Will Democrats Take the Senate? In a Word, No.

Democratic National Chairman Howard Dean is talking of retaking control of the Senate in the 2006 elections. With Republicans holding 55 seats, and having to defend only 15 of the 33 seats that are up this year, that would be a tall order for the Democrats. With Vice President Cheney able to cast a tie—breaker in a 50—50 Senate, the Democrats would have to pick up a net of six seats to wrest control of the chamber.

At the moment, there are six Republican—held seats in some degree of jeopardy. Those are the seats held by Conrad Burns in Montana, Lincoln Chafee in Rhode Island, Mike DeWine in Ohio, Rick Santorum in Pennsylvania, and Jim Talent in Missouri, plus the open seat in Tennessee being vacated by Bill Frist for a probably fruitless try for the White House. Hence, if the Democrats won all of these six races and also held the seats they currently control, some of which are in jeopardy, they could win control of the Senate.

Democrat—held seats that are in play include those of Robert Menendez, recently appointed in New Jersey, and two open seats being vacated by Paul Sarbanes in Maryland, and Mark Dayton in Minnesota. In other words, Democrats would have to go 9 for 9 in the hotly contested seats to win control of the Senate. That is very unlikely to happen, even if the Democrats have a generally good year. Democrats had a very good year in close Senate races in 2000, and Republicans had a very good year in the contested races in 2004. But neither side has swept all the close races.

There is one wild card in these considerations: will Mississippi Senator Trent Lott seek re—election? He has been keeping his thoughts to himself. [Editor's note: Senator has just announced he will seek re—election.] Were he to retire, a Democrat, former Attorney General Mike Moore (not the Michael Moore seated next to Jimmy Carter at the Democratic Convention  in 2004), would be favored to win the open seat. 

Following the 2004 elections, Republicans believed that the 2006 elections offered an opportunity to add to their gains from the 2004 cycle, when they picked up a net gain of 4 seats.  Several Democrats first elected to the Senate in 2000 by narrow margins — Ben Nelson in Nebraska, Maria Cantwell in Washington, Bill Nelson in Florida, and Debbie Stabenow in Michigan — all appeared potentially vulnerable. In addition, Republicans thought they had a shot at unseating North Dakota Senator Kent Conrad if they could convince the popular Governor John Hoeven to run, and even a shot at knocking off Robert Byrd in increasingly Republican West Virginia (Bush won the state by 13%) with Congresswoman Shelly Capito. 

The Republicans have done a poor job of getting their best potential candidates to run in these states with vulnerable Democrat senators.  In Washington, Dino Rossi, robbed of the Governorship on the third and most dishonest recount in King County in 2004, would have ridden a sympathy wave had he run for the Senate against Cantwell. He probably stood a 50/50 shot in this Democrat—leaning state (Kerry won by 7%) for the seat that Cantwell won by only 2,000 votes in 2000.  But Rossi had no interest in exchanging one Washington address (state) for another (DC), and will probably try again for Governor in 2008.

Hoeven decided not to run for the Senate seat in North Dakota, thereby enabling the Democrats to continue to hold both US Senate seats in a solidly red state that went 63% for Bush.

In Nebraska, Governor Mike Johanns accepted an appointment as Secretary of Agriculture. Johanns or former Nebraska football coach Tom Osborne likely would have been favored against Ben Nelson for the Senate seat in this heavily Republican state (Bush won 66%). But Osborne chose to run for Governor, so Nelson may have a rematch with Don Stenberg, the man he beat in 2000 for the open seat of Bob Kerrey.

In Florida, Governor Jeb Bush had no interest in running for the Senate after the completion of his second term as Governor, though he would have been favored to win had he chosen to run (he won by 13% in his last governor's race). Several Republican Congressmen who might have been competitive in the Florida Senate race, are instead competing for the nomination for Governor.  Katherine Harris, a favorite among conservative Republicans but probably not the best statewide candidate, is trailing badly in the polls against Nelson.

In Michigan, no Republican competing for the nomination runs close to Stabenow in early polling. Several House members declined to take on Stabenow, who won by only 1% in 2000.

Polls ten months out before a midterm election are an unreliable indicator of November results. But at the moment, the polls suggest that Democrats are poised to win several of the seats held by the five endangered Republican incumbents. 

Mike DeWine has pulled slightly ahead in the polls against all possible opponents in Ohio (a state Bush won by 2%, and in which the GOP is scandal—plagued). Jim Talent is running slightly behind Claire McCaskill in Missouri (a state that leans increasingly Republican, with Bush winning in 2004 by 7%). 

Conrad Burns is about even with his two possible challengers in Montana, after slipping badly in the last two months due to a statewide TV campaign linking him to the Abramoff scandal. Bush won in Montana by 20% but Democrats won most of the other statewide races in 2004, and Burns has had close races before. 

Rick Santorum trails badly against Bob Casey, Jr. in Pennsylvania (ten points), in a state Kerry won by 2% in 2004.  Lincoln Chafee may not even get nominated in Rhode Island (having to face Cranston mayor Stephen Laffey in a Republican primary). Rhode Island went to Kerry by 20% in 2004, but oddly has a Republican Governor, as well as Chafee, the Senate's most liberal Republican (the son of a former Governor and Senator).       

