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updated 7/9/2008 1:32:11 PM ET 2008-07-09T17:32:11
ON THE TRAIL

It’s no longer just wishful thinking among party insiders that Democrats could net nine Senate seats in November and score a 60-seat majority. The question is whether they can do it with a focus on red states, and without picking off Republican seats in the bluest states on the board.

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It’s possible, though not likely -- and the question is more than academic.

Demographics and the political climate alone should be enough to put Republicans Susan Collins of Maine and Norm Coleman of Minnesota on the ropes. The latest polling from those states shows Barack Obama with double-digit leads over John McCain. Even so, Collins and Coleman both enjoy comfortable leads. The latest polling from Maine showed Collins up 56 percent to 31 percent over Rep. Tom Allen (D). In Minnesota, a recent Quinnipiac poll showed Coleman ahead of satirist and former radio personality Al Franken by 10 percentage points, 51-41.

While Collins sits in the shadow of GOP colleague Olympia Snowe, she has managed to carve out her own identity as a hard worker with a moderate profile. Her personal appeal means that over-the-top attack ads may be unbelievable and ineffective. The big question, in a year when the Republican brand is so toxic, is whether she can transcend her party label. And will her personal appeal hold up when the race is about her contrast with Allen on issues?

In Minnesota, Franken’s miscues and baggage have drawn the media’s attention for the last few weeks, undoubtedly helping Coleman. The question is whether Franken can shift the focus from his troubles to the Democrat-friendly political environment. His newest ad attacks lobbyists and Big Oil.

Meanwhile, in Oregon, Republican incumbent Gordon Smith has a narrow lead over Jeff Merkley, the state’s House Speaker. Again, this is a state Obama should carry easily. Democrats are positioned best of all in New Hampshire, where former Gov. Jeanne Shaheen has a double-digit lead over incumbent John Sununu.

But in many ways, it’s red states where Democratic candidates are polling strongest. In Alaska, two polls taken in May showed Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich ahead of longtime Republican incumbent Ted Stevens. In Mississippi, former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove (D) and Sen. Roger Wicker (R) are essentially tied.

In open-seat contests in Colorado, New Mexico and Virginia, the Democratic candidates are also heavily favored. The latest polling in Colorado showed Rep. Mark Udall ahead of former Rep. Bob Schaffer by 10 percentage points.

But if Democrats turn two blue-state seats while winning in all of the red states where they currently lead, they would still be two short of nine. That means they would need to win some of the more long-shot contests, such as North Carolina (Elizabeth Dole), Kansas (Pat Roberts), or Kentucky (Mitch McConnell). At this point, North Carolina looks the most competitive.

Getting to 60 seats this way would mean some of the most conservative voices in the Senate could be replaced by Democrats, while the more moderate members would remain. That could have a fascinating impact on the kind of agenda that Democrats are able to push forward in 2009. For example, if Udall wins in Colorado, he would replace Wayne Allard, whom National Journal ranked as the second most conservative member of the Senate. NJ rankings (subscription) also place Trent Lott of Mississippi, Pete Domenici of New Mexico, Dole, Stevens, and Sununu higher on the conservative scale than Collins, Smith and Coleman.

Even so, many of these potential new Democratic senators shouldn’t be expected to follow the party line. Take energy policy, for example: Democrat Mark Warner of Virginia supports McCain’s offshore drilling plan, and Begich goes along with the rest of the Alaska delegation in supporting drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Still, it will pay to keep track of who replaces whom. When one party's gain comes from beating moderates from the other side, it only helps to harden partisan lines. But a Democratic-controlled Senate that contains more than just a couple of token moderate Republicans -- as well as Democrats from traditionally more conservative states -- makes it more likely that, on key issues, bipartisanship and moderation will become more than just a concept, but a necessity.           

Copyright 2012 by National Journal Group Inc.

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