Thursday, October 30, 2008

Senate Predictions Part Two: The Democrats Get 60

In part one of my Senate predictions yesterday, I described the races that are almost a foregone conclusion, which took us to Democrats retaining the 51 seats currently in their caucus and looking to the 13 contests we will examine today as the road to increasing that majority.

None of us has any magical way of figuring all of this out but, after watching these races closely, I do indeed see the Democratic caucus arriving with 60 seats when the 111th Congress begins in January.

Here's how:

Oregon: In the universe of Republicans like James Inhofe, John Cornyn and Saxby Chambliss, guys like Oregon incumbent Gordon Smith don’t seem so bad. Although anti-choice, he did vote in favor of stem cell research and seems to have finally gotten a clue that the U.S. doesn’t belong in Iraq. But the fact is, like all Congressional Republicans, Smith has been right there going to bat for George W. Bush on most issues for the last six years and that track record alone is enough to expire his time in the Senate.

Enter Oregon House Speaker Jeff Merkley who, while not a scintillating campaigner, has run a competent campaign, favors withdrawal from Iraq and even stepped up to the plate in 2007 and called for the impeachment of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

Meanwhile, Smith has done everything in his power to hide the fact that he's a Republican -- even using well-known Democrats in his television ads and exaggerating their closeness to him -- but Merkley is now consistently ahead in the polls and Oregonians will decide on Tuesday that Gordon Smith just looks too much like the last eight years.

Who Wins: Jeff Merkley (D)

New Hampshire: In this rematch from 2002, former Governor Jeanne Shaheen is again challenging Republican John Sununu, who beat her 51 percent to 46 percent last time around.

But the Shaheen name has remained very good in New Hampshire while, at the same time, Sununu has had an undistinguished Senate term characterized primarily by being hugely overshadowed by the Granite State's other Republican Senator, Judd Gregg, and doing whatever the hell Bill Frist or Mitch McConnell have told him to do.

Walk in lockstep with Bush and McCain on Iraq? No problem. Be the only New England Senator voting to uphold Bush's veto of life-saving stem cell research? He's your guy. And a great television ad run repeatedly by Shaheen has audio of Sununu having the gall to tell people two years ago to "stop complaining about health care costs."

New Hampshire voters bought Sununu's bill of goods in 2002 but as the polls have shown for months, he's going down hard on Tuesday.

Who Wins: Jeanne Shaheen (D)

Mississippi: Republican Roger Wicker was appointed on December 31, 2007 by Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour to fill the Senate seat vacated by Trent Lott earlier that month. He hasn't done much in 10 months in the Senate other than be a good soldier and dependable vote for McConnell and Bush so this campaign has been a good chance for Mississippi voters to evaluate Barbour's choice.

Wicker's Democratic opponent is former governor Ronnie Musgrove who, frankly, would probably be a Republican in many other states. He's been no friend to the gay community -- having signed a bill into law as governor banning adoption by same-sex couples -- and is also anti-choice. But, hey, he doesn't have an "R" next to his name and this is Mississippi so how much better are we going to do?

So this is essentially a choice between two Republicans and while recent polling shows that Musgrove has done a good job of tightening the race to a dead heat, I just don’t believe that even this year will bring a victory to our side in Mississippi.

Who Wins: Roger Wicker (R)

Virginia: Five-term Republican Senator John Warner is retiring and Mark Warner (no relation), the popular former governor of Virginia has steadily led the GOP's designated patsy, Jim Gilmore, by 25 to 30 points.

If Warner loses this race, I'll let Sarah Palin shoot and field-dress me.

Who Wins: Mark Warner (D)

Maine: A year ago, I had high hopes that Representative Tom Allen would have a good chance of defeating Republican incumbent Susan Collins. But that hope rested on one fundamental assumption: That Allen would be able to erode Collins' very-high approval ratings by saddling her with blindly supporting Bush and her partial responsibility for his shameful legacy.

That did not happen and Allen has never really even been close to victory.

Who Wins: Susan Collins (R)

Alaska: In Ted Stevens, a crook has finally and formally been called a crook and even in the state that elected Palin as their leader, a convicted felon does not get to keep his Senate seat. Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich becomes the first Democrat Alaskans send to the Senate in 34 years.

Who Wins: Mark Begich (D)

North Carolina: State Senator Kay Hagan wasn't even recruited to run against Elizabeth Dole until other more well-known Democrats demurred, but after running a strong campaign and having a ton of Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) money targeting that race, Hagan is about to run Dole out of the Senate.

It's been no secret to North Carolina voters that Dole has spend very little time in the state during her term -- the Winston-Salem Journal reported that Dole spent just 13 days in North Carolina in 2006 -- and that she prefers to spend more time in her Washington condo than in the state she represents. The Wilmington Star News even wrote in endorsing Hagan that "for all practical purposes, Republican Elizabeth Dole has not lived in her home state in several decades."

And speaking of endorsements, Hagan has been recommended over Dole by every major newspaper in the state including the Raleigh News and Observer and the Durham Herald-Sun.

That's because they see the obvious: Dole represents the past of George H.W. Bush and her husband, Bob Dole, and spends her time in the present rubber-stamping Bush Senior's nitwit son.

Who Wins: Kay Hagan (D)

Colorado: The National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) pulled out of Colorado on October 24th so it could funnel its money to a winning cause. Democratic Congressman Mark Udall is popular in Colorado, has led in every major poll for the last year and is the perfect replacement for retiring GOP Senator Wayne Allard, who spent his entire second term leading Bush's war on the American people. His opponent is Republican Bob "Big-Oil" Schaffer.

