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March to the Senate

Analysis of 2008 Senate Races

As we head into spring, this year's Senate races come into sharper focus. Democrats need to gain six seats to secure control of the chamber — a tall order, even as they stand poised for a good fall. Here's a quick tour of nearly two dozen contests, updating a report from January.

ARIZONA: Before it's over, developer Jim Pederson, a Democrat who once headed the state party, will spend a bundle to defeat Republican senator Jon Kyl. A Pederson upset is not inconceivable, but it will take an outstandingly good year for Democrats nationally as well as some serious mistakes by the incumbent. A January poll put Kyl well ahead of his rival, 55 percent to 26 percent. LIKELY REPUBLICAN RETENTION

FLORIDA: Defying speculation that she would end her Senate candidacy — and the hope among some Washington Republicans that she actually would quit — GOP congresswoman Katherine Harris personally pledged $10 million to her campaign against Democratic senator Bill Nelson. The move certainly demonstrated her seriousness, but it may ultimately backfire by reminding voters that she's rich enough to burn cash on politics and by dissuading potential donors from writing checks because they think she doesn't need extra help. The most likely effect probably will be to keep other Republicans, such as Pittsburgh Steelers scion Tom Rooney, out of the GOP primary. LEANING DEMOCRATIC RETENTION

MARYLAND: Lt. Gov. Michael Steele may win the sympathy vote: He's been smeared as a race traitor on the grounds that blacks have no business running as Republicans, and now comes the news that federal prosecutors have reached a plea agreement with a former Democratic opposition researcher who illegally obtained Steele's credit report. Even so, Steele remains an underdog in this contest. The Democratic field is crowded, with congressman Ben Cardin and former NAACP head Kweisi Mfume as mostly likely to capture the nomination. LEANING DEMOCRATIC RETENTION

MICHIGAN: Republicans appear to be settling on Oakland County sheriff Michael Bouchard as their candidate, though his late entry into the race means that he faces a potentially competitive primary against preacher Keith Butler and conservative activist Jerry Zandstra. Many primary voters remain undecided, and Butler particularly should not be dismissed. A recent GOP poll gave Democratic senator Debbie Stabenow a comfortable but not insurmountable lead over Bouchard, 48 percent to 37 percent, plus bigger leads over both Butler and Zandstra. It remains to be seen whether this photo will hurt Stabenow. LEANING DEMOCRATIC RETENTION

MINNESOTA: Democratic country attorney Amy Klobuchar is now the heavy favorite to capture her party's nomination, following activist Patty Wetterling's decision to quit the race in January. She's headed for a showdown with Republican congressman Mark Kennedy in what promises to be one of the top five contests of the year. LEANING REPUBLICAN TAKEOVER

MISSISSIPPI: Republican senator Trent Lott will seek a fourth term. He will get one, too. LIKELY REPUBLICAN RETENTION

MISSOURI: Conservatives scratched their heads in confusion last month when Republican senator Jim Talent withdrew his support of a bill to ban cloning — he is a pro-lifer, but appears to have trimmed his sails in response to a well-funded a state ballot initiative that seeks to legalize cloning. Talent now may need to repair ties to his base, because he definitely will need overwhelming conservative support if he's going to beat back a challenge from Claire McCaskill, the 2004 Democratic candidate for governor. In January, a St. Louis Post-Dispatch poll gave McCaskill a narrow lead, 47 percent to 44 percent. LEANING REPUBLICAN RETENTION

MONTANA: Republicans are increasingly concerned about GOP senator Conrad Burns — so much so, in fact, that state-senate minority leader Bob Kennan said last week that he may file a primary challenge. Burns certainly had his eye on a populist electorate last Thursday, when he was just one of just three Republicans to vote against raising the federal debt ceiling. Among Democrats, who hope that the Abramoff scandal with torch Burns, state auditor John Morrison is favored to win the primary, though state senate president Jon Tester is also in the race. A January poll put Morrison ahead of Tester, 39 percent to 20 percent. LIKELY REPUBLICAN RETENTION

NEBRASKA: When the U.S. Chamber of Commerce endorses a Democrat — as it recently did with Democratic senator Ben Nelson — Republicans have to wonder whether they should just throw in the towel. Businessman Pete Ricketts and former attorney general Don Stenberg are nonetheless plodding on. LEANING DEMOCRATIC RETENTION

NEVADA: Republican senator John Ensign is hoping Las Vegas mayor Oscar Goodman, a Democrat, doesn't get in the race. So far, Goodman hasn't made up his mind. The one announced Democrat is Jack Carter, whose father once had a peanut farm. LIKELY REPUBLICAN RETENTION

