Friday, October 10, 2008

Friday Senate Line: 60 in Sight?

New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

What was once only a pipe dream is starting to look like a real possibility.

We speak not of Britney Spears' musical comeback but rather the prospect of Democrats controlling 60 seats -- a filibuster-proof majority -- following the November election.

In a huddle with reporters earlier this week in Washington, Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Chuck Schumer (N.Y.) acknowledged that his party's chances of reaching the 60-seat plateau were "better than they were two weeks ago" -- the result of an across-the-board collapse in Republican numbers due to the economic crisis and handling of the bailout bill by Congress. (Yes, we know Democrats control the House and Senate. But, the American public overwhelmingly blamed President Bush and House Republicans for the initial failure of the "rescue" legislation.)

And, respected non-partisan observers are also beginning to openly speculate about the possibility. In a must-read column earlier this week, Stu Rothenberg wrote: "Where I once wrote in this space that Democrats had a chance of reaching 60 seats in 2010, I now can't rule out 60 seats for this November."

Our take? Sixty seats for Democrats remains something less than a 50-50 proposition but a relatively plausible path to a filibuster-proof majority does exist.

Four Republican-held seats -- Virginia, New Mexico, Colorado and New Hampshire -- are either done deals for Democrats or getting there. In at least four others -- North Carolina, Oregon, Minnesota and Alaska -- the Republican incumbent is either tied or trailing their Democratic challenger.

That's eight seats where Democrats have any even money or better shot at takeovers on Nov. 4. And, assuming they can reelect Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) they must pick off one of three seats to get to 60: Kentucky, Georgia or Mississippi. (Scroll down to see which of that trio we believe presents Democrats with their best chance.)

Could Democrats run the table? Yes. The decided tilt of the national environment toward their party has grown even more pronounced in recent weeks. But, Kentucky, Georgia and Mississippi are less than friendly territory for Democrats at the federal level and the GOP incumbents in each state are doing everything they can to avoid being washed away in the wave.

Stay tuned.

As always, the number one ranked race on the Line is the most likely to switch parties in the fall. Agree or disagree with our picks? The comments section (eagerly) awaits.

To the Line!

10. Louisiana (D): Democrats are increasingly publicly confident about Landrieu's chances at reelection but the DSCC's decision to begin spending money on television against state Treasurer John Kennedy (R) belies that they still retain some nervousness about her chances. Republicans are taking an interesting strategic tact in this race -- painting the Landrieu race as voters' chance to continue the cleanup of Louisiana politics that began with the election of Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) last year. In a neutral political year, Landrieu would be in deep trouble. But this is not a normal political year. (Previous ranking: 9)

9. Kentucky (R): This election cycle has taught us to never say never in politics. We never thought Sen. Mitch McConnell, one of the savviest political minds in American politics, would be in a real race against Bruce Lunsford (D), whose sole distinction in politics before this race was two unsuccessful gubernatorial bids over the past five years. And yet, public polling of late has shown McConnell and Lunsford in a dead heat and the DSCC is now on TV bashing McConnell on the bailout. Will the underfunded National Republican Senatorial Committee respond in kind? And, if not, can McConnell withstand the ad onslaught? (Previous ranking: N/A)

8. Alaska (R): It's virtually impossible to handicap this race. Almost everything hangs on the outcome of the federal trial of Sen. Ted Stevens (R) currently in progress in Washington. The prosecution rested on Thursday, and Stevens's defense is now underway. If Stevens is convicted on any of the corruption charges against him, Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich (D) is the next Senator from the Last Frontier. If Stevens is acquitted, he could well win reelection. Fascinating stuff. (Previous ranking: 5)

7. Minnesota (R): The last 14 days have not been kind to Sen. Norm Coleman. Just when it looked like he was building a small but significant edge over comedian Al Franken (D), the economic crisis hit -- bringing the race back to dead even. And now Coleman is caught up in allegations over whether or not he accepted suits from a contributor -- a controversy that caused, perhaps, the most awkward press conference in the history of politics earlier this week. Independent candidate Dean Barkley remains the x-factor in the contest; he is gaining support by the day but who does his rise hurt more? (Previous ranking: 7)

6. Oregon (R): Democratic strategists told us almost 18 months ago that Sen. Gordon Smith was going to lose. And, even after a series of high-profile recruiting failures left them with the less-than-impressive state Rep. Jeff Merkley (D) as their candidate, these same strategists stuck by their prediction on Smith. And, if recent polling is to be believed, they were right. Smith seems stuck in the low to mid 40s, not a great place for an incumbent to be a month before the election -- especially one who sits in a decidedly Democratic-leaning state. (Previous ranking: 6)

5. North Carolina (R): Sen. Elizabeth Dole is nearing the point of no return in her reelection bid against state Sen. Kay Hagan (D). A series of recent polls show Hagan ahead and party strategists say that internal polling confirms the public results. What happened? The DSCC effectively cast Dole as someone with tenuous (at best) ties to the Tarheel State and who stood too close to President George W. Bush over the last six years. And now, with 26 days before the election, Dole is on television with a 60-second ad trying to reassert her ties to the state. Not good. (Previous ranking: 8)

4. New Hampshire (R): In the three polls conducted in the race between Sen. John Sununu and former Governor Jeanne Shaheen (D) this month, the Democrat has leads of nine, eight and five points. More troublesome for Sununu is that he has trailed in this contest since it began nearly two years ago. Incumbents who spend that long behind almost never win. (Previous ranking: 4)

3. Colorado (R): Almost no one on either side of the political aisle believes that former Rep. Bob Schaffer (R) is going to beat Rep. Mark Udall (D). And yet, despite the well-documented struggles of Schaffer, Udall has yet to put the race out of reach. Why not? That question haunts paranoid Democratic strategists. (Previous ranking: 3)

2. New Mexico (R): The only question left to ponder in this open-seat contest is whether Rep. Heather Wilson (R) could have kept it closer against Rep. Tom Udall (D) than has Rep. Steve Pearce (R). Probably but it's hard to imagine either Republican winning in this climate. (Previous ranking: 2)

1. Virginia (R): O-V-E-R. (Previous ranking: 1)

By Chris Cillizza | October 10, 2008; 6:00 AM ET | Category: Senate , The Line
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