No, it’s not too soon to think about the 2008 Senate races — especially because the stakes are so high, with Democrats holding a 51-49 edge in the chamber starting next month. Control in 2009 and beyond may be an open question going into the next Election Day. Everything could hinge on the presidential result, because the vice president breaks 50-50 ties.
A quick glance at the landscape suggests a structural advantage for the Democrats: There will be 33 Senate elections, for seats currently held by 21 Republicans and 12 Democrats. That means the GOP will play more defense than offense.
Right now, it looks like the closest races will be in Colorado, Louisiana, and Minnesota. Yet many other states bear watching, especially to see if certain incumbents choose to retire and what candidate recruitment — a serious GOP weakness in 2006 — finally produces. Republicans also may have to worry about health-related retirements by Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Craig Thomas of Wyoming, even though neither of them is up for reelection in 2008.
Herewith, an early look at the next batch of Senate races. (For a look at what I wrote at this point in the 2006 cycle, go here.)
ALABAMA: Republican senator Jeff Sessions can probably plan on six more years. Democratic congressman Artur Davis has expressed interest in a challenge and has wondered publicly if he can mimic the race Harold Ford put on this year in Tennessee. Two problems: The Tennessee seat was open, and Ford lost.
ALASKA: Republican senator Ted Stevens isn’t getting any younger — he’ll be just shy of 85 on Election Day in 2008 — but he plans to run again. He biggest vulnerability may come from the kind of GOP primary that knocked off Gov. Frank Murkowski earlier this year, though Stevens, a king of pork, doesn’t suffer from Murkowski’s massive unpopularity.
ARKANSAS: Democratic senator Mark Pryor will be difficult to beat. But what if outgoing Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee was to quit entertaining his White House fantasies and look at this race instead?
COLORADO: This may be the most hotly contested Senate race in the country, whether or not Republican Wayne Allard retires. The incumbent, who is not expected to reach a decision about his future before the new year, would have to break a self-imposed term-limit pledge to go on. He would also have to overcome a hard challenge from Democratic congressman Tom Udall, who announced his candidacy about a year and a half ago. If Allard bows out — the Colorado press thinks he might, because his campaign account is almost empty and he’s letting his hair go gray — the GOP’s best bet would lie with outgoing governor Bill Owens, who is by far the strongest candidate Republicans could put forward, including Allard. But early indications suggest that Owens will take a break from politics. Other potential Republicans are former congressmen Scott McInnes and Bob Schaffer and current congressman Tom Tancredo.
DELAWARE: Democrat Joe Biden says he wants to run for president, which could lead to an open seat here. Republican congressman Mike Castle would give it a look.
GEORGIA: If the situation in Iraq continues to deteriorate, would former Democratic senator Max Cleland seek a rematch against Republican senator Saxby Chambliss? He recently said he won’t, but does his party have a better candidate? Be on the lookout for “Draft Max” bumper stickers in Atlanta.
IDAHO: Will Democrats even bother to run a candidate against Republican senator Larry Craig, who won in 2002 with nearly two thirds of the vote?
ILLINOIS: Democratic senator Dick Durbin will be heavily favored for reelection in a state that has trended strongly toward his party since the early 1990s. There is no obvious GOP challenger — remember, this is the state party that imported Alan Keyes in 2004.
IOWA: It’s rarely wise to bet against an incumbent, and Democratic senator Tom Harkin should be favored to win a fifth term, assuming he runs again. (His office says there will be no announcement until next year.) Harkin never wins big: In 2002, he prevailed by just 6 points. In 2008, he could be more vulnerable than first impressions suggest. A potential challenger is congressman Steve King.
KANSAS: Republican senator Pat Roberts intends to seek reelection. He’ll win easily, unless Democratic governor Kathleen Sebelius becomes a candidate.
KENTUCKY: Republican senator Mitch McConnell is probably safe. He benefits from the fact that top Democratic challengers might prefer to wait until 2010, when Jim Bunning’s seat comes up.
LOUISIANA: Democratic senator Mary Landrieu would be a top target of Republicans in almost any cycle, but in 2008 she’ll face a post-Katrina electorate for the first time. If the governorship goes Republican next year, then Landrieu will appear to be in serious trouble.
MASSACHUSETTS: Democratic senator John Kerry must choose between reelection and a quixotic run for the White House. This seat hasn’t been open since 1984, and a lot of Democrats would love to have the chance to succeed Kerry. Congressman Barney Frank, however, has said he’ll have more power as the new chairman of the House Banking Committee than as a freshman senator, so he appears to be out of the picture.
MAINE: Republican senator Susan Collins is very popular, but may take a hit for seeking a third term, which she once promised she wouldn’t do. The strongest Democratic candidate might be congressman Tom Allen.
MICHIGAN: Republicans hope Democratic senator Carl Levin will retire, creating an open-seat contest. But will the incumbent now decide to hang on for another term because his party will be in the majority and he’ll be chairman of the Armed Services Committee? GOP contenders might include failed 2006 candidate Mike Bouchard and congresswoman Candice Miller.
