A big November ahead for Senate Democrats

Three experts tell Salon that the party may expand its Senate majority by half a dozen seats, but they also think at least one Democratic incumbent is vulnerable.

Published July 22, 2008 11:52AM (EDT)

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In the second of two Salon conversations forecasting the November congressional elections, three experts share their opinions about the prospects for Democratic gains in the Senate. Jennifer Duffy is senior editor of the Cook Political Report, where she covers U.S. Senate and governor races. Since 2001, Nathan Gonzales has been political editor of the Rothenberg Political Report, a nonpartisan newsletter covering U.S. House, Senate and gubernatorial campaigns. Amy Walter is editor of the Hotline, the premier daily news digest of Washington politics. They spoke to Salon by phone.

Thomas Schaller: I want to welcome everybody to Salon's conversation. Before discussing this fall's election, let's go back one cycle to provide some context. In 2006, the Democrats captured both chambers of Congress in the same cycle for the first time since 1954, and if you don't count the Jim Jeffords switch of 2001, they recaptured the Senate for the first time since 1986. Did the 2006 Senate results in fact rate along with those earlier cycles, '86 and '54 for the Democrats or, say, 1994 and 1980 for the Republicans, as a certifiable tectonic year, why or why not?

Jennifer Duffy: I think it is comparable to '86 in a lot of ways and even '94, which was obviously a Republican year. It was a sentiment that had been building literally for almost two years since Bush's reelection in 2004, where the environment for Republicans was just awful. The problem for Republicans is that not only has it not gotten better, it's probably gotten worse.

Nathan Gonzales: 2006 is comparable just because of the six seats changing hands. I think that's [among the] top five partisan switches since World War II. But it's also amazing that now we're talking about Democrats having another good cycle and the potential to gain more seats. The shift we're seeing isn't just one cycle; we're seeing this cover two cycles.

Amy Walter: To add to that, two of these states that are now in the presidential battleground for some of us for the first time ever, for others of us for the first time in a long time, Virginia and Colorado, I think are there in part because of the fact that these were two big wins for Democrats. Certainly in Virginia last year with Jim Webb, it's gotten folks to talk about the state as really potentially becoming blue again. You ask the question about tectonic shifts, the suggestion being that we're not simply trading chairs for a while until the next party comes in and picks those seats up. We got back to parity here -- Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Minnesota, places that are blue, picked up Democrats. But to have a place like Virginia pick up a Democrat was also a very important story.

Schaller: You're saying that some of the underlying environmental dynamics of 2006 are still here in terms of the partisan advantage arguably for the Democrats and possibly even worse because the Democrats are defending very few seats this time and the Republicans are defending far more seats. Is there any chance that the Republicans recapture the Senate? Does anybody want to take a chance at playing devil's advocate here and advance any sort of scenario where the Republicans recapture the Senate?

Walter: No.

Duffy: Absolutely not.

Walter: Can I be more emphatic?

Gonzales: No, the reason is, it's not just the playing field itself, it's the three Republican open seats in Virginia, New Mexico and Colorado that really make it impossible for Republicans to gain seats. And they really have one opportunity and that's Mary Landrieu in Louisiana. It's impossible to see a scenario where Republicans net seats in the Senate.

Schaller: The party money between the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the National Republican Senatorial Committee, there's not as big an imbalance there as on the House side, but [DSCC chairman] Chuck Schumer is crushing it again, right? How much of a factor is that?

Duffy: It is an enormous factor because Republicans are just not going to have the kind of resources they need to go support the incumbents they have that are in trouble, whereas the Democrats will not only be able to help their challengers -- and we've seen already these ads they have up in Oregon against Gordon Smith that feature their own candidate, Jeff Merkley -- we see that they've reserved media time in places like North Carolina. But they can also further expand the playing field; they can take some risks at the end if they want to. Republicans just won't be in that position at all.

Walter: It's literally just triage. At some point, we'll get to the point where we'll say, "Where's the firewall here for Republicans?" If we're just going to assume that Democrats are plus three, plus four, right off the bat, OK, what's the next state where the Republicans are going to put that money, take whatever limited resources they have and just shovel it into a couple of races and be willing to say, even potentially to incumbents, we can't prop you up, we have to put this money in places we can win? That's going to be a very tough call.

