Prof. Sabato joins us live on the show today - but if you'd like to know more about his predictions here is his full Crystal Ball...
IN THE RACE FOR THE SENATE, DEMOCRATS SHOW SIGNS OF LIFE
By Kyle Kondik, Geoffrey Skelley and Larry J. Sabato
U.Va. Center for Politics
The Senate's curious and byzantine rules and traditions are well explained in Robert Caro's Master of the Senate, part of his sprawling, multi-volume biography of Lyndon B. Johnson (the fourth volume is scheduled to be released next year). Johnson, through his own cunning and ruthlessness, was arguably the most powerful Senate leader ever, as he bent the supposedly uncontrollable upper chamber to his will.
In one anecdote from the book, Johnson -- characteristically -- split the difference between liberals and conservatives in the Senate by ramming through a modest increase in the minimum wage. Johnson got the bill passed by holding a vote when the bill's biggest opponents -- liberals who wanted a bigger increase and conservatives who wanted no increase at all -- weren't on the floor. After the bill passed, one absent senator, Florida Democrat Spessard Holland, raced up to LBJ, demanding to know what happened. "Well, Spessard, I had a little vote. If you fellows aren't on the job around here, I've got legislation to pass," Johnson said.
As the Crystal Ball takes a fresh look at the race for control of the Senate, Republicans, unlike some of their predecessors during that sudden Senate vote in LBJ's Senate, need to stay on the job, lest their seemingly inexorable march to a Senate majority be derailed.
For months, Republicans have been the ones to expand the playing field of competitive Senate seats this year, most notably thanks to the retirements of Democratic Sens. Jeff Bingaman (NM) and Herb Kohl (WI), which turned safe Democratic seats into toss ups.
But, thanks to smart candidate recruitment, Democrats might have a few chances of their own to take Republican-held seats. First, consumer advocate Elizabeth Warren entered the Massachusetts Senate race against Republican Sen. Scott Brown a few months ago. Her strong performance as a candidate so far combined with Massachusetts' heavy Democratic leanings has prompted us to change our rating of this seat from "leans Republican" to "toss up."
Also, Democrats have found a credible candidate in the open Arizona Senate seat -- Richard Carmona, who served as surgeon general in President George W. Bush's administration. We still favor Republicans to hold this seat, but Carmona could make the race interesting. The same thing may be happening in North Dakota, which appeared to be the easiest Republican pickup before the entry of ex-state Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp (D). Again, we believe the North Dakota seat is likely to go Republican in the end, but it is now more competitive.
Chart 1: Recent Crystal Ball Senate ratings changes
While we still favor Republicans to take the four seats they need to win control of the upper chamber, we can also see a conceivable if unlikely path for the Democrats to retain control if the breaks go their way, especially if President Obama picks up steam in his reelection bid. Analysis of next year's 33 Senate races is below; as the election gets closer, we'll be sure to take LBJ's advice and stay on the job of keeping our readers up to speed on the latest developments.
Arizona: After months of cajoling, former Surgeon General Richard Carmona's entry into this race gives national Democrats a new chance to win a Senate seat away from Republicans. A decorated war hero, Carmona has been compared to Virginia Sen. Jim Webb, a moderate who gave the Democrats a 51-49 edge in the Senate when he narrowly won his seat in 2006. Carmona's entry will set up a contested primary with former state Democratic Party chair Don Bivens, who has already picked up some key endorsements. For Carmona, the question is whether he'll rise, like Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts, or whether he'll stumble, like another touted Democratic recruit, ex-Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, who is running for Senate in Texas. The likely Republican nominee is Rep. Jeff Flake, and a new Public Policy Polling survey has Flake four points up on Carmona. Because of Carmona's potential, we've changed the rating in this race to LEANS REPUBLICAN.
