Posted on October 26, 2008 in Washington Watch

According to the U.S. Constitution, one-third of the Senate is required to stand for election every two years. This year there are 35 seats being contested (this includes one special election to fill the seat of a member who recently passed away). Because the last time this group of Senators ran for office was 2002, the year that George Bush was able to help win victories for so many members of his party; this year, of the 35 who are running, only 12 are Democrats, while 23 are Republican.

Because George Bush has become such an unpopular President and has tarnished the Republican brand, the task the GOP faces in reelecting its members is a difficult one. Democrats currently hold 50 seats, and hope to increase their numbers this year. Were they to take ten seats away from the Republicans, it would give Democrats the substantial majority they hope to have in the next Congress. This may be difficult, but it is possible.

What follows is a look at ten Senate races worth watching on November 4th, and the reasons why each of these ten Republicans seats might change hands in 2008.

Easy win

In Virginia, former Democratic Governor Mark Warner stands to win easily over his Republican opponent, also a former Governor of the State, James Gilmore. Warner was an extremely popular governor, with a proven record of improving Virginia’s economy, sure to be an important issue in this year’s election. Virginia, once a strong Republican state, has undergone dramatic changes in recent years, with an influx of new immigrant communities as well as the growth of a liberal upper middle class suburban population in the Northern part of the state. Warner also benefits from massive new voter registration among African Americans and Hispanics throughout the state. Since the seat being contested was held by retiring Republican Senator John Warner (no relation), this represents a near certain pickup for Democrats.

Other retiring open Republican seats within the Democrats’ reach

In both Colorado and New Mexico, Democrats have fielded strong candidates against weaker Republican opponents, to replace retiring Republican Senators. Congressmen Mark Udall in Colorado and Tom Udall in New Mexico (they are cousins) are also beneficiaries of dramatic increases in voter registration among those states substantial Hispanic communities. With both states having elected Democratic Governors, and with Obama in range of winning both, these two also are likely Democratic pickups.

Bush Victims

Gordon Smith of Oregon, and John Sununu of New Hampshire, both face tough reelections largely due to the unpopularity of George Bush and the impact this has had on the Republican Party in both states. Smith, a very moderate Republican, has sensed such difficulty with the Republican brand that he has increasingly distanced himself from his own party and instead trying to tie himself to Obama, going so far as to attempt to have the Republican identification removed after his name on the ballot, and running a television ad showing himself with Obama.
John Sununu, a first term Arab American Senator with a strong record in Middle East issues and civil liberties, is in a rematch with former Governor Jeanne Shaheen (whose husband is an Arab American), whom he defeated in 2002. He faces an uphill battle given the Democratic tide that appears to be sweeping the state – with Democrats having swept the New Hampshire elections in 2006 (winning the Governorship, both Congressional seats and taking control of both Houses of the State Legislature for the first time in over a century and a half).

Obama Coattails in the South?

Huge increases in African American voter registration across the South may help Democrats win seats in several states. Once thought to be a safe Republican region, polls are showing that elections in this region are much closer than in the past, with Democratic Senate challengers actually out-performing Barack Obama in several states. (Possibly due to the sad fact that some white Democrats may be more inclined to support a Senate Democrat than to vote for an African American for President.) Democrats are within striking range of winning in Kentucky, Mississippi and Georgia; and in North Carolina Democrat, Kay Hagan currently holds the lead over incumbent Republican Senator Elizabeth Dole.

Corruption on Trial

Alaska Senator Ted Stevens’ 42 year career in the Senate may hinge on the outcome of a just –completed corruption trial. Once thought invincible, Stevens has been humiliated by the pettiness of the corruption involved, and the fact that the trial kept him from campaigning for many weeks. This is one to watch. If the jury comes back with a not-guilty verdict, he may still win; but if it’s guilty, Democratic candidate, former Mayor Mark Begich, who currently leads, could bring another pickup for his party.

Strange an Unpredictable

Republican Norm Coleman of Minnesota is currently behind in the polls, with comic-turned candidate Al Franken leading by a few points. The race is too close to call. Complicating the Minnesota picture is Independent candidate Dean Barkley. Barkley, who actually occupied the seat for a short time in a temporary appointment following the tragic death of Paul Wellstone, is in a strong third place. Don’t count him out, because Minnesota has record of a unpredictable elections and a political climate favorable to independents.

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