Sabato's Crystal Ball

Senate and Governor 2006 – The Constant Is Change

Democrats continue to do well, but censure/impeachment issue could backfire

Larry J. Sabato, Director, U.Va. Center for Politics March 30th, 2006

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Just over the last few weeks, there has been a fair amount of change in both the Senate and Governor contests up this fall. The primary season generates new candidates, retirements and scandals.

Overall, the midterm picture continues to have a Democratic coloration. President Bush’s ratings remain at all-time lows, averaging in the mid-to-upper 30s, the Iraq War is still bedeviling Republicans and the country appears stuck in a sour mood that almost always results in election gains for the out-of-power party. The image of incompetence from Katrina has not abated, and the President has so far refused to bring in a fresh White House team to enable him to overcome some of his difficulties. The substitution of Joshua Bolten for Andrew Card as chief of staff is not exactly a makeover; both are insiders who have been with the President from January 2001. Perhaps Bolten has plans for a big turnover, but it will be a surprise if that happens.

On the other hand, the President’s rhetorical offensive on Iraq has stopped further erosion in public support for now. More importantly, the economy is remarkably resilient, having absorbed the oil shocks of late 2005. Low inflation, growing productivity, still-reasonable interest rates and a bullish stock market give Bush and the GOP something significant to crow about as the election swings into high gear.

Democrats may also be playing into Republican hands. No, it’s not the Beltway- and blog-based whining about the “lack of a coherent Democratic agenda”–the oft-wished-for Democratic version of the GOP’s 1994 Contract with America. The Republican landslide of ’94 had little to do with the Contract, popular myth to the contrary. Instead, the out-of-power GOP victory was a direct result of deep dissatisfaction with both President Clinton and the Democratic-controlled Congress. Should the Democrats score a big win this November, the mirror-image of ’94 will explain it–unhappiness with Bush and the GOP Congress.

The Democrats’ 2006 mistake, if it continues, will be the chorus calling for Bush’s censure or impeachment, which has now reached the front pages of prominent newspapers and magazines. This left-wing fantasy has been stoked by many of the usual liberal suspects and bloggers, and also by Senator Russell Feingold of Wisconsin, who failed to consult with his colleagues and has been mainly shunned by them in the aftermath of his censure call. As intended by Feingold, the lefty blogosphere has rallied around the Senator’s nascent presidential campaign, and the party’s left wing may adopt Feingold as its new Howard Dean.

What is good for Feingold in ’08 is poison for Democrats in ’06, however. Republican leaders have welcomed the move, already using it to raise money. Mainly, though, censure and impeachment threats are being used to activate the Republican base. Somewhat disgruntled after President Bush’s and Congress’ missteps in the past year, the GOP base has been in danger of voting at a low rate, giving Democrats the turnout edge for the first time since 2000. But now, Republican leaders can reasonably say that if Democrats gain control of Congress, a serious effort at censure or impeachment will follow. The Democratic hierarchy has been smart enough to realize that the left is on the verge of creating a similar situation to 1998, when GOP efforts to impeach President Clinton produced an electoral backlash. Surprising Democratic triumphs replaced expected Republican congressional gains in Clinton’s sixth-year election. How ironic it would be if Democrats in 2006 imitated the Republican goof of 1998, if the “sixth-year itch” turned out to be one that infected Democrats instead of Republicans!

We’re a long way from that point, and Democrats with cooler heads may have the opportunity to flash-freeze their hot-footed activists–and Feingold. Naturally, the GOP hopes that there’s a party-wide shortage of Freon all the way to November.

For now, let’s take a look at the shifts that have occurred since our earlier analysis in February. Six Senate contests have been re-classified. In Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl (R) appears safer, since his wealthy Democratic opponent Jim Pederson has been slow off the starting mark and Kyl has been taking nothing for granted in his reelection race. In Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman (D) is still the likely winner, but a well-funded primary challenge from anti-war candidate Ned Lamont could be unpleasant, at the least. Once-vulnerable Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida has his luck holding, with the GOP unable to shake the candidacy of the controversial GOP Rep. Katherine Harris, of 2000 presidential recount fame. Another Republican might be able to give Nelson a tough challenge, but Harris is a probable loser–as even leaders of her own party say publicly and privately.