California: The bad news for Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein is that the alleged actions of a renegade campaign treasurer have left her with a nearly $5 million hole in her campaign warchest. The good news is that she had the financial wherewithal to loan her campaign the money to replace what she lost and, more significantly, she does not have a credible challenger in deep Blue California. SAFE DEMOCRATIC
Connecticut: After failing to win the other Senate seat in the Nutmeg State in 2010, Linda McMahon (R) looks like the favorite to get the GOP nomination once again. Two polls from September, one from PPP and one from Quinnipiac, show her well ahead of the more moderate ex-Rep. Chris Shays. The identity of her Democratic opponent remains unknown, but Rep. Chris Murphy is favored over former Secretary of State Susan Bysiewicz and state Rep. William Tong. One interesting thing to watch: will independent Sen. Joe Lieberman, who is retiring from this seat, endorse the Democratic nominee? He has met with Republicans McMahon and Shays, and, of course, Lieberman endorsed Republican John McCain in the 2008 presidential race. No matter what Lieberman does, President Obama won Connecticut by 22 points in 2008, so any Democrat in this race is going to start out with a nice edge in what is a fairly Democratic state. LIKELY DEMOCRATIC
Delaware: No Republican is making waves against senior Sen. Tom Carper (D), meaning that the First State's Senate seat remains SAFE DEMOCRATIC.
Florida: Rep. Connie Mack's (R) entrance into the Florida Senate race against incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson (D) has likely turned this race into a real slugfest. Baseball jokes aside -- Mack is the son of former Sen. Connie Mack III and the great-grandson of Connie Mack, the famous baseball manager and owner of the Philadelphia Athletics -- Mack must first navigate the Republican primary before he faces off against Nelson. However, the early polling indicates that the opposition may be of the minor league variety. Former Sen. George LeMieux (R), ex-Florida House Majority Leader Adam Hasner (R) and former gubernatorial candidate Mike McCalister all poll behind Mack in Quinnipiac's first survey of the race. In the head-to-head matchup with Nelson, Mack trails by just two percentage points. With this race looking like a barn-burner, its final result may be greatly affected by the presidential election. Florida, the key swing state cog in the Electoral College machine, will undoubtedly see massive investments from President Obama and the eventual Republican nominee. Because of this, the down-ticket effect means that there is a good chance that whichever party wins the state in the presidential battle will also claim the Senate seat. For that reason, we now rate this race a TOSS UP.
Hawaii: As in Florida, where Connie Mack's entry into that race amounted to a big win for national Republicans, the GOP scored a recruiting coup in the Aloha State, where popular ex-Gov. Linda Lingle has joined the race for retiring Democratic Sen. Daniel Akaka's seat. That said, the Democrats are still favored here. Part of the reason is that the Democratic establishment is coalescing around Rep. Mazie Hirono in her primary against ex-Rep. Ed Case; another is that President Obama should provide some hefty coattails for the Democratic nominee in his home state; and still another is that Republicans have so many good opportunities in other, more moderate states that they might not have the resources to really fight hard for their star recruit, Lingle. For all these reasons, Hawaii's Senate race remains just potentially competitive, and we are keeping our LEANS DEMOCRATIC rating.
Indiana: If longtime Republican Sen. Richard Lugar can hold off a challenge from Treasurer Richard Mourdock, it might be an indication that the Tea Party wave crested in 2010. Potentially helping Lugar would be the entrance of former congressional candidate and auto dealer Bob Thomas into the primary, which would split the anti-Lugar vote. Mourdock has the endorsement of Tea Party organizer FreedomWorks (which is chaired by ex-House Majority Leader Dick Armey), but the Club for Growth, no Lugar fan, still has not endorsed Mourdock. If he wins renomination, Lugar shouldn't have much trouble with the likely Democratic nominee, Rep. Joe Donnelly. Mourdock would also be favored if he won the nomination, in no small part because it appears likely that the Hoosier State will flip away from President Obama in 2012. LIKELY REPUBLICAN
Maryland: President Obama won the Old Line State by 23% in 2008 and thus far Ben Cardin (D) has attracted only one credible challenger, former Secret Service agent Daniel Bongino, to oppose him. This race remains SAFE DEMOCRATIC.