MINNESOTA: This will be one of the country’s most-watched races. In 2002, Republican Norm Coleman narrowly beat Democrat Walter Mondale following the October death of Democratic senator Paul Wellstone. There will be no shortage of Democrats lining up to take him on; one of them could be comedian Al Franken, who has suggested that he’ll make up his mind by early next year. Coleman, however, may get a small boost from a high profile at the GOP convention, in his former mayoral stomping ground of St. Paul.
MISSISSIPPI: Republican senator Thad Cochran has a long way to fall: He won 85 percent of the vote in 2002, when he didn’t even have a Democratic opponent. He probably won’t announce his intentions until next October or November.
MONTANA: In presidential elections, the state of Montana is as red as a ripe tomato. Yet Democrats currently control the governorship, the legislature, and both Senate seats. Sen. Max Baucus is insurmountably popular, but if he were to drop out for some unexpected reason, Republican congressman Denny Rehberg might have a good opportunity to succeed him.
NEBRASKA: Republican senator Chuck Hagel is a shoe-in for reelection. (His office says he’ll formally decide about running again next month.) But if the presidential campaign of his ally John McCain were to collapse in 2007, would he get in?
NEW HAMPSHIRE: Following a great year in 2006, Democrats will be energized to take on Republican senator John Sununu. The incumbent probably breathed a sigh of relief when Democratic governor John Lynch indicated that he won’t run. Will former Democratic governor Jeanne Shaheen, Sununu’s 2002 opponent, decide differently?
NEW JERSEY: If Republican Tom Kean Jr. couldn’t knock off a scandal-tainted Democrat such as Bob Menendez this year, it seems unlikely that he or anybody else could pose a serious threat in 2008 to Democratic senator Frank Lautenberg, who intends to seek reelection even though he hasn’t formally announced it.
NEW MEXICO: Republican senator Pete Domenici is probably safe if he runs, which he has signaled that he will do. If he changes his mind, however, Democrats will see this as a good pickup opportunity. They’ll probably want a better candidate than attorney general Patricia Madrid, who has just come off a losing race against Rep. Heather Wilson but who nevertheless harbors political ambitions. Wilson herself could be a contender if Domenici leaves the scene.
NORTH CAROLINA: If Republican senator Elizabeth Dole were to retire, this seat would become instantly competitive. But odds are she won’t. In the unlikely event that Democratic governor Mike Easley runs, he’ll be a strong challenger. Interesting alternative: His wife, Mary Easley, who is both a lawyer and a popular First Lady, though she has never sought elective office.
OKLAHOMA: Democrats may see this as a dark-horse possibility, especially if they can convince Rep. Dan Boren, whose father once held the seat, to take on Republican senator Jim Inhofe, who is definitely running again.
OREGON: Can a Mormon win in Oregon? The answer is yes: Republican senator Gordon Smith has prevailed twice here–and by a big, 16-point margin in 2002. The state is more blue than red, so Democrats will think they have a shot if they can find the right candidate.
RHODE ISLAND: “Bring back Linc!” It’s a slogan that precisely nobody is chanting, though someone is sure to suggest that senator Lincoln Chafee, allegedly a Republican, try to rebound from his defeat last month. Those within earshot should yawn. Democratic senator Jack Reed is safe.
SOUTH CAROLINA: Conservatives are unhappy with Republican senator Lindsey Graham. The incumbent can’t entirely ignore the prospect of a primary challenge, but his 100-percent pro-life voting record probably makes him unbeatable.
SOUTH DAKOTA: Democratic senator Tim Johnson nearly lost last time, but Republican John Thune won’t run against him in 2008, on account of his having become the state’s junior senator two years ago. The best GOP candidate probably would be Gov. Mike Rounds, who just won an easy reelection.
TENNESSEE: Republican senator Lamar Alexander is well-positioned for victory, but Democrats have an unusually strong bench here: Congressman Harold Ford Jr. just lost a race for the Senate, but he impressed many by making it much closer than expected; Gov. Phil Bredesen also is popular.
TEXAS: At some point, the changing demographics of Texas may make races such as this one genuinely competitive, but 2008 feels a little too soon. Republican senator John Cornyn, an emerging conservative favorite on the Judiciary Committee, probably will face a challenge he can’t afford to write off. Yet he’ll be heavily favored. The most interesting Democratic candidate might be Rep. Henry Cuellar, a pro-trade moderate who won the Club for Growth’s endorsement in a 2006 primary election.
VIRGINIA: The defeat of Republican senator George Allen will encourage Democrats in the Old Dominion, but GOP senator John Warner, though much less popular with conservatives, would be a tougher mark. Former Democratic governor Mark Warner might pose a credible challenge, but he may prefer to sit it out in the hope that his party’s presidential candidate will offer a veep nomination. Should Sen. Warner retire — recent public statements suggest that he is leaning against it but hasn’t ruled it out — Allen conceivably could run again. Former GOP governor Jim Gilmore and current GOP congressman Tom Davis also might think it over.
WEST VIRGINIA: Democratic senator Jay Rockefeller is probably safe, even though the state gave its electoral votes to the GOP in 2000 and 2004.
WYOMING: Democrats briefly thought they had a shot at winning this state’s at-large House seat last month, but they came up short in a very favorable cycle. They won’t stand a chance against Republican senator Mike Enzi during a presidential-election year.