Politics & Policy

Springtime For Senators

The 2006 Senate races are underway.

Blessed is the man who expects nothing, goes the old saying, for he shall never be disappointed.

#ad#That’s how Republicans are supposed to approach 2006, because of the political rule about midterm elections punishing the party that holds the White House. Yet the GOP performed well in 2002, and there’s reason to think the outlook for 2006 is anything but bleak.

Republican senators outnumber Democrats, 55-44 (or 55-45, if we dispense with the illusion that Jim Jeffords of Vermont is an “independent”). Yet the Democrats are defending 18 seats, compared to 15 for Republicans. Of the three open seats–Maryland, Minnesota, and Vermont–none is held by a Republican.

Last November, I gave a first look at next year’s races. Herewith, a second look:

ARIZONA: Democrats will say Republican senator Jon Kyl is vulnerable, but he isn’t.

CALIFORNIA: A Field Poll in February showed 53 percent of Californians “inclined” to reelect Democratic senator Dianne Feinstein, including 33 percent of Republicans. Next.

CONNECTICUT: Democratic senator Joe Lieberman’s job-approval rating among Republicans (72 percent) is higher than it is among members of his own party (66 percent), according to a recent Quinnipiac poll. Will the Greens at least put up a candidate?

FLORIDA: Democratic senator Bill Nelson is a big, fat target for Republicans–neither his approval ratings nor his reelect numbers are especially healthy in this more-red-than-blue state–and the GOP’s bench is deep. Looking good in very early polling is Rep. Katherine Harris, who became a household name during the 2000 election controversy. One or more of the candidates now running for governor might switch to the Senate race. The name of retired general Tommy Franks is heard as well.

MARYLAND: The departure of Democratic senator Paul Sarbanes creates an open seat and the GOP may be competitive in this blue state if lieutenant governor Michael Steele decides to run. A recent poll by Potomac Survey Research shows him trailing former NAACP head Kweisi Mfume and Rep. Ben Cardin but leading Rep. Chris Van Hollen. Each of these match-ups is tight, however, and Steele would excite the GOP nationally.

MASSACHUSETTS: Remember how Mitt Romney sort of gave Democratic senator Ted Kennedy a scare in 1994? Well, he lost by 16 points. That’s the closest race JFK’s kid brother has run in four decades, and there’s no reason to think 2006 will be any closer.

MICHIGAN: As a first-term senator, Democrat Debbie Stabenow should find herself vulnerable to a Republican challenge. But the GOP’s top candidates are staying on the sidelines, in the belief that they’re better off waiting for 2008, when they assume Democratic senator Carl Levin will head into retirement. Nationally, Republicans would love to see a potential self-funder, such as Domino’s executive David Brandon, jump in–not so much because they think he’ll win, but because they believe he would free up cash for more competitive contests. Another possible candidate is Jane Abraham, the wife of the senator Stabenow beat in 2000.

MINNESOTA: With former GOP senator Rod Grams announcing that he won’t run for the seat of retiring Democrat Mark Dayton, the Republican primary field is now clear for congressman Mark Kennedy. Think about it: Republicans cheering on a Kennedy. This one, of course, isn’t related to that one. Surprisingly, Democrats are having trouble finding a top-notch opponent. (Maybe they think there really is a relation.) This is a very good pickup opportunity for the GOP, and it keeps looking better.

MISSOURI: Democrats are scrambling for a candidate who will give Republican senator Jim Talent a difficult reelection. One interesting possibility: Robin Carnahan, the recently elected secretary of state whose late father was governor and whose mother was the incumbent Talent beat to acquire the seat he now holds. But this may turn out to be the Democrats’ Michigan–a place where they think they ought to have a chance against a first-term incumbent, but fail to field the right candidate.

MONTANA: This could be a dark-horse race for Democrats. The incumbent, Republican senator Conrad Burns, is less popular than his Democrat counterpart, Sen. Max Baucus. State auditor John Morrison says he’ll take on Burns.

NEBRASKA: Democratic senator Ben Nelson breathed a big sigh of relief when President Bush tapped Gov. Mike Johanns–a possible challenger, and a very strong one–to become secretary of agriculture. Republicans once had high hopes here, and they’ve by no means abandoned the idea of winning, but the odds are looking longer.

NEW JERSEY: The key question here involves Democratic senator Jon Corzine’s bid to become governor this year. If he wins, his seat in the Senate will become available. If he loses, Republicans will consider him battered and weakened. Likely Democratic candidates include congressman Rob Andrews and Bob Menendez; on the GOP side, there’s state senator Tom Kean Jr.

