Many Republicans believe that when they picked John McCain as their presidential nominee, they settled on the candidate who has the best chance of winning in November. It may be that he’s a good nominee for GOP Senate candidates as well, if he nudges the electorate a little to the Right of where it would be otherwise. Seeing Hillary Clinton somehow come from behind to swipe the Democratic nomination from Barack Obama wouldn’t hurt, either.
Having said that, GOP Senate prospects aren’t too bright — Republicans are almost certain to give ground. The national environment is poor for them and most of this year’s close contests feature seats they’re defending. They currently hold 49 seats, and in the next session this could easily drop to 44.
Herewith, a round-up of the most compelling Senate races of 2008, updating a New Year’s summary.
ALASKA: Republican senator Ted Stevens isn’t used to tough reelections. Six years ago, he carried 78 percent of the vote. But now he’s an octogenarian, under a corruption probe, and possibly facing a difficult opponent. Last week, Mark Begich, the Democratic mayor of Anchorage, announced the creation of an exploratory committee in what could be the first step toward a formal challenge. National Democrats sense that Begich is their best chance to knock off Stevens, and they’re probably right — though it may take an actual indictment of Stevens to make this race truly competitive. LIKELY REPUBLICAN RETENTION
ARIZONA: No Senate election is currently scheduled in Arizona this year. But if Republican incumbent John McCain makes like Bob Dole and retires to concentrate on his bid for the White House, there will be. Under Arizona law, the governor would appoint a replacement from the party that had most recently held the seat (i.e., the GOP). Then there would be an election in November. Because Gov. Janet Napolitano is a Democrat, it’s unlikely that she would choose a Republican who would please conservatives. Many candidates from both parties would consider a run to succeed McCain. Among Republicans, they would include congressmen Jeff Flake, J. D. Hayworth, and John Shadegg, plus Maricopa County attorney Andrew Thomas. Among Democrats, there’s former candidate Jim Pederson and congressman Ed Pastor. McCain’s office recently told the Phoenix Business Journal that the senator has “no current plans” to call it quits. LIKELY REPUBLICAN RETENTION
ARKANSAS: Presidential wannabe Mike Huckabee appeared to rule out a run for the Senate when he said, “It’s more likely I’ll dye my hair green, get a bunch of tattoos and go on tour with [drug-addled singer] Amy Winehouse.” Still, he has until a filing deadline on March 10 to change his mind. Last June, a union-sponsored poll showed Democratic senator Mark Pryor leading Huckabee, 49 percent to 42 percent. Since then, Huckabee has made a better-than-expected run for the presidency. If Huckabee enters, this will be a close race. If he doesn’t, Pryor will coast to re-election. LIKELY DEMOCRATIC RETENTION
COLORADO: So far, Democratic congressman Mark Udall has raised about twice as much money as former Republican congressman Bob Schaffer. The gap probably will widen when the left-wing 527s that have come to dominate Colorado politics are factored into the equation. Yet the conservative Schaffer has a chance. In February, a Rasmussen poll of likely voters actually put him up by a point, 44 percent to 43 percent. TOSS-UP
KENTUCKY: If 2008 becomes an astonishingly good year for Democratic candidates at all levels, then they may give Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell a run for his money. Before that happens, the economy and the situation in Iraq have to deteriorate significantly. It’s isn’t out of the question, but it’s a long shot. LIKELY REPUBLICAN RETENTION
LOUISIANA: This is the GOP’s best and perhaps only real chance to pick up a seat that it doesn’t currently hold. Democratic senator Mary Landrieu never has had an easy election and this one, against Republican state treasurer John Kennedy, looks to be her toughest yet. The incumbent currently has a cash advantage of nearly $4 million, but her New Orleans base isn’t what it used to be. TOSS-UP
MAINE: One of the best ways to upset incumbents is to catch them napping — and to out-hustle them on the campaign trail. Unfortunately for Democratic congressman Tom Allen, Republican senator Susan Collins isn’t nodding off. She’s a hard worker and popular with voters. Conservatives who wish she was more like them must recognize that her liberal Republicanism is a good match for Maine. LEANING REPUBLICAN RETENTION
