Thursday, September 25, 2008

Will Schumer Get Democrats to 60 Seats This Cycle?

By Stuart Rothenberg

Nine Republican-held Senate seats continue to be at great risk, giving Democrats at least a theoretical possibility of getting to 60 seats after the November elections.

Increasingly, it appears that three seats could well determine whether the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee can reach that magic number: North Carolina, Minnesota and Mississippi.

Republican nominees in five GOP Senate seats are now running behind their Democratic opponents in at least some public polling: former Gov. Jim Gilmore in Virginia, Rep. Steve Pearce in New Mexico, former Rep. Bob Schaffer in Colorado, Sen. Ted Stevens in Alaska and Sen. John Sununu in New Hampshire.

One other GOP incumbent, Oregon Sen. Gordon Smith, appears to be in a difficult race with challenger Jeff Merkley (D), based both on some limited polling and Smith’s campaign decisions.

Two Republicans under attack, Maine Sen. Susan Collins and Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Minority Leader, appear to be comfortably ahead and likely to win.

That leaves races involving Sens. Elizabeth Dole in North Carolina, Norm Coleman in Minnesota and Roger Wicker of Mississippi as the three most critical that will decide how close Senate Democrats get to 60 seats in the next Congress.

Of the five most vulnerable GOP seats, the two incumbents seeking re-election, Stevens and Sununu, appear to have the best chances for a surprise victory.

If the jury fails to convict Stevens in his upcoming trial, the Senate veteran would have a chance to win by reminding voters of his contributions to the state. But if he is convicted or if a decision is not yet reached by Nov. 4, Stevens’ chances seem very small.

Sununu has trailed for months in polls against challenger Jeanne Shaheen (D), but he remains confident he can remind voters why they preferred him six years ago to the former Granite State governor. Even some Democrats are worried about Shaheen, fearing she won’t be able to stand up to the Republican’s expected blows.

Smith’s recent two-ad sequence about an Oregon rapist and Merkley’s refusal to extend the statute of limitations for certain crimes is both compelling and curious.

Yes, the Smith ads drive home the point, but they are striking many observers as the sort of late-October ad that a campaign might use as a game-changer, not the kind of TV spot that a confident incumbent would run in mid-September.

Smith’s weak job ratings also ought to worry Republicans. Admittedly, Merkley isn’t a great challenger. The Democrat had only $570,000 on hand at the end of June, and he’s hardly a charismatic candidate. But with the DSCC’s resources, the mood for change, and Oregon’s Senate race turning into a referendum on Smith, the Republican clearly is in serious trouble.

Dole is increasingly regarded as political roadkill by campaign observers, but reports of her electoral demise may be greatly exaggerated.

Yes, Dole doesn’t have the financial advantage that she should at this time, hasn’t returned to her state often enough, and for too long failed to appreciate the danger that she was in. While her poll numbers were good initially, her popularity nose-dived after Democratic attacks on her ineffectiveness in the Senate.

But the National Republican Senatorial Committee’s independent expenditure effort has begun in the Tar Heel State, and Dole’s campaign has finally become more aggressive. Challenger Kay Hagan remained unscathed (and undefined) until recently, and the GOP attacks are likely to help Dole improve her position in the contest.

Still, that only means that the Republican Senator is in a dogfight and still seriously vulnerable, hardly the position Dole expected to find herself in. Of course, her state is better for a Republican than Oregon is for Smith, and unlike in Oregon, Republicans are only now starting to brand Dole’s Democratic challenger as a liberal big taxer.

In Minnesota, Coleman’s 10-point lead of the summer seems to have largely evaporated. Both Coleman and challenger Al Franken have high negatives, and that almost certainly benefits Independence Party nominee Dean Barkley. That doesn’t mean Barkley can win, but he becomes a tactical factor in the final six weeks of the race. Will Franken try to peel voters away from Barkley and to his own campaign?

Coleman may well lead by a few points (the same University of Connecticut poll that shows Franken up by a single point also showed him 3 ahead in January), and it wouldn’t be surprising if Republicans had more ammunition against Franken along the lines of embarrassing information that they used earlier.

Finally, Ronnie Musgrove now trails appointed Sen. Wicker narrowly, and Democrats remain hopeful about the contest. But anyone who has watched Mississippi politics for years ought to expect Republicans to use the 2001 referendum on changing the state’s flag against Musgrove as the campaign closes.

As governor, Musgrove proposed changing the state flag. Voters overwhelmingly defeated the proposal by a 2-1 margin, and Republican Haley Barbour used the issue to his benefit in ousting Musgrove in the 2003 gubernatorial race. Clarion-Ledger columnist Sid Salter has predicted that the issue is likely to re-emerge in this year’s Senate race.

The GOP’s only takeover opportunity, in Louisiana, is increasingly being forgotten. But while Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) currently has a comfortable lead over challenger John Kennedy (R), I’m still expecting the contest to close to the low to middle single digits, making for an interesting finish in the fall.

DSCC Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) is once again at the right place at the right time. He will have another terrific election cycle, and he deserves plenty of credit for fundraising and recruitment. But reaching 60 seats still requires him to run the table, and even in this environment, that’s not an easy task.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on September 22, 2008. 2008 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.