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Senate Republicans playing a bad hand

It's time to present our first take on the top 10 Senate races for 2008 since a February preview ranking. The races are ranked in order from the most likely to switch parties to the least. The list was made in collaboration with Hotline State Editor Quinn McCord.
/ Source: National Journal

In politics, as in playing cards, you learn to simply play the hand that you're dealt. And, sometimes that hand really, really stinks. But unlike in poker, political parties can't simply fold and hope for a new deal to change their fortunes.

With 22 seats up to just 12 for the Democrats, Senate Republicans knew coming into this cycle that they weren't going to have an easy time of it. But, as we have seen in the last few weeks, even the most pessimistic in the party couldn't predict just how much worse it could get. We always knew that the blue-state incumbents were going to have a tough time dealing with the significant head wind. But, Nebraska? Virginia? Heck, even Alaska could be in play. In Colorado, Republicans released a poll that showed their party down 7 points. Colorado may be more competitive than Nebraska, but it ain't a blue state.

Oh, and then there's the money. Counting debt carried by the DSCC, the NRSC trails the DSCC by about $10 million. And, while the president and vice president are still hitting the campaign trail for fundraisers, there are already reports that Dick Cheney hasn't pulled in as much money for candidates as he did in the past.

Even more daunting is the fact that Republicans have just one opportunity in Louisiana. Sen. Mary Landrieu has narrowly beaten much weaker candidates than the likely GOP nominee, Treasurer John Kennedy. Yet, she's also never run with such a strong tail wind either. In the end, demographics and the top of the ticket may have more impact on this race than anything.

Even so, Democrats who are counting on the war in Iraq and a pessimistic electorate or Republicans counting on a polarizing Democratic nominee to help win the day should take heed: Candidates and campaigns matter. And, neither party holds a particularly warm place in the hearts of voters.

So, with that setup, it's time to present our first take on the top 10 Senate races for 2008 since a February preview ranking. The races are ranked in order from the most likely to switch parties to the least. The list was made in collaboration with Hotline State Editor Quinn McCord.

The top ten

1  Virginia 
Open Seat (R-Warner)  Last Ranking: 15
Back in '98, a governor and a former governor (George Voinovich and Evan Bayh) waltzed into open Senate seats with virtually no resistance. Virginia Republicans will certainly put up a stronger fight against former Gov. Mark Warner, but they aren't helped by the prospect of an ideologically polarizing primary or convention. Even so, Warner, unlike Bayh, has to run in a red state during a presidential year, making it more difficult for this NASCAR Democrat to distance himself from the national party. Warner's record has never been scrutinized during a campaign, but his high name ID/positives ensure that he will have to undergo significant "softening up" before voters will be receptive to attacks on the former governor's record.

2  New Hampshire 
Incumbent: John Sununu (R)  Last Ranking: 4
Incumbents who begin re-election campaigns as underdogs usually don't win. It's possible that former Gov. Jeanne Shaheen's lead in the polls may be inflated a bit since she hasn't served in office for five years. But the national environment will have to improve between now and next fall if Sununu is to keep his seat.

3  Colorado 
Open Seat (R-Allard)  Last Ranking: 2
With the candidates still in fundraising mode, things have been pretty quiet here. We won't know until next month if former Rep. Bob Schaffer (R) is keeping pace with Rep. Mark Udall (D) in the money chase. Even so, the fact that his own polling shows him 5 points behind the Democrat means he's got to be able to outspend Udall to define this race before it defines him. It's undeniable that Dems have had a couple of good cycles here, but with fairly moderate candidates (Ken Salazar and Bill Ritter) leading the ticket. We'll see if Udall is able to establish a similar image with state voters.

4  Louisiana 
Mary Landrieu (D)  Last Ranking: 1
Kennedy is likely to challenge Landrieu, and with no opponent in his re-election bid and a $2 million war chest burning a hole in his pocket, he can certainly do a lot to boost his name ID this fall. We'll also have a better read on the state's altered demographics after the November elections.

5  Minnesota 
Norm Coleman (R)  Last Ranking: 2
Of the remaining three blue-state Republicans, it's worth noting that Coleman is the only freshman of the trio and hasn't yet built up the statewide goodwill that Gordon Smith or Susan Collins have. So he's arguably slightly more vulnerable than the others, although Coleman's DFL opponents are more untested (and baggage-laden).

6  Maine 
Susan Collins (R)  Last Ranking: 5
As of now, voters don't seem to be in the mood to fire Collins. Democratic Rep. Tom Allen (Maine-01) has 13 months to change that, and he'll certainly be helped if the situation in Iraq doesn't improve over the next year.

7  Oregon 
Gordon Smith (R)  Last Ranking: 7
It's still a bit early in Democratic House Speaker Jeff Merkley's campaign to fully gauge him as a candidate, and we'll know more once he files his third-quarter fundraising numbers. We do know he wasn't the Dems' first pick and his support for an Iraq resolution in 2003 helps Smith blur the anti-war attacks. This race will be dictated by the environment more than anything else.

8  Nebraska 
Open Seat (R-Hagel)  Last Ranking: 14
If former Sen./Gov. Bob Kerrey runs, this race will move up; if he doesn't, it'll move way down.9  ALASKA  Ted Stevens (R)  Last Ranking: 29

9  AlaskaTed Stevens (R)  Last Ranking: 29  
Yes, Stevens can probably weather legal troubles better than most incumbents, but with so many potential shoes yet to drop, this has to be a race to watch. If he doesn't run for re-election, Republicans almost certainly hold it. 

10  South Dakota 
Tim Johnson (D)  Last Ranking: 6
Johnson assuaged many doubts with his first public appearance, although he still hasn't officially announced a re-election bid yet. And, despite the Republican tilt of the state, there is not a deep bench of top-tier candidates ready to run.