Sabato's Crystal Ball

It’s Over!

Larry J. Sabato, Director, U.Va. Center for Politics September 21st, 2004

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No, not the presidential contest, but at long last, the nomination season for Senate, House and Governor came to an end with Hawaii the last state to cross the nomination finish line last week. This expansive nation of 50 states now takes almost nine months just to fill the party berths on the ballot from sea to shining sea.

So what does the big picture resemble, with 42 days until the Nov. 2nd election? Overall, things look moderately good for the Republican party. Remember–and we emphasize this up front–conditions could change, especially in the presidential contest, and we plan to update all these predictions on a weekly basis from now until Election Day. It matters considerably whether or not George W. Bush can maintain his lead, for presidential coattail will be a factor in marginal House and Senate contests, and perhaps even in some close gubernatorial battles.

The Bush Lead

By our best estimate, Bush currently leads at the top of the ballot by about 5 percent nationally. Note that this is not the overwhelming lead of 14 percent suggested last week by the CNN/USA Today/Gallup survey, but neither is the contest the tie projected by Pew, Harris, and other surveys. A layperson’s best hope to create order out of this chaos is to take a simple “poll of polls,” averaging the results of all the national non-partisan or bipartisan surveys taken over the previous couple of weeks. We would further suggest two different averages, one for likely voters and one for registered voters. Generally, though not always, Bush’s lead is greater among likely voters than all registered voters. Yet it is possible that voter turnout in 2004 will be considerably higher than expected, making the registered voter number the more reliable of the two. For now, we would simply average the Bush lead among likelies (6 percent to 7 percent) with the Bush lead among registereds (3 percent to 4 percent) for the overall estimated Bush edge of 5 percent. This Bush lead is not etched in stone; it was not handed down from the Mount. It will ebb and flow, depending on the circumstances in Iraq, the possible actions of depraved terrorists, the October jobs numbers, the debates, and the gaffes, parries, and thrusts voters observe on the campaign trail. (Please see what we have left out: CBS News and the National Guard controversy. Forged documents or not, Bush’s actions to get into and out of the Guard notwithstanding, almost no one but committed partisans actually care about this. Yes, it’s a fascinating whodunit, a novelette inside the campaign novel, but it is not going to determine the election result.) We continue to insist that the election is not over yet, despite the impressive efforts of many to bring down the curtain six weeks early.

The House: A GOP Home

Six weeks out, the Republicans are doing very well in the U.S. House, with their majority nearly guaranteed even if Kerry wins a narrow victory. The GOP controls 228 seats at present, with 218 needed for control, and we expect the Republicans to break the 230-mark, ending up in the 232-236 range. Clearly, Texas is the reason for the GOP’s good fortune, with the new partisan redistricting yielding four or five additional seats for Republicans in the Lone Star State alone. While we urge you to go to the House component of our Crystal Ball website (http://www.centerforpolitics.org/crystalball/2004/house), we would see the following as the key districts to watch:




Endangered Incumbents

State (District) Outlook Incumbent Party Democrat Republican Crystal Ball Says
Arizona (1) Toss-up Republican Paul Babbit Rick Renzi (I) In Arizona’s first district, the Crystal Ball can only be sure of this: neither the candidates nor northern Arizona’s hot desert sun will let this race cool down anytime soon. >>> Read More
Georgia (12) Toss-up Republican John Barrow Max Burns (I) Sometimes politics is all about running for office in the right place at the right time. Just ask former college professor and current GOP Congressman Max Burns of east Georgia’s heavily African-American twelfth district. >>> Read More
Texas (17) Toss-up Democrat Chet Edwards (TX-11 Incumbent) Arlene Wohlgemuth Seven-term incumbent Chet Edwards has been in tough campaigns and won before. But Edwards isn’t in the old 11th district anymore and he’ll have to turn many red voters blue if he hopes to best state Representative Anne Wohlgemuth. >>> Read More
Texas (32) Toss-up Republican Martin Frost (TX-24 Incumbent) Pete Sessions (I) In most cases it would take a miracle to oust a 13-term incumbent, but with Democrat Martin Frost moved from the 24th district to the 32nd, the miracle could be in the form of four-term incumbent Republican Pete Sessions. >>> Read More
Utah (2) Toss-up Democrat Jim Matheson (I) John Swallow While two-term Congressman Jim Matheson was able to avoid a primary battle, he faces a tough reelection bid against his 2002 foe, John Swallow. >>> Read More




