When Democrats narrowly won a majority in the U.S. Senate in 2006, it was expected 2008 would shape up to be a fierce battle for control of that chamber. The political reality at this moment in time, however, is that Democrats nearly have as good of a chance to win a filibuster-proof majority (60) as the Republicans have to get back to 50. Everything would have to go right for the Democrats to achieve 60 seats, but few pundits thought everything would go right for the Democrats to win control in 2006. And, after a long night of ballot counting in Virginia and Montana on Election Night, that’s exactly what happened.
As such, Norm Coleman may not simply be fighting for his political life next November, but also his Party having any voice at all in the Senate: if Coleman falls, so too could Republicans fall short of 41 seats.
The reasons Senate Republicans are in trouble in 2008 are multifold. First, Republicans need to defend 22 of the 34 seats on the ballot. Of the 12 seats Democrats need to defend, only two are conceivably in play—Mary Landrieu in Louisiana and Tim Johnson in South Dakota. Johnson, however, remains extremely popular in his home state and he is now back at work in D.C. having recovered from a serious illness that struck him last December. Other Democratic Senate seats up for re-election in the right-leaning states of Montana, Arkansas, and West Virginia are considered quite safe due to the popularity of the incumbents.
Several of the 22 seats the Republicans need to defend are in serious jeopardy. First, there are an open Republican seats in two Democratic-trending states (Colorado and Virginia). The other open GOP seat (Nebraska) will likely pit a very popular ex-Democratic Senator (Bob Kerrey) with the primary victor between former popular Governor Mike Johanns and Attorney General Jon Bruning.
Of the two seats potentially plagued by ‘scandal’ (Idaho’s Larry Craig and Alaska’s Ted Stevens) only Stevens’ seat is likely to be in play for the Democrats. In July federal authorities raided Stevens’ home as part of a corruption probe. Though Alaska is a right-leaning state, it has a strong independent streak and has voted Democrats into office in statewide races in the recent past.
Then there are the GOP moderates in Democratic-leaning states—Susan Collins in Maine, John Sununu in New Hampshire, and Gordon Smith in Oregon. The question is how many of these seats will turn over to the Democrats a la Lincoln Chaffee in Rhode Island in 2006. Smith began distancing himself from President Bush and his Iraq war policy a year ago. Collins and Sununu have been more moderate in their criticisms against the president.
Add Norm Coleman’s seat into the mix and you have 3 vulnerable open seats, 4 vulnerable moderate Republican seats in Democratic-leaning states and 1 vulnerable ‘scandal seat.’ That would leave the Democratic caucus at 59—one seat shy of a filibuster-proof majority, provided they hold Louisiana and South Dakota.
To reach the magic number of 60, Democrats are therefore also keeping an eye on Mitch McConnell’s seat in Kentucky (though he is an extremely powerful Senator, his approval ratings are at just 50 percent) as well as Pete Dominici’s seat in New Mexico (a true battleground state which already has one Democratic Senator).
At this time Smart Politics is certainly not predicting Democrats will end up with a 60-seat caucus. But the fact an argument can be made that there is a sliver of a chance for Democrats to pick up so many seats spells big trouble the GOP may be in next November.