NEW JERSEY: The debate over ports probably helps Democratic senator Bob Menendez, who is now calling for Congress to spend $1 billion more on port security. Even so, Menendez, who was appointed to complete the Senate term of newly elected governor Jon Corzine, will face a strong opponent in Tom Kean, a Republican with a last name that's familiar to New Jersey voters. One recent poll gave Menendez a small lead, 42 percent to 37 percent, but another survey earlier this month put Kean on top, 32 percent to 30 percent. The bottom line is that many voters remain up for grabs. TOSS UP

NEW YORK: Perhaps it will be KT vs. HRC — as in Republican Kathleen Troia McFarland, who goes by "K.T.," squaring off against Democratic senator Hillary Rodham Clinton. Before that happens, though, KT will have to get past former Yonkers mayor John Spencer, a conservative. For what it's worth, I called Spencer's campaign several weeks ago for an interview and never heard back. I don't mean to gripe, but merely to illustrate a point: Campaigns that do the little things well — such as talk to a magazine whose readers are your natural base — often are the ones that succeed. LIKELY DEMOCRATIC RETENTION

OHIO: With Paul Hackett dropping out of the primary, Democratic congressman Sherrod Brown has a clear shot at Republican senator Mike DeWine. A Democratic poll in February put Brown on top, 44 percent to 41 percent. Republicans certainly should not assume that DeWine's incumbency will carry the day — conservatives don't care for him and local GOP leaders are woefully unpopular. LEANING REPUBLICAN RETENTION

PENNSYLVANIA: Earlier this month, a GOP poll gave Democratic state treasurer Bob Casey Jr. a sizeable lead over Republican senator Rick Santorum, 52 percent to 38 percent. Casey probably breathed a sigh of relief when former NARAL president Kate Michelman said that she would not run against him in the primary. Republicans keep reassuring themselves that Casey has a history of collapsing shortly before elections, though they're still looking for Santorum to close a gap in the polls that remains aggravatingly large. TOSS UP

RHODE ISLAND: Republican senator Lincoln Chafee's strategy for recapturing the GOP nomination seems to involve poking a sharp stick at the Bush administration whenever possible. In January, he voted against the Supreme Court nomination of Sam Alito; last week, he gave a wishy-washy interview about Sen. Russ Feingold's efforts to censure the president. Whether this hurts him as he tries to fend off a primary challenge by Cranston mayor Steven Laffey remains to be seen. A recent Brown University poll shows Chafee slightly ahead of both of the major Democratic candidates, secretary of state Matt Brown and former attorney general Sheldon Whitehouse. Laffey trails both men. TOSS UP

TENNESSEE: Three Republicans are engaged in a spirited primary to succeed U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, who is thinking about running for president: former congressman Ed Bryant, Chattanooga mayor Bob Corker, and Rep. Van Hilleary. Congressman Harold Ford Jr. appears to have a lock on the Democratic nomination. LEANING REPUBLICAN RETENTION

VERMONT: Republican businessman Richard Tarrant has put more than $2 million of his own money into his campaign. He'll probably need to do a lot more than that to stop congressman Bernie Sanders, the "independent" who is for all practical purposes a left-wing Democrat, from taking the place of retiring senator Jim Jeffords, another "independent" who is a quasi-Democrat. Also in the GOP primary is retired Air Force colonel Greg Parke. LIKELY DEMOCRATIC RETENTION

VIRGINIA: Democrats Harris Miller and James Webb will duke it out in a June primary to take on Republican senator and presidential wannabe George Allen. Miller probably will have a money advantage but may suffer from his background as a lobbyist, in a year when voters look ready to react against influence peddling; Webb is a recent convert to the party who may have troubling winning over Democratic loyalists. No matter who prevails, it will be tough for either man to defeat Allen. LIKELY REPUBLICAN RETENTION

WASHINGTON: In a February poll, Republican businessman Mike McGavick ever so slightly improved his position against Democratic senator Maria Cantwell: He now trails 48 percent to 40 percent, whereas in December he was down 50 percent to 39 percent. Those final points are the hardest to gain, however, and it won't help that 2006 is shaping up as a Democratic year. LEANING DEMOCRATIC RETENTION

WEST VIRGINIA: Several Republicans are mounting long-shot bids to unseat Democratic senator Robert Byrd, who is very old but also very formidable. LIKELY DEMOCRATIC RETENTION

WISCONSIN: Republicans haven't found an excellent challenger to take on Democratic senator Herb Kohl, and it's getting kind of late in the game. LIKELY DEMOCRATIC RETENTION


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