Open Seats up in 2004

State (District) Outlook Incumbent Party Democrat Republican Crystal Ball Says
Colorado (3) Toss-up Republican John Salazar Greg Walcher Many resources are scarce in the desolate counties of Western Colorado, but the Centennial State’s third district didn’t seem to have any shortage of politicians seeking to become its next representative in Washington this year. >>> Read More
Kentucky (4) Toss-up Democrat Nick Clooney Geoff Davis For the last six years Republicans have witnessed conservative Democratic Congressman Ken Lucas‘s strong crossover appeal in this conservative northern Kentucky district and have arrived at this conclusion: the Democrats have held this seat on borrowed time. >>> Read More
Louisiana (3) Toss-up Republican (Pending Nov. 2 election) (Pending Nov. 2 election) From Alaska to Michigan to Louisiana, the trend is clear this year: more than ever before, seats in the House and Senate are being treated like family heirlooms. >>> Read More
Louisiana (7) Toss-up Democrat (Pending Nov. 2 election) (Pending Nov. 2 election) The heavily Catholic parishes of Southwest Louisiana have a long history of voting for conservative Democrats, but to the glee of Senate Democrats and the concern of their House counterparts, incumbent Democratic Congressman Chris John has decided he wants a promotion to the upper chamber and how his party is left with a tough seat to defend. >>> Read More
New York (27) Toss-up Republican Brian Higgins Nancy Naples Republicans in and around Buffalo were no doubt surprised when six-term incumbent Jack Quinn announced his retirement, creating an open seat that has left Democrats salivating. >>> Read More

The Senate: Leaning GOP, but close

By contrast with the House, the battle for party control of the Senate is not yet over, but the Republicans have a slight edge. Currently, Republicans have a 51-49 seat majority in the upper chamber of Congress, and by our estimates, they are likely to end up with 51 to 53 seats. This projection is far more subject to change than the one for the House. Few seats in the House are truly competitive, and even if there is a national wave for one presidential candidate or the other, not many unexpected seat gains will probably materialize. The Senate is a very different animal. In most years, including 2004, a half-dozen or more Senate races are on the cusp, and a strong tide for a party can push all or almost all the close ones into the party’s column. This happened for the Democrats in 1974, 1986, and 2000, and the same phenomenon was observed in the Republican direction in 1980, 1994, and to a lesser extent, 2002. Therefore, a Democratic upset for Senate control is still a live possibility, as is a larger-than-expected margin for the Senate GOP. The last-minute trend across the nation–assuming one materializes in 2004–will tell the tale.

There are 19 Democratic and 15 Republican seats up on Nov. 2–yet just five GOP seats (Alaska, Colorado, Illinois, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania) and six Democratic seats (Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina, South Carolina, and South Dakota) appear truly competitive. The Republicans are actively trying to make Washington and Wisconsin additional battlegrounds, but as of mid-September, Democratic Senators Patty Murray and Russell Feingold seem well ahead.




The Republican “Gang of Five”: A mixed bag

Out of the five vulnerable GOP seats, we see at least two and as many as four that may turn over to the Democrats. Our current bet is, not surprisingly, three!

