Are Democrats expanding the Senate playing field?

The Senate playing field has long favored Democrats who are defending only one competitive Senate seat (Louisiana). On the other hand, it has long been clear that Republicans are threatened in a long series of states, starting most obviously with open seats (Virginia, New Mexico, Colorado) and with vulnerable incumbents in Democratic-leaning states (New Hampshire, Minnesota, Oregon, Maine). Over the next few months, Democrats unexpectedly put in play Alaska thanks to Senator Stevens' ethicalo-legal troubles and Mississippi after Trent Lott's surprise resignation. They also increased their chances in Kentucky where Mitch McConnell looked weak throughout the fall, and two conservative states that suddenly opened up -- Nebraska and Idaho.

For those keeping track, that's more than the 9 seats Democrats need to reach a supra-majority in the Senate. Yet, the road to 60 seat got progressively stiffer as Democratic recruitment remained very weak in Kentucky and Nebraska, as Idaho looks unlikely to shake its red leanings and as early signs and polls signaled that Democrats might have a tougher time than expected in Maine, but also in Oregon. Taking out those 5 races from the equation left a still-impressive 7 Republican-held seats that looked truly competitive in the fall.

After a brief period in which Republicans tried to put New Jersey in play through an offensive so confusing that even I am not sure where we were left at, it looks like Democrats are now looking for ways to expand the map. And if recent polls and fundraising decisions are any indication, they might be succeeding:

  • In Texas, two polls in one week showed Senator Cornyn with only a 4% lead over challenger Rick Noriega.
Given how disastrous Texas has been for Democrats over the past decade, few people have been paying attention to this race, ranked a second-tier at best in most assessments. But Cornyn has lost a lot of ground since a series of polls showed him posting huge lead against the Democrat in the fall. Cornyn has never been a particularly popular incumbent and if Noriega capitalizes on the state's growing Hispanic community this race could still close to the end.

  • In North Carolina, a stunning Rasmussen poll finds Democrat Kay Hagan jumping to a lead against Elizabeth Dole, 48% to 47%.
State Senator Hagan overwhelmingly won a contested primary against Jim Neal on Tuesday. Pre-primary polls showed little electability difference between Hagan and Neal but confirmed that Dole was vulnerable. Today's poll, however, suggests that Hagan is benefiting from a strong post-primary bounce and that she has the potential to truly put Dole in danger. Confirming that this is reflective of an anti-Republican mood rather than of Dole's unpopularity, the incumbent's favorability rating is better than Hagan's, as 56% of respondents have a favorable view of Dole.

North Carolina Democrats already feel boosted by partisan shifts in their direction, as Democrats have dramatically expanded their registration lead, with 2.6 million North Carolinians now registered Democratic versus 1.9 million Republicans. Among people who have registered since January, 56% are Democrats and only 7% Republican. Similar shifts are occurring around the country and putting many Republican seats in danger; they should also serve as a warning to McCain who should not take states like NC for granted.

  • In Oregon, a new Rasmussen poll finds GOP Senator Gordon Smith struggling against both of his Democratic challengers, 45% to 42% against Jeff Merkley and 46% to 40% against Steve Novick.
Oregon was long listed as a competitive state but Smith was showing little sign of vulnerability in polls. The Democrats' failure to recruit a top-tier candidate also raised questions as to the viability of their targeting Smith. But this poll should reassure them that Smith is vulnerable -- polling under 50% -- and that there is room for them to seriously contest the race. The primary is on May 20th.


With those 3 states looking increasingly competitive, there are 10 Republican-held states that could very realistically fall in Democratic hands as of now. That's obviously a huge number -- and still more than very unlikely to come to pass. But the more the DSCC expands the map, the more seats they will be likely to pick-up, positioning themselves to claim a super-majority in 2010. By stretching the NRSC thin, Democrats know that the GOP will have to give up on its most vulnerable seats, starting with NH, CO and NM (this is what happened in 2006 when national Republicans gave up on Ohio weeks before Election Day).

They are thus trying to put even more seats in play than those 10 to test the vulnerability of Republican incumbents across the country. Roll Call reports that the DSCC in now sending 10 staffers to Oklahoma to help state Senator Andrew Rice in his long-shot campaign against Senator Inhofe.

Note: The Senate and House rankings will be updated by the end of the month. Sorry for the delay!