In endorsing Udall, the Aspen Times wrote "Unlike Schaffer, who is for the most part a loyal partisan foot-soldier, Udall is genuinely engaged in problem-solving, coalition-building and decision-making."

Oh, and Udall also voted against the war in Iraq from the very start -- which sounds a lot like a guy named Obama.

Who Wins: Mark Udall (D)

Texas: Republican John Cornyn is one of the most conservative members of the U.S. Senate and tends to take stances most Americans are against, such as being anti-choice, for endless war in Iraq and against stem cell research -- sadly those will likely be considered positive attributes by over 50 percent of Texas voters.

Democrat Rick Noriega is a graduate of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, a five-term Texas State Representative and a military Veteran who spent a year in Afghanistan in 2004-2005.

If only every Texan who makes close to minimum wage would show up to vote against Cornyn -- who has eagerly voted to keep wages for working families as low as possible -- a quality public servant like Noriega would make them proud. But Cornyn has led in almost every poll by a healthy margin and I fear he'll be back to make life tough on President Obama.

Who Wins: John Cornyn (R)

Minnesota: Republicans initially ridiculed Minnesota native Al Franken for even entering this race -- even against a weak incumbent like Norm Coleman who has followed the GOP leadership's twisted course like a lemming over a cliff. But they ignored the dim view Minnesotans generally take of the Republican party and they further underestimated Franken, who is an incredibly smart guy, has always had a wonkish streak and knows the issues backwards and forwards.

Franken has pulled slightly ahead in the polls, but it's not that small percentage that's going to carry this election. It's the 15 to 20 percent consistently being polled by Independent Dean Barkley and I suspect a whole swath of Barkley's supporters will peel off in the voting booth and go to Franken -- helped by the fact that Coleman has inexplicably decided to target Barkley with negative statements about his role as former Governor Jesse Ventura's chief of staff.

Who Wins: Al Franken (D)

New Mexico: Republican Senator Pete Domenici is retiring after 35 years in the Senate and two members of the U.S. House of Representatives are running to replace him -- Democrat Tom Udall and Republican Steve Pearce. Pearce had to run the primary gauntlet against Representative Heather Wilson, while Udall -- who is first cousin to Congressman Mark Udall, who's about to win a Senate seat in Colorado -- essentially ran unopposed for the Democratic nomination.

But no matter how they each got here, this has never really been much of a race. In January, Udall was up 20+ points in the polls and the most recent surveys show that the Democrat is still that far ahead of Pearce with New Mexico voters.

Let's welcome the second Udall into the Senate in January.

Who Wins: Tom Udall (D)

Kentucky: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has had one mission and one mission only in the latest Congress: Obstruct. Block every single piece of legislation that comes to the Senate floor, keep America mired in Iraq, attempt to keep the minimum wage low and support the Bush-McCain agenda every step of the way.

Will Democratic challenger Bruce Lunsford be able to take him out on Tuesday? I hate to say this, but I don’t think so.

McConnell is a cancer on the Senate and needs to go, but he's been there for 23 years, has a ton of seniority that many believe can help his state and, while Lunsford has done an admirable job at closing the huge polling gap he had with McConnell four months ago, he hasn't sealed the deal enough to retire this schmuck.

If there's one I would love to be wrong about, it's this one.

Who Wins: Mitch McConnell (R)

Georgia: Outside of McConnell, I'm not sure there's a Republican incumbent we would all like to see tossed out on his ass more than Saxby Chambliss. A Republican Chickenhawk in the truest sense of the word -- he got a bunch of student deferments during the Vietnam war and eventually wrangled a medical deferment for a bum knee -- Chambliss made it into the GOP Slimeball Hall of Fame by smearing Max Cleland beyond recognition in 2002 to gain his Senate seat.

While Chambliss was in the trenches at the University of Georgia, Cleland was fighting in Vietnam, where he was a highly-decorated combat hero who lost both legs and an arm in an explosion. That didn't stop Chambliss from bashing Cleland's patriotism and running ads merging the Veteran with Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein in attacks that even John McCain said were "worse than disgraceful" and "reprehensible."

Chambliss's opponent, Jim Martin, also a Vietnam Veteran and a longtime member of the Georgia House of Representatives, has run a good race against Chambliss and benefited from a large inflow of DSCC money.

Here's how I think it goes down: Chambliss will win by a small amount on Tuesday but fail to hit the 50 percent mark due to the presence of Libertarian candidate Allen Buckley, who has been drawing around six percent of the vote in the most recent polling. In Georgia, no candidate getting 50 percent means a run-off election on December 2nd. My belief is that this will happen, Martin will benefit from more time, an influx of national money and help from a star-studded cast of campaign surrogates, including President-Elect Obama and will defeat Chambliss in the second vote.

Who Wins (Eventually): Jim Martin (D)

So to summarize, of the 13 most-watched races, Democrats win nine of them, picking up Oregon, New Hampshire, Virginia, Alaska, North Carolina, Colorado, Minnesota, New Mexico and -- one month later -- Georgia. Republicans get victories in Mississippi, Maine, Texas and Kentucky.

And the Democrats gain a filibuster-proof, 60-seat majority.

After the celebrating dies down, Harry Reid, Dick Durbin and the rest of the Democratic leadership can then address the next huge question: What the hell do they do about Joe "Turncoat" Lieberman now?