Massachusetts: Republican Sen. Scott Brown is probably the most vulnerable Republican senator in the country, thanks to the entry of consumer advocate Elizabeth Warren into the race. Warren is attracting big crowds to her campaign events, and looking every bit the liberal hero that Democrats dream will recapture the seat of a previous liberal hero, the late Sen. Ted Kennedy. This is Warren's first ever run for elected office, but she is gaining a lot of attention as a fresh face with populist and anti-Wall Street sentiments; of course, this is a message that fits well in liberal Massachusetts. Still, Brown remains formidable -- his victory in January 2010 shows that, and he has proven himself an adept triangulator; for instance, he has bucked his party to endorse Richard Cordray, President Obama's nominee to lead the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which Warren helped create. Despite its liberal leanings, Massachusetts politics has historically been a boy's club: The state has only sent four women to Congress and has never elected a female governor or senator. In addition, the average voter in Massachusetts is not a fan of snooty Harvard, where Warren is on the faculty. So we certainly don't assume that Warren is going to win, and Brown has done just about everything right politically. Still, we are now calling this marquee Senate race a TOSS UP, which is a change from our previous leans Republican rating.
Maine: Sen. Olympia Snowe, despite challengers from the right and left, appears to be in good shape for another term. Snowe is very popular amongst the general electorate, and the endorsement of Tea Party Gov. Paul LePage gives her protection on the right. Maine used to be part of Massachusetts, but unlike the Bay State, which has never had a female senator, Maine is one of four states where both senators are women -- Washington, California and New Hampshire are the others. LIKELY REPUBLICAN
Michigan: Considering that the economy will be far and away the No. 1 issue in 2012, one would think Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D) of Michigan, which was hit hard by the downturn and has been in a kind of permanent recession for years, would be an incumbent on the ropes -- especially given that Republicans romped in Michigan in 2010. Nonetheless, polling shows Stabenow is still in a decent position going into 2012. The most recent poll from EPIC-MRA showed Stabenow leading former Rep. Pete Hoekstra 48% to 42% and Cornerstone Schools co-founder Clark Durant 51% to 31%. While this would seem to indicate that Hoekstra, the most well-known GOP candidate, could test Stabenow, he's not a sure thing in the primary: He lost to now-Gov. Rick Snyder in the Republican primary in 2010 despite starting off as the establishment candidate. There are also other contenders such as ex-Judge Randy Hekman and American Family Association Michigan president Gary Glenn, who was endorsed by former presidential candidate and ex-Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a move that could allow Glenn to eat into Durant's conservative base, thereby helping Hoekstra. But there is a great deal of time left before we will have a clearer picture of the Republican field, and given Stabenow's position as a fairly well-liked incumbent (as much as one can be in this day and age) in a traditionally lean-Democratic state, we still rate this race as LIKELY DEMOCRATIC.
Minnesota: Sen. Amy Klobuchar does not have a strong opponent and is well-liked back home. Given her strength, and Republican opportunities elsewhere, we now view this race as SAFE DEMOCRATIC.
Mississippi: The sound you hear is crickets chirping in the Mississippi Democratic field. Republicans resoundingly won the governorship in the Magnolia State in 2011, and one can expect incumbent Sen. Roger Wicker (R) to win in similar fashion in 2012. SAFE REPUBLICAN
Missouri: Because she won in 2006 with just under 50% of the vote and currently has an approval rating hovering in the mid-40s, Sen. Claire McCaskill has a tough road to reelection. However, before her fate is determined, the GOP must first sort out who will be its nominee. The early choices were former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman and Rep. Todd Akin, but now a third GOP candidate has entered the fray in the form of businessman John Brunner. Brunner is getting strong support from establishment figures and has ample amounts of private wealth to draw on as a wealthy businessman. We believe he is the GOP's preferred candidate because Steelman and Akin have not caught fire. If President Obama doesn't heavily target GOP-leaning Missouri, McCaskill will have a tougher time getting the heavy Democratic turnout that will be vital to her reelection hopes. With all this in mind, we see this as quite the TOSS UP.
