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U.S. Senate races: A perfect storm would give Democrats a filibuster-proof Senate majority

If you’re thinking of laying down a bet, this is still a serious long shot, but a couple of recent political swings — especially the deterioration of Sen. Elizabeth Dole’s situation in North Carolina — raise the possibility that the Democrats could reach a filibuster-proof 60-vote Senate majority next year.

This would require a perfect storm (that would include an upset victory by Al Franken in Minnesota).

The Dems currently hold 49 seats, plus the Senate’s two independents — Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Bernie Sanders of Vermont — who caucus as Democrats, for a shaky but functional 51-seat majority. So they need a net gain of nine seats, which would be large but not unprecedented. No party has had 60 Senate seats since the Dems lost that level in the 1978 midterms.

If they pull it off, or even come close, it will be especially impressive because the Dems made a net gain of six seats in the 2006 election to raise their Senate strength from 45 to 51. A two-cycle gain of 15 Senate seats would be historic (but not unprecedented, the Senate Dems grew by 20 members in the two cycles after the 1929 market crash). If the Dems pull it off, or even come close, the makeup of the next Congress will be a tangible measure of the damage the Republican brand has sustained since the high moment of November 2004, when the Repubs had just reelected a president and held commanding majorities in both houses of Congress.

The Repubs have been on defense throughout the current cycle, starting with the fact that of the 35 Senate races, 23 feature seats currently held by Republicans. The next Repub problem is that five Republican incumbents are retiring rather than seek reelection.

Three of those seats — the ones vacated by Sens. Wayne Allard of Colorado, Pete Domenici of New Mexico and John Warner of Virginia — are considered very likely Dem pickups by Mark Udall in Colorado, his cousin Tom Udall in New Mexico, and former Gov. Mark Warner (no relation to the retiring John Warner) in Virginia. Those three Democrats are in such commanding positions in their races that the pundits are essentially starting the race with the Democrats already at plus three. If you want numbers, which has a credible system for blending several recent polls into a trendline, says that:

• The trend in Virginia favors Democrat Warner by a truly whopping (whatever whopping means, this must be it) 57.4 to 32.9 percent over another former governor, the Republican candidate Jim Gilmore;

• The trend in New Mexico favors Dem Udall over New Mexico Congressman Steve Pearce by a still whopping (but less whopping) 55.1 to 41.4 percent;

• The trend in Colorado favors the other Dem Udall over former Repub Congressman Bob Schaffer by a less than whopping (but still commanding) 44.2 to 38.6. rates Virginia and New Mexico as solid blue, but rates Colorado as leaning blue.

The Dems by comparison have incumbents running in all 12 of the seats currently held by Democrats that are up this year. Furthermore, 11 of the 12 have been routinely rated as safe seats this year. The one exception, earlier in the year, had been Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, whose seat had often been described as the one opportunity the Repubs have for a pickup. But her race against State Treasurer John N. Kennedy (a Democrat turned Republican) seems to be going well for her recently. finds the trend of recent polls in that race favoring Landrieu by a mighty impressive 56.0 to 40.8 percent.

So the battleground for the Dems’ ambition of getting close to 60 comes from the list of 18 Republican Senate incumbents who are running for reelection. If the Dems win Virginia, New Mexico and Colorado, as currently expected, and hold Louisiana, they would need six more pickups from that list of 18, and there seem at the moment to be exactly six that might be gettable. Listing them in the rough order of gettableness for the Dems they are:

New Hampshire
The incumbent is John Sununu, son of the former White House chief of staff (under the first President Bush) of the same name. He’s completing his first term, facing a rematch against former Gov. Jeanne Shaheen. Sununu beat Shaeen in 2002 by 51-47. New Hampshire hasn’t elected a Democrat to the Senate since 1975. But the state has been bluing up over recent cycles. John Kerry carried it narrowly in 2004. Shaheen has been running ahead in most polls. finds the trend to be Shaheen 51.5, Sununu 42.1. At the moment it seems the likeliest candidate to be the Dem’s fourth pickup. rates the race as solid blue, but this seems aggressive to me. The Rothenberg Political Report, Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball and Congressional Quarterly all rate it as leaning Dem. Charlie Cook calls it a toss-up.

