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2010 Senate Rankings, Part II: Races #11-#20

This is part two of our periodic series ranking the 35 senate seats currently known to be contested in 2010 (a list that is likely to grow by at least one in the coming days if and when Hillary Clinton becomes Secretary of State).

Seats are ranked in order of their likelihood of changing parties; for more complete ground rules and a ranking of races #21-#35, please see the previous article in this series.

20. Connecticut (D-Dodd)

Approval/Favorability Ratings: Chris Dodd (D)
Poll Date Approve Disapprove Net
Quinnipiac 6/28 51 34 +17

Chris Dodd’s approval ratings aren’t as strong as they once were as the result of the Countrywide mini-scandal and a relatively uninspired run for the Presidency. But which Republican in Connecticut is going to be in a position to take a shot at him? Popular Republican Governor Jodi Rell might have a chance, but is not thought likely to run, and Chris Shays’ surprisingly large margin of defeat on Election Day gives you a sense for how non-Rell Republicans are likely to fare in Connecticut. There is also a chance that Dodd could retire, which would do the Republicans the favor of avoiding his formidable fundraising machine, but that doesn’t solve the problem of their weak bench in this state.

19. Louisiana (R-Vitter)

Approval/Favorability Ratings: David Vitter (R)
Poll Date Approve Disapprove Net
SMOR 4/2 52 32 +20

For whatever reason — perhaps his decision to quickly beg the public’s forgiveness — the DC Madam scandal just never took all that much of a hit on Vitter’s popularity at home in Louisiana. This is also one of those states that is trending away from the Democrats, with Barack Obama having lost badly on Election Day and Mary Landrieu having a somewhat closer call than the polling anticipated. Worth exploratory efforts on the part of the Democrats but unless they find a compelling candidate somewhere, unlikely to be a top-tier race.

18. Alaska (R-Murkoski)

Approval/Favorability Ratings: Lisa Murkowski (R)
Poll Date Approve Disapprove Net
Hays Research 3/11 63 33 +30

Mark Begich’s closer-than-expected win on Election Day — and Ethan Berkowitz’ loss for Alaska’s at-large House seat — ought to give the Democrats a reality check about their ability to marshal public support in this state. With that said, the political climate in Alaska could change, particularly if oil prices remain relatively low — eating into the state’s revenue base — or Murkowski has less success securing earmarks under a Democratic presidency. For Democrats to have a chance, they probably also need Sarah Palin’s star to dim, as a popular Palin (who will be running for re-election in 2010) would have plenty of coattails for Murkowski.

17. Iowa (R-Grassley)

Approval/Favorability Ratings: Chuck Grassley (R)
Poll Date Approve Disapprove Net
SurveyUSA 10/18 63 29 +34
Selzer 2/19 67 18 +49

This race ranks where it does solely because Grassley will be 77 in 2010 and could retire, in which case the race probably leans Democrat. Absent a retirement, a kamikaze mission by someone like Tom Vilsack against the popular incumbent is unlikely to succeed.

16. Delaware (D-Kaufman, but probably Open)

I didn’t like how the Democrats handled the appointment of Joe Biden’s replacement in this state, which went to little-known politico (and former Biden Chief of Staff) Ted Kaufman. But Kaufman almost certainly will not be the nominee, that honor instead most likely going to Beau Biden. The younger Biden is a capable politician on his own merits and will be difficult to defeat if he runs. Republican Mike Castle, Delaware’s lone Represenative, could potentially make things interesting if he wants the seat, but it is not clear how likely that is, as he’ll be 71 in 2010 and suffered two minor strokes during his 2006 campaign.

15. Illinois (D-??)

Although it’s uncertain who Rod Blagojevich is going to pick to take Barack Obama’s seat, that’s not for lack of talent in the Democratic ranks, as prospective replacements like Jan Schakowsky or Alexi Giannoulis would likely prove fairly popular. Conversely, the Republicans have absolutely zero bench in Illinois, having failed to come closer than within 10 points of the unpopular Blagojevich in the gubernatorial race in 2006. This seat likely becomes significantly more vulnerable, however, if Jesse Jackson Jr. is the appointee, who could make the state a fundraising magnet for Republicans.

14. California (D-Boxer)

Approval/Favorability Ratings: Barbara Boxer (D)
Poll Date Approve Disapprove Net
SurveyUSA 10/18 49 42 +7
PPIC 9/13 44 39 +5
Field Poll 5/22 48 31 +17

Boxer’s approval ratings are not as strong as you might think, and Arnold Schwarzenneger — who will be term-limited in 2010 — is rumored to be interested in her seat. California has a quirky electoral history and the generic Democratic advantage at the top of the ticket has not always carried over to statewide races. Still, Boxer likely remains the favorite even if Arnie runs, and a heavier favorite if he doesn’t, as most of the more talented Republicans are liable to focus on the Governor’s race.

13. Georgia (R-Isakson)

Approval/Favorability Ratings: Johnny Isakson (R)
Poll Date Approve Disapprove Net
PPP 11/24 30 25 +5
Strategic Vision 11/1 50 38 +12

We’ll know more about this seat once we learn the results of Georgia’a runoff, but Isakson is not particularly more popular than Saxby Chambliss, and could also be vulnerable. In addition, some Democratic intangibles will arguably be more favorable in 2010, as they’ll have had a full cycle to target this seat, rather than nominating Jim Martin at the last minute and realizing — perhaps too late — how competitive they might be. They will also have had two more years of favorable demographic change in Georgia, which is gradually becoming more urban.

12. Colorado (D-Salazar)

Approval/Favorability Ratings: Ken Salazar (D)
Poll Date Approve Disapprove Net
PPP 8/6 39 36 +3

This seat excites a lot of Republicans as Salazar’s approval ratings are tepid, but Colorado is very much moving in the wrong direction for them. Salazar starts off with a significant built-in advantage from Colorado’s Hispanic community, and in addition, he’ll get to benefit from the vastly superior voter lists that the Democrats built up in 2008. There is also the question of just who the Republicans might nominate to unseat him, as their candidates in the last few statewide races have been uninspired. Salazar has had an advantage over several plausible nominees in preliminary polling.

11. Missouri (R-Bond)

Approval/Favorability Ratings: Kit Bond (R)
Poll Date Approve Disapprove Net
SurveyUSA 10/18 51 42 +9
PPP 8/20 44 43 +1

Head-to-head polling has shown Bond in toss-up races against Dick Gephardt or either of a couple Carnahans, and there is also a chance that he could retire. However, although Claire McCaskill won Missouri in 2006, and Barack Obama came within several thousand votes of doing so on November 4, it has not been trending blue as fast as the rest of the country, and will most likely settle in as a Lean Republican state if and when the political climate becomes less favorable to the Democrats. In ranking these races, we are assuming that the Republicans will in fact have eroded the Democrats’ generic ballot advantage some by 2010, as usually happens after the White House changes hands. If they have not, Missouri is probably a top-tier race.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.