Sabato's Crystal Ball

Senate 2006: From Venerable to Vulnerable

The 14 seats most likely to change hands in 2006

Larry J. Sabato, Director, U.Va. Center for Politics March 31st, 2005

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All Crystal Ball junkies know the drill. Every election year, most Senators skate by, especially the venerable elders who well fit their states. Meanwhile, a handful of Senators are vulnerable, and those are the contests we watch like hawks. In last week’s Crystal Ball email ( http://www.centerforpolitics.org/crystalball/articles/LJS2005032401), we examined seniority and the 109th Senate, as well as the seats that are currently open and those that might open between now and 2006. This week, we’ve brought you the 14 seats out of the 33 up for election that appear to be moderately to very vulnerable. In alphabetical order by state, they are:

On the surface, this appears to be an impressive total: 14 of 33, with another three potential retirees (mentioned in last week’s email: Dianne Feinstein, Trent Lott, and Craig Thomas), which could bring the competitive total to 17 of 33–more than half! But let’s look again. All three possible, additional retirees come from states that strongly favor the current party to retain control of the seat (CA, MS, WY). New Jersey would likely elect another Democrat to replace Corzine, and Texas would probably choose another Republican to succeed Hutchison. The incumbent senators, endangered though they are in FL, MI, MT, NE, PA, and RI, are all still favored to win. (We’d bet that a couple of them will be defeated in the end, but it is too soon to know which ones.) Tennessee may well elect another Republican to succeed Bill Frist, and Maryland will likely pick another Democrat to replace Sarbanes. Governor Mark Warner is actually unlikely to challenge Senator George Allen in Virginia. And Governor John Hoeven, the only real GOP hope, has not committed to challenging Senator Kent Conrad in North Dakota.

So what is left? The Senate seat in Minnesota may be the most likely to switch parties (from D to R), though we have a long way to go before reaching any definitive conclusion. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) is also vulnerable, not least because of GOP anger over a “stolen” Governor’s election in 2004; however, Washington leans Democratic and the Republicans have not yet lined up an impressive candidate to carry the banner against Cantwell. Finally, there will be a few other incumbent defeats from our list (and maybe off it) that cannot be clearly projected two years out.

Does that add up to a change in party control in the U.S. Senate? It’s very early, but so far the Sixth Year Itch is purely theoretical in Senate races. The Republicans could drop a couple of seats, or they could even add a couple of seats, but search as one might, it is tough to find the five net seats–six with Vice President Cheney’s vote–that would need to go Democratic for the GOP to lose the Senate.

This is a snapshot at the starting gate, and maybe we’ll all look back in November 2006 and have a hearty chuckle when we realize how misleading the 2005 picture of the upcoming Senate contests appeared. (Exactly such a deceptive prediction from analysts occurred in 1980, 1986, 1994, and 2000, just to mention four such years.) All we at the Crystal Ball can do is to help you keep up with the ever-shifting Senate sands, and our state-by-state analysis ( http://www.centerforpolitics.org/crystalball/2006/senate) will create our benchmark for the 2006 battle for the upper chamber of Congress.