Crystal Ball: Dems Could Take Senate in 2006

Larry J. Sabato’ s Crystal Ball:

How could Democrats do it? First, they must hold all of their open seats (MD, MN, and possibly NJ). None of the three is an absolute slam-dunk for the Democrats, but Maryland and New Jersey are likely Democratic in the end. Minnesota’s situation is unclear, given the lack of a solid Democratic frontrunner, and Congressman Mark Kennedy has a fair-to-good chance to steal this seat from the Democrats. Yet if there is a national breeze blowing for the Democrats in November 2006, it will probably be felt in Democratic-leaning Minnesota.

Second, the Democrats must keep all endangered incumbents in the winners’ circle: Robert Byrd of West Virginia, Maria Cantwell of Washington, Kent Conrad of North Dakota, and the “Nelson Twins” (Bill of Florida and Ben of Nebraska–not Matthew and Gunnar). Conrad will be the most endangered if Governor John Hoeven (R) decides to challenge him. The other Democratic senators in this category are at least slight favorites to win another term currently.

Let’s say the Democrats luck out, and pick a strong candidate in Minnesota, with Governor Hoeven not running in North Dakota (or Conrad beating him if he runs), and all other open seats and threatened incumbents remaining in Democrats’ hands. This is far from impossible if 2006 turns out to be a Democratic year. This happy result for Democrats still leaves them six seats short of control. With Vice President Cheney presiding, the party needs 51 seats to organize.

Two Republican senators are in deep trouble, and may be ripe for the plucking. Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania is already losing to Democrat Bob Casey Jr. by double-digit margins in early tracking polls—an extraordinarily weak position for an incumbent this far out from an election. In Rhode Island Senator Lincoln Chafee faces a tough GOP primary with a conservative challenger, and then if he survives, an equally difficult general election race against the winner of the Democratic primary. In this heavily Democratic state, Chafee’s loss would not be terribly surprising. Yes, Santorum and Chafee are both survivors and incumbents, and they may be able to win despite daunting circumstances. But Democrats are right to eye them hungrily.

If the Democrats take both seats, the margin is 53R-47D. So where could Democrats find the remaining four seats? At the moment, there appear to be only five possibilities in the nation: the Tennessee open seat of retiring Senator Bill Frist (R), plus defeats of incumbent GOP senators Conrad Burns (MT), Mike DeWine (OH), Jon Kyl (AZ), and Jim Talent (MO). All of these are possible, none at the moment is likely.

The long and short of this analysis: Democrats have only a long-shot chance at Senate takeover, and they are short of opportunities to make it happen. Of course, if 2006 turns into a Democratic 1994, then even our mind-stretching list of upsets and perfect-D luck is a possibility. It’s too early to tell, but we wouldn’t bet on it, and we advise you not to bet on it either!


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