Senators' numbers

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Some interesting numbers in SurveyUSA's latest monthly job approval ratings of all 100 U.S. senators. Up at the top, as usual, are North Dakota's two Democrats, Kent Conrad and Byron Dorgan, and Maine's two Republicans, Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe. All four are from the party that lost their states in the 2000 and 2004 presidential election. But they are small states, with geographically dispersed populations, in which it's possible for a senator to stay in personal touch with a large proportion of his or her constituents. Conrad, Dorgan, Snowe, and Collins evidently have done a good job of this.

Down toward the bottom are several senators who first won their seats in 2004-Jim DeMint of South Carolina, Richard Burr of North Carolina, Mel Martinez of Florida-or who were re-elected in 2004-George Voinovich of Ohio. Their job approval ranges between 42 and 46 percent. Hypothesis: After spending lots of money on their campaigns and crisscrossing their states in 2003-04, they have concentrated on doing their jobs in Washington in 2005-06. They'll probably strive for greater local exposure in 2007-08, which will probably raise their ratings in their 2009-10 re-election cycle. Also down near the bottom are some senators who are not expected to seek another term-Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, Wayne Allard of Colorado, and Mark Dayton of Minnesota, who is not running for re-election this year. Their job approval ranges between 41 and 43 percent. No need to spend lots of time and money propping up their ratings.

The big question is how the senators who are in seriously contested races this year are doing. Here we see two patterns. Two embattled Republican senators have seen sharp and, I think, statistically significant rises in job approval in SurveyUSA's midmonth surveys between May and August. See the job approval numbers below:

May June July August
Rick Santorum (Pa.) 36% 36% 43% 48%
Jim Talent (Mo.) 43% 48% 49% 52%

This is evidence that their campaigning is paying off. Two recent polls have shown Santorum within single digits of Democrat Bob Casey Jr.: Quinnipiac (48 to 42 percent) and Morning Call/Muhlenberg (45 to 39 percent). Santorum's campaigning has put him back in contention, but he's still definitely behind. Talent is getting good job approval numbers in the Ozarks (54 percent) and Central (58 percent) regions, both heavily Republican areas he needs to carry by big margins in order to win, and he gets 54 percent in the St. Louis region, his home area, which Democrats have carried in recent close races. His worst performance is in the Kansas City region (42 percent), which has often lacked media attention and been more volatile in elections than the rest of Missouri. An obvious target for his advertising dollars.

Jon Kyl, who has a deep-pockets opponent and whom Democrats have had some hope of beating, also enjoyed a significant rise in job approval in August.

May June July August
Jon Kyl (Ariz.) 44% 45% 47% 53%

Another long-shot Democratic target, George Allen, has had a steady rating just barely above 50 percent.

May June July August
George Allen (Va.) 53% 52% 51% 51%

Allen's job approval is significantly lower in Northern Virginia (44) and higher in the Central region around Richmond (56); he seems pretty sure to lose Northern Virginia to Democrat Jim Webb. Recent pairings have shown him well ahead in the rest of the state.

Three embattled Republican incumbents, on the other hand, don't seem to have done much to improve their job performance, though two of them started off higher in May than Santorum and Talent.

May June July August
Mike DeWine (Ohio) 46% 41% 45% 42%
Conrad Burns (Mont.) 40% 36% 37% 39%
Lincoln Chafee (R.I.) 52% 49% 48% 51%

DeWine is apparently caught in the undertow pulling Republicans down in a state whose governorship and legislature they have held for 16 straight years (the longest such tenure since the 1840s), with results that are currently widely unpopular. And Burns is evidently suffering from the fact that he received so many contributions from Jack Abramoff clients. Their likely strategy: Stress their opponents' left-wing records on national security issues. In any case, their positive advertising and campaigning so far hasn't done the job.

As for Chafee, he faces Cranston Mayor Stephen Laffey in the Republican primary, where turnout has traditionally been low, and currently runs behind Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse in general election pairings. Chafee and his late father have held this seat for Republicans for 30 years; Lincoln Chafee has voted against most senators of his party more often than his father ever did and did not even vote for George W. Bush in 2004. Republicans should probably consider themselves lucky to have held a seat from Democratic Rhode Island for 30 years; their time may be up.

As for the three incumbent Democrats who are to varying extents embattled, their job ratings seem to have held pretty steady.

May June July August
Maria Cantwell (Wash.) 52% 48% 49% 55%
Bill Nelson (Fla.) 42% 49% 48% 47%
Debbie Stabenow (Mich.) 47% 49% 50% 51%
Ben Nelson (Neb.) 68% 72% 68% 67%
Bob Menendez (N.J.) 39% 41% 45% 42%

Cantwell's August rating suggests her campaigning has made some positive impact, but she's got an opponent, Mike McGavick, with good political instincts. Nelson's ratings suggest he could be seriously threatened in a state that went for George W. Bush in 2004, but his opponent Katherine Harris has multiple woes and Nelson is far ahead in the pairings. Stabenow has shown greater strength in pairings than Republicans hoped up through the August primary, but a post-primary poll showed her ahead of Republican nominee Michael Bouchard by only 49 to 44 percent. As for Ben Nelson, he represents one of the strongest Republican states in the country and has a splendid job rating, one of the best among senators. Bob Menendez was appointed to the Senate earlier this year and is from a state not well covered by the media that went 53 to 46 percent for John Kerry; he has been running within the statistical margin of error against Republican Tom Kean Jr.

Bottom line: Democrats are well positioned to make gains in Senate seats. But it's still too early to say just how many. They need to sweep the five Republican seats mentioned above, hold all their own seats, and gain one more to get a Senate majority. They have a good candidate for Bill Frist's seat in Tennessee in Rep. Harold Ford, but since the primary earlier this month he's been running behind the Republican nominee, Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker, by small margins, which look a lot like the small margins by which Republican Lamar Alexander ran ahead of Democrat Bob Clement in the 2004 cycle. Alexander won 54 to 44 percent. The other seats Democrats have targeted, in Arizona and Virginia, still look like longshots.