Thursday, September 07, 2006

2006 Senate Elections Report: Predicted Results

There's no shortage of people handicapping the 2006 Senate and House races and, because some of the contests are so filled with nuance and uncertainty, there's a tendency to be vague in predictions and to use words like "leaning" and "possible" when describing likely outcomes.

I'm not going to do that for my critical final picks. In my column today, I'm going to tell you, from two months away, exactly how I see the Senate looking when the ballots are counted on November 7 -- or, perhaps in states where Diebold equipment is used, not counted -- and I'll do it by just flat-out making definitive picks.

No guts, no glory, right?

In parts one and two of this short series handicapping the 2006 Senate races, we looked at all the open seats, added in the people who simply can't lose -- such as Clinton in New York and Hatch in Utah -- and then added the races in which the likely winner appears clear.

We conclude today, by looking at where the rubber truly meets the road in these midterm Senate elections and, if my predictions so far hold true, our running tally now sits at 49 Republicans and 42 Democrats, with just nine races left up in the air.

Bottom line, up front: Democrats have a very daunting task in this election to the extent that they need to pretty much run the table on all the toss-up races to take back the Senate majority and I don't believe that's going to happen. But with the information I have today, and with a large chunk of gut-feel thrown in, I do believe Democrats are going to make a huge leap and the Senate balance in January will be 50-50.

Here's a (relatively) brief analysis of the critical races that lead me to that conclusion:


Oy vey, the e-mail I've gotten in the last week, castigating me for not having Maryland as a lock for the Democrats, regardless of who the Democratic candidate turns out to be after the September 12 primary. And I guess I can understand some of the complaints. In general, my cat, Spud, could run as a Democrat in Maryland and win by at least a few percentage points. But I'm writing this in early September, before Democrats have even selected a nominee, and it's tough to pick a winner based on few facts about the match-up that will take place.

Democrat Paul Sarbanes is retiring and his seat will either go to Republican Lieutenant Governor Michael Steele or one of the two men vying for the Democratic nomination, to be decided on Tuesday: Congressman Ben Cardin or former Congressman Kweisi Mfume.

A SurveyUSA poll released August 31 had Mfume over Cardin 42 percent to 38 percent. But a Gonzales Research poll from last week showed Cardin ahead of Mfume by 13 points.

OK, so what now? Every single poll shows that Cardin, a ten-term Congressman, will handily defeat Steele in November and the charismatic Mfume runs close to dead even with Steele in most polls -- and that's before the flood of national support comes in for Mfume if he wins the nomination.

A Democrat will win this seat. We just have to wait until next Tuesday to see which one it will be.

Prediction: Democrat Ben Cardin or Kweisi Mfume

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Mark Dayton, who may be one of the least popular Democratic Senators in Minnesota history, is retiring and the candidates to replace him after Minnesota's September 12 primary makes it official are Democrat Amy Klobuchar and Republican Mark Kennedy. Klobuchar is Hennepin County Attorney and Kennedy is a Minnesota Congressman.

Kennedy has a cash advantage over Klobuchar -- $4 million to $2.5 million -- but that won't buy him enough television time to get over the hump of a Democratic-leaning state at a time when it sucks to be a Republican candidate.

I haven't seen one poll in 2006 that has Kennedy ahead of Klobuchar while many polls have had the Democrat with as much as a 19-point edge over Kennedy.'s average of the last five major polls gives Klobuchar a 49 percent to 39 percent edge, while an average of the last 10 polls has it at 49 percent for Klobuchar and 40 percent for Kennedy.

This is going to be a big Democratic year and, in a state like Minnesota, Klobuchar will be a part of that overall victory. She's also helped by Kennedy himself who, in a debate last week, stated his position on the Iraq war with a White House sound bite that brought resounding boos from the crowd. "The focus has to be on victory, not on how quickly we retreat," declared Kennedy.

If you're Amy Klobuchar, that's pure gold.

Democrat Amy Klobuchar

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Republican James Talent won his Senate seat by barely defeating Democrat Jean Carnahan in a 2002 special election and must run again this year to retain his spot -- I don't see him winning.

