December 14, 2004Early in the 2004 election cycle, it became clear that Senate Democrats were in an unenviable situation. Even though Republicans held just a shaky one-seat majority, the playing field was decidedly tilted in the GOP's favor. Not only did the Democrats have to defend 19 seats, compared with 15 for the Republicans, but the Democrats' most vulnerable seats were in states that President Bush had carried in 2000.
Going into Election Day 2004, nine Senate races were too close to call -- and five of them were for seats held by Democrats. Bush had won all nine states in 2000, and he carried them again this year. In the end, the Democrats' strong recruiting, ample financial resources, and -- in some cases -- better campaigns were not enough to overcome the power of party affiliation in presidential years, especially in contests for open Senate seats. Republicans won eight of the nine most competitive races.
The lesson, at least in Senate races, is that the more one party dominates a state at the presidential level, the more difficult it tends to be for the opposition party to hang on to a seat there, especially if the incumbent is retiring. In other words, in the absence of a popular, entrenched incumbent, presidential performance is a leading indicator of which Senate seats are truly vulnerable. This gauge of vulnerability is far from perfect, of course, and does not take into account such important factors as the viability of potential challengers and the cost of running in a given state.
However, as the 2006 election cycle gets under way, and before we know how many incumbents will step down, this kind of red state/blue state analysis is a particularly useful measure of where the next Senate battlegrounds are likely to be.
Democrats, once again, begin with a numerical disadvantage, having to defend 18 seats to the Republicans' 15. Of these 18, five incumbents -- Bill Nelson of Florida, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, Kent Conrad of North Dakota, and Robert Byrd of West Virginia -- represent states that Bush carried this year. The New Mexico, North Dakota, and West Virginia seats are probably safe unless they come open.
The Nebraska and Florida seats, though, might well be very difficult for the Democrats to hold. Bush carried Nebraska by 33 points this year, and Ben Nelson won his seat in 2000 with just 51 percent of the vote against a weak opponent. But Nelson got a break recently when Bush nominated Republican Gov. Mike Johanns to be secretary of Agriculture. Johanns is the strongest challenger that Nelson could have faced. The incumbent is still likely to have a fight on his hands, but his chances of prevailing have improved.
President Bush won Florida by 5 points this year. In 2000, Bill Nelson won a lackluster open-seat contest with 51 percent of the vote. Polling indicates that fewer than 40 percent of Florida voters want to give Nelson a second term. While the incumbent had more than $2 million in the bank as of September 30, there is no shortage of Republicans who could give him a very tough race, including state Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher, Lt. Gov. Toni Jennings, and Rep. Katherine Harris.
Although Sen. Mark Dayton of Minnesota represents a marginally blue state, he is considered the most vulnerable Democratic senator, edging out Nebraska's Nelson for that dubious distinction. A weak fundraiser, who finished the third-quarter of this year with just $271,458 in the bank, Dayton was blasted in the press for closing his Senate office for much of October because he said he feared a pre-election terrorist attack on the Capitol. Rep. Mark Kennedy and Minnesota Secretary of State Mary Kiffmeyer have been mentioned as potential GOP challengers. Either would be very competitive.
Three other Democratic senators -- Jon Corzine of New Jersey, Maria Cantwell of Washington, and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan -- are worth watching. They represent slightly blue states that Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry won by 3 to 7 points. Corzine's decision to run for governor in 2005 leaves the future of his seat up in the air until next November. Cantwell won in 2000 by defeating a Republican incumbent by 2,229 votes. She personally financed much of her 2000 campaign and has spent much of the past four years retiring her debt instead of raising money for a re-election bid. Because of the dot-com bust, Cantwell, who made her money at a software company, doesn't have the means to self-finance her 2006 campaign. Ultimately, the outcome of the recount process in the gubernatorial race might well determine Cantwell's fate, because if Republican Dino Rossi were to lose, he might become a tough challenger to Cantwell.
In Michigan, Stabenow was widely criticized for running a weak campaign in 2000. Since then, she has focused on raising money (as of October 31, she had banked almost $1.8 million) and on serving as co-chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Last month, Stabenow became secretary of the Senate Democratic Caucus. Still, several high-profile Republicans are being mentioned as potential challengers, including Betsy DeVos, the outgoing state party chairwoman; Rep. Candice Miller; and Oakland County (suburban Detroit) Sheriff Mike Bouchard.
On the GOP side of the aisle, Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, Olympia Snowe of Maine, and Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania represent Kerry states. Snowe is unlikely to face a serious challenge. Her poll numbers are very strong; she has no obvious rival.
Kerry won Rhode Island by a wide margin, putting Chafee high on the list of endangered GOP incumbents. In addition, Chafee's moderate record and his pronouncement that he did not vote for President Bush (instead, he wrote in the name of former President George H.W. Bush) leave him vulnerable to a primary challenge. The most likely GOP contender is Cranston Mayor Steve Laffey, a social and fiscal conservative.
If Chafee does get a primary fight, Democrats will likely smell blood in the water. That prospect could draw Rep. Patrick Kennedy or Rep. Jim Langevin into the race. Rhode Island Secretary of State Matt Brown, 2002 gubernatorial candidate Sheldon Whitehouse, and former Rep. Bob Weygand could also get into the running for the Democrats.
In Pennsylvania, Kerry's victory, a raft of credible potential Democratic challengers, and the incumbent's position in the Senate GOP leadership make the prospects for Santorum's re-election no better than a toss-up. At least 14 Democrats -- including state Treasurer Barbara Hafer; venture capitalist Chris Heinz, son of Teresa Heinz Kerry; and former Bethlehem Mayor Don Cunningham -- are eyeing the race. Democrats think Santorum is too conservative for the state. They hope that Santorum's strong endorsement of moderate Sen. Arlen Specter in this year's GOP primary dampened conservatives' support for Santorum. The incumbent, though, is a solid candidate, savvy strategist, and strong fundraiser. He shouldn't be underestimated -- especially if Democrats host a bitter and expensive primary.
Finally, although Bush scored a 14-point victory in Tennessee, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist has indicated that he will honor his term-limit pledge by not seeking re-election in 2006. Both parties appear poised for competitive primaries. No clear favorite has emerged on either side, so Tennessee is in the toss-up column.
The 2006 cycle is in its infancy, but it is already worth watching. Recruiting and retirements will likely determine just how interesting it becomes.
December 14, 2004