Sabato's Crystal Ball

Killer Instinct, Killer Wave – Gop Senate in Danger of Capsizing Too

PLUS: New Crystal Ball HotRace Readings, and COMING NOVEMBER 2nd: SABATO'S CRYSTAL BALL MIDTERM MATINEE

Larry J. Sabato, Director, U.Va. Center for Politics October 20th, 2006

Republicans don’t seem to be running for office these days, they look more like they’re limping. Severely crippled by the large forces of war and scandal, an unpopular President Bush and an even less popular GOP-led Congress appear to be inextricably joined in a three-legged sack race to Election Day as Democrats sprint ahead on an amorphous message of change.

When’s the last time we have seen a president’s approval stuck in the mid-30s while a Congress led by his party received marks significantly lower? This week’s NBC/Wall Street Journal poll pegging approval of Congress way, way below sea level at 16 percent may be the most direct storm warning yet for the party with the most to lose, regardless of whether the figure is Foley-driven. What is so surprising is that the Republican Party has a terrific economy to tout, with the stock market rocketing through the roof, while inflation remains low and productivity high. So far, though, they have been unable to capitalize on all of the capital flowing into Wall Street.

And speaking of the Democrats’ message: it’s as devoid of governing platform as it could be. It is age old and summed up by the Democratic catch phrase featured in so many of their ads: “Had enough?” But there lies its effectiveness, and obvious strategic necessity. For once, the notoriously long-winded party of Gore and Kerry hasn’t tortured its rhetorical offerings before the electorate to the point of inaccessibility and irrelevance. In ambiguously calling for a change in the course of the nation’s direction, Democrats are leaving the details for later to focus on kicking the incumbent party while it’s down; it’s the kind of killer instinct Democrats haven’t demonstrated in years. Besides, what do the Democrats really care? They know that effective governing majorities are not legitimately within reach for them in 2006 anyway.

Under these most severe circumstances, it’s not surprising that the midterm election playing field, at least in the House, is expanding rapidly. Less than 20 days away from the election, many more previously safe GOP districts are on the move. And with an eye towards history, it’s not difficult to see why: during “killer wave” elections, latent partisan tendencies of districts, dormant cycle after cycle, can suddenly become overt. For example, the fact that GOP Rep. Melissa Hart’s conservative-leaning district north of Pittsburgh has long featured a sizeable Democratic voter registration advantage has never been much of a cause for concern for her party in even-tempered election years; nonetheless, some of our sources in the area say that at least some Democratic opportunity can be found this year in the district’s underlying blue collar character.

Quite remarkably, Republican-held seats now account for 90 percent of the Crystal Ball’s “Ferocious Fifty” most competitive House races. That national Democrats are now reaching forward into typically uncontested GOP territory such as Washington’s 5th District, Minnesota’s 1st District, Idaho’s 1st District, and Nevada’s 2nd District–and that Republicans are often reaching an arm back to defend such territory–confirms swift movement towards the minority party. Just one peek at the Crystal Ball’s latest HotRace Readings below shows that the lopsidedness of this year’s midterm elections is a fact of life for both parties in virtually every region of the country.

It almost goes without saying that gauging turnout becomes the ultimate guessing game as candidates and parties turn their attention to getting out the vote in just over two short weeks. Clearly, most voters are disenchanted with numerous people and subjects: the president, the Iraq War, scandals, and Congress-with congressional Democrats held in only slightly higher regard than their counterparts across the aisle. So on Election Day, will it be “voters gone wild” or voters simply gone?

Although the GOP would prefer to avoid the former scenario, almost all indications now point towards voters coming out in slightly higher-than-average midterm election percentages, at least in part to lash out at the party in power. The most reliable surveys show Democrats disproportionately engrossed in the elections, all the more reason a truly Herculean late identification and mobilization effort under the direction of Karl Rove, Ken Mehlman, and other wizardly GOP strategists would be needed to minimize Democrats’ turnout edge. Of course, we don’t want to make the mistake that some are committing by bringing down the curtain on the election too soon. Elections cannot be hurried; they must fully unwind on their own schedule, which this year ends November 7th.

For the GOP, the Senate has always trailed behind the House in vulnerability to takeover. But in the last month, as Democrats have more likely than not wrested the House onto their side in this year’s grand tug of war, the Senate has become more of a 50-50 proposition. The Crystal Ball will always have one eye firmly fixed on the House, where Democrats are poised to win 20 to 25 seats if not more. But this week, we turn our attention to the upper chamber, where five fundamentally close races will likely determine which party ends up on the short end of 51-49 (or in Democrats’ case, the short end of 50-50, given Vice President Cheney’s tie-breaking ability). Introducing…

