All the Handicapping Thats Fit to Print on the 08 Senate Races
Monday, March 17, 2008
All the Handicapping Thats Fit to Print on the 08
By Stuart Rothenberg
Thirteen months ago in this space (For Democrats,
Time to Pad Senate Majority and Think 60 Seats, Feb.
12, 2007), I suggested that Democrats had the
opportunity to make significant Senate gains this
cycle that would position them for a shot at 60 seats
in 2010, when once again more Republican than
Democratic seats will be up for election.
Following that column, though certainly not
necessarily because of it, others also cited the
chance that Democrats could reach 60 seats.
Surprisingly to me, they often treated the magic
number as if it were attainable in the November 2008
elections, not in 2010 as I argued.
Earlier this year, washingtonpost.com political writer
Chris Cillizza wisely tamped down the suggestion that
60 seats was in reach this cycle, while reiterating
his view (and, I might add, mine as well) that
Democrats could make significant gains in the Senate
This history is necessary because last week the
influential New York Times published an article on the
2008 fight for the Senate that was so wrong on so many
counts that it cannot be allowed to stand as any kind
of marker about this cycles Senate races. The March 7
article was nothing short of an embarrassment.
The Times article started off with the premise that
Democrats could well gain as many as nine Senate seats
this year, which would put them right at the 60-seat
mark. Further, the author of that piece wrote that
Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) is still a heavy
favorite, and he repeatedly treated Oklahoma as if it
were in play.
The reality is very different. Landrieu is not only
vulnerable, she is very vulnerable. The Rothenberg
Political Report rates her race as a tossup, and
everyone who knows anything about Senate races
understands that at the very least, her seat is in
play. I certainly wouldnt quibble with someone who
calls her a narrow favorite, since she is an
incumbent. But calling her a heavy favorite is
absurd and says a great deal about the reporting that
went into the piece.
The Times article also treated Oklahoma state Sen.
Andrew Rice (D) as a serious threat to Sen. James
Inhofe (R), and quoted Rice as saying, [Oklahoma
voters] dont care whether I am a Democrat or a
Republican. Oh, brother. And the moon is made of
Inhofe certainly isnt beloved, but Rice offers an
unappealing left-of-center contrast for Inhofe in a
very conservative state that strongly prefers
Republicans in federal races, particularly in
In citing observers about the Democrats chances of
netting nine seats, the Times reporter quotes Paul
Starr, whom the article describes as a public affairs
professor at Princeton University and a liberal
commentator. Starr is a serious and thoughtful
observer who can speak authoritatively about a number
of matters, including health care and liberalism, but
asking his opinion about Senate races is a bit like
asking Roger Clemens about the philosophy of early
20th-century Russian poet Nikolai Gumilev.
After mentioning the Democrats strong turnout in
primaries as a possible factor in Democratic Senate
gains this cycle surely a reasonable point the
Times article offers the following pearl of wisdom:
The need of Senator John McCain ... to run as a
centrist may undermine his ability to help
The article doesnt explain this (though many readers
could figure out that the reporter was alluding to
widespread questions about base Republican turnout),
and it ignores the possibility that McCains
relatively centrist approach might actually help the
GOPs overall image and be an asset for moderate
Republican Senators such as Maines Susan Collins and
Oregons Gordon Smith, who can align themselves with
McCains message and overall persona.
Finally, in the chart accompanying the article, the
reporter asserts that if voters start to take
comedian Al Franken seriously, incumbent Sen. Norm
Coleman (R-Minn.) could be in trouble. If? Polling
shows the race tight, with some surveys having Franken
So where does the fight for the Senate really stand?
Republicans are certain to lose the Virginia open seat
and could well lose opens in New Mexico and Colorado.
New Hampshire Republican John Sununu is the most
endangered Senate incumbent in his party, as is
Landrieu in hers. Both are in serious trouble.
Coleman obviously has a fight on his hands, as does
Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), who is damaged by a
scandal that has touched him and already enveloped a
number of current and former state Republican
Two Republicans who are potentially vulnerable appear
better off at the moment, though that could change.
Maines Collins still has strong poll numbers and is
clearly well-liked in her state. Her challenger, Rep.
Tom Allen (D), still has time to redefine her, and her
GOP label isnt an asset, but at this point she looks
And in Oregon, Democratic state Speaker Jeff Merkley
ought to spend more time trying to defeat activist
Steve Novick for his partys nomination than running a
general election campaign against Smith.
The most likely outcome right now far too far out
from Election Day to take very seriously is a
Democratic gain of three to six seats. More is
possible, of course. But be careful where you get your
information. Not everything that is written is fit to
This column first appeared in Roll Call on March 13,
2008. Copyright 2008 © Roll Call Inc. All rights
reserved. Reprinted with permission.