Monday, March 17, 2008

All the Handicapping That’s Fit to Print on the ’08 Senate Races

By Stuart Rothenberg

Thirteen months ago in this space (“For Democrats, Time to Pad Senate Majority and Think 60 Seats,” Feb. 12, 2007), I suggested that Democrats had the opportunity to make significant Senate gains this cycle that would position them for a shot at 60 seats in 2010, when once again more Republican than Democratic seats will be up for election.

Following that column, though certainly not necessarily because of it, others also cited the chance that Democrats could reach 60 seats. Surprisingly to me, they often treated the magic number as if it were attainable in the November 2008 elections, not in 2010 as I argued.

Earlier this year, political writer Chris Cillizza wisely tamped down the suggestion that 60 seats was in reach this cycle, while reiterating his view (and, I might add, mine as well) that Democrats could make significant gains in the Senate in November.

This history is necessary because last week the influential New York Times published an article on the 2008 fight for the Senate that was so wrong on so many counts that it cannot be allowed to stand as any kind of marker about this cycle’s Senate races. The March 7 article was nothing short of an embarrassment.

The Times article started off with the premise that Democrats could well gain as many as nine Senate seats this year, which would put them right at the 60-seat mark. Further, the author of that piece wrote that Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) is “still a heavy favorite,” and he repeatedly treated Oklahoma as if it were in play.

The reality is very different. Landrieu is not only vulnerable, she is very vulnerable. The Rothenberg Political Report rates her race as a tossup, and everyone who knows anything about Senate races understands that at the very least, her seat is in play. I certainly wouldn’t quibble with someone who calls her a narrow favorite, since she is an incumbent. But calling her “a heavy favorite” is absurd and says a great deal about the reporting that went into the piece.

The Times article also treated Oklahoma state Sen. Andrew Rice (D) as a serious threat to Sen. James Inhofe (R), and quoted Rice as saying, “[Oklahoma voters] don’t care whether I am a Democrat or a Republican.” Oh, brother. And the moon is made of green cheese.

Inhofe certainly isn’t beloved, but Rice offers an unappealing left-of-center contrast for Inhofe in a very conservative state that strongly prefers Republicans in federal races, particularly in presidential years.

In citing observers about the Democrats’ chances of netting nine seats, the Times reporter quotes Paul Starr, whom the article describes as “a public affairs professor at Princeton University and a liberal commentator.” Starr is a serious and thoughtful observer who can speak authoritatively about a number of matters, including health care and liberalism, but asking his opinion about Senate races is a bit like asking Roger Clemens about the philosophy of early 20th-century Russian poet Nikolai Gumilev.

After mentioning the Democrats’ strong turnout in primaries as a possible factor in Democratic Senate gains this cycle — surely a reasonable point — the Times article offers the following pearl of wisdom: “The need of Senator John McCain ... to run as a centrist may undermine his ability to help Congressional candidates.”

The article doesn’t explain this (though many readers could figure out that the reporter was alluding to widespread questions about base Republican turnout), and it ignores the possibility that McCain’s relatively centrist approach might actually help the GOP’s overall image and be an asset for moderate Republican Senators such as Maine’s Susan Collins and Oregon’s Gordon Smith, who can align themselves with McCain’s message and overall persona.

Finally, in the chart accompanying the article, the reporter asserts that “if voters start to take comedian Al Franken seriously,” incumbent Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) could be in trouble. If? Polling shows the race tight, with some surveys having Franken ahead.

So where does the fight for the Senate really stand?

Republicans are certain to lose the Virginia open seat and could well lose opens in New Mexico and Colorado. New Hampshire Republican John Sununu is the most endangered Senate incumbent in his party, as is Landrieu in hers. Both are in serious trouble.

Coleman obviously has a fight on his hands, as does Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), who is damaged by a scandal that has touched him and already enveloped a number of current and former state Republican officials.

Two Republicans who are potentially vulnerable appear better off at the moment, though that could change.

Maine’s Collins still has strong poll numbers and is clearly well-liked in her state. Her challenger, Rep. Tom Allen (D), still has time to redefine her, and her GOP label isn’t an asset, but at this point she looks formidable.

And in Oregon, Democratic state Speaker Jeff Merkley ought to spend more time trying to defeat activist Steve Novick for his party’s nomination than running a general election campaign against Smith.

The most likely outcome right now — far too far out from Election Day to take very seriously — is a Democratic gain of three to six seats. More is possible, of course. But be careful where you get your information. Not everything that is written is fit to print.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on March 13, 2008. Copyright 2008 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.