The “Fundamental Five” Senate Races of 2006

  1. Missouri – The race between two veterans of Show Me State politics, GOP Sen. Jim Talent and 2004 Democratic gubernatorial nominee Claire McCaskill, is such a stable tossup that we have little expectation it will move in either candidate’s direction in the weeks leading up to Election Day. Though Missouri is usually a tinge red, it’s dead even in 2006, and Talent’s large cash stockpile will keep the race close even if the DSCC is able to spend more heavily here than its GOP counterparts. Don’t be fooled by polls showing McCaskill with a large lead; if the election were held today we’d bet strongly it would be decided by a few tens of thousands of votes either way.
  2. Tennessee – The momentum in the Volunteer State has been with Democratic Rep. Harold Ford for some time now, and we wonder if it’s about the right time for the tide to turn back to Republican former Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker. Sure, Democrats are excited to be so close to capturing a grand prize in outgoing Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist’s open seat, but they cannot rest easy if they are to score the young Ford a promotion; the state’s considerable Republican tendency, especially at the federal level, gives Corker some room to grow support between now and the election.
  3. Rhode Island – Republican Sen. Lincoln Chafee would pass for a liberal Democrat in most states outside of New England, and the Crystal Ball was of two minds about the general election race after Chafee’s primary triumph. We thought his win would either propel him into a lead against Democratic Attorney General Sheldon Whitehouse or reinforce his inability to build consensus around his candidacy. It’s more likely that we have seen the latter effect in the weeks since the nomination was decided, and Whitehouse’s party identification in this most Democratic of states gives him the slightest of edges to send Chafee packing.
  4. New Jersey – Is it possible GOP state Sen. Tom Kean, Jr.’s ceaseless volleys on appointed Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez’s ethics have actually backfired? If any state’s voters may be just plain tired of hearing about corruption, it’s this state’s. Even as more revelations about Menendez’s associations with questionable Garden State political operatives surface, Menendez has reversed his September slip in the polls to reclaim a very narrow advantage in the race. Kean’s name and Menendez’s war chest will do battle over the next 18 days, but at the moment it is looking less likely that Kean will be able to break the nine-year long GOP curse in elections for statewide office.
  5. Virginia – Is there a curse on this Senate seat? The stumbles of both candidates and nasty tone of the 2006 campaign remind us of the 1994 epic battle between then-Sen. Chuck Robb and Oliver North. It’s hard for the Crystal Ball to believe GOP Sen. George Allen won’t find a way to pull this race out, but his race against Democratic former Navy Secretary Jim Webb is without a doubt much closer than the incumbent and his talented team of political advisers would like. Of all the races for Senate this year, the Old Dominion’s may feature the most subplots: Allen’s checkered past versus Webb’s checkered past, Allen’s cowboy boots versus Webb’s combat boots, Allen’s reputation for seeking friction versus Webb’s reputation for writing fiction, and so on. Webb must count on disproportionately strong turnout and support in liberal-trending Northern Virginia to have a shot at winning; although the DSCC finally made a substantial commitment to the race, Allen has a far superior infrastructure in place to help him get out his vote. If Allen survives as Robb did in 1994, it’s possible that Virginia could once again serve as the exception to a national wave.

Readers will wonder why noted races in Montana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania are not in this group. In our view, without a small miracle, GOP Sens. Conrad Burns, Mike DeWine, and Rick Santorum are all now headed into early retirement. Likewise, Republican takeover opportunities in Nebraska, Washington, and elsewhere have faded, and Maryland’s open seat remains only a glimmering hope for the GOP as Maryland’s strong Democratic lean manifests itself closer to Election Day. Democrats would have to win four out of the “Fundamental Five” to get to 51 seats, but with only one of the five currently leaning ever-so-slightly to the GOP, it’s not as if the chances of such a scenario could even be described as on a noticeable incline, let alone uphill.

So is there any good news left for the Grand Old Party? Well, the media’s assessments of turnout could be similarly off as they were in 2004; the Crystal Ball is getting a lot of emails from Republicans insisting that sites like ours and the mainstream media are underestimating Republican turnout–maybe they’re right! Furthermore it’s quite difficult to imagine how things could get any worse for them from here, and momentum matters. If the 18 days left feature relative atmospheric stasis and the news stories that caused the GOP headaches all month simply grow older, Election Day may not carry the sense of urgency for angry Democrats that it does today. But in all likelihood, the political climate will shift one way or another; given the topsy-turvy year we have witnessed, the only late October-early November surprise would be the absence of one.

One possible source of a shift is the forthcoming reemergence of hard-hitting GOP ads warning of future terrorist threats. It is one of the final well-known cards the Republicans can play before Election Day, but it is a risky move on the part of the Republican war room. Although it could succeed in refocusing attention on the war on terror temporarily, the Crystal Ball has a creeping suspicion that it is just as likely to backfire: a move so blatant on the part of a party so wounded so close to the election could be more of a tell and give voters the air of desperation. The attention the appeal receives and the timing of voter reaction will determine its impact.

We know one thing for sure: given the certain outcome of miniscule majorities in Congress post-2006, we should all prepare to endure at least two years of stop-and-go (if not pay-as-you-go) legislative gridlock. It’s all the more reason to look forward to 2008!