Democrat Claire McCaskill, Missouri's State Auditor, is running a good campaign against a Republican who hasn’t done much to distinguish himself during his short Senate tenure and who doesn’t excite the state's voters enough to get much beyond a 50 percent Senatorial approval rating.

It also doesn’t help that Talent has accepted money directly from lobbyist Jack Abramoff -- though he has reportedly now given it back -- at a time when many voters are discouraged with the level of corruption the GOP has brought to the Congress. There's also a stem-cell measure on the Missouri ballot this year and that may bring out more voters upset at George W. Bush's veto of the stem cell bill this summer, and the fact that Talent was one of the Senators who voted against the bill's passage to begin with.

Talent has also voted against every Democratic-sponsored bill in the Senate to raise the minimum wage and McCaskill has been wisely hitting him relentlessly on that issue.

Most polling done this summer has shown the candidates exchanging the lead, with the vote statistically even much of the time. The average of the last 10 major polls shows it as 46 percent for Talent to McCaskill's 45 percent. It's a dead heat, folks, which could be affected by national events, like whatever security scare the White House has up its sleeve for late October or early November.

While Talent has much more cash on hand than McCaskill, the Democratic challenger has Bill Clinton coming to campaign and do fundraising for her this weekend, which should help in many ways.

I have a hunch about this one and it says it's time for Talent to go home to Missouri -- or to whatever Republican lobbying job awaits him in Washington.

Democrat Claire McCaskill

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Republican Senator Conrad Burns is so unpopular in Montana that I'd bet a case of Moose Drool Ale that Burns doesn't even vote for himself. Montana's been slowly becoming a blue state, with Democrats taking the state legislature and the Governor’s office in 2004 and there's a good Democratic candidate in State Senator -- and farmer! -- Jon Tester who the smart money says will end Burns' era of mediocrity.

Burns just simply is not a very good Senator, he's done nothing in Washington to heighten voters' opinions of him and it shows in Burns consistently having the lowest approval rating of any of the Senate's 100 members. He had a 56 percent approval rating among Montana residents in July of 2005 and it's been on a rapid downward slide every since.

It doesn’t help that he's prone to doing loopy things like calling on Montana's Democratic Governor, Brian Schweitzer to declare a state of emergency to handle a massive ongoing brush fire in the state, only to have it turn out that the Governor had already done that a month before.

While Tester has the rabid support of Progressive bloggers, he has little campaign money compared to Burns and yet is still tied or ahead in every major poll in 2006.

Meanwhile, the Burns campaign has tried to paint State Senator Tester as a wild-eyed liberal and that hasn't worked, so I'm guessing their next step will be to rip Tester for having imported tires on his tractor.

It won’t matter. There's not enough money in Helena to perfume this pig and, come January, it will be Senator Tester in Washington.

Democrat Jon Tester

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New Jersey

Republicans running for the Senate or the Statehouse in New Jersey have for some time really only had one tool in their campaign arsenal: Grab as much slime and mud as you can, throw it furiously at your Democratic opponent and hope enough will land to allow you to squeak by. That's been true in the New Jersey Senate race with nasty ads by the GOP's challenger Tom Kean Jr. and some acts of out-and-out lying on the part of his campaign -- like just last month when Kean said Senator Menendez did not introduce any port security legislation while serving in the House of Representatives when, in fact, Menendez did exactly that in December of 2001.

But folks in Jersey are used to that from Republicans so I doubt that will decide this race. Menendez was just appointed to his Senate seat last January when Senator Jon Corzine became New Jersey's Governor and in that time, hasn't had stellar approval ratings -- which to me smells like a hangover of general voter discontent with the Congress more than an indictment of Menendez.

So, this is going to come down to cold, hard cash because New Jersey is an expensive media market and, in our television-based society, I'm betting that whoever has the most money and produces the best TV ads will win. That shouldn’t be the way it is, but it just is in some places.

Menendez has $7.4 million cash on hand effective June 30 and once he brings that leverage to bear against Kean, who has $2.3 million, Kean will be finished. Plus, expect a visit or two from "The Big Dog," Bill Clinton, to shore up support in a state that, no matter what the polls look like two months ahead of time, will almost always vote for Democrats.

