Dems may expand Senate majority in '08

Senate Democrats will have a wider field of possibilities and probably more open seats available to expand their majority in 2008, though Senate Republicans will have several chances to pick off red-state Democrats.

Senate Democrats will have a wider field of possibilities and probably more open seats available to expand their majority in 2008, though Senate Republicans will have several chances to pick off red-state Democrats.

Of the 33 seats up for election two years from now, 21 are held by Republicans. Eight of those 21 were elected with 55 percent of the vote or less in 2002, and in seven of them the incumbent is a freshman. The party also faces several retirement questions.

Democrats might not lose any incumbents to retirement now that they are in the majority — a crucial first step to maintaining and growing that majority.

Two big Democratic retirement risks, 82-year-old Sen. Frank Lautenberg (N.J.) and 69-year-old Sen. Jay Rockefeller (W.Va.), intend to run again in 2008, according to their offices. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who turns 67 on Sunday, could announce whether he will run for a fifth term by the end of the week, his office said.

Harkin, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), 72, who has not decided, and Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), 64, who did not respond to inquiries, may be re-energized by capturing prized committee chairmanships. Levin will lead the Armed Services Committee, Baucus will run the Finance Committee and Harkin will head the Agriculture Committee.

All five of those seats would be attractive to Republicans if they were open, though Harkin has never garnered more than 55 percent of the vote in his four campaigns, and his seat will draw Republican attention regardless of whether he stays or goes.

Lautenberg’s decision to run again is particularly important for Democrats because he already retired once, in 2000, only to run again in 2002; does not have a chairmanship because his seniority was not restored; and could face tough opposition from Tom Kean Jr., the Republican candidate this year, who ran strongly even though he was defeated.

Jennifer Duffy of the Cook Political Report expects Democrats to skate into 2008 with all five of these potential retirees. “Given that Democrats have the majority, I don’t expect anybody to retire,” Duffy said. “I think Harkin was thinking about it, but now that he has Ag, what’s his incentive to retire? Maybe Rockefeller was thinking about it, but now he’s got Intelligence, so what’s his incentive?”

On the Republican side, Sens. Pat Roberts (Kan.), 70, Pete Domenici (N.M.), 74, and Ted Stevens (Alaska), who turns 83 on Saturday, have all told The Hill they intend to seek reelection. But speculation is rampant about Sens. John Warner (Va.), 79, and Wayne Allard (Colo.), who is at the tail end of a two-term-limit pledge.

Warner spokesman John Ullyot said the senator generally decides whether to run about a year and a half before an election. Allard, who has raised the least and has the second-least cashonhand ($120,000) of the 33 senators up for reelection in 2008, will wait until after the New Year to decide, spokeswoman Laura Condeluci said.

Both states would be prime pickup territory for Democrats, who will hold the other Senate seat in each come January. Allard’s seat is a target whether he runs or not, and Democrats already have a strong candidate in Rep. Mark Udall, who declared for the race in March 2005 and had more than $1 million on hand as of October.

In purple Virginia, former Gov. Mark Warner (D), who decided against a presidential bid recently, would be a strong candidate to replace Republican Sen. John Warner.

The most vulnerable incumbents are Allard, Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) and Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), according to the Cook Political Report. No races are yet listed as tossups. 

Along with Landrieu, Baucus and Sens. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) and Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) give Republicans four possible red-state pickups. Landrieu, who intends to run for a third term, is listed as “lean Democratic,” while the latter three and Harkin are “likely Democratic.”

But Republicans failed to field strong challengers against red-state Democrats Ben Nelson (Neb.), Kent Conrad (N.D.) and Robert Byrd (W.Va.) this year, drawing their biggest recruiting successes in blue states Maryland and New Jersey. They did not pick up any Democratic seats.

For Democrats, Allard and Coleman are listed as “lean Republican,” while four other Republicans — Susan Collins (R-Maine), John Sununu (R-N.H.), Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.), and James Inhofe (R-Okla.)  — are listed as “likely Republican.”

Dole, a 70-year-old freshman and outgoing head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, intends to run again, according to her office. Inhofe, who turns 72 on Friday, did not respond to requests for comment but has talked about assuming the Armed Services chairmanship in 2009, suggesting he expects to be around after 2008.

Roberts, 70, intends to seek reelection, according to his office, and Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), 68, will make a decision a year from now, spokeswoman Jenny Manley said. Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), 60, has not decided, but has expressed interest in running for president.

Two Democratic senators, Joseph Biden Jr. (Del.) and John Kerry (Mass.), may retire and run for the White House. Biden’s office said he is taking the necessary steps to run for Senate, and Kerry’s presidential prospects took a hit this month when his “botched joke” appeared to insult the intelligence and education of soldiers in Iraq. Kerry later apologized.

Republican Rep. Mike Castle (Del.), who just won statewide reelection by 18 points in his at-large House seat, would have a strong shot at succeeding Biden, but both Delaware and Massachusetts are blue states.

Biden will lead the Foreign Relations Committee, and Kerry will lead the Small Business Committee. Another blue-state Democrat, Sen. Dick Durbin (Ill.), who didn’t face a strong challenge in 2002, will be assistant majority leader.

Early retirements within the realm of possibility include: Hawaii, where Democratic Sens. Daniel Inouye and Daniel Akaka will both be 84 on Election Day; Pennsylvania, where Republican Sen. Arlen Specter, 76, has battled Hodgkin’s disease; and Wyoming, where Republican Sen. Craig Thomas, 73, last week revealed he has leukemia. Thomas and Akaka were both reelected last week, and Akaka will now chair the Veterans Affairs Committee.

Amy Sherman and Madeleine Scinto contributed to this report.