Ted Stevens, the Republican incumbent, is an Alaska legend. First elected in 1970 (yes, that’s 38 years ago) with almost 60 percent of the vote, he has never received less than 70 percent in his six reelections. He won in 2002 by — get this — 78 percent to 11, defeating some poor forgotten Democrat. He has chaired the Senate Appropriations Committee and brought home unimaginable quantities of bacon to Alaska. But he will turn 85 in November and he is under indictment and facing trial for making false statements in connection with a corruption investigation. Stevens has trailed in the last six public polls by margins ranging from two to 13 percentage points behind Democrat Mark Begich, the mayor of Anchorage. Stevens has been pressing for a speedy trial in hopes of winning acquittal before the election. It’s hard to speculate on this one until the trial.’s trend has it Begich 48.3; Stevens 45.5, and rates it as a toss-up. Cook, Rothenberg, Sabato and CQ all rate it as leaning Dem.

Incumbent Republican Gordon Smith, seeking a third term, faces Democrat Jeff Merkley, speaker of the state House. Smith, like Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., can claim to be a moderate Republican. Unlike Coleman, he has broken with the Bush administration over the Iraq war. Like Coleman, the essence of his problem is that he is a red senator in an increasingly blue state. Oregon has gone Democratic in the last five presidential elections, and is considered a safe state for Obama this year. Smith has led in most polls but not by much. A Portland Tribune poll in mid-September had his lead down to 1 percentage point. says the trend is Smith 43.0, Merkley 41.4. Pollster, Charlie Cook and Stu Rothenberg call the race a toss-up at present. CQ and Larry Sabato say it leans Repub.

North Carolina
A year ago, first-term Republican incumbent Sen. Elizabeth Dole was viewed as borderline safe.  Unlike Oregon, North Carolina leans Republican in most respects. It has gone red in the last seven presidential elections (although a narrow majority of its U.S. House delegation is Democratic). But the polls have shown a steady erosion in Dole’s standing versus her challenger, Democratic state Sen. Kay Hagan, as well as a surge for Barack Obama (the two most recent N.C. prez polls show the race a flat tie). Three of the four most recent Senate race polls show Hagan to be leading or tied. says the trend is Hagan 43.1 percent, Dole 42.3. Pollster, CQ and Rothenberg are rating the race a toss-up. Cook and Sabato still say it leans Republican, although they apparently haven’t updated their ratings since those recent polls.
If the Dems won every race I’ve discussed so far — and none of them are far-fetched, although  I’m skeptical about North Caroline myself — that would put the Dems at 58 seats. To make it to 60, the magic number for ending a filibuster, they would need two more and the current landscape suggests only two places they could get them, Mississippi and Minnesota, although Republican incumbents are slightly favored in both races.

Mississippi actually has two Senate elections this year. Long-time incumbent Republican Thad Cochran is a safe bet for a sixth full term. But the resignation of Sen. Trent Lott generated an election for the unexpired portion of his term. Republican Roger Wicker, who was appointed temporarily for the seat, faces former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, a Democrat. Musgrove led in a couple of polls last spring, but Wicker has led in most recent polls. Pollster’s trend calculation makes it Wicker 49.6, Musgrove 42.4, which is a solid lead for the incumbent Republican. Wicker, who was a congressman before being appointed to the vacant seat, has never run a statewide race while Musgrove won statewide (albeit nine years ago). And Wicker’s old House seat was filled by a Democrat in the special election after he moved to the Senate. The raters generally feel that Wicker is not safe, but favor him to retain the seat.

Democrats desperately want to beat Norm Coleman. Some still smolder over his 1996 switch to the Repubs. Some resent the unusual circumstances of his 2002 Senate election over Walter Mondale after Sen. Paul Wellstone died in a plane crash. And if they are ever to achieve their goal, this should be the year, with the state trending blue and Coleman tied to the discredited Bush policies on most major policy questions. Republicans acknowledge Coleman’s vulnerabilities but mostly feel fortunate that he is facing Al Franken, which gives them the opportunity to make the election a referendum more on Franken’s temperament than on Coleman’s record, which you can certainly see in the latest Coleman ad.

