Senate Outlook: Steady as She Goes

by Stuart Rothenberg April 27, 2006 · 12:02 AM EDT

The fight for control of the U.S. Senate in November is remarkable for two main reasons. First, Democrats seem poised to make significant gains — the kind of gains that, even if they fall short of winning 51 seats later this year, should leave the party well positioned for 2008.

Second, the contours of the fight for the Senate have changed little since mid-2005. The seats that were vulnerable last summer are still vulnerable today. Certainly, there have been changes in individual races, but overall, the landscape has stayed remarkably consistent.

The five most vulnerable Senate seats up this year are all held by Republicans.

Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum (R) will need a remarkable comeback to overtake challenger Bob Casey Jr. (D). Santorum is a quicker and more energetic candidate, and he will have more money. But Casey is riding the Democratic wave effectively, tapping voters’ dissatisfaction with the White House and desire for change.

The contest is certain to tighten, but Casey is running well in all areas of the state, and he should win as long as voters see the election as a referendum first on President Bush and second on Santorum.

Sens. Lincoln Chafee (R.I.), Mike DeWine (Ohio) and Conrad Burns (Mont.) constitute the next tier of vulnerable Republican Senators.

Burns finds himself in a GOP primary and headed for a serious general election fight, against either state Auditor John Morrison or state Sen. Jon Tester. Ethical questions continue to swirl around Burns, and his prospects would plunge if specific accusations against him (or his staff) emerge in court documents.

DeWine’s prospects continue to be poor, primarily because Republicans remain very much in the tank in the state. The Senator’s low-key, “average guy” persona is an asset in a neutral or favorable environment, but not right now. Democratic Rep. Sherrod Brown’s voting record gives DeWine plenty of ammunition, but Brown also is a proven vote-getter and has run before as a statewide candidate.

Chafee continues to be locked in a difficult race for renomination. If he can squeeze past Cranston Mayor Stephen Laffey, Chafee has a good chance of winning a second full term. But neither race is a slam dunk. Rhode Island Democrats now seem certain to nominate former state Attorney General Sheldon Whitehouse, after the implosion of Secretary of State Matt Brown’s campaign. [Editor's Note: Brown dropped out on Wednesday.]

Missouri Sen. Jim Talent (R) is the fifth most vulnerable Senator up this year. Talent, who in many ways looks like a good fit for the state, has won just about half of the two-party vote in his past two races — the 2000 governor’s race and the 2002 Senate contest — making him a classic “half full/half empty” politician going into ’06.

Democratic nominee Claire McCaskill didn’t distinguish herself in losing a race for governor in 2004. Still, the national mood and the weak poll numbers for Republican Gov. Matt Blunt could be enough to sink Talent.

What is the most likely Democratic seat to change hands in November? Despite the conventional wisdom, it’s not Minnesota.

Rep. Mark Kennedy (R) is running an aggressive campaign to win that open seat, and his high-energy effort is worth watching. Kennedy may well be a better candidate than his Democratic adversary, Hennepin County District Attorney Amy Klobuchar, but that may not matter. Given the Democrats’ national edge this year, Klobuchar is a slight favorite.

Nor is Maryland the Republicans’ best shot for a takeover. Lt. Gov. Michael Steele (R) has charisma and the full support of the national and state GOP, and he definitely merits watching in the state’s open seat contest. Racial tensions within the Maryland Democratic Party make it possible for Steele, an African American, to appeal to some voters who ordinarily wouldn’t even consider a Republican.

But Steele would face a decidedly uphill fight against Rep. Benjamin Cardin, the frontrunner for the Democratic Senate nomination. If former Rep. Kweisi Mfume wins the Democratic nod, Steele’s general election chances would spike considerably.

No, all things being equal, the GOP’s best chance for a Senate win is in New Jersey, where state Sen. Tom Kean Jr., the son of a former governor, is running on a message of reform against appointed Sen. Bob Menendez (D).

Both the national mood and the state’s bent favor the Democrats, but the state offers Republicans one of those “special circumstances” that could allow Kean to pull off an upset. (Other states where unusual circumstances might enhance otherwise long-shot GOP opportunities include Washington, Michigan and West Virginia.)

Kean is trying to position himself as a reformer like Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a message that could resonate in a state with a history of corruption, a governor who has proposed an unpopular budget and a Democratic candidate with baggage.

Democratic chances of netting six seats, enough to transfer control of the Senate, are still well under 50-50. Even after sweeping their five top targets, Democrats would still need another victory, probably in either Arizona or Tennessee, or possibly Virginia, where some observers think that Sen. George Allen (R) may yet find himself in an uncomfortably competitive fight for re-election. None of these is impossible, but a Democratic victory in any of them would be a noteworthy upset.