With the US Presidential and Congressional elections only fifteen months away, Dan Hamilton takes a look at the tough Senate races that lie ahead. His views are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of BritainAndAmerica.
The utterly-uninspiring Wayne Allard, who has held this seat since 1996, is honouring his pledge to serve a maximum of two terms in the Senate and is retiring in 2008. Having won his races in 1996 and 2004 by less than 3%, he would always have faced a difficult campaign in 2008.
Colorado narrowly voted for George W Bush in 2004 but it would be fair to say that the Republican’s traditional grip on the state, as in the case of Virginia, is weakening. Their internal party machinery in the state is in turmoil following the loss of the state’s other Senate seat in 2004 to the then Attorney General Ken Salazar and the Governorship and a congressional seat in 2006.
Whilst the popular Democratic Congressman Mark Udall has been on the record since 2004 as a challenger for the Senate seat (regardless of Allard’s decision), the Republicans appear to be saddled with former Congressman Bob Schaffer as their candidate. The Republicans would love former Governor Bill Owens to run, yet he has shown no inclination to give up the lucrative directorships and lobbying contracts afforded to senior former politicians in the United States. For a state that is increasingly moderate, Schaffer’s ultra-conservative positions on virtually every issue will make it extremely difficult for the Republicans to hold onto this seat.
Aged eighty, Elizabeth Taylor’s former husband John Warner is one of the most respected and popular members of the United States Senate and a political God in his home state of Virginia for which he has sat in the Senate since 1980. Why then, do I think this seat will be at the forefront of the Senate battleground in 2008? Because John Warner, despite his public protestations to the contrary, is more than likely to retire.
In recent years, Virginia has enjoyed some high profile flirtations with the Democratic Party, ranging from the election of Mark Warner (no relation) and Tim Kaine as Governor in 2001 and 2005 respectively and perhaps most famously, Jim Webb’s ousting of the then Republican Presidential front-runner George Allen in the 2006 Senate race. Political commentators have been quick to point out that Virginia is no longer the reliably “red” Republican state it once was, despite not supporting a Democrat for President since the 1960s. The slippage of the Republican’s grip on this state is, in most part, due to the dramatic growth of the Democrat-leaning “commuterville” suburbs to the north of the state (“NoVa”) which lie just below the Democratic bastion of Washington DC. These suburbs delivered Jim Webb the crucial margin he needed for his 9,000 vote margin over George Allen in 2006 and Tim Kaine’s comfortable (47%-53%) victory over the state’s former Attorney General Jerry Kilgore in 2005.
So where does this leave the Republicans?
For several months, Mark Warner, who enjoyed an approval rating in the state of more than 70% despite raising taxes and implementing a social agenda that can only generously be described as an anathema to the majority of voters in the state, flirted with a run for the Presidency. To everyone’s shock, he announced late last year that he wouldn’t run. Despite bailing on a Presidential run, is on the record as saying he wants to return to elective politics in the near future. Could a John Warner retirement present such an opportunity? If John retires and Mark wants the seat, it’s his.
If Mark Warner chooses to pursue the open Governor’s seat in 2009 (Virginia Governors are limited to only one consecutive term, thus Tim Kaine cannot seek re-election) then it is quite likely the Republicans will keep this seat in the form of Congressman Tom Davis. Davis is in the same moderate mould as John Warner and has successfully fought off challenges in his own, marginal constituency in the crucial Northern Virginia suburbs.
John Warner is safe. Mark Warner would win easily. Without Mark Warner, Tom Davis would be a clear front-runner. Given recent history, however, do not underestimate the Republican Party’s ability to throw away elections in Virginia that they should be winning easily. Just ask George Allen.
For those of you who followed the last US Senate elections, the closest possible electoral parallel one can draw with the race that is shaping up in Maine in 2008 is Lincoln Chafee’s ousting in Rhode Island: a popular, genuinely independent-minded Republican sitting for a solidly Democratic state versus a party-line opponent who is seeking to unfairly tie them to their woefully unpopular President.
In terms of their candidate recruitment, the Democrats could not have wished for a better nominee than Congressman Tom Allen. Allen, the Congressman for the Maine’s largest city, Portland and various smaller towns that comprise nearly half of the acreage of the state is off to a flying state, holding $1.7 million in his campaign bank account.
