Hillary Clinton (D-NY): Are you kidding me? The only person who could unseat her right now is her husband.
  • Kent Conrad (D-ND): This guy is very popular in North Dakota and not seriously challenged this time -- he'll win without spending a dime. Though you've really got to wonder why the GOP can't find a viable candidate in a dark-red state like North Dakota.
  • Dianne Feinstein (D-CA): With the massive amount of money required, California is an extremely tough state in which to oust an incumbent. Despite little Progressive enthusiasm for Feinstein, she'll have no problems defeating little-known Republican Richard Mountjoy.
  • Edward Kennedy (D-MA): Kennedy is the real deal who puts on the Progressive boxing gloves every day on the Senate floor and Massachusetts voters love him for that -- so do we.
  • Herb Kohl (D-WI): Kohl's finishing his third full term and, despite being unwilling to step up to the plate and overtly support Lamont, will get broad backing at home and be easily reelected.
  • Ben Nelson (D-NE): We Democrats may not like him very much, given that he makes Joe Lieberman look like Kennedy or John Kerry, but Nelson has quietly maintained among the highest home-state approval ratings of any Senator. He'll win easily.
  • Bill Nelson (D-FL): Nelson's approval ratings have never been that great in Florida and the Democratic grassroots finds little to be excited about with him. On the other hand, conservatives don’t have much of a grudge against him and he has Republican challenger Katherine Harris working hard every day to make him look good. He'll win.
  • Bernie Sanders (I-VT): Independent Congressman Bernie Sanders is running to replace Independent Jim Jeffords, who is retiring, and I stand a better chance of having Eva Longoria hit on me than Sanders does of losing to Richard Tarrant. Although Sanders will come in as an Independent, he will caucus with the Democrats so we count him here.
  • John Ensign (R-NV): Ensign's approval rating among Nevada voters seldom strays far from 50 percent in either direction, but Democratic challenger Jack Carter is simply not going after Ensign hard enough and hanging Bush, Cheney, Rove and the Iraq war around his neck like a millstone. Most analysts are calling this solidly for Ensign and I reluctantly agree -- at the moment. An August 28 Zogby/Wall Street Journal poll showed the gap narrowing significantly with Ensign at 48 percent to 45 percent for Carter. I'm going to be watching this one very carefully over the next few weeks and, if Carter makes some bold moves, this one may become competitive. As of this moment, it's not.
  • Orrin Hatch (R-UT): Utah is a state where George W. Bush still has a 59 percent approval rating. Barring a challenge from the far right, do you think Hatch, who's finishing his fifth term, isn’t elected for life?
  • Kay Hutchison (R-TX): They're not real big on change in Texas and Hutchison won in 1994 and 2000 with 61 percent and 65 percent, respectively. Democrat Barbara Ann Radnofsky is a decent candidate but Hutchison is amazingly unhurt by her proximity to Bush and her Democratic challenger's poll numbers haven't moved a lot since January.
  • Trent Lott (R-MS): The former Majority Leader could have a confederate flag and noose collection at his Senate Floor desk and blast "Dixie" on a boombox during debate and still have a 65 to 70 percent approval rating in Mississippi. He's finishing his third full term and, sadly, will be back again.
  • Richard Lugar (R-IN): Lugar is wrapping up his fifth term, won his last election by two-thirds and is essentially running unopposed -- enough said.
  • Olympia Snowe (R-ME): Snowe is so popular in Maine that the only person who could beat her is Susan Collins -- and Collins is already in the Senate.
  • Craig Thomas (R–WY): Wyoming is damn near as conservative as Utah, Thomas has always maintained good approval ratings and Democrats just flat-out don't win much in that state. The GOP retains this seat.
Assuming those predictions come true, this leaves us, whether we like it or not, at a starting point of 47 Republicans and 39 Democrats before the real heavy lifting of the competitive races starts.

After the long weekend, we'll have a look at those 14 races, the ones that will decide what the balance of power will be in the Senate until 2008, and venture an educated guess on what the final tally will be.

You can reach Bob Geiger at