Republicans no longer have a realistic chance of holding their own in this year's Senate contests.
One of the less pleasant aspects of writing a political column when one party is having a particularly grim year is that the story gets so repetitive. Some years, the Democrats are in the political toilet. This year, the Republicans are in that unenviable position.
In the presidential race, presumptive Republican nominee John McCain is behind but still very competitive. For the GOP, that is the bright spot on the horizon. In the House and Senate contests, the debate is about how many seats the Republicans will lose; they no longer have a realistic chance of holding their own.
So, even though a nonpartisan analyst naturally desires to be balanced, in a year like this I can place very little good news on the Republican side of the scale.
In the Senate races, the outlook for the GOP is bad and getting worse. Few Republicans think that they have any real hope of holding retiring Sen. John Warner's seat in Virginia. Former Gov. Mark Warner, who is a Democrat, appears to have a lock on that contest, which The Cook Political Report rates as "Likely Democratic." In New Mexico, where Republican Sen. Pete Domenici is retiring, GOP Rep. Steve Pearce is the underdog, trailing Democratic Rep. Tom Udall in a contest that we moved this week from the "Toss-Up" column to "Leans Democratic."
In Oregon, Republican Sen. Gordon Smith faces an increasingly difficult challenge from Democratic state House Speaker Jeff Merkley. The Cook Political Report this week shifted that race from "Leans Republican" to "Toss-Up." The GOP's problem isn't so much that Merkley is an especially formidable challenger; it's just that the political climate has effectively erased the natural advantages that Smith brings to the race.
Smith's contest joins five others involving Republican-held seats that we had already rated as "Toss-Ups"--those of incumbents Norm Coleman of Minnesota, John Sununu of New Hampshire, Ted Stevens of Alaska, and appointed Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi, as well as the open seat in Colorado where Wayne Allard is retiring. Sununu's situation is looking increasingly ominous; Coleman's stock has risen, although not quite enough to warrant a move to the "Leans Republican" category.
In North Carolina, Republican Sen. Elizabeth Dole's challenge from Democratic state Sen. Kay Hagan is getting increasingly competitive, warranting a shift from the "Likely Republican" column, effectively a watch list, to "Leans Republican," signaling that the outcome is now in doubt. This is not yet a "Toss-Up" and may not get there, but it is now a real race. Dole joins GOP Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, whose contest has been in the "Leans Republican" column since April 2007.
Democrats have targeted Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky in a race that we have now moved from the "Solid Republican" category to "Likely Republican." Even though McConnell has raised an impressive $15.2 million for the cycle and is expected to run a flawless campaign, wealthy Democratic businessman Bruce Lunsford has made a $2.5 million down payment on his race, shifting the contest to the watch list.
Democrats also contend that they are making progress against GOP Sens. John Cornyn of Texas, James Inhofe of Oklahoma, and Pat Roberts of Kansas, but those boasts are not particularly convincing at this stage.
On the other side of the Senate equation, just one Democratic seat remains in jeopardy, that of incumbent Mary Landrieu of Louisiana. Poll results in her race against state Treasurer John Kennedy, a Democrat-turned-Republican, are contradictory. What is clear is that the state is trending Republican and that Kennedy is a far more formidable rival than Landrieu faced in her two previous elections. Landrieu has a much stronger record of accomplishments this time, however, and she is running a better campaign than in the past. She should have another tight race.
Jennifer Duffy, The Cook Political Report's Senate editor, says the bottom line is that Democrats are poised to pick up five to seven seats. Holding that pickup to four would be a moral victory for Republicans. The possibility that Democrats will net eight or nine seats remains unlikely, but it isn't as laughable a scenario as it was six months ago.