That said, beating Susan Collins will be no walk in the park. According to the latest opinion polls by Survey USA, she has an in-state approval rating of 70%, second only to her fellow Republican Senator from Maine, Olympia Collins and has banked $2.3 million for next year.
As a result of her popularity, Collins has to start the race as the favourite but, then again, so did Chafee. Her survival depends on one thing and one thing alone: her ability to portray herself as a politically-independent moderate. This will involve distancing herself from President Bush (who has an approval rating in the state of less than 20%) and the war in Iraq, a conflict she has backed earnestly as Chairman and Republican ranking-member on the Senate Homeland Security Committee. If she fails, say “hello” to Senator Tom Allen.
Of all the Republicans up for re-election in 2008, none is at more risk than John Sununu.
Sununu is an idiosyncratic figure who has carved out a staunchly conservative reputation in a state that can probably be best described as libertarian in its political leanings.
In 2002, Sununu defeated the then-Governor Jeanne Shaheen by a close margin of around 4% against the backdrop of a popular Republican President and Congress. The same most certainly cannot be said for 2008, particularly in New Hampshire where Bush holds an approval rating of a mere 14%. Building on the coat-tales of the massively popular Democratic Governor John Lynch who polled 71% in his re-election effort and unpopularity of the Bush administration, the two Republican Congressman for the state were convincingly ousted in 2006.
Despite pontificating for the past six months about whether or not she will run, it appears that Jean Shaheen is now likely to seek a re-match with Sununu. If polls are to be believed, a hypothetic match-up between the Senator and former Governor shows a Shaheen lead of in excess of 20%. It’s hard to see how such a lead could be overcome. She has promised to announce her intentions soon.
Shaheen’s alternatives as Democratic nominee include the Mayor of Portsmouth, Steve Marchand and Katrina Swett, who lost a race for Congress in 2002. Whilst polling shows Sununu leading these challengers by more than 10% based upon early polling, they will prove formidable challengers even if their campaigns rely entirely upon the coattails Governor Lynch’s re-election campaign and the state’s likely Democratic-lean in the Presidential contest.
If Shaheen runs, the seat is hers. A generic Democratic opponent would be no worse than evens to defeat Sununu.
Minnesota has not supported a Republican Presidential candidate since Richard Nixon in 1972 and was the only of the fifty states to support Walter Mondale's eccentric Presidential bid in 1984. This fact alone is enough to guarantee the incumbent Republican Senator Norm Coleman a tough race in the 2008 Presidential year.
Coleman's passage to the Senate was an unusual one. Originally elected as Mayor of the staunchly-Democratic city of St Paul, he switched parties in 1994 and ran as the Republican nominee for Governor in 1996. In 2002, he launched a campaign for the US Senate against the darling of the American left, Paul Wellstone. With less than a month to go before polling day, Wellstone and his wife were killed in a plane crash on the way to a campaign event, leading to his replacement on the ballot paper with former Vice-President Walter "Fritz" Mondale. Mondale enjoyed an initial lead over Coleman yet watched his polling numbers go into freefall after Paul Wellstone's memorial service was hijacked by overzealous Mondale supporters screaming "Fritz" over the hymns and readings throughout the service. In contrast, Coleman launched a round of sober adverts calling on the state to "unite" after the tragedy and focus on the future. He narrowly defeated Mondale on Election Day.
Since his election, Coleman has remained conscious of the Democratic leanings of his state (which elected his Senate partner, Amy Klobuchar, by a 20% margin in 2006) and has painted himself as a political moderate, despite his relatively conservative voting record.
He currently leads his two declared challengers, multi-millionaire Mike Ciresci and high-profile comedian Al Franken by a comfortable margin. Ciresci is worth up to $200 million (and is willing to dip into his own pockets) whilst Franken has already raised $2 million this year, leading to the inevitable conclusion that this is going to be a hugely expensive race. Coleman has raised $4 million so far.
This election will certainly be close but Coleman has made a much stronger start than some of his Republican colleagues - John Sununu being a good example - who are facing contests in considerably more right-leaning states. On a morbid note, the Minneapolis bridge collapse last week can only be a good thing for the Senator, granting him tens of hours of free air-time in the hugely expensive Minnesota media market.
Mary Landrieu, daughter of the legendary former Mayor of New Orleans Moon Landrieu and sister of Lieutenant Governor Mitch Landrieu, may well face a tough fight in 2008.
