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The Thirteen Races to Watch

Friday, February 12, 2010

Republicans’ prospects for major pickups in the Senate have improved significantly over the past year. Here’s a closer look.

Republicans’ prospects for major pickups in the Senate have improved significantly over the past year. What once looked like more possible Republican seat losses due to retirements and open seats now looks like a very good year for the GOP. Picking up ten seats and the majority is almost certainly out of reach for Republicans, although, with a few more strong recruits and some breaks, what recently seemed an impossible dream has become a remote possibility.

Here are the top 13 Senate races that Republicans have a strong chance to win in 2010.

1. North Dakota—The retirement of Byron Dorgan (D) and the entrance of Governor John Hoeven (R ) into the race have made a Republican pickup almost certain.

2. Delaware—Republicans will almost certainly take Vice President Joe Biden’s old seat, now held by Ted Kaufman (D). Republican Michael Castle (R) is a former governor, currently holds the at-large House seat, and is a moderate in tune with the state. The strength of his candidacy has scared away Democrats’ top choice to run, Beau Biden, the attorney general and son of the vice president.

3. Arkansas—Senator Blanche Lincoln (D) has been in trouble for many months. Her approval numbers are dismal, as are President Obama’s numbers in Arkansas. The only potential saving grace for Lincoln had been that she had not attracted a top-tier Republican opponent, although the Republicans in the race led her in matchup polls. Now Rep. John Boozman (R) has joined the race, and a recent poll shows him up by 23 points.

4. Nevada—If the first three races are nearly slam dunks for Republicans, Nevada ranks slightly lower but has a very good chance for a Republican pickup. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is in significant trouble. He has very low approval numbers, in the same range as Blanche Lincoln’s. By these numbers alone, Reid should lose, but some weakness among his opponents and his prolific fundraising give him a shot of winning. Lieutenant Governor Brian Krolicki (R) is considering joining the race, and could make a formidable opponent, but he may be somewhat tainted by an indictment for mismanaging a college savings program (although the charges were dismissed in December). He and other Republican candidates Sue Lowden and Danny Tarkanian all poll ahead of Reid, so the race favors the Republicans.

5. Colorado—Michael Bennet (D) was appointed to this seat when Ken Salazar joined the Obama cabinet. He had never held elective office previously. He also has a primary challenge from Colorado’s Speaker of the House Andrew Romanoff, who could be a more formidable candidate. Republicans have Lieutenant Governor Jane Norton as their likely nominee, and she polls favorably against Bennet and Romanoff.

6. Pennsylvania—Arlen Specter was right to think that he had little chance of winning reelection to his Senate seat as a Republican. Pat Toomey (R) would almost certainly have beaten him in the primary. Now the irony runs deep, as Specter has a tough challenge to win a Democratic primary with Rep. Joe Sestak opposing him. And Toomey polls well against both Specter and Sestak. Add to this a strong likely GOP gubernatorial candidate in Attorney General Tom Corbett , that Toomey is unopposed in his primary and has moved a bit to the middle, and the wind blowing in the Republican direction, and the GOP has a better than even chance of winning here.

7. Illinois—Mark Kirk (R) is a perfect candidate for Republicans to take Barack Obama’s seat, now held by Roland Burris. Kirk is a moderate from suburban Chicago, conservative on economic and defense issues and with moderate social views. He will face Alexi Giannoulias, the state treasurer, who could be a strong candidate, but who has some potential baggage with an investigation of his family’s bank and with his ties to former Democratic Governor Rod Blagojevich. President Obama will not want to see his seat fall into Republican hands, but the stars have aligned favorably for the GOP, and Kirk has an even chance of winning.

8. Indiana—Evan Bayh’s profile as a moderate Democrat fits the state well. But despite President Obama winning the state in 2008, Indiana is generally a Republican state. Still, Bayh looked relatively safe when the likely challenger was former Rep. John Hostettler. But former Senator Dan Coats’s (R) recent indications that he will run makes this a very competitive seat, a toss-up until we see more polling.

9. Missouri—This open seat vacated by Kit Bond is Democrats’ best hope for picking up a Republican seat, although the political atmosphere has changed enough in the Republican direction to make this an uphill battle. Democrats have a very strong candidate in Secretary of State Robin Carnahan, who is the daughter of the late former Governor Mel Carnahan and Senator Jean Carnahan, and sister of Rep. Russ Carnahan. Republicans are running former Republican House Whip Roy Blunt, father of former Governor Matt Blunt. Polls had shown Carnahan with a lead, but now give a slight edge to Blunt. This race is a toss-up, and gives Democrats their best chance of a pickup.

10. New Hampshire—Another Republican open seat presents opportunity for Democrats. Judd Gregg is retiring, and Democrats have a strong candidate in Rep. Paul Hodes. But Republicans have a top-tier candidate in former Attorney General Kelly Ayotte, who leads in polls. Ayotte, however, still has a primary, and her fundraising has not matched Hodes’s, so Democrats still have a shot at picking up this seat.

11. Ohio—In a third Republican open seat, former Congressman and Bush official Rob Portman is favored to hold retiring George Voinovich’s seat, but the Democrats still have reasonable prospects in this race. Democrats have two strong candidates in Lieutenant Governor Lee Fisher and Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner. Both, however, trail Portman in the polls and are waging a tough primary campaign that will eat up their resources.

12. Kentucky—Another open Republican seat, but one with a number of twists and turns. This seat is held by Jim Bunning. Bunning considered running for reelection, but his low poll numbers made him one of the most vulnerable incumbents and forced him from the race. Republicans thought they had the perfect candidate in conservative Secretary of State Trey Grayson, endorsed by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. And Grayson leads both potential Democratic challengers who are locked in a tough primary. But Rand Paul, the son of Ron Paul, has run a campaign reminiscent of his father’s and now leads Grayson in polls. Some believe that Rand Paul’s more conservative profile will give an opening to Democrats, but both he and Grayson lead in matchup polls against Democrats.

13. New York—For now, Democrats are clearly favored to hold this seat, but appointed Senator Kirsten Gillibrand is not well-known statewide and faces a potential primary challenge from former Rep. Harold Ford Jr. Gillibrand and Ford would beat their potential GOP opponents, but New Yorkers are waiting to see if former Republican Governor George Pataki enters the race. He leads Gillibrand in polls and would give Republicans a real shot of winning the seat.

All in all, it looks like a good year for the GOP after two disastrous elections in 2006 and 2008. However, the odds of gaining ten seats to take back the majority are very slim. All the races would have to break for Republicans, and they would need surprise wins in places such as California, Wisconsin, or Washington to have a small hope of taking back a majority. Very unlikely, but significant gains are almost certain.

John C. Fortier is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

FURTHER READING: Fortier wrote “A Healthcare Brownout,”on how a Scott Brown win deals a nearly fatal blow to the current healthcare overhaul approach. The author detailed the GOP’s “Senate Blues” and objected to “Unlawful Legislation” allowing D.C. a voting member in Congress. He also explained why “Primaries Are Best with Independents” and the message voters sent by recently overturning governorships in Virginia and New Jersey: “Voters to Governors—Beware.”

Image by Darren Wamboldt/Bergman Group.

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