Montana: One of the top GOP pickup opportunities comes in the Treasure State, where incumbent Democrat Jon Tester will face Republican at-large Rep. Denny Rehberg. Because the two nominees are effectively already decided, this race is in something of a holding pattern. Both men are getting their hits in where they can, attacking low-hanging fruit such as executive compensation at Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae (which of course are targets as easy to bash as a piñata at a fourth-grader's birthday party). This is and perhaps will be a TOSS UP all the way until the end.
North Dakota: Democrats are crowing over their recruitment of ex-state Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp into the race to replace retiring Democrat Kent Conrad, and an internal poll conducted by Democratic pollster Mark Mellman shows Heitkamp actually leading the likely Republican nominee, freshman Rep. Rick Berg, by five points. But let's take a deep breath here. Heitkamp hasn't been a candidate since 2000, when she ran for governor and lost by 10 points to now-Sen. John Hoeven (R). North Dakota will, in all likelihood, go for the Republican presidential nominee by a healthy margin. On the other hand, Democrats might be able to make a compelling case that Berg, after just being elected to the House last year, is trying to move up too fast. Part of that has been a drumbeat of protests over Berg using House franking privileges to send mailers to constituents -- a convenient perk of holding office. We still say this race is a LIKELY REPUBLICAN pickup, but it may not be the yawner it appeared to be before Heitkamp's entry.
Nebraska: Even though there have already been a slew of Democratic ads run in support of Sen. Ben Nelson, the moderate Democrat might decide to retire, which would torpedo Democrats' cornhusker hopes. Several contenders are fighting for the GOP nomination, including Attorney General Jon Bruning, Treasurer Don Stenberg and state Sen. Deb Fischer. Stenberg, who lost to Nelson in the 2000 election and two other races for GOP Senate nominations, recently received the coveted endorsement of Tea Party leader U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC), although the race likely remains Bruning's to lose. Our continuing to rate this race as a TOSS UP assumes that Nelson stays in the race, though Nelson will be hard-pressed to win again under any circumstances. If he retires, this should be the GOP's easiest pickup next year.
New Jersey: Nobody gets all that excited about Sen. Robert Menendez, but the "D" after his name is probably all he needs in this race. Indeed, Republican Gov. Chris Christie's personal popularity hasn't seemed to help other members of his party; note, for instance, the recent New Jersey state legislative elections, where Democrats held off a Christie-led challenge to add a seat to their big majority in the state legislature. Christie of course would make a fine candidate, but after passing on a presidential run, he might be eyeing a vice presidential slot. We've upgraded the Democrats' chances to keep this seat to LIKELY DEMOCRATIC.
New Mexico: With incumbent Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D) retiring, Rep. Martin Heinrich (D) and ex-Rep. Heather Wilson (R) are the leaders to fight it out in the general election for this open seat. However, neither candidate is a sure thing at this point in the election cycle. State Auditor Hector Balderas (D) could give Heinrich a run for his money in the primary, and could be an attractive candidate in the general as well, whereas Wilson is probably the best chance the Republicans have to pull this one out. Given the primary uncertainty, this race remains a TOSS UP, but Republicans may ultimately have better chances elsewhere: particularly if the Republican presidential candidate fails to make inroads among Hispanic voters, who accounted for more than two of every five New Mexico voters in 2008, according to exit polls.
New York: All signs point to Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D) winning her first full term in the U.S. Senate after being appointed to the seat in 2009 to replace Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. So far, only Nassau County Comptroller George Maragos (R) has stepped in to oppose her, though the GOP's 2010 New York Comptroller nominee Harry Wilson has said he will decide on the race in early 2012. Sienna's Nov. 15 poll shows neither to be any threat to Gillibrand in the general: the incumbent leads Maragos 65-17 and Wilson 63-21. We continue to view this race as SAFE DEMOCRATIC.
