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The 2008 Senate Battle: The Democrats The 2008 Senate Battle: The Democrats

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SENATE RACES

The 2008 Senate Battle: The Democrats

Senate Democrats entered the 2008 election with the narrowest of majorities, but started the cycle with a far greater number of opportunities than they did in 2006 -- when the party managed to net six seats and gain control of the chamber by ousting Republican incumbents. Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Charles Schumer of New York, in his second term as the party's top strategist, declared shortly after Election Day, 2006: "The first thing we're going to do is minimize retirements." In the ensuing months, he succeeded in this task: Not a single Senate Democrat announced his or her retirement.

Democrats are defending just 12 seats in November, compared with 18 seats (including that of Sen. James Jeffords, I-Vt.) in 2006. Sen. Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, who came out of retirement to run again in 2002, turned 84 earlier this year. But he is running again, and turned back a serious primary challenge from Rep. Robert Andrews, in June. Recent polls show him a solid favorite for another term. Other veteran Democrats up for re-election wield committee gavels. They include Sens. Max Baucus of Montana, Tom Harkin of Iowa and Carl Levin of Michigan. Working in the Democrats' favor is that their 2004 standbearer -- Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, himself up for re-election this year -- carried both New Jersey and Michigan four years ago, and lost Iowa by the thinnest of margins.

 

Montana is one of several states where it initially appeared that Schumer and the DSCC might need to mount a strong defense: President Bush won the state in 2000 and 2004 with nearly 60 percent of the vote. But the Democrats have made inroads there during the past two election cycles and Baucus is campaigning as the chairman of the Finance Committee. It is also one of several states where the GOP was unable to recruit a top-tier challenger, making Baucus a prohibitive favorite to win a sixth term.

Another of Schumer's early concerns was South Dakota, where Sen. Tim Johnson, who is recovering from a 2006 brain hemorrhage, barely won a 2002 re-election bid -- and where Bush triumphed by a landslide margin in 2004. But popular GOP Gov. Mike Rounds' decision not to run greatly enhanced Johnson's chances to win a third term. In fact, of the 12 seats they are defending this year, the DSCC seems to have only one significant headache: Louisiana, where Sen. Mary Landrieu first won in 1996 with 50.2 percent of the vote and was re-elected six years later with 52 percent. Louisiana also voted for Bush by a heavy margin in 2004, and Landrieu has been made more vulnerable by the population shift brought about by catastrophic Hurricane Katrina in 2005. But she is generally credited with running a strong campaign, giving Democrats hope that they will hang on to all of their incumbents this year.

The good news for Senate Democrats was that, as the campaign entered its final weeks, they appeared to have a shot at as many as 12 of the 23 Republican-held seats up this year -- including a special election for the remainder of the term of Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss. Democratic-friendly states such as Maine, Minnesota and Oregon -- where Republican incumbents are up for re-election -- provide natural opportunities for Democrats. And GOP retirements have put Democrats in a strong position to pick up seats in battleground states such as Colorado, New Mexico, and Virginia. With voters nervous over the worsening state of the economy, even previously safe Republican seats in Georgia, North Carolina, and Kentucky -- the latter held by Senate Minority Leader McConnell -- have come into play, and optimistic Democrats now see an opportunity to reach a filibuster proof majority of 60 seats if everything breaks their way on Election Day.

 

Following is a state-by-state look at how the 2008 contests for Democratic-held seats are shaping up.

Arkansas. The name Pryor goes a long way in Arkansas politics. Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor, son of former Sen. David Pryor (who served as governor before coming to Capitol Hill) was elected to the state Legislature in 1990 at age 28 and as state attorney general in 1998. Four years later, he was the only Democrat to defeat a GOP Senate incumbent, knocking out former GOP Sen. Tim Hutchinson for the seat previously held by his father. At the outset of this cycle, Pryor's re-election prospects looked especially good in light of now-Gov. Mike Beebe's recent lopsided victory in the 2006 gubernatorial race over former GOP Rep. Asa Hutchinson, Tim Hutchinson's brother. And Pryor positioned himself well to fend off a Republican challenge by staking out center-right positions in the Senate during his first term. He's guaranteed to return for a second: The Republicans failed to field an opponent by the filing deadline after healthcare executive Tom Formicola briefly considered a run, but ultimately decided against it. About the only candidate who could have given Pryor a competitive race, former GOP Gov. Mike Huckabee, opted instead to seek his party's presidential nomination. And Huckabee pointedly declined to entertain a Senate run even after ending his surprisingly strong presidential bid.

