Almost half of all Republican-controlled Senate seats are up for election this year — 23 out of 49. That means Democrats, who have to defend just 12 seats, have an excellent opportunity to expand their Senate majority, which now stands at 51 (including independents Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Bernie Sanders of Vermont).
“There’s no question that if you just look at the numbers, we have a daunting task,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, shortly before Christmas. “I think the chances of you all calling me the majority leader a year from now are rather slim because of the number situation.”
Fourteen contests are worth watching, for seats currently held by 10 Republicans and four Democrats.
ALASKA: If 84-year-old Republican senator Ted Stevens is indicted in a corruption probe — FBI and IRS agents searched his home last year — then the reign of the longest-serving GOP senator could share the fate of his ballyhooed “bridge to nowhere.” But Stevens is brassy enough to keep on running no matter what, and Alaskans probably like their pork enough to elect him anyway. After all, the “bridge to nowhere” never really vanished–it’s about to become the “ferry to nowhere.” LIKELY REPUBLICAN RETENTION
ARKANSAS: Democratic senator Mark Pryor is finishing his first term, and he’s a safe bet for reelection — unless former Republican governor Mike Huckabee, now running for president, decides to aim lower. Huckabee probably will keep his sights on the White House, given his recent surge in the polls and the possibility of a vice-presidential nomination. The filing deadline for a Senate race is March 10, when only about 15 percent of the GOP’s delegate votes will remain on the table. LIKELY DEMOCRATIC RETENTION
COLORADO: Since 2004, Democrats have enjoyed enormous success in the Rocky Mountain State. This summer, they’ll even hold their national convention in Denver. Because of this, Democratic congressman Mark Udall has an edge in the race to succeed retiring Republican senator Wayne Allard. Yet former GOP congressman Bob Schaffer, a conservative, is polling better-than-expected. A December survey of likely voters for the left-leaning Colorado Confidential website had Udall at 39 percent and Schaffer at 37 percent, with 24 percent undecided. TOSS UP
KENTUCKY: Fresh from a victory in the 2007 governor’s race, Democrats believe they may have a chance to knock off Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. It’s an exceedingly small chance. LIKELY REPUBLICAN RETENTION
LOUISIANA: If realignment really has come to Louisiana — it arguably started with David Vitter’s election to the Senate in 2004 and continued with Bobby Jindal’s gubernatorial victory last fall — then Democratic senator Mary Landrieu could be in deep trouble. Her main opponent probably will be state treasurer John Kennedy, who recently bolted Landrieu’s party and joined the GOP. This is the Republicans’ best pick-up opportunity. TOSS UP
MAINE: Republican senator Susan Collins often frustrates conservatives, but her brand of liberal Republicanism is probably a good fit for Maine. She’s very popular and will be favored against Democratic congressman Tom Allen, who has announced a challenge. LEANING REPUBLICAN RETENTION
MINNESOTA: Al Franken has dedicated much of his life to making people laugh. Now he wants Minnesota voters to take him seriously, as a Democratic candidate for the Senate. Republican senator Norm Coleman probably could have drawn a tougher opponent, but then Minnesotans are the people who elected onetime wrestler Jesse Ventura as their governor a decade ago. TOSS UP
MISSISSIPPI: On Monday, Gov. Haley Barbour appointed Republican congressman Roger Wicker to the Senate, where he succeeds Trent Lott, who resigned last month. There will now be a special election in November, though some Democrats may push for something sooner. Either way, Wicker is well positioned to keep what he now has. In December, a poll tested him against former Democratic governor Ronnie Musgrove; Wicker came out ahead, 47 percent to 39 percent. After this year, the seat will come up again in 2012, returning to its normal six-year cycle. LIKELY REPUBLICAN RETENTION
NEW HAMPSHIRE: The Granite State has drifted leftward in recent elections, with John Kerry taking the state in 2004 and Democrats snatching both House seats in 2006. Republican senator John Sununu hopes to buck the trend. To do it, he’ll have to beat former Democratic governor Jeanne Shaheen, his rival in 2002, when he defeated her by 20,000 votes. This contest will be close to the end, and it may go the way of the presidential race. TOSS UP
NEW JERSEY: This could be a sleeper race for the GOP. Democratic senator Frank Lautenberg has a high disapproval rating. He’s also about to turn 84. If Rudy Giuliani captures the GOP nomination and puts New Jersey in play the way his backers claim he can, then perhaps a strong Republican Senate candidate can deliver an upset. LIKELY DEMOCRATIC RETENTION
NEW MEXICO: Democratic congressman Tom Udall is the cousin of Colorodo’s Mark Udall (as well as Oregon’s Gordon Smith). Expect frequent references by Republican and the media to “the Kennedys of the West.” The GOP primary, scheduled for June 3, will feature a fight between a pair of House members, conservative Steve Pearce and moderate Heather Wilson. TOSS UP
OREGON: Second-term GOP senator Gordon Smith won’t feel safe until he crosses the finish line, but right now he’s a favorite to beat Jeff Merkley, who is the Democratic Speaker of Oregon’s House. LEANING REPUBLICAN RETENTION
SOUTH DAKOTA: Six years ago, Democratic senator Tim Johnson won re-election by about 500 votes. One year ago, he suffered a massive stroke that kept him hospitalized for months. He has since returned to work, with a tremendous amount of public sympathy and goodwill. Any Republican who runs against him will have to watch his step carefully and perhaps avoid the negative advertising that is so crucial to non-incumbents. If Johnson were to falter or suddenly retire, however, South Dakota could present a major takeover opportunity for the GOP. Republican governor Mike Rounds has indicated that he might run if Johnson doesn’t. LEANING DEMOCRATIC RETENTION
VIRGINIA: In the race to succeed retiring GOP senator John Warner, former Democratic governor Mark Warner (no relation) is a strong favorite to beat former Republican governor Jim Gilmore. The GOP candidate possibly will receive a boost from the fact that 2008 is a presidential-election year and Virginia leans red. Also, Warner may make a few short lists for veep. If he’s tapped, it could clear a path to the Senate for Gilmore. LEANING DEMOCRATIC TAKEOVER
– John J. Miller is National Review’s national political reporter and host of the weekly audio show Between the Covers.