Sabato's Crystal Ball

Senate 2006: Status Quo Central?

Larry J. Sabato, Director, U.Va. Center for Politics March 24th, 2005

Recently, Congressional Quarterly reported a startling statistic that received little attention, but should have been the source of extensive commentary for what it told us about the contemporary institution of the United States Senate. The current 109th Congress has achieved a remarkable milestone: It has the oldest Senate ever! The average senator serving today is 60.4 years of age. After the Reagan landslide of 1980 ushered in some fresh blood in the upper chamber, the average age was a much younger 52.5 years, for example.

We can debate forever whether it is better to have more senior senators who have grown wise (rather than stale) with the decades, or whether youth should be served to a greater degree, infusing its energy and new ideas (despite a natural recklessness) into the upper chamber of Congress. What is indisputable is that both parties are begging their incumbents to continue serving, regardless of age. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) was the role model for this trend, having been elected to his last Senate term in 1996 at the age of nearly 94 and serving after his 100th birthday, passing away just a few months after he left the Senate. Now Democrats have convinced Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia to run for his ninth term, even though he will be 89 when sworn in for another six years. Similarly, Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) has bowed to party pressure and decided to file again in 2006; he will be 82 if elected to his third full term. Republicans do not have senators running again who are quite as venerable, but not all of them are spring chickens. Should Richard Lugar of Indiana be reelected to his sixth term in 2006, as is highly probable, he will be 74 at the time, and 80 at the conclusion of the term. (We humbly note that the ultra-fit Lugar can out-run any member of the Crystal Ball staff, and do it so dramatically that observers would think we were in separate races.)

The parties are turning the Senate into an active retirement home because incumbents usually have a much better chance of winning than a new candidate does. Voters often ignore age–Thurmond was the exception in 1994, and had a tough race because of it–and think about the benefits of seniority and pork. The perspectives of both the parties and the voters are understandable, if not always in the national interest.

With just a third of the Senate seats on the ballot every election, change is necessarily a slow process over time. Change occurs more easily when the number of open seats is high. So far in 2006, it appears that only a handful of seats will be open (that is, without an incumbent). Democrat Mark Dayton of Minnesota is leaving after one term, Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee is departing after two terms (to seek the Presidency), and Democrat Paul Sarbanes of Maryland is stepping down after five terms. Just about all the other incumbents have said they are running, though retirement rumors stubbornly swirl around Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Trent Lott (R-Miss.), and Craig Thomas (R-Wyom.); yet these three have all denied any desire to step down. Should Democratic Senator Jon Corzine be elected governor of New Jersey in 2005, as is likely, his seat will have an appointed (by Corzine) incumbent Democrat running for a full term. Should Texas Republican Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison decide to challenge GOP Governor Rick Perry for reelection in the party primary, then the Texas seat will fall open. And there can always be a surprise retirement or two–senators who simply grow tired of their exhausting routine and cleverly announce their decisions before the party has a chance to change their minds!

Overall, however, there will likely be only four or five open seats out of the 33 Senate berths on the November 2006 ballot. We know for sure that Maryland, Minnesota, and Tennessee will be vacant–and that is all so far. Including those three, we can see 14 seats being moderately to very vulnerable, and in next week’s email, we will reveal our list.

In the mean time, the Crystal Ball has fully updated the Senate section, with commentary and analysis on each of the 33 seats up for grabs in 2006. From the main Senate page ( http://www.centerforpolitics.org/crystalball/2006/senate/) simply click on a state to view the details of its Senate contest. States are colored according to the party of the incumbent member.

To be continued (next week) …