MINNESOTA: In January, a poll gave Democratic entertainer Al Franken a slight lead over Republican senator Norm Coleman, 43 percent to 40 percent — but it was a survey of “residents” (as opposed to voters), so it may not mean much. Before the Coleman-Franken showdown becomes official, both candidates have primaries to consider. Democrat Mike Ciresi has lent his campaign $2.5 million, meaning he’ll have a real opportunity to make a case for himself. Will his party decide it wants a more serious candidate? Meanwhile, former Republican senator Rod Grams is kicking around the idea of challenging Coleman in the GOP primary. He won’t win, but he could be a thorn in Coleman’s side. The filing deadline is in July and the primary is in September. TOSS-UP
MISSISSIPPI: The battle of the Democratic Ronnies is over: Following the decision by former congressman Ronnie Shows to end his candidacy, former governor Ronnie Shows now has a clear shot against Republican senator Roger Wicker, a former congressman who was recently appointed to complete the term of retired Republican Trent Lott. Last month, the state’s Supreme Court ruled that the election may take place in November. Many Democrats had hoped to force an earlier ballot. LIKELY REPUBLICAN RETENTION
NEW HAMPSHIRE: Late last year, an ARG poll of registered voters put Republican senator John Sununu ahead of former Democratic governor Jeanne Shaheen, 52 percent to 41 percent. It was an outlier. Other surveys have placed Shaheen in front, sometimes by even wider margins. The contest is a rematch of the 2002 election, when Sununu won his freshman term in a close race. The tax issue helped him then — and he’ll need to revive it now if he hopes to return to Washington for six more years. McCain is well-liked in New Hampshire and his presence on the top of the ticket helps Sununu. TOSS-UP
NEW JERSEY: In January, a Monmouth University poll found that 58 percent of New Jersey voters believe someone other than Democratic incumbent Frank Lautenberg should be elected to the Senate this fall. That’s good news for GOP challengers, though it’s no guarantee that voters ultimately will come to prefer a Republican. Several Republicans are vying for the GOP nomination in a June primary, with businesswoman Anne Evans Estabrook as perhaps the most likely to win it. LIKELY DEMOCRATIC RETENTION
NEW MEXICO: Two Republican members of Congress, Steve Pearce and Heather Wilson, will face off in a June 3 primary, with the winner probably becoming an underdog against Democratic congressman Tom Udall for this open seat. Conservatives prefer Pearce, but that’s no guarantee he’ll defeat Wilson, who is a battle-tested survivor of tight contests. TOSS-UP
OREGON: Democrats won’t be able to focus their energies on Republican senator Gordon Smith until after they hold their May 20 primary, which statehouse Speaker Jeff Merkley probably will win. He’ll run a credible race against Smith, but he’ll need Democrats to have a better-than-expected year to knock off his opponent. LEANING REPUBLICAN RETENTION
SOUTH DAKOTA: How does a Republican run against Democratic senator Tim Johnson, who can count on a lot of sympathy votes because he suffered a massive stroke a year ago? Some in the GOP wondered the same thing about Max Cleland, the disabled veteran who was a Democratic senator from Georgia — until Republican Saxby Chambliss ran an aggressive campaign based on national security six years ago. It remains to be seen whether Johnson, who won re-election in 2002 by about 500 votes, can withstand a similar attack. He’d be in far worse shape if national politics weren’t tilting in a Democratic direction. The two main Republican candidates are state representative Joel Dykstra and businessman Sam Kephart. LEANING DEMOCRATIC RETENTION
VIRGINIA: Democrats have several good pick-up opportunities in 2008, but this one may be their best. Their candidate, former Democratic governor Mark Warner, is popular and heavily favored. His likely opponent, former Republican governor Jim Gilmore, hasn’t raised much money and doesn’t inspire a lot of enthusiasm in conservatives. They may even think twice about Gilmore and take a look at his primary opponent, state delegate Bob Marshall. LEANING DEMOCRATIC TAKEOVER
— John J. Miller is NR’s national political reporter.