Skip to main content
ABC News
Senate Rankings, March 2009 Edition

On a slow political weekend, it’s time for our monthly tour of the Senate battleground. Because of the number of high-profile Republican retirements and the particular set of seats that are up for re-election this cycle, Democrats retain an excellent chance of gaining ground in the Senate, even as they’re more likely than not to lose seats in the House. Some second-tier GOP targets, however, like Connecticut and Wisconsin, are potentially becoming more viable to the Republicans.

Races are ranked in order of their likelihood of changing parties by November 2010, accounting for all factors such as potential retirements, primary challenges, and so forth.

Likelihood of party switch has increased since last month‘s rankings.
Likelihood of party switch has decreased since last month.

1. Pennsylvania (R-Specter)
Pennsylvania vaults from #7 to #1 as there are now four plausible ways that the Republicans could lose control of it:

a) Arlen Specter could lose the Republican primary to conservative Pat Toomey, who nearly defeated him in 2004 and now seems poised for a re-match. This news comes as a new Susquehanna poll reports two-thirds of Republicans want to replace Specter; he’s actually more popular among the state’s Democrats. Toomey is not a intrinsically a terrific candidate — he’s never held public office and his main asset to Pennsylvania’s conservatives is simply that he’s not Arlen Specter. If he wins, the Republicans have very little chance of protecting the seat in November;
b) Alternatively, Specter could hang in on the primary but lose to a Democrat in the general election;
c) Specter could retire, or his health could force him to, meaning that the Republicans would probably nominate someone like Toomey and lose;
d) Specter could switch parties, which would count as a Democratic win for our purposes.

The combined probability of at least one of these four events happening, I would guess, is something like 60 or 70 percent.

2. New Hampshire (R-Open)
At this point last month, we assumed that Judd Gregg would become Barack Obama’s Commerce Secretary, with his seat to be filled by some sort of Rockefeller Republican who would not run for re-election. Now, of course, Gregg is keeping the seat, but will retire at the end of his term. The net effect is the same: an open seat in a blue-leaning state in which probably the best available Democratic candidate, U.S. Rep. Paul Hodes, has already declared his candidacy. A PPP poll out last month gave Hodes a very small lead over two prospective Republican adversaries.

3. Missouri (R-Open)
This now appears as though it will be a battle of Missouri political dynasties, with Democratic Secretary of State Robin Carnahan running against Representative Roy Blunt, who recently confirmed his interest in the race (although Sarah Steelman may challenge Blunt for the Republican nomination). As before, the race is a toss-up, perhaps slightly tilting toward Carnahan.

4. Ohio (R-Open)
A Quinnipiac poll shows Democrats Lee Fisher and Jennifer Brunner with fairly decent-sized leads over the probable Republican nominee, Rob Portman. The reason I’m not changing the standing of the race based on that poll is that (i) Portman’s name recognition is fairly low at this stage and (ii) there’s the chance that Fisher and Brunner leave each other battered and bruised in the primary while Portman should waltz through. Still, Republicans have only about a 50:50 chance of holding on.

5. Kentucky (R-Bunning)
Republicans are still trying to find a relief pitcher for Bunning.

6. Florida (R-Open)
There are plenty of rumors that Charlie Crist will run for Senate; if he runs he’ll almost certainly win. Considering, however, that Crist would also almost certainly win if he ran for re-election as governor, and that being a governor of a large state like Florida is a more powerful position than being one of its senators, I wonder if the rumors aren’t being circulated to deter potentially stronger Democratic challengers from entering. If Crist doesn’t enter, the candidates are frankly underwhelming on both sides and the race will probably come down to ground game and turnout.

7. Nevada (D-Reid)
Former U.S. Rep Jon Porter, thought to be among the stronger of the potential Republican opponents against Harry Reid, has taken a job as a lobbyist, not usually a strong move for a politician looking to bolster his populist credentials. Still, Reed makes for an attractive target and Republicans have plenty of time for someone to emerge from the woodwork.