The most recent polls show Kean pulling even with Menendez and an August 31 Rasmussen poll even showed him ahead by five points. But when the cash starts flowing and people in a blue state actually get ready to pick someone to reverse the damage the Bush administration has done to our country, even having the name that his Daddy made famous in New Jersey won’t be enough for Kean.

Democrat Robert Menendez

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Republican incumbent Mike DeWine certainly has his problems. He's a Republican in a state where many Democrats are anxious to come out in November and avenge the number of voters who were kept from the polls in the 2004 presidential election and his buddy at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is less popular in Ohio than a Michigan Wolverine at Ohio Stadium.

And, of course, there's that Bob Ney-corruption thing… Life's tough when you're not only playing that hand, but voters also seem to have a sneaking suspicion that you haven’t been doing much but taking up space in Washington for the last six years. That's obvious from DeWine's approval ratings, which are among the worst of any U.S. Senator and haven't been above 50 percent in at least 18 months.

Like Burns in Montana, DeWine is primed to be picked off.

And along comes seven-term Democratic Congressman Sherrod Brown, with impeccable Progressive credentials and a solid reputation among most Ohio voters.

DeWine knew this was going to be tough, so what does he do? His campaign starts airing a TV commercial depicting the planes crashing into the World Trade Center on 9/11 and footage that experts proved had obviously been doctored -- all in a twisted effort to link Brown to that terrible day. Between that low-rent maneuver and messing with images of September 11, the ad may have been one of the best devices that DeWine could have used -- if his goal was to help Brown.

DeWine's got a lot of campaign money, but Brown isn’t exactly hurting either as this is a must-win for Democrats this year. The latest major poll, a Gallup survey released on Tuesday, shows Brown at 46 percent to DeWine's 40 percent. Indeed, Brown has prevailed in every major poll done the last three months and the average of the last 10 polls has Brown with a strong six-point lead.

The candidates will meet for four debates in October, including a televised debate on Meet the Press on October 1. DeWine needs to blow Brown's doors off in these debates to get over all of his negatives -- and that's not going to happen.

Democrat Sherrod Brown

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Even Republicans in Pennsylvania have had it with a GOP that is a sliver of what they always believed it to be and Rick Santorum, with his blind devotion to George W. Bush and tendency to let his Opus Dei-based religious beliefs interfere with his public-policy views, is the poster boy for all that's gone wrong with the Republicab party.

Perhaps that's why Santorum's approval numbers have been in the 40s for all of the 109th Congress and, at one point, dipped into Bush-like territory, registering a sorry 36 percent approval rating in May and June of this year.

I'll keep this one short and sweet because, knowing that Democratic nominee Bob Casey is as anti-choice as any Republican and seeing his performance on Sunday's Meet The Press in which he simply would not give a straight answer on what a debacle Iraq has become, it's hard to get too excited about anything other than that Casey is not Santorum.

A USA Today/Gallup poll done August 23-27 gave Santorum about the worst news an incumbent could get, showing an amazing gulf of 18 points: Casey 56 percent , Santorum 38 percent. And, in 55 polls done on this match-up in the last 18 months, Santorum has not been ahead in one -- not one.

I'm awfully sure that the only Senate candidate with more money in the bank than Santorum is Hillary Clinton, but all that cash still won't get him out of this hole.

Turn out the lights, Ethel, it's time to say good night.

Democrat Bob Casey

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Rhode Island

In some ways, the Republican primary in Rhode Island is the mirror image of the Democratic fight we're seeing in Connecticut -- other than the fact that, with the discipline typically enforced in the GOP, there's no way incumbent Lincoln Chafee or challenger Stephen Laffey would continue to muck up the race if they lose. In fact, Chafee has already announced that if he loses the GOP primary on Tuesday, he's done and will not stay in the race ala Joe Lieberman.

Meanwhile, presumptive Democratic nominee Sheldon Whitehouse, the former Attorney General of Rhode Island, sits by undoubtedly sporting a big foam, number-one finger with Laffey's name on it hoping the former Cranston mayor can knock Chafee off and clear the way for his victory.

