Monday, September 25, 2006

The Fight for the Senate: More GOP Headaches, and One for Democrats

By Stuart Rothenberg

Recent developments have improved Democrats’ prospects in their fight to take the Senate, with the Republican hold on the chamber looking more tenuous than even a month ago.

While the renomination of Rhode Island Sen. Lincoln Chafee has improved GOP chances of holding onto his seat, Virginia Sen. George Allen’s ongoing problems have put a previously safe Republican seat at growing risk. The development in Virginia has a far greater impact on the fight for control, since it means a sixth GOP seat — the magic number for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee — is now in play.

Chafee’s victory over Cranston Mayor Stephen Laffey was impressive, particularly because Republican turnout efforts proved to be so effective. Chafee is about even money to hold his seat, not exactly a comfortable position for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, but a far better one than if Laffey had won the party’s nomination.

But whatever benefits the Republicans have derived from developments in Rhode Island have been more than erased by Allen’s problems in the Old Dominion.

Leaving aside all of the questions about whether the media exaggerated the controversial nature of Allen’s “macaca” comment (they did), whether the media’s portrayal of the demeaned Jim Webb (D) staff member was ridiculously naive (no argument here), whether Allen’s grandmother’s religion is relevant (it isn’t) or whether The Washington Post is out to defeat the Senator (a lot of Republicans think it is pretty obvious), Allen hasn’t stood the light of day very well.

Anyone who watched the Allen-Webb joint appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday with any degree of disinterest had to conclude that Webb looked relatively poised, thoughtful and smart. He thoroughly outpointed the Republican Senator.

Moreover, there now have been enough polls in Virginia to conclude that its Senate race is a single-digit contest, and Northern Virginia’s growing importance in the state ought to have Republican strategists worrying about its nominee.

Some Republicans clearly are concerned, while others continue to insist, regardless of the polls, that Allen can’t lose and is guaranteed 53 percent of the vote no matter what he says or does. Given how the race has developed and how little ammunition the Allen folks have against Webb, I think those Republicans who are worried have reason for concern.

Additionally, Republican seats in Pennsylvania and Montana now look very, very vulnerable, with a third, Ohio, only slightly better. Rhode Island and Missouri look like tossups, with neither party having a distinct advantage. Add Virginia to those and you have six seats, and at least a scenario for a Democratic takeover.

Two other Senate seats that Democrats have been competing in strongly, Arizona and Tennessee, still look to me to be more difficult for them, though their nominees still have six weeks to change that.

While there has been some "normal" closing in Arizona, the Tennessee contest could get very interesting in the next month if Republican Bob Corker doesn’t start to put some room between himself and Democratic Rep. Harold Ford Jr. For the moment, I’m still expecting that to happen.

The other development in recent weeks has been in New Jersey, where, as I have believed all along, the Democrats’ hold on the Senate seat is far from secure, even with the GOP’s obvious weakness in the state.

Appointed Sen. Bob Menendez’s (D) problems look very real, including a new federal investigation into a landlord/rental agreement with a community group over a building Menendez owns.

Menendez has, for months, flicked off suggestions that ethics could be a problem for him by asserting that he has been a reformer fighting against the establishment throughout his career. Well, Garden State voters - at least so far - haven’t bought Menendez’s storyline, and even if Republican challenger Tom Kean Jr. sometimes looks too green, voters in the state are giving him a long, long look.

The more Menendez is distracted by questions about himself and the more he is on the defensive, the better Kean’s chances of making the contest a referendum on Menendez.

I still am not certain that Kean can beat Menendez, but this contest increasingly looks like a Democratic problem and the GOP’s best opportunity to win a seat held by the minority.

Elsewhere, except for Maryland, there aren’t a lot of reasons to be terribly excited about Republican prospects. Sure, that could change, but West Virginia never developed at all, and Michigan still looks like a snoozer (especially compared to the state’s gubernatorial race). That leaves Minnesota and Washington, both of which seem to be going in the wrong direction for the GOP.

Republicans still have the advantage in the fight for the Senate. While I rate Missouri as a tossup, I still give Sen. Jim Talent (R) an edge. That means Democrats have the advantage in only three states with GOP incumbents: Pennsylvania, Montana and Ohio. They’ll need to add at least three more races to that list to win the Senate, and, of course, they cannot afford to lose New Jersey. It still looks very hard, but with the addition of Virginia, it finally looks at least possible.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on September 21, 2006. Copyright 2006 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.