Delaware. Even if the Obama-Biden ticket doesn't make it in November, Sen. Joseph Biden is unlikely to be looking for another job in January. The sixth-longest serving member of the Senate, Biden already was seeking re-election to a seventh term when he was tapped as the Democratic vice-presidential candidate - and Delaware law allows him to run for both offices at once. After a third of a century in office, he's on a first name basis with many of his constituents in this pocket-sized state, and faces little more than token GOP opposition in the Senate contest. First elected in 1972 at age 30, Biden won with close to 60 percent of the vote in his last two re-election bids. And, if he doesn't end up as vice president, he can almost certainly look forward to a continued stint as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee if, as expected, his party retains Senate control. At the state Republican convention this past spring, Christine O'Donnell, a commentator and anti-abortion activist, defeated businessman Tim Smith for the dubious honor of taking on Biden. The latest buzz in Delaware political circles is not whether Biden will win re-election - but who Democratic Gov. Ruth Ann Minner might appoint to replace him on Capitol Hill if he moves into the vice president's mansion.

Illinois. The GOP has not fared well in the Land of Lincoln in recent statewide elections. Republicans lost control of the governor's mansion in 2002 and a Senate seat in 2004 - when Sen. Barack Obama was first sent to Washington. The GOP also faces daunting odds this fall against Democratic Sen. Richard Durbin, who is majority whip (and who was Obama's chief Capitol Hill supporter from the outset of the 2008 presidential campaign). Durbin was re-elected with 60 percent in 2002. And if the popularity of Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich has gone south, Blagojevich is not on the ballot this year - while Obama will be at the very top of the ticket. Republicans initially though they had a formidable challenger to Durbin in Rep. Mark Kirk, a three-term moderate. But Kirk took himself out of the running and opted for re-election instead in early 2007, leaving the GOP Senate nod to Steven Sauerberg, a physician and political novice.

 

Iowa. Iowa Democrats entered the 2008 election cycle atop the strong tide of 2006, when they ousted 15-term GOP Rep. Jim Leach and took the open seat of GOP Rep. Jim Nussle, who lost his gubernatorial bid. They also clinched control of the state Legislature and successfully defended Democratic Rep. Leonard Boswell. While Sen. Tom Harkin - now chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee -- has never won more than 55 percent in a Senate race, he appears to be on his well on his way to a fifth term after escaping a top-tier challenger this time around. The leading potential challengers, GOP Reps. Tom Latham and Steve King both opted to seek re-election. In the June primary, Christopher Reed - a Navy veteran and political unknown - surprised observers by winning with just over 35 percent in a three-way race, narrowly squeaking by former state Rep. George Eichhorn.

Louisiana. The displacement of many New Orleans residents by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the overwhelming 2007 gubernatorial victory of then-GOP Rep. Bobby Jindal have many viewing Sen. Mary Landrieu as the most vulnerable Democratic Senate incumbent up this year. The 2004 election of Sen. David Vitter as the state's first popularly elected GOP senator showed Republicans could win the office -- and Democrats suffered two statewide election failures in 2006, a preface to Jindal's victory last year. But Landrieu, a moderate Democrat, has proven herself a "fighter" for the state on hurricane recovery and other issues, a spokesman contended - and she has been credited with running a strong race this year in a bid for a third term. Landrieu is running under a new election process that scrapped the state's unusual November open primary, in favor of more conventional primary and general election structure. Her Republican opponent is state Treasurer John Kennedy, who changed parties last year after running for Senate as a Democrat in 2004. Just how much of a threat he poses to Landrieu was in dispute in the closing weeks of the campaign. Three weeks before Election Day, the National Republican Senatorial Committee initially decided to pull its advertising on behalf of Kennedy to divert its resources elsewhere - only to reverse its decision and remain on the Louisiana airwaves two days later, citing internal polling showing Kennedy trailing only narrowly. For its part, the Landrieu campaign said its internal polling showed the incumbent with a comfortable lead heading into the homestretch.

