Senate race assessments

by: Mike Lux

Fri Aug 20, 2010 at 12:00

I will be doing periodic short updates on House, Senate, and Governor races between now and election day. My first one on the Senate is below. House race assessment will come Monday at 12 EST.

I want all the Democrats to beat all the Republicans, but with 19 different races that are competitive to one degree or another, I will be focusing my personal attention to the races that I care the most about, namely the ones with strong progressive candidates running in the tightest races. However, I know everyone cares about a wide variety of different factors, issues, and races, so I will give updates on every Senate race each time I write. I am putting them into three different categories. The first is made up of the more conservative Democrats from more conservative states. The second is the biggest group, decent progressive candidates in tough races. The third category is the one I am personally most strongly prioritizing: strong progressives in tough but winnable races.

Category 1 (no particular order)

1. Arkansas. Blanche Lincoln vs. John Boozman. Lincoln virtually destroyed herself with her paralysis and contradictions during the health care fight, making almost everyone incredibly angry. She is 20 points down in the polls, badly wounded by the tough primary fight, and very few Democrats around the country are eager to help her. However, she proved in the primary that she is one hell of a campaigner, and she does have a 4-1 cash advantage over a rather flawed Republican candidate, so she's not dead yet.

2. Louisiana. Charlie Melancon vs. David Vitter. Melancon voted against health care reform, is a conservative on most social issues, and, like all Louisiana politicians, won't buck the oil industry. On the other hand, he's taken a gutsy stand on some populist economic issues, including the Employee Free Choice Act, and is running against one of the top sleazebags in the Senate, David Vitter. This is an interesting race: it is hard to imagine a Democrat winning in the Deep South in such a Republican year, but Melancon is a good candidate and Vitter has some flaws, to understate the case by a mile or more.

3. Indiana. Brad Ellsworth vs. Dan Coats. Ellsworth would be a conservative vote on most social issues, and will have to be lobbied heavily on everything else, but I do give him some credit for being an economic populist on some issues, including health care, the stimulus, and banking reform this year (although he totally screwed up by coming out against repealing Bush's tax cuts for the rich). Coats is the worst caricature of a DC lobbyist, and should be vulnerable as a result, but it is a tough year for any Democrat to win in Indiana.

Category 2 (no particular order)

1. Paul Hodes vs. TBD. Kelly Ayotte would be a pretty strong candidate for the Republicans if she wins the primary. She has been consistently up by Hodes by double digits. If she loses to the rich right-winger running against her, though, Hodes has more potential to win. The best thing about Hodes is that he has begun running strongly on the reform agenda MoveOn and many other progressives have been promoting, which I think will help him.

2. Connecticut. Dick Blumenthal vs. Linda McMahon. Blumenthal's Vietnam stupidity wounded him, and McMahon will outspend him enormously. On the other hand, the WWF thing gives Democrats plenty of ammo, Blumenthal has been a well-liked Attorney General, and Connecticut is a Democratic state. I think Blumenthal's 8-10 point lead might shrink a little, but he is likely to win if he can do a decent job turning out the Democratic vote.

3. Florida. TBD vs. Marco Rubio vs. Charlie Crist. This is a confusing race all the way around. One of the worst people in this year's field of candidates, credit default swap kingpin Jeff Greene, is spending ungodly amounts of money to try and buy the Democratic nomination from Kendrick Meek, who is a very solid guy. If Greene wins the primary, no national Democrat will want to be associated with him, and he has no chance. If Meek wins, he will still have an uphill race in an odd three-way campaign. Crist is dangling the idea of caucusing with the Democrats, which may make it less compelling for national party money to go to Meeks.

4. Pennsylvania. Joe Sestak vs. Pat Toomey. Sestak is a solid candidate running a decent but not especially strong campaign. Toomey is the darling of both economic and social conservatives, the former head of the Club for Growth and a caucus of "family values" conservatives in the House. Sestak has a 2.5 million dollar money gap at the moment. Given the money edge, Sestak's flawed campaign, and Pennsylvania turning harder than many states against Obama, this will be a tough race to win.

5. Nevada. Harry Reid vs. Sharron Angle. Reid's approval ratings have been lagging for a year, but Angle may be the most extreme candidate of all in an extreme year for Republican candidates. Reid has moved a few points ahead in most of the polling reports available. I think Reid will pull this race out, just because of how crazy Angle is.

6. Washington. Patty Murray vs. Dino Rossi. Any other year, Murray would be breezing to re-election as she has been a fairly popular Senator and Rossi has a lot of flaws as a candidate, but right now they are running neck and neck. Outside Republican groups are targeting this race heavily. This will go down to the wire, with Democratic turnout being critically important.