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  • I'm a little suprised that GOP senators are weakening this much, especially considering the possiblity that supporters of Obama and Clinton won't support the other if s/he is the nominee. The good news from this seems to be that Obama and Clinton supporters aren't letting this affect thier support for canidates down the ballot. I do think that if the numbers keep on holding up, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign commitee will gives loads of cash to Dem canidates in Alaska, North Carolina, Texas, and Oregan. It does seem that Maine is looking increasinlgy safe for Collins through, but Maine is less red than Rhode Island and Collins has a higher apporval rating that what Chafee had in 2006.

    Olkahoma is very interesting. Jim Infoe is indeed fairly unpopular (he is about as weak as John Coryn, approval ratings in the low 40s last time I checked) and it's possible for him to be defeated. However, Olkahoma is one of the more Republican states, with the GOP being very sucessful not just in federal elections but at local elections as well. The governor is a Democrat, and Brad Henry won reelection in 2006 by a wide margin, but he is conservative Democrat who can appeal to the conservative indepenents and GOPers in Olkahoma. Rice is actually considered to fairly progressive, which wouldn't really fare well in a very conservative state, but maybe with alot of cash and using Infoe's weakness, he can pull it off. Infoe still has the major advantage tho.

    By Anonymous jaxx raxor, At 10 May, 2008 16:03  

  • NOw, that NC poll is fascinating!

    By Blogger Mark, At 10 May, 2008 16:41  

  • Taniel,

    Can you update your senate rankings? My order of most likely to change hands:

    (1) Virginia
    (2) New Mexico
    (3) New Hampshire
    (4) Colorado
    (5) Minnesota
    (6) Alaska
    (7) Louisiana
    (8) Oregon
    (9) North Carolina
    (10) Mississippi (Wicker)
    (11) Texas
    (12) Maine

    I don't see how any other state (at this time) could change over.

    (1)-(4) I considder will likely change

    (5)-(6) Toss up

    (7)-(12) Too close for comfort

    I don't see Oklahoma opening up at this point. Unless Inhofe does something really dumb, he's safe.

    By Anonymous Jim West, At 10 May, 2008 16:52  

  • I think it is hard to over-estimate the affect of the Democratic primary race on down ballot races. As each state primary race played out millions of apathitic Democrates as well as disgruntled Independents and Republicans got involved and saw that weak Republican senators in traditionly safe seats could be defeated. Voters are seeing that Cornyn, Dole, Stevens, Inhofe to name a few; are beatable with a strong Democratic nominee and good fundraising. The same thing is happening in the house and goveners races as well. It could all change but with each passing week it looks better for the Democrates.

    By Anonymous fritz, At 10 May, 2008 18:24  

  • The surge in registration especially orchestrated by the Obama campaign will help candidates down the ticket. Obama does put some extra states in play such as NC and CO which should help the senatorial candidates.

    Also most Clinton and Obama supporters will vote for the eventual nominee - there is no question. There have been heated races before (Carter/Kennedy for example) and voters come home by Nov.

    By Anonymous Mike, At 10 May, 2008 18:34  

  • I always thought of Cornyn and Dole as being Senators who were going to end up in a precarious position sooner or later. For both Noriega and Hagan's sakes, I'm glad it's sooner. Considering how unpopular the Republican Party is right now, we've got a real chance to break down the "Red State v. Blue State" divide if we put our resources in the right places, and Texas and North Carolina are definitely two of them. We get so caught up in all of that that people forget how relatively recently these voting patterns have emerged, and how shallow they are - heck, if Mike Easley had jumped into this thing Elizabeth Dole would be exchanging sad, knowing glances with John Sununu on the Senate floor right about now.

    Rice will probably have a tough time actually knocking off Inhofe under any circumstances, but it will be interesting to see how close he comes. He's not exactly Ted Kennedy, but he's not avoiding the tag of 'liberal' like the plague either. If he ends up staying in there until the end with Inhofe anyways, he could provide a road map to success with the 50 State Strategy.

    By Blogger Joe, At 10 May, 2008 19:58  

  • Glad to hear that we are going to be getting updated Rankings for the US Senate by the end of the month (US House as well). I honestly think the Democrats can pick-up more Senate seats than House seats given how many Democratic House seats are in GOP heavy or swing districts (AL-05, FL-16, IL-14, KS-02, LA-06, MS-01?, NH-01, OR-05, PA-10, TX-22, TX-23), whereas LA-Sen is the only Democratic Senate seat even considered vulnerable. The Dems in the US House will get a net gain, just not sure if it gets to a net double digit gain.