Two Republican incumbents are weaker. Sen. Jim Talent of Missouri is now in a dead heat with Democratic candidate Claire McCaskill. This is a match-up that will be influenced by national trends. In Montana already endangered GOP Sen. Conrad Burns keeps getting bad news, the latest a serious intra-party challenge from the Republican state Senate minority leader, Bob Keenan. Finally in the Senate round-up, George Allen of Virginia–already running hard for the GOP ’08 presidential nomination–may actually have to stay home in the Old Dominion a bit more. Few observers currently think he will lose either to ex-high tech lobbyist Harris Miller (D) or former Reagan Navy Secretary Jim Webb (R-turned-D), but Webb and Miller are already giving Allen no quarter on the campaign trail. Counting all Senate seats, those on the ballot in ’06 and those not up this year, the Crystal Ball currently projects 51 Republicans, 45 Democrats, with 4 Toss-Ups–totals that suggest modest Democratic gains this year. (See the summary table at the end of this article.)

The Governorship battles are often more volatile than Senate races, in part because party and ideology can play a lesser role in these offices that focus on the nuts and bolts of governing. That’s why so many Blue states elect Red Governors, and vice versa. Fully 12 of the 36 states electing Governors in ’06 have shifted a bit over the past six weeks. In Alabama, Gov. Bob Riley appears a bit more secure, and for the first time we tip–and only tip–the contest in his direction. The opposite shift has occurred in Arkansas, where Democrat Mike Beebe seems to have a slight edge over Republican Asa Hutchison. In California we feel a bit more comfortable in placing a nickel bet on Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger; whether that bet ever gets to a dime or a quarter remains to be seen. What once appeared to be a GOP advantage in Colorado has vanished, at least temporarily. Democrat Bill Ritter and Republican Bob Beauprez are locked in a see-saw battle that could go either way. Gov. Jeb Bush is a great deal more popular than his brother in Florida, and he is the reason we have tilted the Sunshine State’s governorship match-up to the GOP for now. In neighboring Georgia, Governor Sonny Perdue (R) has opened up a sizeable lead on both Democratic candidates (Cathy Cox and Mark Taylor) and is now expected to win, barring major unforeseen developments.

The primary results in Illinois, while not clear-cut good news for either party nominee, seemed a bit better for Gov. Rod Blagojevich than for GOP challenger Judy Baar Topinka, so Rod gets the nod for now. We just refuse to call Massachusetts anything but a Toss-Up for the moment; the dizzying array of independents and primary challenges and candidate errors has not sorted itself out. While Gov. Bob Ehrlich (R) of Maryland remains very vulnerable, he has positioned himself for a narrow reelection–with the great big assumption that nothing rocks his boat, such as a Democratic tidal wave in a Blue state come November. Another likely GOP nominee who is looking better is Congressman Jim Gibbons in Nevada. It’s not that he’s glowing–no reference to the nuclear waste controversy in the Silver State–but rather that the Democrats may nominate an unelectable liberal. In the Empire State, it is the all-but-certain Democratic nominee who is sailing. Can you say “New York Governor Eliot Spitzer? “Lastly, in deeply Red Oklahoma, there is now a Democrat who rests easy, Gov. Brad Henry. He is very likely to get a second term. (There’s a second summary table on Governor races, below.)

Walter Cronkite of “The CBS Evening News” used to sign off his broadcasts by saying, “And that’s the way it is,” as he gave the date. The Crystal Ball, while no Cronkite, chooses to do the same. This is the way the contests strike us on March 30. As for tomorrow, who can say?