Schaller: Let's turn to some specific states. There are some interesting races this cycle. There are a lot of open seats Republicans are defending, including two in the Southwest. If you had to pick someone who is an incumbent running for reelection, who is the most vulnerable Democratic incumbent and the most vulnerable Republican?

Walter: It's pretty easy. I doubt we'll disagree that Mary Landrieu [of Louisiana] is No. 1 for Democrats and that John Sununu is the top most vulnerable Republican incumbent.

Schaller: Is there any disagreement there, Jennifer and Nathan?

Duffy: Not at all. Mary Landrieu is No. 1 through 5. She's it. There is a long drop between her and anyone else that would be considered.

Schaller: Who would be the next most vulnerable, or is it not even worth discussing?

Duffy: It's not even worth discussing. I still have Tim Johnson in South Dakota rated as a likely Democrat only because I want to remind myself that he isn't back to 100 percent since his brain surgery and there is some potential to be a slip out there, but I don't expect it. I just keep it there as a reminder to myself.

Schaller: Nathan, do you have anyone on the radar besides Mary Landrieu?

Gonzales: Not on the Democratic side.

Schaller: What about on the Republican side? After Sununu, if I told you by some miracle the Republicans staved off the Democrats and only lost two seats, and we assume Sununu is one, who's the other one?

Walter: I'd go with Ted Stevens in Alaska as the second most vulnerable. You just have a political environment in the state right now where ethics issues are front and center. It's a very good environment for someone who's not been part of the Republican establishment, especially the Washington establishment, as long as Stevens has. We've seen some polling from there that shows a very tough race for him, and on the money front he's doing OK; he has twice as much money in the bank, but it's nowhere near the kind of cash that some of these other incumbents who are in trouble have.

Gonzales: I think after John Sununu in New Hampshire there is a whole second tier that it becomes a little bit more difficult to delineate. Norm Coleman in Minnesota, Gordon Smith in Oregon, Ted Stevens in Alaska, Elizabeth Dole in North Carolina, appointed Sen. Roger Wicker in Mississippi. I think Amy's right: Because of the ethical cloud and the investigation surrounding Ted Stevens, it brings a very Republican state into play. There's been only one Democrat in the last 30 years that's gotten over 50 percent in Alaska. But as we saw in 2006, in both the House and the Senate, the one thing that can bring red-state states or districts into play for Democrats is ethics. And that's what we're seeing in Alaska.

Schaller: Let's follow up on that Alaska seat. Tell me a little bit about this Democratic challenger. His name is Mark Begich. What makes him a formidable candidate?

Duffy: Mark Begich is the mayor of Anchorage. That gives him some statewide name I.D. He's kind of a business-oriented Democrat. He's had a very successful tenure as mayor. He's a very young guy, so there's a great contrast with Stevens. He's very pro-environment; he is also a big advocate of drilling in ANWR, because in Alaska, that's not an environmental issue, that's actually a jobs issue. He is sort of talking the Democratic message about doing things differently in Washington. It's an inexpensive state, he has been raising the money, so that all makes him competitive. Democrats are pretty happy with him as their candidate.

Schaller: By inexpensive, you mean that this is a place where Chuck Schumer can get a lot of mileage out of the next dollar he has over the Republicans?

Duffy: Oh, absolutely. This is a state where a million dollars goes a long, long way.

Schaller: So he's a certifiable, legitimate challenger? He's a good candidate, Nathan, not just because Stevens is in trouble?

Gonzales: He would be a good candidate even if Stevens didn't have the ethical stuff surrounding him, but I think he's in a position to win because of the ethics stuff.

Schaller: Let's move west to east, since we're already out in Alaska. Let's move to Oregon, where some people, certainly Oregon Democrats, are licking their chops. I see a new Rasmussen poll showing the Democratic nominee Jeff Merkley is basically neck and neck with Republican Gordon Smith, who has tried to moderate and distance himself from George Bush. Amy, is this a tossup race? Can Merkley win it?

