US Senate: 60-Plus?

Two years ago, in writing about the possibility of an impending Democratic ascendance, I ranked the 10 Republican-held Senate seat I considered most likely to be won by Democrats in 2008. Today, with three weeks until the election, the top nine of those 10 are indeed possible Democratic pick-ups.

The Democrats now appear likely to equal or exceed the gains they made two years ago, when they gained six seats to take over a slim majority. (Counting the two independents who caucus with the Democrats, Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut.) It is even increasingly possible that they could gain nine seats, which would give them the 60-vote supermajority required to force bills to a floor vote.

Only two Democratic seats have been considered in any danger, and both appear to be increasingly safe. In New Jersey, Frank Lautenberg holds a 14-point lead and is considered a lock over a mediocre challenger. In Louisiana, Mary Landrieu has a very strong challenger, but she has opened up a 13-point lead, her favorability ratings have soared, and two-dozen Republican office-holders just endorsed her.

That means that every Republican seat gained is a net pick-up. The conservative position is that the Democrats will win the three “sure things,” plus two or three of the five that I consider “likely” -- thus making a net gain of 5 or 6 seats. Many analysts seem to think that the Democrats will get the three sure things, plus four or five of the likelys, for a net gain of 7-8 seats. Those (like me) who expect a Republican drubbing think the Democrats will get that 7-8 plus some number of what I consider “possibles” and “long shots.”

Here’s my current run-down of the races:

Sure things (3)

Three pick-ups -- all from seats where the Republican incumbent did not seek re-election -- seem certain to go to Democrats: Virginia (Mark Warner), New Mexico (Tom Udall), and Colorado (Mark Udall). They all lead by wide margins.

Likely (5)

Democratic challengers are leading in the polls in five other contests, all against Republican incumbents. Jeanne Shaheen holds a solid lead over John Sununu in New Hampshire; Kay Hagan holds a small but consistent polling lead over Elizabeth Dole in North Carolina; Mark Begich leads over Ted Stevens in Alaska -- a lead expected to grow, as Stevens’s corruption trial is underway; Al Franken has taken a solid lead over Norm Coleman in Minnesota; and Jeff Merkley has taken a lead over Gordon Smith in Oregon.

In elections involving an incumbent, late deciders tend to break heavily toward the challenger. That, plus the general anti-GOP sentiment in the country, suggests that these five are all likely to win. The possible exception is in Alaska, where heavy Republican turnout for Sarah Palin might make a difference, especially if Stevens’s trial ends reasonably well for him.

Possible (4)

There are at least another four contests where the Republican incumbent has been leading in the polls, but which are clearly in play for the Democrats.

--In a Mississippi special election, Democrat Ronnie Musgrove is polling withing two or three points of incumbent Roger Wicker, who was named to replace Trent Lott when he retired at the end of 2007. Given the “incumbency rule,” and anticipated high African-American turnout, this is at least a toss-up.

--In Georgia, Democrat Jim Martin is similarly polling within the margin of error of incumbent Saxby Chambliss. Turnout of African-Americans and young voters figures to help Martin.

--In Kentucky, Bruce Lunsford is in a “virtual dead heat” with incumbent Mitch McConnell, according to papers there. McConnell, minority leader of the Senate, is getting hammered over the bailout bill, and for general Republican malfeasance during the Bush years. McConnell appears to have also made an error in sending his wife -- Bush cabinet member Elaine Chou -- out to campaign for him in recent weeks while he was stuck in Washington.

--In Maine, Tom Allen trails by roughly 8-10 points behind incumbent Susan Collins. Allen equalled Collins’s fundraising in the 3rd quarter (although she has more cash on hand) -- and the DSCC is now spending money there, and the Republican committee is not.

Longshots (3)

--In South Carolina, Bob Conley has closed to single digits against incumbent Lindsay Graham; they just had their only televised debate yesterday, so the next set of numbers could be telling. Graham is probably going to be helped by the growing belief that McCain will lose the election -- it’s held against Graham that he would probably get a Cabinet post under McCain, ie, that he wouldn’t really serve his term if elected.

--In Texas, Rick Noriega has made gains against incumbent Jon Cornyn, and could be helped if the state’s Hispanic population turns out in big numbers.

--In Nebraska, Democrat Scott Kleeb has closed the gap from 25 to 14 points against Republican Mike Johanns, for the open seat to replace Chuck Hagel.

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