7. Colorado. Michael Bennet vs. Ken Buck. I would have preferred Romanoff in this primary, who ran as a populist insurgent outsider, but Bennet is running a good campaign as well, and Buck is another very extreme Tea Party candidate. I think Bennet will pull out a tough race in the end, but this one will be close.

8. Delaware. Chris Coons vs. Mike Castle. This is an uphill race because Castle is popular, but Coons is running a very solid campaign, and Delaware is a pretty Democratic state. Coons is behind, but not by as much as people thought he would be.

9. Ohio. Lee Fisher vs. Rob Portman. Fisher survived a tougher-than-expected primary against a progressive woman with no money. Portman is an ex-Wall Street exec and Bush trade czar. This will be one of the closest races in the country. Unfortunately, Fisher has a $7.5 million fundraising deficit right now.

10. Missouri. Robin Carnahan vs. Roy Blunt. Roy Blunt was Tom DeLay's closest ally in the House. His entire career has been intertwined with helping the worst actors in corporate America. He has been the go-to guy for tobacco, the big banks, big oil, big insurance companies, and has is as right-wing as you can get on social issues as well. Robin has been a strong progressive reformer on both social and economic issues.

This is another tough race in the lean Republican political environment of Missouri in a Republican year. Robin in some respects is the right kind of populist to take on a sleazy insider like Blunt, and she is keeping the race very close. Unfortunately she just did the incredibly dumb thing of backing the Republicans on Bush's tax cuts for the rich, undercutting her case as a populist fighting for the middle class. Before she did that, I had this race as my number two priority for progressives, but that was a terrible decision.

Category 3. My top priority races, this time in reverse priority order. Given the candidates, campaigns, and their opponents, these are the races progressives could have the biggest impact on.

6. California. Barbara Boxer vs. Carly Fiorina. I hesitated to put this on the list, because California is such a big state and there is so much money swirling around that it is hard to make a difference. This race, though, is really important in many different ways. Boxer is an outspoken old school progressive, and if someone like her can't get elected in California, it will send shock waves through the entire national party. I've always thought Barbara was important in internal Senate dynamics because she is one of a very few progressives willing to push back and speak up against a lot of the good old boys who still dominate the Senate Democratic caucus. And beating the worst kind of corporate CEO hack like Fiorina is important symbolically in a populist year.

5. North Carolina. Elaine Marshall vs. Richard Burr. Elaine Marshall is a great candidate, remarkably progressive for the South, and Richard Burr has some big vulnerabilities- he's just not very popular. But Marshall has a $6 million fundraising deficit, and it will be very tough to win anywhere in the South in 2010.

4. Iowa. Roxanne Conlin vs. Chuck Grassley. This is the single toughest race of my top tier but it packs a massive political punch. Grassley is the ultimate entrenched political insider, the ranking Republican on Senate Finance, and with the possible exception of Mitch McConnell, may be the Senator who has done more to help big multinational corporations than anyone else. He is running against the ultimate movement progressive running this year, Roxanne Conlin. She is a crusading attorney who has spent her legal career suing big business on behalf of poor and working-class consumers, was an early leader of the feminist movement, and has been a supporter of every progressive issue campaign over the last 40 years.

No one gave Roxanne a chance when she decided to run, but Grassley's negatives have been steadily rising and she is within single digits. It's still a tough race to win in this Republican year, but Roxanne is in range.

3. Kentucky. Jack Conway vs. Rand Paul. Kentucky will be very tough for any Democrat to win, but this is a hugely important race. Paul is the top priority for tea partiers around the country, and if he gets a seat in the Senate, their extremist movement will have will have a standard bearer for years to come. I have been very impressed by Conway and the kind of campaign he is running, and he is very much in this race in spite of the toughness of the Kentucky political terrain.

2. Wisconsin. Russ Feingold vs. Ron Johnson. I get the sense that very few people understand how tough this race is shaping up for Feingold. Wisconsin is far more of a purple state than a blue one, and it has been hard-hit by the recession. Johnson is a very effective candidate, running ads with a compelling message, and he has tons of money. This race is currently a dead heat, and progressives will have to kick in big to save the seat.

1. Alexi Giannoulias vs. Mark Kirk. In my view, the race for Obama's old Senate seat is the most important race in the country for progressives. Kirk has been proven to be a serial liar about his biography, and a staunch supporter of the big banks and corporate America, but with his moderate social issue views, if he becomes an incumbent he will be tough to beat in the future even in a Democratic state like Illinois.

