Thursday, January 17, 2008

With most eyes on the presidential race, a potentially epochal year in Senate elections is taking shape. Almost half of the Republican Party’s 49 Senate seats are up for a vote this November, compared to 12 for Democrats. But that is only the first indicator of this year’s uneven terrain.

Also consider: At least 10 and usually 11 of these 12 Democratic seats are rated “safe” by the leading prognosticators. Seven of the 10 “safe” Democrats have served four or more terms. These include party fixtures such as Sens. Joe Biden, Dick Durbin, John Kerry and Jay Rockefeller. Only one Democratic seat, that of Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu, is realistically considered in play (some also say the same of South Dakota Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson’s seat). Not even counting fundraising advantages, favorable Democratic voter-identification numbers or turnout, it is clear that the Senate terrain for 2008 slopes steeply toward the Democratic Party. Here are the most hotly contested races in descending order of Republican vulnerability — eight in total worth watching. Ten months out, a Democratic gain of three to six seats seems likely. A Democratic gain of as many as eight seats is not out of the question, which would bring today’s Democratic caucus of 51 senators to the edge of a filibuster-proof majority.

Virginia. With Republican Sen. John Warner retiring, the popularity of former Gov. Mark Warner, a Democrat, couples with the purpling of Virginia to move this seat into favorable territory for Democrats. Mr. Warner will face former Republican Gov. Jim Gilmore, a strong conservative, not the moderate Rep. Tom Davis. Mr. Gilmore, who tested the presidential waters briefly last year before dropping out, citing fund-raising difficulties, faces a formidable obstacle in Mr. Warner, who brings solid financing and the “Warner Democrat” brand in a state trending blue.

New Hampshire. Following a 100-year Democratic landslide in the state legislature and a loss for both of New Hampshire’s Republican House members (Charlie Bass and Jeb Bradley), Republican Sen. John Sununu faces a tough re-election rerun. He defeated former Democratic Gov. Jeanne Shaheen by 20,000 votes in 2002, but will be painted as a rubber stamp for the Bush agenda in a state now called the “new Vermont” for its leftward political trend.

Colorado. The retirement of Republican Sen. Wayne Allard gives Democrats an opportunity to capitalize again on their recent success in Colorado. Democratic Rep. Mark Udall, cousin of New Mexico’s Democratic Senate hopeful and Rep. Tom Udall, will face former Republican Rep. Bob Schaffer. The strongly conservative Mr. Schaffer has polled well in recent months but faces the Mountain West’s recent Democratic headwinds and heightened party interest.

New Mexico. Retiring Republican Sen. Pete Domenici leaves his party in uncertain circumstances. All three of New Mexico’s House members are after this seat: Democratic Rep. Tom Udall and Republican Reps. Steve Pearce and Heather Wilson. In June, Mr. Pearce and Mrs. Wilson will square off, which raises financing and preparedness questions for November against Mr. Udall.

Minnesota. Polls show Republican Sen. Norm Coleman only a few points ahead of either of his possible Democratic challengers, comedian and left-wing provocateur Al Franken and trial lawyer Mike Ciresi. The two Democrats face off on Feb. 5. Which party will carry this seat must be considered uncertain, particularly when the incumbent is struggling to remain over the 50 percent mark in polls in a “swing state.”

Oregon. Republican Sen. Gordon Smith is likely to face Democratic establishment candidate Jeff Merkley, speaker of the state house, and is favored despite his state’s Democratic leanings. Much will likely depend on presidential coattails.

Maine. Moderate Republican Sen. Susan Collins is favored in this contest but Democratic Rep. Tom Allen‘s strong fund-raising promises a competitive race. As in Oregon, presidential coattails figure considerably.

Alaska. Incredibly, a scandalized Sen. Ted Stevens has caused a safe seat to enter into play now that the FBI has raided his home in a public-corruption probe. Mr. Stevens, the longest-serving Republican senator, faces a primary challenge and trailed Anchorage’s term-limited Democratic Mayor Mark Begich in one December poll.

Republican takeover targets. The only realistic target is Louisiana, where Mrs. Landrieu faces the same Republican trends that last year made Bobby Jindal just the third Republican governor of Louisiana since 1877.

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