But first, the big picture: Republicans control the Senate with 51 seats. If President Bush wins reelection, they can afford to lose a single seat and stay in charge, with Vice President Cheney breaking ties. If the Democratic nominee prevails, the GOP has no margin for error.
In November, 34 states will elect a senator. The Democrats are defending 19 of these seats and the Republicans hold the remaining 15. Few of these races are truly competitive–I’ve kept an eye on 18 of them, using a fairly generous standard of what makes a race worth watching.
It’s still very early in the cycle, but I’m ready to begin making a few guesses: three GOP takeovers, one Democratic takeover, and four tossups (for two seats now held by Republicans and two by Democrats). If my assumptions are correct–and this isn’t a money-back guarantee, folks!–then the likeliest scenario would be for the GOP to gain a pair of Senate seats and increase its majority to 53.
Herewith, my quick analysis of 18 races:
ALASKA: Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski and former Democratic governor Tony Knowles appear to be headed for one of the closest elections in the country. Murkowski may deserve a slight edge because she’ll share the ticket with Bush, who is strongly popular way up there. TOSSUP
ARKANSAS: Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln might have been vulnerable this year, but she hasn’t attracted a strong challenger. LIKELY DEMOCRATIC RETENTION
CALIFORNIA: Former Republican secretary of state Bill Jones has just announced his candidacy against Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer. He probably would have been the GOP’s best candidate for governor in 2002, but he didn’t do well in the primary. This time around, he’ll face competition from the right (former assemblyman Howard Kaloogian) and the left (former U.S. treasurer Rosario Marin). As a mainstream, pro-life Republican with a proven record of statewide electoral success, he remains the GOP’s best hope for beating an incumbent Democrat. LEANING DEMOCRATIC RETENTION
COLORADO: Republican Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell’s path to reelection became much clearer when Democratic congressman Mark Udall said he won’t run for the Senate this year. The only remaining question is whether former senator Gary Hart will get in the race. If he does, the contest will attract some national attention because Hart was once a favorite among Democrats to run for president. But he’s also a has-been who won his last Senate seat in Colorado (in 1980) with only 51 percent of the vote. The state is much more Republican today. LIKELY REPUBLICAN RETENTION
FLORIDA: Will Republican congresswoman Katherine Harris get in the race? The smart money says she won’t–and that she’ll wait to challenge Sen. Bill Nelson in 2006, when memories of her role in the 2000 election will have receded and when the White House will be much more enthusiastic about her candidacy. The GOP frontrunner now is former HUD secretary Mel Martinez, but the primary field is crowded and Martinez will come under attack for his trial-lawyer past. The Democrats will endure their own bruising nomination fight. LEANING REPUBLICAN TAKEOVER
GEORGIA: In one sense, Republicans already have captured this seat: Retiring Democratic Sen. Zell Miller votes like a man who has switched parties in his heart. A couple of Democratic candidates finally have surfaced to replace him: Mary Squires and Nadine Thomas, both state senators. Perhaps they think that running and losing will boost their prospects for future office. The winner of the GOP primary between businessman Herman Cain, Rep. Mac Collins, and Rep. Johnny Isakson will be the heavy favorite. LIKELY REPUBLICAN TAKEOVER
ILLINOIS: This election remains the Democrats’ best chance to pickup a seat currently held by a Republican and state comptroller Dan Hynes appears well on his way to winning his party’s nomination. The GOP’s best hope would be for state Sen. Barack Obama to upset him in the primary. LEANING DEMOCRATIC TAKEOVER
LOUISIANA: Democratic Sen. John Breaux’s decision to retire leaves Louisiana with what will be one of this year’s most-watched Senate contests. The race will feature a pair of congressmen: Democrat Chris John and Republican David Vitter. TOSSUP
MISSOURI: Democratic state treasurer Nancy Farmer recently made national headlines–sort of–when Hillary Clinton cracked a Gandhi joke at her fundraiser. This wasn’t the sort of attention Farmer was hoping to attract in an uphill battle against Republican Sen. Kit Bond. LIKELY REPUBLICAN RETENTION
NEVADA: Democratic Sen. Harry Reid might have been vulnerable this year, but the GOP won’t field the kind of candidate who can knock him off. LIKELY DEMOCRATIC RETENTION
NORTH CAROLINA: Republican congressman Richard Burr has a money advantage over Democrat Erskine Bowles, who benefits from the statewide recognition he received for running against Elizabeth Dole in 2002. A new poll has Bowles in the lead, 45 percent to 40 percent. This could be a real nail-biter. TOSSUP
NORTH DAKOTA: This is another state where Republican might have hoped to do well–except that their best candidates have chosen not to run. Democratic Sen. Byron Dorgan appears poised for reelection. LIKELY DEMOCRATIC RETENTION
OKLAHOMA: The retirement of Republican Sen. Don Nickles creates a pickup opportunity for Democrats, though not without a tough fight. Democratic congressman Brad Carson has raised nearly twice the cash as former Oklahoma City mayor Kirk Humphries, who just learned that he’ll face a distracting challenge in the GOP primary. TOSSUP
PENNSYLVANIA: Robert Bork has endorsed Rep. Pat Toomey in his GOP primary challenge against Sen. Arlen Specter. Despite this, conservatives are far from united in the effort to unseat one of the Senate’s most liberal Republicans: The National Rifle Association recently came out for Specter. Democratic congressman Joe Hoeffel waits in the wings for the GOP to settle its intramural quarrel. LEANING REPUBLICAN RETENTION
SOUTH CAROLINA: Former Republican governor David Beasley promises to say whether he’s running in the next week or so, and all signs indicate that he’ll get in. If so, he probably becomes the frontrunner in a GOP primary that already features former attorney general Charlie Condon and Rep. Jim DeMint. The Democrats almost certainly will nominate schools chief Inez Tenenbaum. LEANING REPUBLICAN TAKEOVER
SOUTH DAKOTA: Polls indicate that when GOP congressman John Thune challenged Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson in 2002, about 20 percent of South Dakota’s Republicans voted for Johnson on the theory that it was better to pull the lever for the man in the Senate majority. Thune lost by a whisker. Now the Democrats aren’t in the majority and Thune is taking on Tom Daschle. The race will be close–and if Thune loses, Republican will grumble that he should have run for his old House seat because the Democrats stand a good chancing of winning it this year. LEANING DEMOCRATIC RETENTION
WASHINGTON: In a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans (45 percent to 40 percent, according to Gallup), Democratic Sen. Patty Murray must be considered the favorite against Republican congressman George Nethercutt. A new poll (by the Democratic proxy group EMILY’s List) puts Murray well in the lead, 48 percent to 26 percent. LIKELY DEMOCRATIC RETENTION
WISCONSIN: Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold lacks a credible GOP opponent. LIKELY DEMOCRATIC RETENTION