Governor Breakdown

As it currently stands, Democrats possess 22 governorships and Republicans hold the remaining 28. When voters go to the polls this November, they will elect a governor in 36 states. Of those states with gubernatorial elections, 14 have a Democratic chief executive and 22 are run by Republicans. The table below summarizes Crystal Ball’s current predictions, along with the governorships not up for election this year.

CB Outlook Totals
Not up/Solid/Likely/Leans Republican 22
Not up/Solid/Likely/Leans Democratic 24
Toss-up 4

In order to provide some perspective on the recent changes in gubernatorial contests across the country, the following table illustrates the current Crystal Ball outlook for each state, along with the rating prior to this week’s update. Click on each state to read detailed analysis on its 2006 contest for governor, or here to view all races.

State Previous CB Outlook New CB Outlook
Alabama Toss-up Leans Republican
Alaska Toss-up same
Arizona Likely Democratic same
Arkansas Toss-up Leans Democratic
California Toss-up Leans Republican
Colorado Leans Republican Toss-up
Connecticut Likely Republican same
Florida Toss-up Leans Republican
Georgia Leans Republican Likely Republican
Hawaii Likely Republican same
Idaho Solid Republican same
Illinois Toss-up Leans Democratic
Iowa Toss-up same
Kansas Likely Democratic same
Maine Leans Democratic same
Maryland Toss-up Leans Republican
Massachusetts Leans Democratic Toss-up
Michigan Leans Democratic same
Minnesota Leans Republican same
Nebraska Likely Republican same
Nevada Toss-up Leans Republican
New Hampshire Likely Democratic same
New Mexico Likely Democratic same
New York Leans Democratic Likely Democratic
Ohio Leans Democratic same
Oklahoma Leans Democratic Likely Democratic
Oregon Leans Democratic same
Pennsylvania Leans Democratic same
Rhode Island Likely Republican same
South Carolina Likely Republican same
South Dakota Solid Republican same
Tennessee Likely Democratic same
Texas Likely Republican same
Vermont Likely Republican same
Wisconsin Leans Democratic same
Wyoming Solid Democratic same

Senate Breakdown

The current partisan makeup of the Senate is 55 Republicans and 45 Democrats (lumping Jim Jeffords, I/D-VT in with the Dems). In 2006, 15 seats currently held by Republicans will be on the ballot in November, leaving them in control of 40 seats not up for election this year. In contrast, 18 now Democratic seats will be voted on this cycle, leaving them with 27 seats on the shelf. Combining the Crystal Ball’s latest state-by-state Senate predictions with the static seats produces the following totals:

CB Outlook Totals
Not up/Solid/Likely/Leans Republican 51
Not up/Solid/Likely/Leans Democratic 45
Toss-up 4

As we did with the gubernatorial races above, the following table illustrates the current Crystal Ball outlook for each state’s Senate contest, along with the rating prior to this week’s update. Click on each state to read detailed analysis, or here to view all races.

State Previous CB Outlook New CB Outlook
Arizona Leans Republican Likely Republican
California Solid Democratic same
Connecticut Solid Democratic Likely Democratic
Delaware Solid Democratic same
Florida Leans Democratic Likely Democratic
Hawaii Solid Democratic same
Indiana Solid Republican same
Maine Solid Republican same
Maryland Leans Democratic same
Massachusetts Solid Democratic same
Michigan Solid Democratic same
Minnesota Toss-up same
Mississippi Solid Republican same
Missouri Leans Republican Toss-up
Montana Leans Republican Toss-up
Nebraska Leans Democratic same
Nevada Solid Republican same
New Jersey Leans Democratic same
New Mexico Solid Democratic same
New York Solid Democratic same
North Dakota Likely Democratic same
Ohio Leans Republican same
Pennsylvania Leans Democratic same
Rhode Island Toss-up same
Tennessee Leans Republican same
Texas Solid Republican same
Utah Solid Republican same
Vermont Leans I/D same
Virginia Solid Republican Likely Republican
Washington Leans Democratic same
West Virginia Likely Democratic same
Wisconsin Solid Democratic same
Wyoming Solid Republican same