    For the US Senate, I posted this on SSP and SenateGuru as my rankings:

    (1) Virginia - This seat is as safe as some incumbent Democrats. I think everyone is terrified of putting an open seat in a safe column, but it's a fact.

    (2) New Mexico - As it has to be differentiated between Virginia (safe) and New Hampshire (Lean).

    (3) New Hampshire - Shaheen has consistently polled high single or low double digits against Sununu. He's probably done-zo.

    (4) Colorado - Advantage to Mark Udall given the environment, recent trending to Democrats in the state, the Democratic National Convention, money, and Schaffer as a candidate. Some stronger polling will push this to a Lean or Likely Take-over.
    (5) Alaska - Advantage to Mayor Begich given scandal on Stevens, polling showing incumbent under 50%, and general mood of Alaska against the Stevens/Young ordeal. I think this is eventually will flip.
    (6) Minnesota - Pretty even to slight GOP lean given the national environment, fundraising, GOP national convention, and polling showing Coleman inches ahead. This is about even with Oregon and North Carolina.

    (7) Oregon - Smith has money and is an incumbent, but we are voting for President in a blue state, the Democratic Primary is getting Merkley/Novick good face time, and recent polling has this within 5 points. Hold the phone!
    (8) North Carolina - Hagan is kicking some major polysci, trouncing in the primary, fundraising, and up against an incumbent (no gender advantage for Dole now) who polls under 50%, and a recent Rasmussen poll has Hagan up 1%!

    (9) Louisiana - I haven't seen any recent polling or the financial situation of Kennedy to show me any different
    (10) Maine - Collins isn't budging; I had high hopes for Allen, so I hope what all the Maine people say (race doesn't take shape until after Memorial Day) holds true and this gets into the Lean column sooner (rather than later).
    (11) Texas - Frmo Safe to Likely Retention given the confirmed recent polls that has this competitive, Cornyn under 50%, and Noriega polling well.
    (12) Mississippi (B) - There was early polling showing this could be interesting (more so if it was held in March as the Mississippi Constitution states IMO), but it's Mississippi, presidential election, and Cochran on the ballot right next to this race.

    Remaining "Races to Watch" listed for: Oklahoma, Nebraska, & Kansas. I'd also add Idaho, but not Kentucky and New Jersey (unless you are just looking from a primary perspective, no way in general).

    By Blogger KELL, At 11 May, 2008 11:04  

  • I'm hoping the Maine people are right too about the race shaping up after Memorial Day. Allen is a terrific candidate, and after hearing him talk on several occasions it's hard for me to understand why the contest isn't closer than it seems to be at the moment.

    But we'll see, one way or the other.

    By Blogger dsimon, At 11 May, 2008 11:23  

  • My take on OR, MN, NC and TX:

    OR: Merkley had better win the primary; he got off to a late start. Novick is just too quirky.

    MN: I'm really thinking this one
    may be slipping away; the scandals
    may be just too much to overcome.

    NC: Hagan needs a lot more money.
    TX: Noriega needs a lot more money.

    Both NC and TX have vulneralble incumbents, but the money gaps are huge, Dole has a 10-1 COH advantage.

    I'm sure there will be more surprises along the way.

    By Anonymous mikeel, At 11 May, 2008 16:32  

  • Susan Collins is a strong incumbent. She's moderate, albeit too hawkish, seems to be socially progressive. As GOPers go, she's not bad at all. She remains popular in a state that is blue (but not as blue as one may think). I expect her to win by 10%. Allen is a strong candidate, and he will give her a run for her money, but I don't believe he will catch her. I've got Maine listed as the 12th most likely to change hands.

    I do believe that Minnesota is not looking as a sure bet for the Dems. I thought at one time that Minnesota would definitely change, but not as much now. Minnesota is more likely in my mind to change than Alaska because it's a blue state. Alaska's is one of the redist states, and although Stevens is real old and he's got some ethical issues to work out, I predict the outcome will be a Stevens win by about 1%.

    By Anonymous Jim West, At 11 May, 2008 18:30  

  • Susan Collins is a strong incumbent. She's moderate, albeit too hawkish, seems to be socially progressive. As GOPers go, she's not bad at all. She remains popular in a state that is blue (but not as blue as one may think).

    The problem with Collins--from a blue perspective--is that she's a moderate only when it doesn't matter. From what I've heard, when there's a close vote she'll look at Mitch McConnell to see what she's supposed to do. Perhaps the election will depend on Allen's ability to show her in that light.

    By Blogger dsimon, At 12 May, 2008 10:11  

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