Senate not likely to shift

If you are interested in becoming a senator in the 110th Congress, make your intentions known soon. We are about 15 months away from the general election and seven months from the first primary.

Here is an early look at the parties’ prospects:

The macro environment raises hopes for both parties. For Democrats, midterm elections are usually not good for the president’s party and the sixth-year midterms for a two-term president are even worse. For Republicans, they must defend 15 seats to Democrats’ 18 (including independent Jim Jeffords of Vermont). Democrats must defend five seats in Bush states, while Republicans must defend three seats in Kerry states. Democrats must defend three open seats, while Republicans must defend one.

 

If you are interested in becoming a senator in the 110th Congress, make your intentions known soon. We are about 15 months away from the general election and seven months from the first primary.

Here is an early look at the parties’ prospects:

The macro environment raises hopes for both parties. For Democrats, midterm elections are usually not good for the president’s party and the sixth-year midterms for a two-term president are even worse. For Republicans, they must defend 15 seats to Democrats’ 18 (including independent Jim Jeffords of Vermont). Democrats must defend five seats in Bush states, while Republicans must defend three seats in Kerry states. Democrats must defend three open seats, while Republicans must defend one.

Looking at the specific races, there is little indication of a major gain for either party.
• Senate eats most likely to switch hands (2 R’s and 1 D) — Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Minnesota:

Pennsylvania. Republican Sen. Rick Santorum has horrible numbers for an incumbent. Several polls have shown his reelect numbers in the low to mid-40s. He is facing a first-tier candidate in Democrat Bob Casey Jr., who will not face a primary challenge.

In Santorum’s favor, he has been counted out before, he is a tenacious campaigner, and he will have the full support of the party, the White House and Arlen Specter. And while running as a pro-life Democrat can have its pluses, it also risks depressing turnout in the Democratic base.

That being said, I would not want to have Santorum’s current poll numbers. The race favors Casey.

Rhode Island. Only one Republican holds a Senate seat in a state Bush lost by more than 10 percent — Sen. Lincoln Chafee (Kerry won Rhode Island 59 percent to 39 percent). A Republican from Rhode Island is almost by definition vulnerable.

After Democratic Reps. Jim Langevin and Patrick Kennedy declined to challenge Chafee, the other first-tier candidate, Attorney General Sheldon Whitehouse, joined the race and will give Chafee a strong run for the seat.

The prospect of facing a primary challenge and a strong general-election opponent in the sixth year of the Bush presidency should make Chafee nervous. This race leans slightly toward the Democrats.

Minnesota. Months ago, Sen. Mark Dayton’s (D) poll numbers were in the same ballpark as Santorum’s, so he bowed out.

Republicans have cleared the field for their man, Rep. Mark Kennedy. Democrats have several potentially strong candidates but will likely have a primary fight. The prediction: a slight edge to Kennedy, depending on the outcome of the Democratic primary.

• Other possible switches:

If they get a break, Republicans could challenge two Nelsons in two open seats and Democrats could challenge in Tennessee.

In Vermont, Republicans could not recruit their strongest candidate, Gov. Jim Douglas, and will probably need a three-way race to beat Rep. Bernie Sanders (I).

Nebraska is about as Republican a state as there is, so Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson cannot take winning for granted, but the Republicans’ top candidates have bowed out of the race.

In Tennessee, Rep. Harold Ford (D) is a young, impressive African-American, with an independent streak. But Ford’s overall voting record is too liberal for this conservative state. Republicans have a large, strong field, including former Reps. Ed Bryant and Van Hilleary.

A few other seats could become competitive if things change. If GOP Gov. John Hoeven challenges Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), that race becomes a tossup overnight. If Auditor Claire McCaskill runs against Jim Talent (R-Mo.) or if Democratic state Chairman Jim Pederson runs against Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), those races could become competitive.

Sen. Robert Byrd (D) is an icon in West Virginia, and it is hard to imagine him losing, but if Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R) enters the race and voters are uncomfortable with Byrd’s age and health it could be a close contest. Remember the case of similarly iconic former Sen. Bill Roth (R-Del.), who showed his age on the campaign trail and lost to current Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.).

Republican Sens. Conrad Burns (Mont.) and Mike DeWine (Ohio) could be vulnerable with a strong challenger, but no top-tier candidates have emerged.

November 2006 is still a long way off, but if early signs are any indication we will not see a major shift in either direction in the Senate.

Fortier is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.