Alexi Giannoulias, on the other hand, is a crusading reformer who has staked his campaign on taking on big money and big business, and has pledged to form a Senate progressive caucus if he wins the race. He has lost a lot of money by turning down corporate lobbyist contributions, though, and Kirk has a $3 million edge, and the Chamber of Commerce is running attacks ads for him. Every dollar we can swing toward Alexi in this race right now is critical. The symbolism of winning this race and the stakes for the future only adds to its importance.

Mike Lux :: Senate race assessments

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Just Wanted To Add (4.00 / 6)
I've always thought Barbara [Boxer] was important in internal Senate dynamics because she is one of a very few progressives willing to push back and speak up against a lot of the good old boys who still dominate the Senate Democratic caucus. And beating the worst kind of corporate CEO hack like Fiorina is important symbolically in a populist year.

I've seen her in action running a Transportation Committee field hearing, and she leaves no doubt about her grasp of nuts and bolts.  So no matter what sort of rhetoric is used against her in public, they damn sure know that she's no left-wing mirror image of Inhofe or any of those other jokers.

In short, she's not only willing to speak out, there's good reason to take her seriously, too, even in their somewhat reductionist terms.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

And the Band Played On (4.00 / 3)
I'm reading it right now, and am proud of how much Boxer (as an SF Congresswoman at the time) put time into getting AIDS hearings and money in the early 1980s, including deputizing staff on the issue. Stuff that's often forgotten so later in her career.

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[ Parent ]
Also (4.00 / 4)
Speaking of random advocacy from early in her career: marching on the Senate to protest their treatment of Anita Hill.

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[ Parent ]
Melancon (0.00 / 0)
The one redeeming feature about Charlie Melancon is that he was the one member of the LA congressional delegation who was most willing to take on George W. Bush and the Republicans about Katrina.  Unfortunately, nothing he's done since is remotely in the same category.  OTOH, Vitter was a disgusting suck up for Bush at the expense of the people he was supposed to be representing.  Vitter has continued in that tradition in the years since.  BTW, Vitter plays dumb but he's a Rhodes Scholar.

Thanks, Mike (4.00 / 3)
This a a great summary of the whole Senate picture. It was very useful for me to get an overall impression of all the races.

ec=-8.50 soc=-8.41   (3,967 Watts)

small quibble (4.00 / 3)
9. Ohio. Lee Fisher vs. Rob Portman. Fisher survived a tougher-than-expected primary against a progressive woman with no money. Portman is an ex-Wall Street exec and Bush trade czar. This will be one of the closest races in the country. Unfortunately, Fisher has a $7.5 million fundraising deficit right now.

Why is Jennifer Brunner the only unnamed pol is this diary? Am I being nitpicky in bringing this up? I mean, it's not like she is some no-name who ran a quixotic campaign. She is Ohio's Secretary of State.

Did they get you to trade your heroes for ghosts? Hot ashes for trees? Hot air for a cool breeze? And cold comfort for change?

Jennifer (0.00 / 0)
She is a really good person who I greatly admire. I wasn't intending any diss of her by not including her name, I guess I was just writing along and that's how the sentence came out.

[ Parent ]
But she's not the only unnamed pol (0.00 / 0)
There is a nameless "rich right winger" who is mentioned as a New Hampshire Republican primary opponent for Kelly Ayotte.

Things You Don't Talk About in Polite Company: Religion, Politics, the Occasional Intersection of Both

[ Parent ]
Caught me! (4.00 / 2)
and exposed my callous disregard for "rich right wingers".

Did they get you to trade your heroes for ghosts? Hot ashes for trees? Hot air for a cool breeze? And cold comfort for change?

[ Parent ]
Good analysis, Mike. (4.00 / 2)
I reacted to Carnahan's flip flop on the Bush tax cuts for the rich with this diary yesterday in which I argued that progressives should think of giving money to Alexi instead of her.  I had been doing rec list diaries trying to persuade folks to contribute to her, as well as amking contributions myself.  

It was like being punched in the gut.  She was on record as agreeing with Obama: extend for middle class and end for rich.  It's aposition that fit her campaign.  but she is afraid of being labeled pro-tax. And I think she is running scared because of the polls.  

I'll vote for her, but I'm done contributing and I'm not vounteering my labor.  For me, Illinois is right across the Mississippi River so I can volunteer to help Alexi. Here's the diary.

It seems both wrong and stupid to me.  Hard to know how she can do economic populism while keeping tax cuts for the rich, but she's trying.

