The Democratic Party goes into next year's Senate elections with a built-in structural advantage over the Republicans, needing only to defend 12 incumbents to the Republicans' daunting challenge of defending 21 (now 22 with the Wyoming vacancy) during a period when the GOP brand has plummeted.
Most analysts forecast the Dems at having a chance to realize a net gain of 3-4 seats, if the current political climate continues through the election. If these predictions come true, the Democrats could hold a 55-45 seat majority in the upper chamber.
A ten seat majority sounds pretty impressive until you remember the "F-word" - the 10-letter one, that is.
After the defeat on the Iraq supplemental, it's clear a mere majority isn't enough. The only number that matters, and will thwart "Mitch and his MerryMen" from throwing their filibuster-laced temper tantrums is SIXTY.
Can we possibly get there in 2008?
This is the second in a three-part series addressing that question. The first, creatively titled "Part 1", reviewed the current thinking of the "Inside the Beltway" punditry class regarding the 2008 Senate races. Among the talking heads, there is a general consensus as to the top 4-5 Democratic pick-up opportunities. The third installment (coming later this week) will look at the tier 2 seats that hold the Dems' best chance of winning if we start the legwork now (and things continue to break our way).
For those too lazy/disinterested to click back and pore through the previous post, here's the Readers Digest Condensed Version:
General Consensus -
* Structural advantage Dems
* Forecast - 4-5 GOP-held seats are Dem pick-up opportunities
* Top Tier Seats - CO (open), NH (Sununu), MN (Coleman), ME (Collins), OR (Smith) with some analysts including NC (Dole)
* Majority of twenty-one 2008 GOP seats are in Red States
* NRSC recruiting abysmal
* GOP fundraising lagging behind Dems
* Party ID, voter enthusiasm and issues all favor Democrats
Potential Number of GOP seats in play*
* WaPo = twelve
* CQ Politics = fourteen
* Cook Political Report = eleven
* numbers above include possible retirements
As previously stated, the road to the Senate Sixty is built on the assumption that Dems hold onto all 12 of our seats, including the two most vulnerable Senators in Louisiana and South Dakota.
Once again, I'll acknowledge that reaching the Senate 60 is a lofty goal, and may require what others may describe as "wishful thinking." But, as I put the finishing touches on this post, the poll results from Part one show 24% of respondents predicting a pickup of 9+ seats next year. Apparently I'm not the only dreamer - there are at least TWENTY others out there!
Now that everyone is up to speed, how do we identify that second tier, the group of Senators we can target with the higher likelihood of flipping the seat to the Democratic column? Remember that Virginia was way down on the 'experts' list in 2005. And, if Jim Webb hadn't ignored the prognosticator's predictions, he wouldn't have been in position to seize the moment when the true "Future President George Allen" revealed himself.
Which senator is a "Macaca" moment away from losing his seat? Which state has shown a more 'purple' tinge below the presidential level? To answer these questions, I developed my Vulnerability Factor Scoring System.
This VF Score is simple and quite subjective. I've included the various factors I - an amateur political junkie - believe determines where a Democratic candidate may be most successful. I'm a strong supporter of Dean's fifty state strategy and don't mean to imply that any seat is out of reach. But, when there is a list of 22 targets, it makes sense to figure out where our energies should be focused.
The Vulnerability Factor Score
In creating this scoring system, I asked, “What wins elections?”
Answer: Money, popularity and party strength. Therefore, these are the factors I used in building my VF Score.
Money - Using the most recent FEC information (from Q1 2007), I gave any incumbent with less than $750,000 Cash On Hand at the start of April a score of 1 – indicating the fundraising was weak. There were only six Senators that met this criterion: Craig (ID), Domenici (NM), Enzi (WY), Hagel (NE), Stevens (AK) and Warner (VA).
Granted, all of these states are small (except Virginia) and require smaller war chests to finance campaigns. However, these Senators rose considerably less money than their counterparts during the quarter, indicating a potential lack of interest in the 2008 campaign. All of these senators, with the exception of Enzi, have been the subject of retirement rumors. It’s also important to note that the LOWEST CoH figure for an incumbent Democrat was Tim Johnson’s $1,218,625. Every Democrat, except Biden whose attention is focused elsewhere for the time being, raised over $650,000 in the first three months of 2007.
