Senate Majority No Longer Republicans' Goal

With Democrats leading in polls, Senator Ensign's goal has changed.

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Rothenberg is among analysts who see Democrats gaining three or four seats, or even as many as six. He says Senate contests hinge on the class up for re-election and that many of the 12 incumbent Democrats have built-in advantages. "Look at Dick Durbin in Illinois, where the Republican Party is on life support. John Kerry, nobody is going to beat him [in Massachusetts]. Jay Rockefeller, nobody has the money to beat him [in West Virginia]. And Jack Reed is in a very Democratic state [Rhode Island]."

Duffy echoes Rothenberg. She sees a Democratic gain of three to six seats, though she cautions that the hard-fought presidential contests have "sucked the oxygen out of the room" and so Senate candidates are only beginning to engage. "We need to see what the challengers are like and whether vulnerable incumbents have their act together," she says. Still, she points to another indicator that the landscape now favors Democrats: the generic congressional ballot, where Democrats best Republicans, according to a running average kept by RealClearPolitics.com, by 48 percent to 40 percent.

New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, chairman of the DSCC, says there's a positive mood within his camp. "At the beginning of this cycle, we set a goal of re-electing all 12 Democratic incumbents and picking up Republican seats," he says. "There is still a long way to go until November, but we feel good about all of our incumbents, and we're looking at opportunities to pick up Republican seats not just in blue states but in red states, too."

Both Duffy and Rothenberg call Colorado a "tossup" state. There U.S. Rep. Mark Udall, a Democrat, is vying with former Rep. Bob Schaffer, a Republican, for the seat being vacated by Republican Wayne Allard. The two analysts also say Republicans have an advantage in Maine, where incumbent Susan Collins faces Rep. Tom Allen, and agree on Virginia, saying former Gov. Mark Warner, a Democrat, is likely to beat former Gov. Jim Gilmore, a Republican.

Other contests to watch:

  • Minnesota: Comedian/commentator turned candidate Al Franken got a boost when a rival for the state Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party's endorsement, Mike Ciresi announced he was quitting the race, leaving Franken the leading challenger to incumbent Republican Norm Coleman. Observers predict a hard-fought contest rivaling Louisiana's.
    • Alaska: Seven-term Sen. Ted Stevens, who is facing legal troubles, is being challenged by Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich. Alaska can be a tough place to make a prediction, according to Duffy, who notes that Stevens hasn't faced a significant challenge in years and Begich was not only the Dems' best recruit, "he was their only recruit. It was that or nothing."
      • New Hampshire: Incumbent Republican John Sununu is getting a serious challenge from former Gov. Jeanne Shaheen. Polls are either close or give Shaheen a lead. Worrisome to the GOP is that, as Rothenberg puts it, "the state seems to be behaving like the rest of New England rather than its old, conservative, Republican self." Both analysts rate New Hampshire another "tossup."
        • New Mexico: All three U.S. representatives—Republicans Heather Wilson and Steve Pearce and Democrat Tom Udall—are competing for retiring Republican Pete Domenici's seat. "Republicans are going to have a good candidate, but with a competitive primary, these two members of Congress are going to spend money and criticize each other," Rothenberg says. "The Democrats have Udall, who basically has the nomination for the asking, who represents a third of the state, and who has a good name."
        • Understandably, there's cause for optimism on the battlefield among Democrats. But these races will play out beneath a fierce struggle to win the White House, so don't count on seeing a surrender flag from the GOP anytime soon.