By Political Director
updated 12/18/2006 1:50:46 PM ET 2006-12-18T18:50:46
ON THE TRAIL

One reason why Republicans were particularly depressed about losing the Senate this cycle was the demoralizing realization that the party may not have another realistic shot at getting the majority back until 2012.

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In fact, Democrats weren't supposed to pick up any seats in 2006, because the GOP appeared to have the better opportunities. After all, despite holding just 45 seats (counting Vermont independent Jim Jeffords'), Democrats had to defend 18. Furthermore, four of the five Democrats who knocked off GOP incumbents in 2000 were facing their first re-election contests this year.

It's tough to rank the next round of races this early, because it's inevitable that they will be shaken up as incumbents choose whether or not to seek re-election. So for now, with the help of Hotline state editor Quinn McCord, I'm breaking the list into four groups: a current top 10 based on vulnerability; a retirement "watch list"; the recruitment-dependent contests; and the likely "fuhgeddaboudits."

The Top 10 Most Vulnerable
1. Colorado (Republican Wayne Allard): The elections of '04 and '06 solidified Colorado as a purple state, and the race will be competitive whether Allard retires or not. There's a debate within our office about whether the GOP would be better off with Allard running or not. The pro-Allard side maintains that if the rising star of the state GOP (outgoing Rep. Bob Beauprez) can get thumped as badly as he did, then why risk opening up fissures inside the party (especially with Rep. Tom Tancredo lurking around)? The anti-Allard camp says he's not the most energetic guy and can come across as too stale against a dynamic potential foe like Democratic Rep. Mark Udall.

2. Louisiana (Democrat Mary Landrieu): The good news for Landrieu is that Republicans will be focused on winning the governorship and other state races in 2007. The bad news is that Democrats weren't even strong enough to seriously contest the two statewide positions elected in '06 (secretary of state and insurance commissioner). Landrieu has benefited from drawing weak opponents, and the GOP may not have another recruit like Sen. David Vitter or Rep. Bobby Jindal to knock off Landrieu.

3. Maine (Republican Susan Collins): Like Allard, Collins already has a solid Democratic foe. Rep. Tom Allen represents half the state and has been re-elected by wide margins over the past decade. The most important thing to remember about Collins is that she's not her Senate colleague, Republican Olympia Snowe. While she votes like her and has created a centrist image, she still sits in Snowe's shadow. The Northeast was a killing field for Republicans in '06, and if the blue trend continues, Collins may do everything right and still lose (see outgoing Sen. Lincoln Chafee, R-R.I.).

4. Minnesota (Republican Norm Coleman): Sen.-elect Amy Klobuchar's 20-point blowout win is encouraging to Democrats and worrisome to Republicans. But Democrats would have to be very lucky to avoid a fierce primary for a second cycle in a row. And Coleman's secret weapon could be Al Franken. If the comedian runs, he's not going to clear the primary field. There are a lot of Democrats who sat out '06 in favor of Klobuchar (like millionaire trial lawyer Mike Ciresi) who probably won't do that again. Franken's presence raises the profile of the race and benefits Coleman financially.

5. New Hampshire (Republican John Sununu): Two years ago at this time, there was a friendly, seemingly perfectly situated incumbent Republican from a reddish state who we deemed potentially vulnerable but probably strong enough to win re-election. That Republican? Missouri Sen. Jim Talent. There are plenty of similarities between Talent and Sununu (beyond the glasses). They are popular with colleagues, reporters and constituents. But Sununu is facing a challenging demographic shift that appears to be taking place in the Granite State, which is why his '02 foe, Jeanne Shaheen, is flirting with another run. But if Shaheen says no, the Democratic bench is filled with untested candidates.