While Chafee's approval has remained consistently in the mid 50s, it’s been dropping over the summer with the bruising primary campaign and, if Chafee doesn’t return to Washington in January, it will be much more a function of Rhode Island conservatives taking action than liberals disliking him.

Whitehouse is running ahead in the polls and, in an odd occurrence, the Democrat actually has more cash on hand than his Republican opponents. Whitehouse hasn't had to spend much of it in the primaries, which leaves him free to conserve for the critical September-October push.

And Chafee and Laffey are indeed fighting it down to the wire for the Republican nomination. Two polls done at the end of August showed entirely different results, with Chafee winning one by a massive margin and Laffey taking the other by 14 points. But no matter what you believe about these particular results, the primary polls have generally shown Chafee to be in significant trouble with Rhode Island Republicans.

Meanwhile, general election polls show Whitehouse taking out either Chafee or Laffey, though Laffey would clearly be the Republican nominee that would make the Whitehouse camp turn cartwheels. A conservative like Laffey may get the most Republicans to vote for him in a primary, but there's no way he beats Whitehouse in the general election.

Polls show Whitehouse destroying Laffey in November and running much more closely -- if not neck-and-neck -- with Chafee. If Chafee is the Republican nominee, it's probably a battle until election day. If Laffey defeats Chafee to seize the GOP nomination, it's Whitehouse by at least five points.

I think Chafee will win the primary and get swept away by a combination of good campaigning by Whitehouse and a blue state sick to death of Republicans of any stripe.

Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse

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Well, this one should be interesting. The delusional Bill Frist actually may think that, despite his lackluster performance as Senate Majority Leader, he can take a run at the White House in 2008 and that's left his Tennessee Senate seat up for grabs.

The candidates to replace him are Republican Bob Corker, the mayor of Chattanooga, and young Congressman Harold Ford Jr., the man who hopes to score a big upset in a solidly red state on November 7.

Most polls show Ford trailing so far, but the Corker campaign has been rocked by recent revelations about Corker's alleged mishandling of an overworked emergency response staff in Chattanooga while mayor. According to the Ford camp, the city had over 30,000 unanswered 911 calls in 2005, and Corker simply ignored the situation as mayor. Ford is further charging that -- and appears to be backed up by memos from the Chattanooga police -- that Corker actually cut back on emergency-response staff and overtime in 2004, which likely led to the 2005 unanswered calls.

But Corker is formidable to be sure, has a ton of money and the backing of a national party that will fight tooth and nail, and pull out every smear tactic in their bag of tricks, to keep this seat.

Meanwhile, Ford is running a very aggressive campaign with dynamic television ads asking voters to send a "new generation" to the Senate to deal with high gas prices, showing Bush holding hands with members of the Saudi Royal Family and lashing the Administration for refusing to implement the 9/11 Commission recommendations.'s average of the last 10 major Tennessee polls shows Ford down by five points to Corker, but many hope that the three scheduled debates will give the smooth Ford a chance to outshine Corker and swing enough votes to grab a victory.

I think more than any of the other hot Senate races, the debates will play a crucial role in deciding this election but, if I have to make a decision today, I say that Corker's financial edge, his current lead in the polls and the fact that there has not been a popularly- elected African-American Senator from the South since Reconstruction, may be too big a mountain for Ford to climb. But I would love to be wrong.

Prediction: Republican Bob Corker

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And that, as they say, is that. Here's a chart that shows my predictions:

Of course, I'll be covering developments as they happen and will check back with a prediction update in early October if anything major has caused my selections to shift.

And yes, to the neocon readers just waiting for a reason to jump Progressive writers, this is your official alert to a possible "flip-flop" on my part, so be ready for it. And herein lies one of the things that makes Democrats better at governing than Republicans. What Republicans call a flip-flop is to most intelligent people taking new evidence and facts, considering those and determining if your original rationale should still hold true.
The GOP doesn't understand this way of thinking -- after all, Republicans probably stood on the deck of the Titanic and chided people for 'cutting and swimming.'

But, for example, if one of the sure-bet, red-state Republican candidates were to suddenly be charged with embezzling or colluding with Jack Abramoff to highjack the Congress, I would adjust my prediction from "lock" to merely "likely."

Until then, this is my story and I'm sticking to it.