Popularity - Politicians get elected because they’re well-liked. But, in an era when the national mood is one of discontent and anger, it’s important to factor in both personal approval as well as presidential/partisan approval ratings. Therefore the VF Score incorporates senate and presidential approval numbers. Freshmen and any incumbent who received less than 55% of the vote in the previous election are traditionally targeted for the upcoming cycle. My vulnerability score includes these factors - as well as age - in this manner:
* Freshmen get “1” added to their VF score.
* If incumbent received less than 55% in 2002, add “1”
* If incumbent approval rating less than 55%, add “1”, if less than 50% add “2”
* If incumbent is over age 70, add “1”
* If a primary challenge is underway, add “1”
* If incumbent is under investigation, add "1"
All of the factors above (including the CoH numbers), contribute to a candidate’s “PERSONAL WEAKNESS” score.
The “PERSONAL WEAKNESS” score range = 0 – 8.
Dole (5), Sununu (4), and Cornyn (4) have the highest scores, with Sessions and Collins both receiving “0”
To measure the Bush/GOP drag on a candidate’s re-election effort, I used the following:
If President Bush’s approval rating in state* is
* between 40-45%, add “1”,
* between 37-40%, add “2”,
* lower than 37%, add “3”
Additionally, if during the 2004 election, Bush received
* between 50-55% of vote, add “1”,
* if Bush vote total less than 50%, add “2”
*Bush approval ratings are from August 2006 - the most recent full fifty state listing I could locate. While Bush’s numbers have continued to fall,using the same polling date allows an "apples to apples" comparison between states and achieves the goal of identifying where Bush and the Republican Party are likely to have the bigger “drag” on a re-election campaign.
The “BUSH DRAG” score range = 0-5.
There are four states that get the maximum “BUSH DRAG” score – ME, MN, NH and OR. Not surprisingly, these are all Gore/Kerry states. If the top of the Democratic ticket is rolling toward victory, the incumbents in these states are going to have a difficult time holding onto their seats.
Party Strength The third element of the Vulnerability Score is the strength of the local Democratic Party. Where have Democrats shown an ability to win statewide office? Are the Democrats a force in the state legislature? It's a measurement of "bench strength" and the Democratic Party brand in the state. Have the state's voters shown a willingness to cast a vote for a candidate with a (D) next to their name?
The "Party Strength" component is built as follows. If the Democrats hold the following state offices:
* Governor, add "1"
* Attorney General, add "1"
* US Senator, add "1"
* Control State House/Assembly, add "1"
* Control State Senate, add "1"*
If Congressional delegation is composed:
* Dems hold less than 50% of state's seats, add "0.5"
* Dems hold between 50-75% of state's seats, add "1"
* Dems hold over 75% of state's seats, add "2"
* Dems hold ZERO seats, add "0"
*Four states (AK, ME, MS, & OK) have either evenly split or 'powersharing' agreements in their Senates, and have been given "0.5" as a result. Nebraska's non-partisan unicameral legislature removes this component from the VF score.
The "PARTY STRENGTH" scoring range is 0-7.
Of the twenty-one states, Oregon (6) and New Mexico (5.5) have the strongest Democratic party, followed by Minnesota, Maine and North Carolina (5). The weakest scores were Idaho (zero), South Carolina (0.5), Texas (0.5), Alaska (1.5) and Georgia (1.5).
As I said previously, this scoring system is relatively simple and is subjective - a professional political scientist could (and likely has) built a far more complex and accurate model to determine where the DSCC should invest it's resources. Let's hope so.
To arrive at the Overall Vulnerability Factor Score I simply add the three components together. Therefore, the Vulnerability Factor Score range is 0-20. New Hampshire, with a VF score of 13.5 is the highest and Idaho, with a VF score 2 is the lowest. The complete results look like this:
So, my little VF scoring system reveals a top tier similar to those of the experts. In the next installment, I'll take a look at the following states to determine the Democrats road to sixty: New Mexico, Oregon, North Carolina, Tennessee, Kansas, Alaska, Kentucky, Georgia, South Carolina, Texas, Oklahoma and Nebraska.
Of these seats, we need to win five (assuming wins in CO, NH, ME and MN).
UP NEXT: PART III: THE SECOND TIER OPPORTUNITIES