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  Politics and Elections
Sunday, January 31, 2010
How the GOP can win back the Senate
Last December, facing an 11-seat climb back to power, the GOP's most optimistic outlook in the Senate was to win back 4 or 5 seats, enough to break the filibuster-proof Democratic majority and diminish the majority's stranglehold on the Senate's legislative agenda.  Then came Massachusetts.  Scott Brown's stunning victory there assured Republicans 41 seats heading into November's elections and provided ample speculation about what could happen.  Could the GOP win the House?  I've been optimistic on that point, stating the odds to be pretty close to even money.

The Senate is different.  Even with a reduced target of 10 pick-ups for control, that mountain is imposing and scaling to the top of it improbable.  But hey, the election's still 9 months away, so why not scope it out and see what it would take?

Election Projection currently projects 6 seats switching to the GOP column.  North Dakota is a sure thing now that Byron Dorgan has retired and John Hoeven is running.  Beau Biden's recent decision not to run in Delaware gives Mike Castle an almost sure thing there.  That's two easy ones.  Eight to go.

Two other seats appear likely to go to the GOP - Arkansas and Nevada.  In Arkansas, Secretary of State Congressman John Boozman just announced he will run.  His candidacy probably moves Blanche Lincoln's seat from tilt takeover to lean takeover.  In Nevada, Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman - the one Democrat polling better than the two front-running Republicans in the race - opted to stay at the helm of Sin City.  His choice to avoid the Senate fray improves the likelihood of a GOP takeover there.  Now we're up to 4. Six more.

Pennsylvania follows Arkansas and Nevada on the takeover probability scale.  Pat Toomey's poll numbers have been remarkably strong for a Republican with views allegedly too conservative for the Keystone State.  After a long prosperous run over the last several cycles, Democrats may have out-stayed their welcome here.  In addition to Toomey's double-digit lead over Traitor Arlen Specter and Democrat Joe Sestak, Pennsylvania boasts no less than 5 Democratic House seats on Election Projection's hotly-contested list and 3 more on the potentially competitive list.  Six month's ago, Specter's only real challenge seemed to be from his own party (Sestak).  Now, it appears somewhat likely he will lose to the party he forsook.  This is takeover number 5 on our Senate mountain climb. We're halfway there.

Colorado and Illinois are next.  Both will be tough, though the Colorado seems the more winnable.  How winnable, at this stage, depends on whom you believe.  Rasmussen gives three Republicans leads varying from narrow to comfortable over Democratic incumbent Michael Bennet and his strongest Democratic challenger, Andrew Romanoff.  On the other hand, other polling firms show mixed results, the majority within the margin of error.  Election Projection has this seat in the red takeover column right now, so we'll call it number 6 in our quest.

Numbers 7 thru 10, starting in Illinois, get much more iffy.  Given the Democratic lean of Illinois and Barack Obama's native son status, I will be mildly surprised at a GOP win.  Still, polls show this race to be competitive, and given the right wind come November, it is entirely possible that a Republican could prevail.  Number 7.  Three more to go.

After Illinois, pickup opportunities become scarce.  Only California is what you might call competitive as things stand now.  Democrat Barbara Boxer won a third term in 2004 by a comfortable 20 points, but she is polling under 50% against just about everyone running against her on the GOP side.  As an incumbent, that's not an enviable position in January of an election year.  She is beatable in November.  Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina presents a decent threat to Boxer, polling just single-digits behind her.  More encouraging, though, is Congressman Tom Campbell's recent entry in the race.  He polls even better against the Democratic senator.  Either Fiorina or Campbell could ride a large GOP wave to an upset in this race.  If the GOP is to realize their extreme long shot attempt to take back the Senate, an upset here is almost a necessity.  Eight down, two left.

The last two almost certainly won't materialize without the candidacy of Republicans currently not running.  There are four seats which the right person could make competitive, but without them these races are strong to solid holds for the Democrats. They are Indiana, New York, Washington and Wisconsin.

Evan Bayh in Indiana is one senator whose seat got a closer look by the GOP in the wake of Scott Brown's Massachusetts triumph.  Former Congressman John Hostettler has already declared his challenge, but he's not the strongest candidate.  Bayh can weather a very large red wave against Hostettler.  Not so against Mike Pence.  One poll showed the third-ranking House Republican beating Bayh in late January.  Alas, perhaps salivating at a possible House majority, Pence has decided to stay put.  But the GOP's chances against Bayh do not begin and end with Pence; there's another who could give him a solid run - Indiana Secretary of State Todd Rokita.  A Bayh-Rokita test has not been conducted yet, but word is Rokita might win.

In New York, Kirsten Gillibrand is seeking election to the Senate in her own right this November.  The Empire State is strongly Democratic, and under normal circumstances against normal GOP fare, she will win easily.  However, in this GOP-friendly climate, someone like Rudy Giuliani or George Pataki could compete for her seat.  Giuliani is definitely out, and Pataki probably is.  Still, I wonder if Pataki could be convinced to run if a shot at majority standing awaited him.

Dino Rossi lost a razor-close gubernatorial election to Christine Gregoire in 2004 when hundreds of ballots were "discovered" in King County days after Election Day.  He lost again in the blue wave election of 2008.  Nevertheless, he has proved a strong statewide draw, and a poll recently showed him running close behind entrenched Democratic incumbent Patty Murray.  A Rossi run is not likely, and, should he go for it, a victory would be another upset.  But we're shooting for the stars here, so the possibility can't be ignored.

Finally, there's Wisconsin.  Russ Feingold is invulnerable here to any Republican save former Governor Tommy Thompson.  But like John Hoeven to Byron Dorgan in North Dakota, Thompson is Feingold's Achilles heel.  A Thompson challenge would be even money at this point, and, again, the possibility of sitting with the majority might be enough to entice him to run.

So here's what the GOP needs to regain the majority in the Senate.  First, they'll have to protect four vulnerable seats of their own (KY, MO, NH, OH).  Next, they'll have to take care of business in relatively easy Democratic states (ND, DE, AR, NV, PA).  Then, they'll have to pull upsets in Illinois and California.  And finally, they will be reliant on late entries to compete in four more states (IN, NY, WA, WI) and must win two of them.

It's an unlikely road to 51 seats, and everything will need to go in the GOP's favor to have a prayer.  But the events that have transpired so far, from Brown's victory to the decisions of Hoeven, Boozman, Biden, and Goodman, are what answered prayers are made of.

So, why not dream? And to Pataki, Rokita, Rossi and Thompson, I say "Hear that, boys? It's the Republican Senate majority calling."

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