Walter: It's interesting because for a while here this was considered a tossup race simply because you have a very blue state in a very bad year for Republicans. And even though Gordon Smith's profile suggests he's a very good fit for this state, the environment may just make that a moot point. But then you started to see this race starting to move more toward Smith, as Democrats struggled here to find a candidate. Merkley took a while to get his sea legs; he didn't have a particularly strong primary win. And his fundraising had been really slow. Now we hit the second quarter and he has more money in the bank, even though a big chunk of that was his own money. Gordon Smith's biggest asset here continues to be the cash advantage that he has. He's been up on TV for quite some time. He's spent over $2 million and has, what, over $5 million left to spend. So the question here, and we saw this in 2006, you can spend all the money in the world, but when you're running against a very tough climate, that is not always enough. If Merkley wins here, it'll be that sort of bellwether contest. How did we know this really was a bad year? We'll say, well, we have Gordon Smith, who's not running as a Bush Republican, in fact he's running as an Obama Republican actually, and if he loses to an underfunded Democrat, it really is because of the environment.

Schaller: Jennifer, do you see it that way? Is this one of the tipping-point races that could take this from a decent year to a great year for the Democrats?

Duffy: In a lot of ways I do, because I really don't think that Jeff Merkley is Gordon Smith's problem as much as the political climate is. I don't think Merkley is a particularly good candidate; he comes across as very awkward and he speaks in talking points, but that may not matter in a cycle like this. So I think Oregon is a very good test case for just how big this wave can get.

Schaller: Do you think Gordon Smith has sufficiently distanced himself from the Republican brand nationally to hold on?

Gonzales: Gordon Smith still has a narrow advantage in the race, and there's just a lack of polling and numbers so far to know how effective he's been thus far in positioning himself. I think as the race goes on there will be more public polling, more credible polling, that we can look at to see where he's positioned, but Oregon will be an indicator that if Democrats win they've moved beyond the initial three, four seats, and are marching much further in Republican territory.

Schaller: Let's fly down to the Rockies. There are Mormon cousins running in two Southwestern states. You've got representatives Mark and Tom Udall vying for the open seats respectively in Colorado and New Mexico, made available by the retirements of Wayne Allard and Pete Domenici. If I told you it's Wednesday, Nov. 5, the day after the election, and there's one Sen. Udall and one failed Udall candidate, who is the Sen. Udall most likely to win in those two states?

Duffy: That's an easy one. That'd be Tom Udall in New Mexico. I moved that race today to leaning Democratic. The Republican, Congressmen Steve Pearce, really starts this race as the underdog and probably does not have the time or the means to catch up in an environment like this.

Walter: Totally agree. I would argue that it's more likely than not that [both Udalls] end up serving together.

Gonzales: The most likely scenario is that they both win. I think that Tom Udall is running a great campaign. His ads are particularly good in my opinion, but the only case I can make to, be the contrarian, [is] that because of the Democratic attacks and the amount of information they have against Bob Schaffer, former congressman, who's the Republican nominee in Colorado, I wonder if Steve Pearce has a better chance in New Mexico because he isn't saddled with some of the baggage that Democrats are going after Schaffer with.

Schaller: Idaho became interesting this year because of Larry Craig and his personal problems in the Minneapolis airport. You've got Republican [Lt. Gov.] Jim Risch running there and a Democrat that some left-wing, net-roots blogger types like a lot, Larry LaRocco. Is this in the category of Gordon Smith or is this even further out -- if you have a megawave, then you take Idaho too?

Walter: I would say is there an Armageddon here. Because that's the tier it would be in. Idaho is sort of fascinating, I don't want to diminish it too much. There was a time when Democrats competed here and it was not all that long ago; there was a time when Democrats actually got elected here. For a time in the '90s and the early 2000s, Democrats really tried to take out people like [Helen] Chenoweth, they tried for the open seat with Richard Stalling -- you know, old-time Democrats. Larry LaRocco, again, old-time Democrat. Used to hold the seat. But the state has changed dramatically. Democrats may actually have a shot in one of the [House] districts, Bill Sali sort of following in the footsteps of Chenoweth as a very controversial candidate, but not as well organized as Chenoweth, and he doesn't have the base of support like she did. That's a place where maybe Democrats win because of Republican problems. But it takes a lot of problems for a Republican to lose here.