NEW MEXICO: Democratic senator Jeff Bingaman is a popular incumbent. Among Republicans, congresswoman Heather Wilson possibly could provide an interesting challenge–but this would require her to quit a competitive House district that the GOP might lose. Denny Hastert won’t want her to do that. Moreover, she’s not the type of candidate who would excite conservatives, which is probably a prerequisite for beating Bingaman in an upset.

NEW YORK: A majority of New Yorkers say they’re ready to reelect Sen. Hillary Clinton, according a Marist College poll earlier this month. She trounces potential GOP foes, from Gov. George Pataki to former Rep. Rick Lazio, with one exception: Rudy Giuliani runs slightly ahead of her, 49 percent to 47 percent. Odds of Giuliani actually declaring his candidacy: slim to none.

NORTH DAKOTA: Democratic senator Kent Conrad will face a tough fight if Gov. John Hoeven, a Republican, decides to challenge him.

OHIO: Democrats are keeping Republican senator Mike DeWine on their watch list, but they’ll need to track down a lot of missing votes to oust him.

PENNSYLVANIA: Republican senator Rick Santorum is the top target for Democrats, and several polls show him trailing state treasurer Bob Casey Jr. One survey from a couple of weeks ago had Casey ahead by 14 points–seemingly too wide a margin to be credible, but certainly not welcome news for the incumbent. This may become the closest and most-watched race in America.

RHODE ISLAND: Wouldn’t it be cool if John Bolton could run against Republican senator Lincoln Chafee in a primary? As it turns out, Chafee may face Cranston mayor Stephen Laffey, who hopes to become the Pat Toomey of 2006. Among Democrats, challengers include former attorney general Sheldon Whitehouse (what a name for a politico!) and secretary of state Matt Brown.

TENNESSEE: Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist isn’t running for reelection, and Republicans stand a better-than-even chance of holding the seat. Their candidates currently include former congressman Ed Bryant, Chattanooga mayor Bob Corker, and Rep. Van Hilleary. Among Democrats, the favorite probably is congressman Harold Ford Jr. Bonus question: Does the rise of Sen. Barack Obama take some of the shine off Ford’s bright-young-thing mojo?

TEXAS: All eyes are on Republican senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, who is mulling over a primary challenge against Gov. Rick Perry. If she decides not to seek reelection to the Senate, a lot of Republicans may line up to succeed her. At this early point, the smart money might be on Rep. Henry Bonilla of San Antonio.

VERMONT: The retirement of “independent” senator Jim Jeffords creates an open-seat opportunity for Republicans, but only if newly elected governor Jim Douglas declares. He’ll probably decide this summer. Meanwhile, Democrats are rallying behind socialist congressman Bernie Sanders, another “independent” (who has not yet formally announced). Isn’t it at least a little bit embarrassing for DNC chair Howard Dean that he can’t get an official Democrat to run for the Senate in his home state?

VIRGINIA: There’s one Democrat who could give Republican senator George Allen a genuine challenge: Gov. Mark Warner, who can’t run for reelection this year. Then again, Warner’s gubernatorial legacy is a hefty tax increase and he’s possibly hoping that the 2008 Democratic presidential nominee will pick him as a running mate. A loss to Allen in 2006 wouldn’t look good on his resume.

WASHINGTON: Democratic senator Maria Cantwell barely defeated Sen. Slade Gorton in 2000, and her reelection numbers are best described as fair to middling. This is a blue state and she’s the incumbent, which makes her the favorite against just about anybody. Republicans are waiting for Dino Rossi to decide whether he wants to run–and Rossi is still waiting for his challenge to last year’s gubernatorial race, which he apparently lost by a handful of votes, to make its way through the courts.

WEST VIRGINIA: If Democratic senator Robert Byrd proposed naming West Virginia after himself, it’s possible that most of his constituents would say that’s just fine with them. The man won’t be defeated, even though a recent poll raised some GOP eyebrows: Tested against Rep. Shelly Capito in March, he led by only 10 points.

WISCONSIN: Democratic senator Herb Kohl looks safe and sound, though there’s an outside chance a candidate such as former congressman Mark Neumann could give him a race.

John J. Miller — John J. Miller is the national correspondent for National Review and the director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College. His new book is Reading Around: Journalism on Authors, Artists, and Ideas.

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