8. North Carolina (R-Burr)

9. Illinois (D-Burris)
The Illinois state senate voted down to a special election to replace Roland Burris, a decision that keeps the seat in Democratic hands for now but could allow the Republicans to claim the moral highground in 2010. Meanwhile, former Commerce Secretary Bill Daley will reportedly run on the Democratic side. Although Daley is a formidable candidate, the decision that risks further fragmenting the electorate, perhaps even enabling the nightmare scenario in which Burris wins a narrow plurality in a four- or five-way race and goes on to lose the general.

10. Connecticut (D-Dodd)
Chris Dodd’s approval ratings have fallen and aren’t getting up; he may be challenged by former Rep. Rob Simmons and populist icon Larry Kudlow. Connecticut is still a very blue state and Dodd is among the best fundraisers in the Senate, so this is a more difficult pickup opportunity than it appears on paper, but things are certainly getting interesting, particularly if the state’s Republicans have enough common sense not to nominate Kudlow.

11. Colorado (D-Bennet)
Michael Bennet is waffling on the Employee Free Choice Act, which could increase the chance of a Democratic primary challenge, but has more ambiguous effects on his prospects in the general election, where he remains the favorite.

12. Texas (R-Open?)
Public Policy Polling shows a very competitive race in the (rather likely) event that Kay Bailey Hutchison retires to pursue the governorship.

13. Delaware (D-Open)

14. Louisiana (R-Vitter)
A Research 2000 poll has opponents (though not adult entertainer Stormy Daniels) within spitting distance of Vitter in both the primary and the general. Still, Louisiana has not been kind to Democrats of late.

15. New York (Jr.) (D-Gillibrand)
Former Governor George Pataki, who polls about evenly with Kirsten Gillibrand, is being recruited as a candidate.

16. Wisconsin (D-Feingold)
SurveyUSA has Russ Feingold’s approval ratings on the decline (although still above 50 percent). Meanwhile, his decision to come out against the Administration’s budget can possibly be read as a conscientious effort to avoid a challenge from the right, although it also could just be a case of Feingold being Feingold. No cause for great alarm for Democrats, but one to keep on eye on.

17. Iowa (R-Grassley)
Grassley, in fending off a (completely baseless) rumor that he was going to run for governor, reminded Iowans that he’s already held 12 fundraisers toward his re-election bid. Dems need a retirement to have a shot, and those chances are diminishing.

18. California (D-Boxer)
Boxer’s approval ratings are quite poor, but with the state in complete fiscal chaos, Arnold Schwarzenegger is unlikely to provide the answer for Republicans. Boxer is helped by the fact that most of the best GOP talent will gravitate toward the governor’s race.

19. Arizona (R-McCain)

20. Arkansas (D-Lincoln)

21. Kansas (R-Open)
Kansas tumbles down the list with Kathleen Sebelius’ appointment to HHS. Although this is still an open seat, the Republicans already have a pair of strong declared candidates whereas no Democrat has represented Kansas in the Senate since 1939.

22. Oklahoma (R-Coburn)

23. Alaska (R-Murkowski)

24. Hawaii (D-Inoyue)

25. Georgia (R-Isakson)

North Dakota (D-Dorgan)
Polling suggests that even if popular Governor John Hoeven were to run, he’d be a huge underdog to the equally popular Dorgan.

27. Maryland (D-Mikulski)

28. South Carolina (R-DeMint)

29. Washington (D-Murray)

30. South Dakota (R-Thune)

31. Indiana (D-Bayh)

32. Vermont (D-Leahy)

33. Oregon (D-Wyden)

34. Alabama (R-Shelby)

35. Utah (R-Bennett)
No surprise, but polling confirms that Bob Bennett looks safe — even against former Jeopardy! champion Ken Jennings.

36. New York (Sr.) (D-Schumer)

37. Idaho (R-Crapo)

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