Are Senate Races Moving in One Partisan Direction?

by Stuart Rothenberg June 26, 2008 · 12:04 AM EDT

Senate election cycles normally take one of two paths. Either all the close races fall toward one party in a political “wave,” or individual races are decided by race-specific factors, particularly the quality of the candidates, the power of incumbency and local issues.

We’ve had cycles when both parties have suffered a substantial number of defeats with only a minimal net change of Senate seats (1976 and 1978 are prime examples), but that’s not going to happen this cycle. Republicans have only a single reasonable opportunity for a takeover this year.

We’ve had four noteworthy Senate “waves” in the past 28 years, in 2006, 1994, 1986 and 1980, and it’s possible that we’ll see another one this year. But it’s also possible that all the talk about Democratic Senate opportunities is just a bit over-hyped, and that Democrats will have a good year, not a great one.

One way of anticipating whether a wave is likely to develop is to monitor competitive Senate contests periodically to determine whether they are moving in one direction. That’s what I intend to do in this column. Of course, any wave may not show itself until after the two presidential nominating conventions. Still, the way individual Senate races move in the near term may offer some clue about a trend.

I must begin with one caveat: In evaluating races, I do not factor in certain widely circulated polls, including those conducted by Rasmussen Reports, that I regard as less reliable. (In other words, I treat some polls as if they don’t even exist.)

Democrats continue to be well- positioned to take over three GOP-held seats: open seats in Virginia and New Mexico, and Sen. John Sununu’s seat in New Hampshire. There is no evidence of significant movement in any of those contests, though Republicans continue to insist that Sununu’s race will close.

Democrats, of course, don’t need movement in any of the contests. They lead in all three.

The fourth most vulnerable Senate seat, the open Republican seat in Colorado, remains competitive. But given the state’s recent political behavior and the national mood, GOP insiders have little reason to be optimistic about their chances.

The next most vulnerable Senate seat, in Minnesota, has moved toward the Republicans in recent weeks. GOP strategists have successfully put presumptive Democratic-Farmer-Labor nominee Al Franken on the defensive, both over his nonpayment of certain taxes and, more importantly, a variety of statements he has made over the years.

Franken has defended his remarks by insisting that they were part of his shtick and intended as satire, not statements of his beliefs. But his language has been crude and his comedy often biting, and even some Democratic officeholders have expressed concern about his judgment.

Republican Sen. Norm Coleman has benefited in the polls of late, and even though Franken has time to change the dynamic of the race, it now seems likely that the comedian turned politician will have to defend himself repeatedly over the next four months. At the very least, that puts the challenger constantly on the defensive, improving Coleman’s prospects.

There are no signs of movement in Alaska, and that’s good news for Democrats. Polls continue to show challenger Mark Begich (D) leading Sen. Ted Stevens (R) narrowly. The longer that race stays tight, the better for Democrats, who are trying to knock off a state political icon.

The fact that the Maine race has not closed in surveys widely viewed as reliable is disappointing news for Democrats. GOP Sen. Susan Collins continues to be well-regarded and has a comfortable lead over her challenger, Rep. Tom Allen (D). Sitting in a blue state that went for Al Gore and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Collins would seem to be a perfect target in a “wave” election, but so far, her prospects are undimmed.

Democrats remain upbeat about Jeff Merkley’s chances of ousting Sen. Gordon Smith in Oregon, but I’m not convinced that they are any closer to doing that now than they were four or five months ago.

True, the recent decision by Independent John Frohmayer to drop his Senate candidacy is good news for Merkley. But it is difficult to see it as all that significant, especially since Democrats spent so much time and effort arguing that Frohmayer’s candidacy was inconsequential when he was a candidate. If they were right that he wasn’t going to be a factor in the race, they cannot now claim that his exit is all that important.

Still, this definitely is a race to watch for possible “wave” evidence, and Smith almost certainly will have a fight on his hands all the way to November.

If a wave develops, the three best places to watch may well be North Carolina, Kentucky and Mississippi. Democratic prospects in all three seem to have improved recently (especially after post-primary polling in North Carolina and Kentucky), giving the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee more options in the campaign’s final months.

Even Republicans seem increasingly nervous about Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.), who hasn’t released polling numbers since February and has been up on TV since late May. Dole’s opponent, state Sen. Kay Hagan (D), has some liabilities, but I have little doubt about her work ethic.

Finally, the Louisiana Senate race, pitting incumbent Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) against her GOP challenger, John Kennedy, hasn’t changed at all. Polls show the Senator ahead, but the fundamentals almost guarantee a close race.

In sum, developments in two states, Minnesota and Maine, should have Republicans optimistic, while Democrats have reasons to be happy about some longer-shot races, as well as their top takeover opportunities.