Sabato's Crystal Ball

Senate Sensibilities

Larry J. Sabato, Director, U.Va. Center for Politics December 13th, 2007

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Look at recent history. The Senate has changed party control six times: in 1980 (D to R), 1986 (R to D), 1994 (D to R), 2001 (R to D), 2002 (D to R), and 2006 (R to D).


This is no longer a rare event. And the Democrats now control the Senate by the slimmest of margins, 51 to 49. Surely, then, Republicans have a real chance to recapture Congress’ upper chamber in 2008.

Surely not. While strange things happen in politics, and the election is almost a year away, it would be truly extraordinary if the GOP seized the Senate. In fact, Democrats have an excellent chance to expand their margin of control, perhaps significantly. Let’s go to the states to see how.

The following map shows the current party control of each state with a Senate election in 2008. Thirty-three regularly scheduled contests will take place in 2008, along with an additional two special elections.

As usual, there are many contests that are not competitive. Of the 35 Senate seats up for election in 2008 (including two special elections, in Wyoming and Mississippi), the winning party for 25 of them is not seriously in question.

State Likely Result Incumbent
Alabama Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions
Arkansas Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor
Delaware Democratic Sen. Joe Biden
Georgia Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss
Idaho Republican OPEN (Sen. Larry Craig retiring; Lt. Gov. Jim Risch the likely GOP nominee and thus the next senator)
Illinois Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin
Iowa Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin
Kansas Republican Sen. Pat Roberts
Kentucky Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell
Nebraska Republican OPEN (Sen. Chuck Hagel retiring; former Gov. Mike Johanns should win)
Massachusetts Democratic Sen. John Kerry
Michigan Democratic Sen. Carl Levin
Mississippi Republican Sen. Thad Cochran
Montana Democratic Sen. Max Baucus
New Jersey Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg
North Carolina Republican Sen. Elizabeth Dole
Oklahoma Republican Sen. Jim Inhofe
Rhode Island Democratic Sen. Jack Reed
South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham
South Dakota Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson
Tennessee Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander
Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn
West Virginia Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller
Wyoming Republican Sen. Mike Enzi
Wyoming (sp.) Republican Sen. John Barrasso (Appointed senator but almost certain to be elected to the four years remaining in the term of the late Sen. Craig Thomas)

Of these 25, 11 are Democratic and 14 are Republican. No doubt, two or three of these contests may become more competitive than expected once all party nominees are selected and new events unfold in the election year.

Now let’s take a look at the same map of the 2008 Senate races, but this time with the states colored according to their current Crystal Ball outlook. States with multiple elections (Mississippi and Wyoming) are divided by a broken line; states with an asterisk would be pick-ups by the opposing party.

That leaves us with the ten hottest Senate elections that will determine the final tally in 2008:

Therefore, the early outlook is for another good Democratic year, though it remains to be seen just how good. The Crystal Ball has Democrats in line for pick-ups in Virginia, New Hampshire, Colorado, and possibly New Mexico. If 2008 turns out to be strongly Democratic at the presidential level, Democrats might be able to grab one or more of the seats up in Alaska, Maine, Minnesota, Mississippi, and Oregon, though currently we have Republicans leading in all five states. To balance the likely Democratic gains, Republicans have only the Democratic seat in Louisiana to target, and we rate that race a toss-up.

Democrats will unabashedly celebrate this electoral picture. To Republicans who find this assessment depressing, we would note two facts. First, it is highly unlikely that Democrats will get the sixty Senate votes necessary to shut off filibusters-the essential requirement to actually control the Senate on most controversial matters. Second, if Democrats gain substantially in the Senate, then probably a Democratic President is being elected. This will set the stage for Republican gains in the critical redistricting midterm election of 2010. What goes around comes around, and the cycles of politics are not to be denied.

A final, vital caution: This Senate ranking is where we start, not where we finish. Imagine how many twists and turns await us in these 33 states with Senate contests. The Crystal Ball will travel the road with you all the way to November.