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Slip-Sliding Away

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In 2006, the Republicans' majorities in the House and Senate were buffeted, indeed destroyed, by a tidal wave. The situation developing for 2008 is not so much a wave as a drainage problem -- with Republican retirements, resignations, and deaths slipping districts into open-seat status. Republicans can expect a few of those seats to be lost down the drain.

To be sure, many of these openings will result merely in a new batch of Republicans coming to town. Democrats have little or no chance of capturing Terry Everett's open 2nd Congressional District in Alabama; Duncan Hunter's 52nd District seat in California; Tom Tancredo's 6th District seat in Colorado; Ray LaHood's 18th District in Illinois; Chip Pickering's 3rd District seat in Mississippi; Steve Pearce's 2nd District seat in New Mexico; David Hobson's 7th District seat in Ohio; or Barbara Cubin's at-large seat in Wyoming. In the territory represented by the most recent Republican to announce his retirement, Jim McCrery's 4th District in Louisiana, Democrats' prospects aren't that great either. That's eight, maybe even nine, of the 17 open Republican House seats.

But even those open-seat contests that end up being slam dunks for the GOP still consume the party's attention, energy, and money. Just think of all of the contested primaries sucking up resources from an already diminished pool of Republican money.

Then there are eight or so open-seat races that the GOP is in real danger of losing: those in Rick Renzi's 1st District in Arizona, Jerry Weller's 11th District in Illinois, Jim Ramstad's 3rd District in Minnesota, Jim Saxton's 3rd District and Michael Ferguson's 7th District in New Jersey, Heather Wilson's 1st District in New Mexico, and Deborah Pryce's 15th and Ralph Regula's 16th districts in Ohio. All of these contests are now in the toss-up category.

Republicans note that they probably would have needed to spend considerable money in more than half of these districts even if the incumbents had decided not to retire. But nonincumbents competing in these districts will start out with less name recognition and fewer resources than the veterans.

Each of these open seats has the potential to push Republicans further back from the 16-seat net gain they need to recapture the House. At the very least, these open seats will require resources that Republicans can't afford to waste. Furthermore, none of the five Democratic open seats appears comparably vulnerable.

In addition to its open seats, each party has 14 other seats that are competitive and only leaning in its direction. Each party also has 18 seats that are not now competitive but have the potential to produce close races next year.

In the Senate, the Republicans' problems are similar -- the numbers are just smaller. Even assuming that the open GOP seats in Idaho and Nebraska, as well as the Mississippi seat that Trent Lott is about to vacate, remain safely in GOP hands, Republicans would still have three difficult open seats to defend. By contrast, Democrats do not yet have a single Senate retirement to worry about. It would take a major upset for the GOP to hold on to retiring Sen. John Warner's seat in Virginia. Polls show former Democratic Gov. Mark Warner with leads of 24 and 30 points over former GOP Gov. Jim Gilmore. Meanwhile, the contests to succeed retiring Republican Sens. Wayne Allard of Colorado and Pete Domenici of New Mexico are likely to be extremely close and hard-fought. The GOP probably has less than a 50-50 chance of holding either seat.

But retirements aren't the GOP's only Senate problem. New Hampshire's John Sununu is very vulnerable. And incumbents Susan Collins of Maine and Norm Coleman of Minnesota will face stiff challenges in fairly blue states. Some observers add Oregon's Gordon Smith to the GOP's vulnerable list. Finally, there is GOP Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska. A new Research 2000 poll taken for Daily Kos shows the incumbent, first elected to the Senate in 1968, trailing Mark Begich, the Democratic mayor of Anchorage who is eyeing the race, by 6 points: 41 percent to 47 percent.

Republicans would have their hands full anyway, but with three open GOP-held Senate seats in jeopardy, and with the seat occupied by Democrat Mary Landrieu of Louisiana presenting their only really good chance to offset losses, this isn't really a fair fight.

 
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