Franken and Coleman both have high negatives, which creates an opening for Independence Party nominee Dean Barkley, who has scored double digits in some recent polls. Most polls show Coleman with a small lead. At the moment, my hunch is that Barkley is taking more votes from Franken than from Coleman, but if he continues to gain ground, the question will be who he takes votes from next. says the trend in the race is Coleman 45.1; Franken 41.3; Barkley 9.4. Charlie Cook rates the race a toss-up, Sabato, CQ and Pollster believe it “leans Republican.” Rothenberg puts the race in a special category he invented in between a toss-up and a leaner that he calls “narrow advantage for the incumbent party,” which in this case means a tiny edge for Coleman.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if the possibility of a Dem supermajority in the Senate came down to  Barkley’s ability to attract defectors from two flawed major party candidates?

Political winds
The idea that the Dems could run the table and capture every battleground race may sound far-fetched, kinda of like Bert Blyleven during last night’s game emphasizing that the Twins couldn’t fail to make the playoffs if they win all their remaining games. But one thing that makes the idea a little more feasible (in the Senate context, not the Twins) is that historically close Senate races scattered around the country can all be affected by a single late political wind blowing across the nation. If the wind in the last week of the campaign is at the Dems back, it could carry all or most of their close Senate contenders over the top. This happened in 2006 when there wasn’t even a unifying presidential race and the Dems won all the close Senate races except Tennessee.

Of course, this is all speculation, based on polls that will change again tomorrow, and a bit of hype too, because a 60-seat Senate majority doesn’t really guarantee any particular results. Democrats are not in lockstep, and there are Republicans that will work across the aisle on particular issues.

In parting, this thought is perhaps closer to bankable. Filibuster-proof or not, the Dems will have large majorities in both houses of Congress next year. When Obama and McCain debate their issue differences, there is a shallow tendency to think about it as if the president we get will dictate the policies we get. Certainly if McCain wins in November, he will not have the votes in Congress for many of his top priorities. Exactly what that lineup might produce is hard to predict. In Obama’s case, his ability to enact his agenda will depend on the working relationship he develops with the leaders of both houses, but most of his ideas will have an easier time than McCain’s would in a Dem-controlled Congress.

Eric Black writes about national and state politics, foreign affairs and other topics. He can be reached at eblack [at] minnpost [dot] com.

Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by DeeAnn Christensen on 09/24/2008 - 12:44 pm.


    This a well-reasoned article supported by varifiable facts unlike your recent article about the 3rd CD race debate. In that article you stated that “most of the audience members with whom you spoke…said “his (Dillon’s) strong performance had taken them by surprise.” Unfortunately, there were no numbers given for how many audience members you spoke to. What would be interesting is to cite a specific number of Paulsen or Madia audience members that were pleasantly surprised with Dillon’s performance. Did you speak to any Paulsen or Madia supporters and were they surprised?

    It would be even more surprising to me if any members of the audience would vote for a candidate because he “got the biggest laugh of the night”

  2. Submitted by Aaron Landry on 09/24/2008 - 09:52 am.

    I thought Dave Mindeman gave a good perspective on the recent polling last night that counters your hunch:

  3. Submitted by Brian Simon on 09/24/2008 - 11:42 am.

    Eric, nice writeup. What I’m left wondering about is the prevalence of ticket-splitters. In Virginia, for example, will voters go for both Warner and McCain? I saw it stated elsewhere that Obama only needs 80% of the projected support for Warner in order to win VA.

    The interesting case is Mississippi. If Cochran is safe, does Musgrove really stand a chance? MS is considered pretty safely red at the Presidential level too, which means that for Musgrove to win, he has convince voters to split their ticket. Can he do that? It seems like, if he has a chance, it has to be based on an enthusiasm gap between the GOP & Dems. If that exists in MS, is there a surprise for Obama there as well? Or are they as willing to split tickets down there as we are up here?

  4. Submitted by John E Iacono on 09/25/2008 - 07:20 pm.

    Fun speculation, with more objective analysis that some prior blogs. I like that.

    But I think I’ll wait till the chickens are hatched…

  5. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 09/25/2008 - 10:37 pm.

    i think franken is joke…and not a funny one. he’s got some nerve wanting to raise taxes on us when he doesn’t even pay all of his own. look at this video…it shows some of his background.

  6. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 09/26/2008 - 04:54 pm.

    The joke that is Norm Coleman has a past, too. In his case, the results were aiding and abetting the furtherance of the war in Iraq with the results of over 4000 Americans and uncounted Iraqis dead. Nobody died over Franken’s jokes (not even died laughing — since Rexin says he isn’t even funny.)

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