Duffy: If they get Idaho, you're talking more than 60 seats. You're probably in the 64, 65 range. Having said that, there are some interesting dynamics in play. LaRocco is a very, very aggressive candidate; Risch is not so much and has not been running that type of campaign. In fact, his campaign concerns a lot of Republicans [in] that he doesn't realize that he's playing in a different sphere now. But the more interesting thing is a third-party candidate who is really running against Risch because he has a personal issue with him; he and LaRocco have kind of ganged up on the lieutenant governor. So that's producing some interesting things.

Schaller: Let's move east from Idaho, and eventually you run into Minnesota, where we have former comedian Al Franken running there against Norm Coleman. I don't know what the status of the Jesse Ventura controversy is, but can one of you update me on whether he's running and whether that will matter and how that race will play out?

Duffy: The filing deadline closed on Tuesday [July 15] and Ventura decided not to run. He said on "Larry King" Monday night that if between Monday night and Tuesday at 5 o'clock, if God told him to run, he'd file, but apparently God decided not to render an opinion. I think this is one of the bright spots for Republicans if there is such a thing for them in this state. Franken has come under fire for a number of things: for failing to pay taxes, for failing to carry workmen's compensation insurance, for a Playboy article he wrote in 2000, which angered some Democratic women in the state, including Betty McCollum. So you're seeing the drip, drip, drip that Republicans have always talked about here and promises of more to come. I'm not sure how Franken gets out from under this.

Schaller: How strong is Coleman looking to you, Nathan?

Gonzales: This went from a tossup race in my mind to Coleman having the advantage. Part of it is because of Franken's hurdles or walls, depending on how you want to view his problems. There will be an independent on the ballot, Dean Barkley. He's a former senator, he was for two months following the death of Sen. Paul Wellstone. For voters who are dissatisfied with the job Norm Coleman is doing in Washington, they now have two options. Dean Barkley is not going to win, but if it's close and he takes a couple of percentage points, it could make the difference.

Walter: I agree with what has been said. Now, Franken has raised a good deal of money but he is nowhere near Norm Coleman's cash on hand, which I think is now over $7 million. Getting to parity is not going to be possible. This is another one of the places we talk about the DSCC, the NRSC money disparity. It's good news for the NRSC; for the DSCC, they're going to have to decide too, do we go in now, try to soften Coleman up, give some cover to Franken and see if we can push this race a little bit? Given the environment, this is one of those states that should be in play. It is quite remarkable that we're lumping in a category below some of these other races we've talked about, including Alaska and Mississippi. It is far from over, but either Franken or the Democrats are going to have start playing some offense here.

Schaller: Let's talk about the South. You've got one race there in Mississippi that is in the category of not impossible but an outside shot for the Democrats, and I assume that Mark Warner running is considered a lock at this point. So two completely different Southern races at this point -- let's talk about Virginia and Mississippi.

Gonzales: I don't think that there's any doubt in our minds that Mark Warner will be the next senator from Virginia. Just when you think Jim Gilmore can't run a worse campaign, he manages to outdo himself. I think Virginia could even become a problem for Republicans outside the state, because now the DSCC is not going to have to spend one dime on Virginia. And it's an expensive state with the Washington, D.C., media market, and now they can go play in any number of less expensive states. For Mississippi, this is one of two Mississippi races. Thad Cochran is a heavy favorite for reelection, but since Trent Lott resigned, Gov. Haley Barbour appointed Roger Wicker, and now he's facing former Democratic Gov. Ronnie Musgrove. Musgrove lost reelection to Barbour in 2003, but maybe his standing has improved somewhat, or maybe people don't remember all the way back to 2003, but Musgrove starts with high name I.D. and this is a real race.