6. Oregon (Republican Gordon Smith): Is it a coincidence that the most recent Republican senator to break from Bush on Iraq post-'06 is up for re-election in a blue state in '08? The fact is, Smith is speaking for a lot of Republicans representing swing states or even blue states who are desperate to have Iraq off the table by '08, because if Iraq continues to be viewed as Bush's war (translation: the GOP's war), Smith and Republicans like him just can't survive. The Democratic bench is full of solid second-tier candidates who, with luck and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee's help, could be serious challengers.

7. South Dakota (Democrat Tim Johnson): The fact that Johnson is ranked this low on our initial list is good news for him. Short of Gov. Mike Rounds, there isn't an obvious Republican to challenge him. But the GOP needs to put more Democratic seats in play, and with Sen. John Thune on the short list of potential VP running mates, finding a credible challenger is all the more important for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

8. Iowa (Democrat Tom Harkin): GOP Rep. Steve King sounds like he wants to run, but the ghosts of former Reps. Greg Ganske, Jim Ross Lightfoot, and Tom Tauke are surely giving him pause. Still, some serious Iowa Republican will see all the national press and feel the need to fill the vacuum and take advantage of the potential fundraising boon a presidential contest can provide. The ideal move for incoming NRSC Chair John Ensign (Nev.) would be to buck the trend of recruiting sitting/former House members and convince former GOP Gov. Terry Branstad to come out of retirement.

9. Montana (Democrat Max Baucus): Baucus never performs as well in presidential years as he does in off-years. Still, no big GOP names have shown any interest in this race. But this may be a "statement race" for the GOP to prove that the last two cycles in Montana were flukes, and that it's time to reassert the GOP as the party of the West -- and one that's open to libertarians.

10. New Jersey (Democrat Frank Lautenberg): Despite Republicans' dismal track record over the past 30 years, they never completely punt on Senate races here. But there's a big difference between keeping a race technically "competitive" and actually winning.

Retirement watch
These nine senators are either contemplating bids for president (and consequently might give up their seats) or have been mentioned as possible retirees. Any open seat is initially seen as competitive, so should one or more of these folks retire, expect the race to vault into our top five.

  • Alaska (Republican Ted Stevens): His public comments recently have him leaning toward re-election despite early '06 threats to quit simply over the "bridge to nowhere" and ANWR fights.
  • Delaware (Democrat Joseph Biden): If Biden can run for both, he will. Delaware has a late filing deadline, so he won't have to decide until late in the spring of '08. \
  • Idaho (Republican Larry Craig): The whispers about Craig's political future may be driven by Democratic hopes of creating an open seat. Craig hasn't made any real retirement noise, but we're including his seat on our watch list because he is closing in on 30 years of congressional service.
  • Massachusetts (Democrat John Kerry): What is he going to do? He wants to run for president but knows the botched Iraq joke has postponed his plans. It seems that if he determines he's a viable White House candidate, he'll go all-in and do something dramatic like quit the Senate immediately and pull a "White House or home" candidacy. If he doesn't run for president, might he tire of the Senate? Perhaps.
  • Mississippi (Republican Thad Cochran): Cochran's decision to wait a year to announce his plans probably helps Republicans more. GOP Reps. Chip Pickering and Roger Wicker can continue to raise federal money, while the most likely Democrats, such as former Attorney General Mike Moore, twiddle their thumbs.
  • Nebraska (Republican Chuck Hagel): Hagel said he has three options in '08: running for president, running for re-election or getting out of politics completely. The fact that he, himself, has offered the retirement option tells us he's somewhat serious about it. With so many rumors about other candidates floating around, we wonder if he'll get the itch to join a presidential ticket (of any party) and skip re-election.
  • New Mexico (Republican Pete Domenici): Of the senators who say they intend to run, it's easiest to picture Domenici changing his mind. He's probably untouchable for re-election, but his retirement would vault this seat to the highest level of competitiveness.
  • North Carolina (Republican Elizabeth Dole): Democrats continue to murmur that Dole may retire, but that may be wishful thinking. Whatever stock she may or may not have in national GOP circles, she's still an institution.
  • Virginia (Republican John Warner): Three months ago, it seemed his retirement was a done deal (just ask GOP Rep. Tom Davis). But recently Warner has been offering reasons why he should stay (namely, seniority).