I think your list is pretty reasonable.  I'll make Alexi my number 1 priority.

One senator's vote is as good as another.  Alexi will be a progressive.  We have limited resources (or I do) so I'll support a few progressives.  Blue dogs, and I consider Carnahan to be one now, can fend for themselves.

agreed (4.00 / 3)
I really like Alexi. Was a bit perplexed to see so much push back on him because of his bank's fortunes and practices, but he was always going to be a much better progressive than Doug Hoffman. I guess a big part of that was that people believed Hoffman was more "electable" in the general, but I wasn't about to take my chances on a luke-warm Democrat representing IL for the next 20 years.

[ Parent ]
Thanks, and a few thoughts (4.00 / 2)

Thank you for an excellent summary.  In your introduction you mention your focus is on races "with strong progressive candidates running in the tightest races."  I have always agreed with that, but add a bit broader criteria, at least for me:  "races with the greatest difference between the candidates in the tightest races."  This gives extra points for Nevada, Kentucky, and Colorado.  

A quibble re new Hampshire:  Hodes may have a bit better shot against Ayotte than you state.  The last three polls have Hodes trailing by 13 (Rasmussen), by 8 (UNH) and by 3 (PPP).  The UNH poll was a 7 point improvement for Hodes since April and the PPP poll was a 4 point improvement since April.  Hodes trails Ayotte, but unless you bank on Rasmussen, he is not that far behind. It's also a small state where a dollar goes further and individual voter contact makes a big difference.  

I am surprised by your view of Ohio ending up so close.  I sure hope you are right.  

In NC and Iowa, I agree with your sentiments, but fear that neither will really prove to be that competitive.  Each has potential, but the money has got to go to those campaigns and I fear that they will become low priority for too many donors if we really need to worry about places like California and Wisconsin.  

California is where I live, and, while I have donated to Boxer and am a big fan of hers, I have always felt more "bang for the buck" from helping in smaller states (senate votes being equal and all).  As a resident, the key for me is getting voters registered and turning out, as this will help up and down the ticket.  

Perrenial California conundrum (0.00 / 0)
As a Californian and a long time observer/participant in our campaigns, I am extremely hopeful that Boxer will pull it out. She does better than expected when push comes to shove.

Like hilltopper, I prefer usually to try to help out in other states where I get more bang for the buck. This is an extremely helpful summary for figuring out where to go this year. Thanks Mike.

Can it happen here?

[ Parent ]
On Feingold.. (0.00 / 0)
Up to the Patriot Act Russ Feingold, as Chair of the Constitution Subcommittee of the Judiciary Committee, was a powerhouse of a Senator. A supporter of gay marriage and a progressive's progressive, he tried to lead his fellow Senators down the right path.  I think eeing his colleagues willing give away so many civil rights through the Bush Administration's fear-mongering he became angered enough to call them all "Cowards" on the Senate floors.
When he set up his Progressive Patriots Fund and a PAC to explore a run as a Presidential candidate, he suddenly said no to a Presidential run.  I think the party told this upstart "NO!
Their energy and DSCC money would be/and was saved for the more 'moderate' candidates, of course.  

Since then he's been a scripted robot for the most part.  It's his to lose.    

Nationalism is not the same thing as terrorism, and an adversary is not the same thing as an enemy.

I'm not excited by any of these candidates (0.00 / 0)
They're all just "mainstream liberals", like most of the Democrats we have now in the Senate.  We don't have any Bernie Sanders-types running, or solid liberals who'll really shake up the place.

The only Senate candidates running this year I can think of who would qualify were Jennifer Brunner and Andrew Romanoff (assuming he stayed true to his campaign promises).  Neither of them won their primaries, and so I no longer have interest in the OH and CO Senate races.  Nor do I have interest in the other ones.

I don't really share your enthusiasm for Alexi Giannoulias, and I'm surprised to read your description of him as super progressive - he seemed to be just a typical mainstream progressive during the primary, e.g. he supported a public option but not Medicare for All.  I looked up his issues page and he seems good but not great, e.g. he hawks the same BS about deficits and cutting "wasteful" spending that every Democrat seems to have to go through.  As for the Senate progressive caucus, I assume you mean this, and while it's a good thing, I'm not particularly impressed because we already have a Congressional Progressive Caucus, and yes it's open to Senators (Bernie Sanders is still in it after moving from the House to the Senate, and Tom Udall used to be in it).  I don't understand why there needs to be a new Senate progressive caucus when Senators can already join an existing one.  Now, if Giannoulias is going to join the CPC and try to get other Senators to join as well, that's a different story.


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