Massachusetts. While Deval Patrick's gubernatorial victory in 2006 ended a decade and a half of Republican control of the statehouse, this remains the bluest of states, with an all-Democratic congressional delegation. The GOP gave Democratic Sen. John Kerry a free pass in 2002 by failing to file a candidate. And, despite general election opposition this time around, he is an overwhelming favorite for a fifth term in 2008. Kerry, the 2004 Democratic presidential candidate, ended speculation about his plans in early 2007, announcing he would seek re-election instead of making another run for the White House. While such well-known names as former White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card topped early GOP wish lists, it appeared this spring that the Republican nomination would go to Jim Ogonowski -- a retired Air Force officer who surprised many by running a competitive race against now-Democratic Rep. Niki Tsongas in a 2007 special election. But, already facing a steeply uphill race against Kerry, the state GOP was embarrassed when Ogonowski failed to file sufficient signatures to get on the ballot, leaving former CIA officer and Army veteran Jeff Beatty as the only Republican in the race. Beatty lost a 2006 bid against Democratic Rep. William Delahunt by a more than 2-1 margin. Meanwhile, Kerry got a bit roughed up in the September primary - in which his little-known challenger, attorney Ed O'Reilly, attracted nearly one-third of a vote. O'Reilly sought to make Kerry's 2003 vote authorizing President Bush to launch military action against Iraq a central issue of the campaign, and that apparently helped to attract a significant protest vote among the party's left-leaning base.

Michigan. First elected in 1978, Sen. Carl Levin has not had a close re-election race since 1984, and Michigan has voted Democratic in the last four presidential elections. Both Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow and Gov. Jennifer Granholm were perceived as vulnerable in the run-up to the 2006 election season because of an ailing state economy hammered by auto industry problems. But Republicans ultimately failed to make either race competitive. While Republicans hoped that Michigan's likely battleground status in the 2008 presidential election could help to attract a strong GOP Senate candidate, it didn't happen. The GOP field initially appeared limited to Levin's 2002 opponent, former state Rep. Andrew Raczkowski - whom Levin defeated by a 61-38 percent margin -- and state Rep. Jack Hoogendyk. However, Raczkowski ended his bid early this year after being called back to active duty in the Army Reserve, leaving the Senate nod to the little-known Hoogendyk.

Montana. With the chairmanship of the Finance Committee, Democratic Sen. Max Baucus appears on his way to winning a sixth term in a state that has shown a willingness to elect Democrats to statewide positions in recent years - notwithstanding that it gave nearly 60 percent of its vote to President Bush in both 2000 and 2004. In a sign of increasing Democratic strength in the West, Montana voters elected a Democratic governor in 2004 and ousted GOP Sen. Conrad Burns in 2006. This year, the state GOP this year not only failed to attract a top-tier challenger - now-GOP Rep. Dennis Rehberg, who held Baucus to 50 percent in 1996, opted to seek re-election instead - but went through a meltdown in the June primary when Bob Kelleher, an 85-year old perennial candidate, unexpectedly won the party's nomination. Kelleher - who, in the past, has run as both a Democrat and Green Party candidate - ran well ahead of two more favored Republicans, former state House Majority Leader Michael Lange and industrial facilities designer Kirk Bushman. Lange, who was removed as majority leader following a profane attack directed at Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer at the end of the 2006 legislative session, announced he would run as a write-in. Meanwhile, just weeks after winning the primary, Kelleher was denied the opportunity to speak to at the state Republican convention. That arguably left Baucus in better shape than six years ago, when his opponent, GOP state Sen. Mike Taylor, dropped out of the race in October due to a Democratic Party ad that Taylor charged had implied he was gay.

New Jersey. Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg decided to retire from the Senate in 2000, at the age of 76 -- and quickly came to regret it. He returned to Capitol Hill two years later when the ethics-related troubles of his archrival, then-Democratic Sen. Robert Torricelli, created a ballot opening. This time, he shows no signs of letting go. Now 84, Lautenberg represents a one-time swing state that has turned a distinct shade of blue in recent years: It has not elected a Republican senator since 1972. In a surprise move, Democratic Rep. Robert Andrews announced shortly before the April filing deadline he would challenge Lautenberg. The six other Democratic members of the state's congressional delegation lined up behind Lautenberg, who trounced Andrews in the June primary. Recent polls indicate that Lautenberg has potential vulnerabilities this fall due to his age, but his GOP opponent - former Rep. Dick Zimmer - nonetheless faces an uphill battle. Zimmer, who served in the House in the early 1990s, has been out of public office since losing to Torricelli in the Senate race 12 years ago. More recently, Zimmer - a lobbyist in recent years -- lost a 2000 comeback bid to return to the House. The Republicans did not have an easy time finding a candidate: Zimmer joined the race late and bested two other contenders in the June primary. He was slotted in for wealthy businessman Andrew Unanue, who was in the contest for less than three weeks before dropping out amid questions about whether he was a bona fide New Jersey resident. And Unanue got in only after another wealthy candidate initially favored by party leaders, real estate developer Anne Evans Estabrook, withdrew after suffering a minor stroke.