Worth watching for the recruiting process
If the right recruits are lured into these races (in addition to some on the fuhgeddaboudit list), they could become competitive. Looking back on Kentucky Sen. Jim Bunning in '04 and outgoing Virginia Sen. George Allen this year, sometimes it pays to recruit someone semi-seriously and put a little pressure on a presumed solid incumbent to see if they can still perform.

  • Illinois (Democrat Dick Durbin): Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich's 10-point victory (with a Green candidate drawing 10 percent) demonstrates the difficulty Republicans are having in this state. Democrats finally control all of the statewide offices.
  • Michigan (Democrat Carl Levin): Levin has very little cash on hand, but that's probably a sign of his confidence. Republicans are very likely discouraged by the comfortable wins Democrats for statewide office this year, and Levin would probably be even tougher to beat.
  • Tennessee (Republican Lamar Alexander): Will outgoing Rep. Harold Ford Jr. run again? We hear he's got a longer list of reasons to run than not. That said, Alexander is no Bob Corker (no offense, Mr. Sen.-elect).
  • Kentucky (Republican Mitch McConnell): Given the reticence of so many Democrats to challenge Gov. Ernie Fletcher, it's difficult to see where a strong challenge to McConnell would come from. Still, he seems unlikely to get a complete pass.
  • Wyoming (Republican Mike Enzi): 2006 proved that 70 percent of voters here are willing to vote for a Democrat, and nearly 50 percent will even do so for a federal office. But a GOP incumbent would need to have committed quite a fireable offense to lose re-election here, and Enzi doesn't seem to fit that bill.

Potential fuhgeddaboudits

  • Alabama (Republican Jeff Sessions): Remind us again why Rep. Artur Davis (D) is encouraged by Ford's run in Tennessee this year? Ford had a weaker opponent, a less Republican state and a Democratic wind at his back and still lost (though doing better than many thought he would). This state just doesn't seem inclined to elect Democratic senators of any race at this point. And Davis just landed a slot on the House Ways and Means committee -- a big reason not to vacate his seat.
  • Arkansas (Democrat Mark Pryor): Although it's a red-tinted state at the presidential level, the GOP bench here is weak beyond imagination, and local voters have little problem electing Democrats in statewide elections.
  • Georgia (Republican Saxby Chambliss): Democrats have had a pretty miserable five years here. But that might give them even more incentive not to give Chambliss a pass in '08, to say nothing of the national Democratic anger over Max Cleland's loss in '02.
  • Kansas (Republican Pat Roberts): The state certainly showed a blue streak this year. Still, it's worth remembering that Democrats haven't elected a senator here since the '30s.
  • Oklahoma (Republican Jim Inhofe): Although Inhofe may be despised by some national Democrats, local officials realize that challenging a GOP incumbent in a presidential year is a tall order, and no one is rushing for the nomination.
  • Rhode Island (Democrat Jack Reed): Even if Reed were half the senator that he is, there would be no hope of defeating him in this deep-blue state.
  • South Carolina (Republican Lindsey Graham): Even GOP incumbents with quirks tend to win re-election here. The Democrats' best shot -- and probably only hope -- is if Graham loses to an ultra-conservative primary challenger, but even that is highly speculative at this point.
  • Texas (Republican John Cornyn): Democrats just haven't shown the ability to win statewide elections here over the past few cycles. And it would take massive amounts of money to bump off an incumbent in this huge state.
  • West Virginia (Democrat Jay Rockefeller): He's still a retirement possibility (he's a spring chicken compared to Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd), but if he runs, the GOP bench is probably too thin to challenge him.

Copyright 2012 by National Journal Group Inc.

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