Politics & Policy

Senatorial Prospects

Looking ahead to a year from now.

Professional pundits will spend the rest of this week debating whether the Democratic victories in New Jersey and Virginia yesterday provide a glimpse of what will happen in next year’s elections. It’s a quadrennial ritual of the chattering class.

Here are the facts: It’s been more than a decade since these off-year results seem to have foreshadowed elections that were still 12 months away. In 1993, the success of Republican gubernatorial candidates Christie Todd Whitman (in New Jersey) and George Allen (in Virginia) preceded 1994’s GOP triumphs. The last two cycles haven’t augured anything: Republican wins in 1997 were followed by Democrat congressional gains in 1998; the reverse was true for 2001 and 2002.

Herewith, a new look at next year’s Senate contests. (To check out appraisals from last spring, go here.)

ARIZONA: In a freaky-good year for Democrats, GOP senator Jon Kyl might be vulnerable. But ousting this conservative favorite probably would take a better candidate than former Democratic state party chief Jim Pederson. In an October poll, Kyl held a comfortable lead, 50 percent to 28 percent. LIKELY REPUBLICAN RETENTION

CALIFORNIA: Democratic senator Dianne Feinstein is a juggernaut. In June, the Field Poll tested her against Secretary of State Condi Rice. The result: Feinstein 56 percent, Rice 38 percent. DiFi did even better in a match-up against governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Meanwhile, the GOP continues to cast around for a sacrificial lamb. LIKELY DEMOCRATIC RETENTION

FLORIDA: Republican congresswoman Katherine Harris certainly doesn’t suffer from what hobbles so many other Senate challengers: Low name recognition. In her case, though, too many people don’t like her because of the role she played as Florida’s secretary of state in 2000. A GOP poll in September put the race at 48 percent for Democratic senator Bill Nelson and 36 percent for Harris, and although the contest may tighten this one is already beginning to discourage Republicans, who believe Nelson is a weak incumbent. If Harris shows lackluster fundraising numbers at the end of this year, there’s a chance that Rep. Mark Foley will jump into the race and give her a primary. LEANING DEMOCRATIC RETENTION

MARYLAND: Lt. Gov. Michael Steele’s decision to run for this open seat gives the GOP a legitimate chance to score an upset victory in this blue state. The Democrats’ best candidate probably is Rep. Ben Cardin, though he still has to defeat former Rep. Kweisi Mfume in a primary–and then retain a big supermajority of black voters in the general election. Republicans believe that if perhaps 15 percent of the state’s African Americans vote for Steele, who is black, then they’ll win. A new poll just published in the Baltimore Sun says the Cardin and Mfume race is neck-and-neck; in the general, Cardin leads Steele (41 percent to 32 percent) and Steele leads Mfume (39 percent to 37 percent). LEANING DEMOCRATIC RETENTION

MICHIGAN: As a first-term incumbent, Democratic senator Debbie Stabenow ought to be vulnerable. A June poll showed that only 32 percent of likely voters believe she deserves reelection, with 48 percent saying they will vote for another candidate or at least consider it. Yet the Michigan GOP hasn’t come up with a top-tier opponent. Rep. Candace Miller, who might be a formidable challenger, has shied away. Republican voters probably will choose between Oakland County sheriff Mike Bouchard and former Detroit council member Keith Butler. LEANING DEMOCRATIC RETENTION

MINNESOTA: The candidacy of GOP congressman Mark Kennedy probably represents the GOP’s best pickup opportunity of the cycle, as he competes for an open seat. The Democrats will choose between a pair of liberals, Amy Klobuchar and Patty Wetterling. LEANING REPUBLICAN TAKEOVER

MISSISSIPPI: Republican senator Trent Lott says he’s running for reelection, though the Washington rumor mill wonders if he’s having second thoughts in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which destroyed his coastal home. If Lott were to retire, GOP congressman Chip Pickering probably would try to succeed him. Republican governor Haley Barbour also might feel some pressure to run. A good pick for Democrats would be congressman Gene Taylor. Other Democratic possibilities would include former governor Ronnie Musgrove and former attorney general Mike Moore. LIKELY REPUBLICAN RETENTION

MISSOURI: The Democrats didn’t recruit their best candidate to challenge GOP senator Jim Talent–that probably would have been secretary of state Robin Carnahan–but they may have gotten the next best thing in Claire McCaskill. Republicans may suggest that McCaskill is a lousy candidate because she lost the election for governor in 2004. But the last pol to lose a gubernatorial race and then run for the Senate successfully was Talent. The incumbent always enjoys an advantage, but this looks like a potential nail biter. LEANING REPUBLICAN RETENTION

MONTANA: Republican senator Conrad Burns will be a heavy favorite to defeat Democratic state auditor John Morrison. If 2006 turns out to be a very good year for Democrats nationally, however, this could become a race to watch. LIKELY REPUBLICAN RETENTION

NEBRASKA: Asking former governor Mike Johanns to become secretary of agriculture remains one of the most puzzling moves of President Bush’s second term. Didn’t he get Karl Rove’s memo on how to beat Democratic senator Ben Nelson? Republicans now will choose among a group of second stringers, including former attorney general Don Stenberg (who lost to Nelson in 2000). Republicans in Washington are high on Ameritrade executive Pete Ricketts, who can tap his personal bank account. LEANING DEMOCRATIC RETENTION