A review of the last four Congressional  election cycles provides a bit of comfort to the Republicans. In these 4 cycles, only 13 of 109 incumbents running for re—election to the Senate were defeated, 8 of them Republicans (Faircloth, D'Amato, Gorton, Roth, Grams, Abrahams, Ashcroft and Hutchinson). The Democrat incumbents defeated were: Mosely—Braun, Robb, Cleland, Carnahan, and Daschle.  In all, the challengers beat the incumbent in only 12% of the races. This is a much higher rate for defeating incumbents than in the House, but still not very high. The Republicans have in total 14 incumbents running. If they lose all five contested seats, that would be a 36% defeat rate, unusually high.

Among the Democrats, the only incumbent who appears to be in trouble is recently appointed Senator Robert Menendez in New Jersey. Menendez replaced John Corzine, who became Governor and then appointed Menendez to his old seat. Since Menendez was not elected Senator and may face opponents in the Democratic primary this year, his seat is in reality more of an open seat (with fewer advantages of incumbency) than the other Democrats defending their seats this year. The Republicans have settled on Tom Kean as the nominee, the son of the popular former Governor. Early polls show Kean very competitive with Menendez in a state which for the last 15 years has become reliably Democratic, though not always by large margins (Kerry won by 7%). 

While it is tough to defeat incumbents, both parties have had success winning the other party's open seats, particularly Republicans.  In the last 4 cycles, Republicans have held 7 of the 11 open seats they had to defend (losing seats in Indiana to Evan Bayh, Florida to Bill Nelson, Illinois to Barack Obama, and Colorado to Ken Salazar). But the GOP captured 9 of 14 Democratic held open seats, with Jim Bunning winning in Kentucky, George Voinovich in Ohio, John Ensign in Nevada, Norm Coleman in Minnesota, plus victories in five open seats formerly held by Democrats in the South in 2004, including David Vitter in Louisiana, Johnny Isakson in Georgia, Mel Martinez in Florida, Jim DeMint in South Carolina and Richard Burr in North Carolina.  In total, the Republicans have won the last nine open seat races in the South.

Slightly over half the time (52%) an open Senate seat changes hands between the parties.

If one counts Vermont as a Democratic seat (retiring senator Jim Jeffords), and New Jersey as an open seat, then in reality there are 4 Democrat—held open seats this cycle, and only one Republican—held open seat, in Tennessee.

In Tennessee, the Democrats have cleared the field for African—American Congressman Harold Ford, and the Republicans will have a contentious primary to pick their nominee. At the moment, the leading Republican nominees, Van Hilleary and Ed Bryant, run slightly ahead of Ford. Bush won Tennessee by 14% in 2004, and it appears to be growing more Republican in statewide federal races. Ford is a slight underdog, I think.

Republicans have a real shot not only in New Jersey, but also in Maryland and Minnesota.  In Maryland, Lt. Governor Michael Steele currently polls ahead of both of his possible opponents, former NAACP head Kweisi Mfume, and Congressman Ben Cardin. The Democratic primary fight will be a bitter one, which will only help Steele's efforts. Maryland is a heavily Democratic state (Kerry won by 13%), and has the 3rd highest African American percentage of the population in the country, at 30% (only Mississippi and Louisiana are higher). 

Steele, if elected, would be the first black Republican in the Senate since Ed Brooke of Massachusetts. Steele seems to be benefiting from a series of shameful attacks by opponents trying to demean his black identity (his real crime is being a Republican with a chance to win a Democratic held Senate seat), as well as some shenanigans directed out of Senator Schumer's office, with aides trying to dig up dirt on Steele by obtaining his confidential credit report.

In Minnesota, Republican Congressman Mark Kennedy will be the GOP nominee, and several Democrats are competing to run against him.  In the latest polling, Kennedy runs slightly behind two potential opponents, Amy Klobuchar, and Patty Wetterling, and ahead of two others, Ford Bell and Mike Ciresi. Minnesota has become more of a tossup state (Kerry won by 3%), and Norm Coleman beat Walter Mondale for the open Senate seat after Paul Wellstone's death in a plane crash in October 2002. 

In Vermont, Socialist Congressman Bernie Sanders will likely succeed Jim Jeffords. Vermont gave the nation Howard Dean, and soon its only (admittedly) socialist Senator.

Given the Republicans' track record in open seats, if they win 2 or 3 of the open seat races in New Jersey, Maryland, Minnesota, and Tennessee (which seems possible), that will serve as  a fallback if a few of their incumbents running for re—election are knocked off (as seems likely). 

In essence, the GOP is defending 6 of the 9 competitive seats. If they win 6, they hold at 55 seats. Based on current polls, they might win 4 or 5, which would result in a loss of a seat or two. There is an outside chance if Talent, DeWine and Burns hold on, that the GOP could retain its 55 seat majority by winning 3 of the 4 competitive open seat races (Maryland, Minnesota, Tennessee and New Jersey). 

In any case, unless the landscape changes quite a bit between now and November, this Fall will not be a disaster for the GOP in the Senate. 

Richard Baehr is the chief political correspondent of The American Thinker.