The battle cry of the Republican Party is "Two seats to capture the Senate." But Nevada Sen. John Ensign, who is leading the charge for the GOP, now concedes the party may not win the fight, particularly after two prospective candidates he had hoped to recruit—one in New Jersey, one in South Dakota— refused to sign up for the struggle. "Realistically, we have a very, very slim chance of getting back into the majority," says Ensign, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. "That's not even our goal anymore. Our [numeric] goal is to hold as close to where we are as possible." Democrats control the chamber by a narrow majority, 51 to 49.
Leading up to the November elections, analysts say the Senate contest in Louisiana—"It's going to be a bloodbath," Ensign promises—poses a good-news, bad-news scenario for Republicans. The good news: The incumbent Democrat, Mary Landrieu, twice has won her Senate seat by narrow margins, meaning she's a target. Plus, her base has shrunk demonstrably since Hurricane Katrina hit. And what's emerged of late is a state trending red. The bad news: Landrieu is not only the GOP's best hope to oust an incumbent but, at the moment, the only one.
Analysts studying the 35 U.S. Senate races on the ballot say Democrats began the campaign with two key advantages. Not only did they have far fewer lawmakers up for re-election, they didn't confront a retirement boom. Twenty-three seats now held by Republicans are up for election—compared with only a dozen in the hands of Democrats. Five of the Republican seats are open because of retirements, while not a single Democrat is eyeballing the exits. In three of the five states where Republicans are retiring—Colorado, New Mexico, and, especially, Virginia—observers see opportunities for Democrats to enlarge their majority.
So while it's early—"Politically, it's an eternity between now and November," as Ensign puts it—now forecasters envision an overall Democratic gain of three to six seats. Much less probable is a nine-seat pickup for Democrats that would give them a filibusterproof majority of 60. "It would be like winning Powerball twice in the same year," says Jennifer Duffy, who follows Senate races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
Landrieu will face three-term state Treasurer John Kennedy, a party switcher who left the Democrats and threw in his fortunes with the GOP last August. Observers note he ran unopposed leading up to his last election in October and advertised heavily on television before and after his win to hike his name ID.
Kennedy's message is blunt: "Washington is in the ditch," he says. "I don't know about other states, but it's not working for Louisiana and I don't think it's working for America."
He complains that federal lawmakers "spend money like it's West Virginia ditch water" and have failed to balance the budget; then, with a healthy dose of hyperbole, he adds that the United States is "borrowing money from China to make our Social Security payments." Kennedy lost a primary race in 2004 for the Senate seat won by Republican David Vitter. Now he's being taken seriously. "A superstar candidate," Ensign boasts. Stuart Rothenberg, editor of the Rothenberg Political Report, a nonpartisan newsletter, says this about Kennedy and his prospects: "He's a name, he's a proven vote-getter and he's won statewide. It's a competitive state—and you have an incumbent with close races. That guarantees a close race."
That leaves Landrieu's camp busy raising money—it reported $4.1 million on hand at the end of 2007, compared with Kennedy's $472,000—and bracing for Ensign's NRSC and its allies to pull out all the stops. The NRSC, meantime, lagged considerably behind the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee at the end of 2007. The Republican committee had $13.2 million in its war chest; the Democratic group had $30 million. Landrieu's campaign manager, Jay Howser, says he's ready for the fray. Talking about the opposition, he remarks: "They are going to throw the kitchen sink at us. But they've done that in the past: They did it in '96 and they did it in '02. She's no stranger to hard, tough races, and she knows how to win in those situations."
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.