NEVADA: Do you enjoy watching Carters lose elections? If so, then this race is for you, because it looks to feature Republican senator John Ensign against presidential scion Jack Carter. As it happens, Nevada voters didn’t even support Jack’s dad in 1976; there’s no way they’re going to get behind Amy Carter’s big brother next year. In October, a Las Vegas Review-Journal poll put Ensign ahead, 59 percent to 25 percent. LIKELY REPUBLICAN RETENTION

NEW JERSEY: With Democratic senator Jon Corzine elected governor, the big question now becomes whom he will pick as his replacement in the Senate. His best choice might be acting governor Richard J. Codey; a member of the state’s congressional delegation also could win the Senate lotto. Whatever Corzine does, a primary battle looms. Republicans, in contrast, are getting behind Tom Kean Jr., the son of the former governor and a moderate who might be well suited to New Jersey’s political climate. TOSS UP

NEW MEXICO: Republican congresswoman Heather Wilson hasn’t ruled out a run against Democratic senator Jeff Bingaman in Shermanesque terms, but it appears as though she’s going to stay put in the House. That means Bingaman will stay put in the Senate. LIKELY DEMOCRATIC RETENTION

NEW YORK: The goal for Republicans isn’t to beat Democratic senator Hillary Clinton–she’s simply too popular for that. The goal is to give her enough worries in the Empire State that she cuts down on her out-of-state trips to fundraise for other candidates. “She’s a walking slush fund,” says Brian Nick of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. The likely GOP nominee is Westchester District Attorney Jeanine Pirro; a more conservative candidate is former Yonkers mayor John Spencer. LIKELY DEMOCRATIC RETENTION

NORTH DAKOTA: Republican Governor John Hoeven probably could beat Democratic senator Kent Conrad. He isn’t running, however, so this Senate seat deep in the heart of Bush country will remain in the hands of the blue party. LIKELY DEMOCRATIC RETENTION

OHIO: In one poll over the summer, only 31 percent of likely voters said that Republican senator Mike DeWine deserves reelection. Democratic congressman Sherrod Brown is probably too liberal to defeat him, but former House candidate Paul Hackett, who narrowly lost a special election outside Cincinnati in August, might have a chance. A new poll published in the Columbus Dispatch actually suggests that either Democrat could pull it off. If Hackett wins the nomination, he might also grab an endorsement from the National Rifle Association, which would be a big plus in this swing state. DeWine isn’t helped by the fact that GOP governor Bob Taft is wildly unpopular. LEANING REPUBLICAN RETENTION

PENNSYLVANIA: Democrats are drooling over this one–they think they’ve got Republican senator Rick Santorum in their crosshairs. A poll last month showed Democratic state treasurer Bob Casey Jr. leading the incumbent among likely voters, 52 percent to 36 percent. This race probably represents the Democrats’ best pickup opportunity. But before it’s over, it will look very close and conservative standard-bearer Santorum may yet prevail. TOSS UP

RHODE ISLAND: Many Republicans are still mad at GOP senator Lincoln Chafee, who couldn’t even bring himself to vote for President Bush’s re-election last year. (On his ballot, he wrote in the name of Bush’s father.) Now Chafee is trying to fend off a primary challenge from Cranston mayor Steve Laffey, who aspires to become the Pat Toomey of the 2006 cycle. Waiting in the wings are the Democratic contenders, secretary of state Matt Brown and former attorney general Sheldon Whitehouse. TOSS UP

TENNESSEE: In the race to succeed Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, who has presidential ambitions, Democrats have rallied behind congressman Harold Ford Jr. Republicans will pick from a field of three: former congressman Ed Bryant, Chattanooga mayor Bob Corker, and Rep. Van Hilleary. Polls from last spring suggest a close general election, though the eventual GOP nominee probably will have an edge. LEANING REPUBLICAN RETENTION

VERMONT: With Republican-turned-”independent” Jim Jeffords retiring, this is an open seat–though Rep. Bernie Sanders, another “independent” who would caucus with the Democrats, appears to hold a big-time lead over potential challengers. Republicans in Washington are promoting businessman Richard Tarrant because he can self-fund. LIKELY DEMOCRATIC RETENTION

VIRGINIA: Democratic governor Mark Warner might have given Republican senator George Allen a real scare, but he isn’t running. As a result, Allen can coast through 2006 and start planning for 2008. LIKELY REPUBLICAN RETENTION

WASHINGTON: First-term Democratic senator Maria Cantwell looks beatable, and Republicans hope they’ve found a strong candidate in Safeco CEO Mike McGavick. A GOP poll in October put Cantwell ahead, 48 percent to 39 percent. LEANING DEMOCRATIC RETENTION

WEST VIRGINIA: Democratic senator Robert Byrd won’t be defeated–unless voters somehow become convinced that at the age of 88, he’s just too old for the job. Republicans have not yet settled on a candidate. LIKELY DEMOCRATIC RETENTION

WISCONSIN: If former governor Tommy Thompson were to announce for this race, the Republicans might have a candidate who could beat Democratic senator Herb Kohl. An October poll had these two cheese-state political giants in a dead heat. Thompson has not publicly ruled out a challenge, but he hasn’t signed up for a campaign, either. Looks like Kohl can plan on coming back to Washington for another term. LIKELY DEMOCRATIC RETENTION

John J. Miller, the national correspondent for National Review and host of its Great Books podcast, is the director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College. He is the author of A Gift of Freedom: How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America.


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