Rhode Island. Rhode Island's status as one of the most solidly Democratic states in the nation likely all but guarantees the re-election of popular Democratic Sen. Jack Reed. Reed -- who spent six years in the House before being elected to the Senate in 1996 -- was re-elected to a second term with 78 percent in 2002 against casino worker Robert Tingle, the only Republican to come forward to take on Reed again this year. In 2004, the state voted nearly 60 percent for Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. John Kerry of neighboring Massachusetts. And, in 2006, voters disenchanted with the GOP purged Sen. Lincoln Chafee from a seat that had been occupied by either Chafee or his late father, former GOP Sen. John Chafee, for three decades. The younger Chafee's defeat came despite distancing himself from the national party and Bush administration. Chafee quietly left the Republican Party last summer to become a political independent, and there have been rumblings that he might eventually run for mayor of Providence. A recent Brown University poll shows Reed to be the most popular politician in the state; before the selection of Delaware Sen. Joseph Biden as the Democrats' vice-presidential nominee, the attention Reed was receiving at home focused a lot more on his prospects as a running mate for the party's presidential candidate, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, than on his re-election contest. But Reed, who as a West Point graduate would have added military experience to a national ticket, in late July declared he had "no interest" in the vice presidency and that he wanted a third term in the Senate.

South Dakota. Before his hospitalization in late 2006, Sen. Tim Johnson's likely bid for a third term was seen as likely to become either a top-tier Senate race or a footnote of the 2008 election cycle. The difference was expected to be whether Republicans recruited GOP Gov. Mike Rounds to run against Johnson, who won his second term in 2002 by just 524 votes over then-GOP Rep. John Thune; Thune went on to oust Democratic Sen. Tom Daschle two years later. The early conventional wisdom about 2008 was placed on hold for months as Johnson recovered from a brain hemorrhage suffered just before the current Congress was sworn into office. Johnson returned home in April 2007 following a two month hospital stay and two months in a private rehabilitation facility. Out of respect for Johnson, little in the way of public campaigning was done by Republicans during his recovery. In September 2007, Johnson returned to the Senate floor for the first time since his hospitalization. And, in October, he announced he would seek re-election. Colleagues helped him raise money while he was recovering. Rounds, who had won re-election to a second term in 2006 by a landslide margin, ultimately declared he was not interested in another office - and Republican efforts to recruit former Lt. Gov. Steve Kirby were unavailing. That left the GOP without a well-known challenger. State Rep. Joel Dykstra won the party's nod in the primary, but is a distinct underdog despite the state's record of being reliably in the Republican column in presidential years.

West Virginia. West Virginians are not inclined to change their senators -- only three have represented the state since 1958. Democratic Sen. John (Jay) Rockefeller remains the state's junior senator despite serving since 1984, and he is seeking to add to his tenure by winning a fifth term this year. The GOP's favorite candidate, Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, is seeking re-election. Despite trending Republican in presidential races in the past decade, the state remains dominated by Democrats. The state Legislature has only a handful of Republicans, and only two Republicans hold statewide offices. Capito and the state's other most prominent Republican, Secretary of State Betty Ireland, both passed on challenging Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd in his successful bid for a ninth term in 2006. Rockefeller, whose standing in the state might be a notch below the iconic Byrd, is in some ways a more formidable candidate because of his relative youth -- he is 70, Byrd 90 -- and his deep pockets as the great-grandson and namesake of the founder of the Standard Oil empire. Rockefeller has not had to dip into his personal fortune in recent re-election races as he has fended off token opposition. That appears to be the situation again this year: His Republican opponent is former state Sen. Jay Wolfe, who lost to Rockefeller by a 63-37 percent margin in 2002.

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