Nevada: While Massachusetts has surpassed the Silver State as the Democrats' best opportunity to win a Republican-held seat, the likely contest between appointed Sen. Dean Heller (he took over for the disgraced ex-GOP Sen. John Ensign) and Rep. Shelley Berkley provides another rare opportunity for Democrats to play offense on Republican turf. Unhelpful to Berkley was a major New York Times story in September whose headline -- "A Congresswoman's Cause is Often Her Husband's Gain" -- just might (read: will) find its way into some Republican attacks ads next year. Berkley has seemed to weather the controversy, over the extent to which her work as a legislator has benefited her physician husband, but that and Heller's status as a quasi-incumbent means that he has the slight edge over Berkley for now. LEANS REPUBLICAN
Ohio: Say this for state Treasurer Josh Mandel: He's not bashful. A year after winning his first statewide race, Mandel (R) is aggressively challenging Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown, accusing him of "egging on" vulgar protesters at Occupy Wall Street protests and otherwise seeking to blame Brown, a political lifer, for Ohio's long economic decline. In assessing this race, one can't help but be reminded of Ohio's 1988 Senate race, when liberal Democrat Howard Metzenbaum was challenged by Cleveland Mayor George Voinovich (R). Voinovich piled on Metzenbaum, even trying to argue that he was soft on child pornography. But, in a year when Republican George H.W. Bush was cruising to victory in Ohio, Metzenbaum crushed Voinovich, a future governor and senator whose attacks many believe went over the top. Tough attacks can backfire, and Ohioans have a history of supporting unabashedly liberal candidates, such as Metzenbaum and Brown. That is not to say that Mandel is not a formidable and well-funded challenger -- he most certainly is, and he very well could win. But this race still LEANS DEMOCRATIC.
Pennsylvania: In the Keystone State, a seeming cast of thousands is contending for the Republican nomination to take on Democratic Sen. Bob Casey. These include businessman Steve Welch, ex-state Rep. Sam Rohrer, 2010 congressional candidate Tim Burns, former coal company owner Tom Smith and many others. The field is largely defined, however, not by who is in it, but who is not: The state's Republican House members all declined to run. The eventual Republican nominee will have a hard time beating Casey, who remains relatively popular and who continues to demonstrate some crossover appeal -- his anti-abortion views are surely helpful in wooing Catholics, who made up nearly a third of Pennsylvania's voters in the 2008 presidential election and who, as a group, supported Republican presidential nominee John McCain, according to exit polls. We still rate this race as LIKELY DEMOCRATIC.
Rhode Island: Unfortunately for those who enjoy gripping election battles, the nation's smallest state will not be joining in the fun in 2012. Although incumbent Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D) does have an opponent in the form of businessman Barry Hinckley (R), Whitehouse is a safe bet to win reelection in a state that President Obama won by 28 points in 2008. SAFE DEMOCRATIC
Tennessee: There is little doubt that Democrats in Tennessee will be singing the Memphis blues come November 2012 because Sen. Bob Corker (R) is destined for easy reelection. The only drama here is a possible challenge against Corker in the Republican primary by unknown veteran and technology consultant Zach Poskevich, but there is no reason to think the incumbent is vulnerable. SAFE REPUBLICAN
Texas: Despite winning plaudits from elite Republican opinion makers, and endorsements from such Tea Party luminaries as Sens. Jim DeMint (R-SC), Mike Lee (R-UT) and Rand Paul (R-KY), it is beginning to look like ex-state Solicitor General Ted Cruz is outmanned against wealthy Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst in the race to replace the retiring Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison. Dewhurst just has too much money and too much establishment support not to be considered a clear favorite in his race against Cruz and ex-Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert, who like Dewhurst is also personally wealthy. Perhaps Cruz or Leppert can advance to a primary runoff in May with Dewhurst if they can keep him under 50% in the initial round of voting in March. A number of other one-time candidates in the Republican primary have left this race. Former Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the likely Democratic nominee and a one-time promising recruit, has not gotten any traction, although he has said he will not leave the race despite a fire that destroyed his San Antonio home. SAFE REPUBLICAN
Utah: A Tea Party challenge to Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch has yet to emerge, so he might be able to avoid the fate of his former colleague, ex-Sen. Bob Bennett, who was dethroned in a Republican convention last year. State Sen. Dan Liljenquist (R) might challenge Hatch, so the long-time senator is looking good but is not out of the woods yet. In any event, Democrats do not have a credible challenger, which means this is a SAFE REPUBLICAN seat.