Having attempted and failed to recruit Congressman Charles Boustany, the Republicans are now keen, believe it or not, to recruit the Democrat State Treasurer John Kennedy as their candidate. In Louisiana, it is considered perfectly acceptable to switch parties back-and-forth, so such a move would be unlikely to have electoral consequences in itself. Half of the state’s congressmen have, at one time or another, been a member of another party. Another potentially tough challenger to Landrieu is Suzanne Haik Terrell, the feisty candidate Landrieu defeated by 53% to 47% in 2002.
Landrieu’s 6% margin of victory, just as with the Republican’s failure to win the Governor’s mansion in 2003 by a similar margin, can be prescribed to one factor: high turnout amongst New Orelans’ black community. Despite the fact Louisiana is a solidly Republican state in most years, Democrats are often able to win state-wide races by focussing their efforts upon turning out support in the city to the exclusion of nearly all other areas. A disturbing expression, “Katrina redistricting”, has emerged to describe the possible impact of the floods upon the possible outcome of this Senate race and future elections. It would not be incorrect to say that the voters who delivered Landrieu’s 6% - or 42,012 vote – margin of victory in 2002 are no longer living in the state, rather sheltered-housing in other cities across the United States.
As a result of the fact Louisiana has gubernatorial elections in “off years” – the latest showdown is scheduled for November 2007 – it would be fair to say that this election campaign hasn’t really got underway yet. Let’s wait and see how things develop.
Since her election to the US Senate in 2002, Elizabeth Dole has been a stoic, yet uninspiring presence in the legislature. Her performance as the National Republican Senatorial Committee during the 2006 rout has hardly covered her with glory, the party losing six seats and handing control to the Democrats. Her approval rating in the state is a mere 46%.
It is clear that the Democrats believe they are in with a chance in this seat, yet to this date have been unable to secure a high profile challenger to Dole. The state’s popular Democratic Governor Mike Easley will be term-limited in 2008, yet has suggested he will not challenge the Senator whilst Congressman Brad Miller has also recently announced he will not challenge Dole, despite relatively encouraging opinion polls showing him to be in with a shot.
Over the past two weeks, the Democrats have become increasingly excited about the possible candidacy of Grier Martin, a State Representative. A recent poll shows him trailing Dole by only 6%.
Dole, however, remains the very firm favourite in this election. She has immense fundraising prowess and defeated Bill Clinton’s former Whitehouse Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles in 2002 by a larger margin than initially expected.
Republicans across the United States were delighted in 2004 when the state’s former Congressman John Thune defeated the Democratic Leader in the Senate after his attempt to defeat Senator Tim Johnson in 2002 failed by less than 500 votes. In 2008, Johnson is up for re-election.
Despite the fact Johnson has been laid-up in hospital since suffering a serious stroke in January, the Republicans have yet to find a credible candidate to challenge him. It is not yet clear if he will seek re-election. If Johnson does not seek re-election in 2008, the seat should be safe for the Democrats in the form of stunning Congresswoman Stephanie Herseth-Sandlin who was re-elected in 2006 with nearly 70% of the vote in this solidly-Republican state.
In terms of a party-change, this seat will only become interesting if the Republican Governor Mike Rounds decides to get into the race. He enjoys massive popularity inside the state and would attract millions of dollars in contributions from conservative groups across the United States as a result of the tough anti-abortion legislation he enacted as Governor. In the unlikely case of Rounds deciding to run, expect an electoral bloodbath with Herseth. The likely victor? Who knows.
Moderate Republican Senator Gordon Smith is up for re-election in 2008 and should, on paper, be massively vulnerable. Al Gore and John Kerry carried the state by margins of 1% and 4% respectively. The state’s other Senator, Democrat Ron Wyden was re-elected in 2004 by a near-30% margin.
In terms of finding a top-flight challenger to take on Smith, the Democrats have tried and failed. And failed. And failed. In close succession, the popular Congressmen Pete De Fazio (who polls showed leading Smith by 43%-37%), Earl Blumenauer and David Wu all declined offers from the Democratic National Senatorial Committee of millions of dollars in funding to challenge Smith.
Gordon Smith is a clever politician who understands his state. He withdrew his support for the Iraq war before it was politically trendy and enjoys widespread respect for his moderate stances on social and environmental issues in this Democratic state.
In the past week, the Speaker of the Oregon House of Repesentatives Jeff Merkley has announced he will challenge Smith. Merkley is already trotting out the staid “George Bush and Gordon Smith are leading us in the wrong direction” and “I will work to solve the problems Oregonians care about” party mantras, possibly a reason the New York Times described him as an “establishment” Democratic pick.