State Incumbent Party Democrat Republican Crystal Ball Says
Alaska Toss-up Tony Knowles Lisa Murkowski (I) Appointed Senator Lisa Murkowski owes her seat to Daddy, Governor Frank Murkowski. In fact, the seat was his until he became governor and passed along the title to his daughter as though it were a family heirloom. Despite being a Democrat in heavily GOP Alaska, former Democratic Governor Tony Knowles is narrowly leading. Only the coming Bush landslide in the Frontier State–58 percent or so–can save Murkowski. >>> Read More
Colorado Toss-up Ken Salazar Pete Coors Democratic state Attorney General Ken Salazar is moderate and Latino, and he is narrowly leading multimillionaire businessman Pete Coors. Just as in Alaska and Oklahoma, the Bush margin in Colorado, while not as large as in the other two states, may boost Coors. If Kerry surprises everyone and wins Colorado, then Salazar almost certainly will win, too. >>> Read More
Illinois Solid Democratic Barack Obama Alan Keyes Illinois is long gone, as GOP Senator Peter Fitzgerald, a one-termer who chose to retire, is certain to be replaced by Democratic state Senator Barack Obama. Possibly the worst state party in America, the Illinois GOP insanely chose a far-right Marylander, failed former presidential candidate Alan Keyes, as its nominee after its original choice, Jack Ryan, was forced out in a mini-sex scandal. >>> Read More
Oklahoma Leans Republican Brad Carson Tom Coburn A brightly colored Red Bush state, the Bush landslide may again be the saving grace for a troubled nominee, former Congressman and medical doctor Tom Coburn. This ought to be an easy win for a Republican seeking to succeed longtime GOP Senator Don Nickles, but Coburn has a possibly terminal case of foot-in-mouth disease and the doctor has no cure for it. As a prominent Republican told us privately last week, “If we could just send him to Bermuda for the election, I think we could hold the seat.” But Coburn thinks he’s just terrific as is, and so Democratic Congressman Brad Carson, who is more liberal–or moderate–than this very conservative state, has a real chance to win. >>> Read More
Pennsylvania Likely Republican Joe Hoeffel Arlen Specter (I) Four-term Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania has won even the AFL-CIO endorsement in his bid for another six years, and after a close shave in the GOP primary, Specter appears headed back to Washington over Democratic Congressman Joseph Hoeffel. >>> Read More




The Democratic “Gang of Six”: Surprise, surprise–a mixed bag

Out of the six vulnerable Democratic seats, we tentatively project at least three and possibly as many as five turning over to the Republicans. We’ll follow the precedent we set with the vulnerable GOP seats (above), and bet on four turnovers, for the moment.

State Outlook Democrat Republican Crystal Ball Says
Florida Toss-up Betty Castor Mel Martinez The ultimate Senate toss-up is in the ultimate toss-up state of Florida. With entrenched Democratic Senator Bob Graham retiring, Democrat Betty Castor and former Bush Housing and Urban Development secretary, Republican Mel Martinez, are about evenly matched. >>> Read More
Georgia Solid Republican Denise Majette Johnny Isakson Like Illinois for the Democrats, Georgia is a near-certain pick-up for the Republicans, as Congressman Johnny Isakson is expected to defeat Democratic Congresswoman Denise Majette in the increasingly Republican Peach State. If elected, Isakson will succeed Senator Zell Miller who is only a nominal Democratafter his endorsement of President Bush. >>> Read More
Louisiana Toss-up Aurthur Morrell, Chris John, John Kennedy David Vitter Senator John Breaux‘s safe Louisiana seat could be won by Republican Congressman David Vitter, though Democrats Chris John or John Kennedy aim to stop him in a run-off primary in early December. Vitter’s best chance may be to win outright in the open primary on Nov 2, if he can get over 50 percent of the vote, which is possible but not at all easy in the Bayou State. >>> Read More
North Carolina Leans Democratic Erksine Bowles Richard Burr Former Clinton chief of staff Erskine Bowles is trying again, after losing to Elizabeth Dole for the other Senate seat in 2002. Bowles has been consistently ahead of GOP Congressman Richard Burr this year for Senator John Edwards open seat, but if Bush wins the Tar Heel State handily, Burr might pull an election day surprise. >>> Read More
South Carolina Likely Republican Inez Tennenbaum Jim DeMint Another likely GOP pickup is coming in South Carolina for the seat of veteran Democratic Senator Ernest “Fritz” Hollings. GOP Congressman Jim DeMint has been leading Democrat Inez Tenenbaum in a state that Bush will win convincingly. >>> Read More
South Dakota Leans Democratic Tom Daschle (I) John Thune One more Senate contest in this category bears watching, not just for the possibility of seat turnover but for its impact on the Senate itself. Democratic Minority Leader Tom Daschle is in a tight race with former GOP Congressman John Thune, who nearly won the other South Dakota Senate seat in 2002. Daschle is well liked in South Dakota, but his voting record is to the left of this 60 percent Bush state, and Thune is trying to take advantage of that. Interestingly, Daschle is the only elected Senate incumbent in electoral difficulty in 2004, in either party. >>> Read More

So with three Democratic and four Republican seats changing parties, the final result would be a Senate controlled by the Republicans, 52 to 48. However, using our own numbers, one could possibly see a Democratic Senate (50 to 50 with the tie broken by Vice President John Edwards), or the Democrats might win all five of their GOP targets to secure an outright 51 to 49 majority. On the other hand, the Republicans might win five additional seats to the Democrats’ two, thereby securing a majority of 54 to 46! Stay tuned: While the Republicans have earned a slight edge in this sector of the 2004 political wars, precise predictions of the post-November party balance are premature.