Vermont: The irascible Sen. Bernie Sanders (I), who caucuses with the Democrats, has no challenger as of yet, and even if one appears, there is no reason to think he won't easily be reelected given his long history representing the Green Mountain State, first in the House of Representatives and now the Senate. SAFE INDEPENDENT/DEMOCRATIC.
Virginia: Ex-Sen. George Allen (R) has agreed to three debates with his Republican challengers, but there's no indication that the debates will change anything: He is the overwhelming favorite to win the nomination to try to reclaim his old seat, setting up a showdown with ex-Democratic National Committee Chairman and ex-Gov Tim Kaine next November. Under the right circumstances, Kaine might have a little bit more crossover appeal than the polarizing Allen, whose "Macaca" moment from his losing race against the retiring Sen. Jim Webb (D) probably will never completely go away. Republicans, of course, will try to make Kaine a polarizing figure too, and they have some good ammunition from Kaine's time as President Obama's DNC chair. We suspect the presidential contest will largely determine this race, but it's easier to see slightly more Republican presidential voters crossing over to vote for Kaine than Obama voters also pulling the lever for Allen. TOSS UP
Washington: In a different year without so many inviting Democratic targets, Republicans might be talking up a challenge to Sen. Maria Cantwell (D). But with so many other opportunities, we suspect that Cantwell, while not getting a free pass, will be fine in this Blue State. SAFE DEMOCRATIC
Wisconsin: In the race to replace Democratic Sen. Herb Kohl, the Democratic nomination appears settled: Rep. Tammy Baldwin, in the running to become the nation's first openly lesbian senator, should have a free pass to the nomination. However, on the Republican side, the candidate who probably would be the strongest competition for Baldwin, ex-Gov. Tommy Thompson, will get anything but a free pass. Ex-Rep. Mark Neumann, Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald and state Sen. Frank Lasee are also vying for the nomination. Such a crowded field could lead to an effective split of the conservative, anti-Thompson vote, which obviously would be a boon to the former federal Health and Human Services director. Polling shows Thompson leading Baldwin, but Baldwin leading the other Republicans. After the primary, this may break clearly one way or the other, but it's a TOSS UP for now.
West Virginia: Polling released before the October special gubernatorial election showed Sen. Joe Manchin, the former Democratic governor, crushing Republican gubernatorial nominee Bill Maloney in a hypothetical matchup, while the acting governor, Earl Ray Tomblin, only beat Maloney in the actual election by a few points. Mountain State voters, as they showed in the gubernatorial race, seem to be just fine with their ruling, state Democrats even while they will overwhelmingly support the Republican presidential nominee next year, and there's no indication that the strongest potential GOP challenger, Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, will challenge Manchin. So long as he keeps his distance from Obama, Manchin's bid for a first full term is in fine shape, and we have upgraded his chances to LIKELY DEMOCRATIC.
Wyoming: Sen. John Barrasso (R) is seeking reelection and, unsurprisingly, nary a Democrat has stepped forward to challenge him in the reddest state in the country in 2008, where McCain won by 32%. It is possible that someone may attempt to take on Barrasso in the GOP primary but this seat is SAFE REPUBLICAN.
Crystal Ball interns Rebecca Rubin and Marco Segura contributed to this piece.