Duffy: There are a couple of other reasons this is a race other than Musgrove's high name I.D. This is going to be one of those races where we see if there is an Obama effect, if Obama does bring out a record number of African-American votes. And if he does that, he makes Musgrove's road a little bit easier. He'd only have to get something along the line of 24-25 percent of the white vote, which, by the way, is a little harder than it sounds, but it is not impossible. The one advantage that Wicker does have right now is money. He has outraised Musgrove pretty significantly. He has been on the air now for the last month or so trying to build that name I.D. It looks like he's going to get some help from Cochran and former Sen. Lott. This is not a race that's over, but just as an incumbent, he starts as the underdog.

Walter: That's a really interesting point about the Obama factor and the black and white turnout. There's not party identification on the ballot [in Mississippi]. Virginia is the same way. If you look at polls where they identified the parties of the two candidates, you see Wicker doing better. But if we're also assuming that black turnout is going to rise significantly, and that you're going to get new voters or folks that haven't been a part of the process in a long time into voting booths, I'm curious what that means for Musgrove too -- instead of [people] voting for Obama and then going down and voting for anyone that has a "D" after their name, that's just not possible.

Gonzales: If I could throw in a historical tidbit: Since 1948, there have been 23 times where a state has had both of their Senate seats up for grabs, and 20 of those times it went for the same party. The road is still tough for Musgrove.

Schaller: So Cochran helps Wicker because their names are side by side?

Gonzales: Historically, voters aren't necessarily picking between the two Senate seats. But there are different factors involved in all these races.

Schaller: Finally, most of you identified John Sununu as the single most vulnerable Republican incumbent, up in New Hampshire. Is there any scenario [in which] he holds on against former Gov. Jeanne Shaheen in that race, or is he just a victim of the demographic changes that are turning New Hampshire blue almost overnight?

Walter: It's a couple of things. Part of it is the environment, but you have some demographic changes in the state. Remember, this is a very transient place, much more so than, say, Maine. Another interesting state we haven't talked about: Susan Collins, who has been pretty well ahead in her race against Tom Allen. Maine is obviously much less transient, so much so it may actually lose a seat in redistricting, but I digress. You have New Hampshire, not so much. Getting known in New Hampshire is a little bit more difficult even for an incumbent. And you also have all sorts of new people moving in, many of whom are identifying as independent and [are] more moderate leaning [than] in the past. And Sununu, unlike someone like Gordon Smith, hasn't spent a whole lot of time trying to distance himself from Bush and highlight his independent credentials. Again, in a year like this, that's just not a great place to be.

Duffy: I don't think this is an entirely lost cause for Sununu. There are some ways he can win. He did beat Jeanne Shaheen in 2002. One of the things that helps him a little bit here is John McCain -- whether or not he carries New Hampshire, he's going to do pretty well there and that probably works to Sununu's benefit. Most Democrats I talk to in the state say this is probably going to be a closer race than the polls indicate now, but I still put the thumb on the scale for Shaheen. It's not New Mexico and it's sure not Virginia.

Gonzales: Sen. Sununu starts behind, even though we haven't ramped up and reached the Labor Day point in the race where some voters really start to get engaged. He starts behind in a very difficult environment and that's one key thing we've already talked about that's very different than in 2002 when he did defeat Shaheen. Sen. Sununu has a plan reminding people what went wrong under Jeanne Shaheen when she was governor. He hopes to benefit from John McCain at the top of the ticket, but ultimately, I don't know if his reelection is under his control. He has more money than she does, he's going to run a tough race. But I think he might be in a similar position to Jim Talent in Missouri last cycle. who I think lost because of President Bush, not because of what he had done.

Schaller: Jennifer very astutely noted that in Mississippi there's a potential down-ballot effect from Obama, and maybe in New Hampshire there could be a potential down-ballot effect from McCain. So I'd like to pull the lens back from these state-by-state races and ask you this question. Many of the key Senate races are in swing states for the presidential contest. In fact, five we've already talked about -- Colorado, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Mexico and Oregon -- are all among the 12 states that were decided by fewer than 5 points in the 2004 presidential race between George Bush and John Kerry. Of course, many pundits, including our panelists here, are putting Virginia and even Alaska on Barack Obama's possible pickup list -- especially Virginia. How much will presidential politicking and money brought in from the Democratic National Committee, the Republican National Committee and Barack Obama and John McCain affect these Senate races, if at all, and which races will it affect?