Governors: Maintaining a narrow Republican majority

With only eleven governorships–six D, five R–on the ballot this year, wholesale change is impossible. Thus, one would expect something close to the current split of 28 Republicans and 22 Democrats to be maintained. We invite you to review the details of all the gubernatorial contests inside the Crystal Ball (http://www.centerforpolitics.org/crystalball/2004/governor). But essentially, four Democratic statehouses and four Republican statehouses are at risk in 2004.

With Delaware (Governor Ruth Minner) and West Virginia (Democratic nominee Joe Manchin) nearly certain to stay in the Democratic column, the party is mainly concerned about Indiana, Missouri, North Carolina, and Washington state. Overall, Democrats may lose one or two of their six governorships on the 2004 ballot.

State Outlook Democrat Republican Crystal Ball Says
Indiana Toss-up Joe Kernan (I) Mitch Daniels Governor Joe Kernan, who succeeded Governor Frank O’Bannon upon his unexpected death a year ago, is in a toss-up race with Republican Mitch Daniels, President Bush’s former director of the Office of Management and Budget. In this heavily Republican state, and after three successive Democratic governors, Daniels appears to have a very slight edge. >>> Read More
Missouri Toss-up Claire McCaskill Matt Blunt Missouri is guaranteed to have a new governor, after state Auditor Claire McCaskill defeated one-term Governor Bob Holden in the August Democratic primary. But McCaskill now has a tough foe in Secretary of State Matt Blunt, who may be helped by the expected Bush victory in the Show-Me State. >>> Read More
North Carolina Leans Democratic Mike Easley (I) Patrick Ballantine One-term Democrat Governor Mike Easley has a modest lead over Republican state Senator Patrick Ballantine, but again, the Bush margin in North Carolina may matter. Of course, Easley won in 2000 despite a 13-point Bush victory in the Tar Heel state. >>> Read More
Washington Toss-up Christine Gregoire Dino Rossi Two-term Democratic Governor Gary Locke is retiring, and Democratic state Attorney General Christine Gregoire hopes to succeed him. But she has to get by state GOP Senator Dino Rossi, who is a relatively strong candidate in a state that last elected a GOP chief executive in 1980. Still, Gregoire is thought to have the edge for now. >>> Read More




Only one of the five GOP governorships up this year is absolutely safe: North Dakota, where Governor John Hoeven will win his second term. Two other neighboring, incumbent Republicans have shaky leads: Governor Jim Douglas of Vermont, where Kerry is likely to win commandingly, and Governor Craig Benson of New Hampshire, where Kerry may also do well. Both Douglas and Benson are first-termers in the only two states retaining a two-year gubernatorial term.

State Outlook Democrat Republican Crystal Ball Says
Montana Leans Democratic Brian Schweitzer Bob Brown It will be a mild surprise to locals if Montana does not change parties in the statehouse. One-term Republican Governor Judy Martz has been unpopular, and Democratic candidate Brian Schweitzer has been polling ahead of GOP Secretary of State Bob Brown. >>> Read More
Utah Toss-up Scott Matheson, Jr. Jon Huntsman, Jr. By contrast to New England, Utah is solidly Republican, so former Ambassador Jon Huntsman, the GOP nominee to succeed Republican Governor Olene Walker, is the favorite. Still, Scott Matheson, Jr., the son of the last Democratic Governor of Utah (1977-1985), is exceptionally strong, so this race bears watching. >>> Read More

Once again, it looks like Republicans may see one or two governorships go over to the Democratic side. So the net change to one party or the other is probably zero to two; relative stability in this tumultuous year.

In short…

If these trends hold–and it will be astounding if some of them don’t change a bit before November–the Republicans may have the most to crow over at the congressional and state level, whatever happens in the presidential contest. The House of Representatives will probably provide special cheer to the GOP. The Senate is only leaning Republican, though, and Democrats can hope for a late-October tilt in their direction that could deliver the upper chamber back to their control. Finally, Republicans will likely continue to have a narrow majority of the nation’s 50 governorships. But given the rapidly shifting currents of politics, we’ll return to this subject several times before the day of reckoning.