Merkley is a worthy candidate but it appears, at least at this stage, that Gordon Smith will have a far easier ride in 2008 than he really ought to.
Ted Stevens, the longest continuously-serving Republican Senator in US history, is up for re-election in 2008. A stalwart defender in the Senate of the “pork barrel” politics of infrastructure procurement that is so crucial to the economic survival of small states, he has championed the construction of Alaska’s $223 “bridge to nowhere”, connecting less than 30 people to the mainland and has championed opening up the state’s wildlife refuge to oil drilling for decades.
Whilst Stevens remains genuinely popular in the state, storm clouds have started to gather around his re-election bid. Following an ongoing FBI investigation of his son, State Senator Ben Stevens, the police raided his holiday home in Alaska last week as part of their probe into an oil company that has received in excess of $30 million in public contracts since 2000. According to news reports, the FBI spent several hours photographing every inch of his home, his wine collection being of “particular interest” to the feds.
Regardless of whether or not he is cleared of all the allegations facing him at present, if you through enough mud, some sticks. For this reason alone, it is likely that Stevens will be forced to suffer the indignity of even having to make even a token effort at re-election in a state he has served since 1968.
Could get interesting…
As with Ted Stevens in Alaska, Pete Domenici is a hugely respected and popular figure in his home state of New Mexico. As Chairman of the Senate Energy Committee, his work was crucial in steering significant federal funds to his state, where he has been a Senator since the 1970s.
Whilst it is only a distant possibility that he will face a concerted challenge from a generic Democratic nominee (possibly Martin Chavez, the Mayor of Albuquerque), he has been under fire for the past few months for his involvement in the politically-motivated sacking of five Government laywers. He is facing an investigation by the Senate’s Ethics Committee.
Chuck Hagel likes to think of himself as a radical: an outside battling against a broken political system, a moderate fighting an unpleasant brand of ultra-conservatism and an enlightened man swimming in a sea of political madness. In reality, Hagel has worked in politics on-and-off for forty years and has one of the most, if not the most, conservative voting records in the US Senate. The only notable area in which he has broken from the conservative movement is on the issue of the war in Iraq, a topic upon which he has grown increasingly outspoken in recent months.
A couple of months ago, he called a press conference, excitedly creating the impression that he was either going to announce his retirement from the Senate or mount a campaign for the Presidency. He enraged the assembled press by announcing they would have to “wait and see” on both counts.
Jon Bruning, the state’s Attorney General, initially announced that he would run for the Senate only in the event of Hagel’s retirement yet has now declared that he will challenge him the Republican primary. In addition to this, the state’s former Governor (1978-1986) and Senator (1988-2000) Bob Kerrey has indicated strongly that he is interested in returning to politics in 2008, yet is not inclined to directly challenge his friend Hagel who he served alongside in the Senate for four years.
There are three possible scenarios. Firstly, if Hagel retires, Kerrey would be a clear favourite to defeat Bruning. Secondly, Bruning could very well win the Republican primary – recent polls show him leading Hagel by 10+% - leading to Hagel splitting the Republican vote by mounting a Joe Lieberman-style Independent campaign that allows Kerrey to eke out a victory with less than 40% of the vote. Thirdly, Hagel wins an easily re-election having defeated Bruning in the primary. This could get very interesting.
A Senate seat in Wyoming would never usually be in contention for a Democrat. Even now, it’s only a distant possibility that it may be.
In June, Senator Craig Thomas lost his battle with leukaemia, forcing the Democratic Governor Dave Freudenthal to choose from a shortlist of three Republicans put forward to him by the state committee of the party: Tom Sansonetti, State Treasurer Cynthia Lummis and State Senator John Barrasso. Barrasso won the appointment and must now face a “special election” in 2008 to fill the remaining four years of Thomas’ term. Barrasso is more than likely to win this contest by a landslide.
The stumbling block for Barrasso could very well be the man who appointed him the seat: Governor Freudenthal. A Democratic Governor in a state that gave George W Bush 69% at the 2004 election, the 70% he polled to win re-election in 2006, he has the one of the highest approval ratings of any Governor in the country. As unlikely as it is he will choose to run, he’d beat Barrasso easily.
Daniel Hamilton is a Runnymede Borough Councillor.