Recent 2006 House Crystal Ball Race Outlook Changes

2006 Senate Crystal Ball HotRace Readings

Republican Held Seats up for Election in 2006: 15 (out of 55 held)

Solid R (7) Likely R (1) Leans R (1) Toss-up (3) Leans D (3) Likely D (0) Solid D (0)
IN (Lugar) AZ (Kyl) VA (Allen) MO (Talent) MT (Burns)
ME (Snowe) RI (Chafee) OH (DeWine)
MS (Lott) TN (OPEN) PA (Santorum)
NV (Ensign)
TX (Hutchison)
UT (Hatch)
WY (Thomas)
WV (Byrd)
WI (Kohl)
NY (Clinton)
NM (Bingaman)
ND (Conrad)
MA (Kennedy)
HI (Akaka)
FL (Nelson)
DE (Carper)
NE (Nelson) CT (Lieberman*)
WA (Cantwell) MN (OPEN) VT (OPEN)
NJ (Menendez) MD (OPEN) MI (Stabenow) CA (Feinstein)
Solid R (0) Likely R (0) Leans R (0) Toss-up (1) Leans D (2) Likely D (3) Solid D (12)

Democratic Held Seats up for Election: 18 (out of 45 held)

The Brutal B – October 20, 2006: +3 to +6 D

Click here for individual Senate race analysis.

2006 House Crystal Ball HotRace Readings

Republican Held Seats in Play: 63 (169 Safe/Solid R)

Likely R (18) Leans R (18) Toss-up (15) Leans D (12) Likely D (0)
CA-04 (Doolittle) AZ-01 (Renzi) CT-02 (Simmons) AZ-08 (OPEN)
CA-50 (Bilbray) AZ-05 (Hayworth) CT-04 (Shays) CO-07 (OPEN)
CO-05 (OPEN) CA-11 (Pombo) FL-13 (OPEN) FL-16 (OPEN)
FL-08 (Keller) CO-04 (Musgrave) FL-22 (Shaw) IN-02 (Chocola)
FL-09 (OPEN) CT-05 (Johnson) IL-06 (OPEN) IN-08 (Hostettler)
IL-10 (Kirk) ID-01 (OPEN) IN-09 (Sodrel) IA-01 (OPEN)
IL-19 (Shimkus) KY-03 (Northup) KY-04 (Davis) NY-26 (Reynolds)
IA-02 (Leach) MN-01 (Gutknecht) MN-06 (OPEN) OH-18 (OPEN)
KY-02 (Lewis) NV-02 (OPEN) NM-01 (Wilson) PA-06 (Gerlach)
NE-01 (Fortenberry) NV-03 (Porter) NC-11 (Taylor) PA-07 (Weldon)
NH-02 (Bass) NJ-07 (Ferguson) NY-24 (OPEN) PA-10 (Sherwood)
NY-03 (King) NY-20 (Sweeney) OH-15 (Pryce) TX-22 (OPEN)
NY-19 (Kelly) NY-29 (Kuhl) VA-02 (Drake)
NY-25 (Walsh) OH-01 (Chabot) WA-08 (Reichert)
NC-08 (Hayes) OH-02 (Schmidt) WI-08 (OPEN)
PA-04 (Hart) PA-08 (Fitzpatrick)
VA-10 (Wolf) TX-23 (Bonilla)
WA-05 (McMorris) WY-AL (Cubin)
WV-01 (Mollohan)
TX-17 (Edwards)
VT-AL (OPEN) SC-05 (Spratt)
IA-03 (Boswell) OH-06 (OPEN)
IL-08 (Bean) LA-03 (Melancon)
GA-12 (Barrow) IL-17 (OPEN)
GA-08 (Marshall) CO-03 (Salazar)
Likely R (0) Leans R (0) Toss-up (0) Leans D (5) Likely D (7)

Democratic Held Seats in Play: 12 (191 Safe/Solid D)

The Brutal B – October 20, 2006: +18 to +22 D

Click here for individual House race analysis.

2006 Governor Crystal Ball HotRace Readings

Republican Held Seats up for Election in 2006: 22 (out of 28 held)

Solid R (6) Likely R (6) Leans R (3) Toss-up (2) Leans D (3) Likely D (1) Solid D (1)
CT (Rell) AL (Riley) AK (OPEN) MD (Ehrlich) AR (OPEN) OH (OPEN) NY (OPEN)
HI (Lingle) CA (Schwarzenegger) NV (OPEN) MN (Pawlenty) CO (OPEN)
NE (Heineman) FL (OPEN) RI (Carcieri) MA (OPEN)
SD (Rounds) GA (Perdue)
VT (Douglas) ID (OPEN)
TX (Perry) SC (Sanford)
WY (Freudenthal)
TN (Bredesen)
NM (Richardson)
OR (Kulongoski) WI (Doyle) NH (Lynch)
MI (Granholm) ME (Baldacci) PA (Rendell) OK (Henry)
IA (OPEN) IL (Blagojevich) KS (Sebelius) AZ (Napolitano)
Solid R (0) Likely R (0) Leans R (0) Toss-up (3) Leans D (3) Likely D (2) Solid D (6)

Democratic Held Seats up for Election: 14 (out of 22 held)

The Brutal B – October 20, 2006: +4 to +6 D

Click here for individual Governor race analysis.