Walter: I think what's happening here first and foremost is you have the Obama campaign turning out at a higher level folks who haven't traditionally turned out. Obviously, [there's] the focus on Hispanic registration and turnout. But we also noted that in a place like Colorado where the Udall campaign is distinguishing itself simply because the Republican has a lot of his own baggage, Mark Udall is already coming into a contest with some advantages thanks to his opponent.

Duffy: In some ways I think this is a chicken-and-egg question. In all of these states, Republicans are hurting because of the bad environment. Which came first, the Obama campaign, or did the bad environment sort of help the Obama campaign? I don't know if there's an answer to that. There's a lot we don't know about this election in terms of who's going to turn out. It looks like Republicans are starting to wake up and participate. Do they do it in any kind of meaningful numbers? This is going to be one of those elections that are going to teach us a lot that we may never get to use again. I've sort of gone by the motto of approaching it by forgetting everything I know.

Schaller: Let me rephrase the question then. Maybe the question is, obviously, there are a lot of Republicans who do not want Bush campaigning in their state. Are there any Democrats who are perhaps wary of having Obama in their state or Republicans that would be wary of having John McCain in their state, where he could perhaps could hurt them?

Duffy: This is one of the things Republicans did right and it was purely an accident. They nominated the one candidate running for the GOP nomination who hurts absolutely no Republican Senate incumbent or challenger. If you're a moderate like Susan Collins, you can run with him on some issues and disagree with him on others. Conservatives like Lindsey Graham can certainly run with him. So he isn't going to be a liability for anybody. I actually haven't heard any Democrats say they would decline an invitation from Obama to come to the state and campaign with them. But he hasn't done a lot of that yet.

Gonzales: Like Jennifer said, I think we just don't know. I think the public image of John McCain and Barack Obama will be different in October and early November from what it is today. I don't know if it'll necessarily be for the better or worse for either of them, I just think it will be different and we don't know then how that will affect the ballot. If you take a state like Alaska, I think Mark Begich could benefit from the better organization and enthusiasm from Democrats. But I don't expect Barack Obama to win Alaska; if he's winning Alaska he's probably won 48 other states. Losing Ted Stevens is going to be the least of Republican worries at that point. I think that even though it seems like the presidential race has been going on for years, we still have a long way to go.

Schaller: Enough with the preliminaries. It's feet-to-the-fire time for our panelists. I'm going to stipulate all the caveats -- lots can change, both at the candidate level and perhaps even at the national environmental level -- but I would like to ask each of you to give me your best estimate. It's Wednesday after the election. What's the net gain or loss for the Democratic Party this November in the Senate races?

Walter: Do you want a number or range?

Schaller: Why don't you give me a range.

Walter: I think five to seven is the range right now.

Gonzales: I'll throw out two different numbers instead of a range. I think the Democratic floor is four seats. I think it'll be four seats or something closer to eight or nine, and I say that because if it's four seats, then Democrats sort of won the seats we expected them to win today, and some of these vulnerable Republican incumbents ended up hanging on. But if the environment continues to be poor, then I think you're going to see a lot of these close races break for the Democrats, and that's why I think you're going to see even better Democratic numbers.

Duffy: I'm on the record at five to seven. I think six months ago when people talked to me about eight or nine, I laughed. I don't laugh at that anymore. I don't think it's going to happen, but it's not outside the realm of possibilities. And as for my range of five to seven, I'd only expect it to go up, not down. If Democrats only win four seats in November, that's probably a huge moral victory for Republicans.

Schaller: You can see that in all three of those scenarios, the average is six. So the smart person's money in the November election is to bet on plus six. I'd like to thank our panelists again.

By Thomas F. Schaller

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