Election Projection 2010: Southern Senate Seats

We’re getting closer to the midterm elections. As such, I will be posting my projections more frequently. The last projection that I published looked at races in the Midwest. Now we’re going to have a look at the South:

Alabama
Incumbent: Richard Shelby (R)
Challenger(s): William Barnes (Democrat)
Prediction: Likely Republican

At the heart of the Deep South, Alabama is a state with a heavy Republican tilt. Incumbent Senator Richard Shelby is a former conservative Democrat who saw the painting on the wall and switched parties in 1994. He has won comfortably ever since. In 2004, his margin of victory was nearly 40 percent. It will likely be at least that in his race against Democratic attorney William Barnes. No major Democrats have stepped up to the plate to take on Shelby, all but ensuring his victory. Most of the focus will instead be on the governor’s race.

Arkansas
Incumbent: Blanche Lincoln (D)
Challenger(s): Rep. John Boozman (Republican)
Prediction: Leans Republican

Blanche Lincoln had a difficult task winning re-election before she attracted a primary challenge from Arkansas’s popular Lt. Governor Bill Halter. Despite Arkansas being a last bastion of Democrats in the South, her approval ratings are anemic at best. Nearly 60 percent of voters in the state disapprove of the job that she is doing and her primary opponent forced her into a run-off which she barely won. Not bad for someone that only entered the race a couple months before the primary.

Republicans smell blood here. They are going to put enormous amounts of resources into this state in order to ensure a pick-up. Representative John Boozman has won the Republican nomination, despite a crowded field of eight candidates. The primary on May 18 and the runoff in June ensured that Lincoln would have to expend millions of dollars that she desperately needed for the general election. While polling showed that Halter was a better general election candidate, both of them would likely lose. Arkansas is one of the few states where John McCain outperformed George W. Bush.

Florida
Incumbent: George LeMieux (R) – Retiring
Challenger(s): Governor Charlie Crist (Independent), Marco Rubio (Republican), Rep. Kendrick Meek and Billionaire Jeff Greene (Democrats)
Prediction: Leaning Independent

One of the most interesting races of the cycle has to be Florida. The sitting Republican Senator, Mel Martinez, abruptly retired in 2009. This left a Senate seat open that the GOP would have to defend in a state that Barack Obama won in 2008. National Republicans netted a recruiting coup by having popular Governor Charlie Crist enter the race. Crist appointed his former campaign manager to fill the seat for the remainder of the term.

Nearly everyone expected Crist to win this race easily. As a result, Democrats only managed to recruit a second tier candidate who lacked name recognition across the state. Little did Crist or national Republicans know that conservative activists would have none of it. You see, Charlie Crist is a moderate Republican that embraced President Obama (literally) and his stimulation package in February 2009.

This infuriated Republicans in the state and ensured that a far right challenge would occur in the primary. The former Speaker of the Florida House, Marco Rubio, entered the race and immediately blasted Crist as not being conservative enough. While polls throughout most of 2009 showed Crist with a comfortable lead, recent months had Rubio leading by as much as 20 percent or more. Ultimately, the humiliation of losing a primary ended Crist’s run as a Republican. He announced on April 29 that he would instead run as an independent.

With Crist as the nominee, Democrats had virtually no shot at winning this race. Now that it is a three-man race, Democrats have two routes to claiming victory: Crist could split the Republican vote with Marco Rubio enough to where Rep. Meek could win a bare plurality of the vote. The second scenario for Democrats to “win” this seat is through a Crist victory whereby he would caucus with Democrats in the Senate. He has not ruled that out and it certainly makes more sense now that national Republicans have all but disowned him. Crist remains heavily popular in the state, with an approval hovering in the mid-50s. It is fairly reasonable to see Crist winning a three-way race (some polls have indicated he would), although not having a party infrastructure behind him will not make the job easy. For now, Crist is the favorite to win this seat, likely helping the Democrats in the process.

Georgia
Incumbent: Johnny Isakson (R)
Challenger(s): Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond (Democrat)
Prediction: Likely Republican

Like its nearby neighbors of Alabama and South Carolina, Georgia has become a reliably Republican state. In a year that is expected to be moderately good for the GOP, it goes without saying that these ruby red states will likely stay in the hands of the party in power. The only real concern Republicans might have is a potential vacancy. Isakson has been in and out of the hospital recently and is 65 years old. Despite Barack Obama doing well in this state (he only lost by 5 percent), it seems unlikely that Democrats will manage to pull off an upset in a year where they are struggling nationwide.

Kentucky
Incumbent: Jim Bunning (R) – Retiring
Challenger(s): Attorney General Jack Conway (Democrat) and Dr. Rand Paul (Republican)
Prediction: Toss-Up

The May 18 primary had both parties pick their nominees. Lt. Governor Dan Mongiardo barely lost to retiring Senator Jim Bunning (a Republican) in 2004. He gave it another go this time around, but lost to the much younger and more telegenic Jack Conway. Polls showed Jack Conway as the stronger of the two Democrats in the race, while Trey Grayson would gave Republicans their best shot. Grayson was the Republican Party establishment favorite, a protégé of Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, but he lost to Rand Paul in a blow-out. Following his victory, Rand Paul suggested that he would have voted against the Civil Rights Act, saying that business owners should have the right to deny service to customers even if it is based on race. Despite the Republican leaning of the state, Democrats can win statewide in Kentucky and Conway is a strong candidate.

Louisiana
Incumbent: David Vitter (R)
Challenger(s): Rep. Charlie Melancon (Democrat)
Prediction: Leans Republican

Incumbent Republican David Vitter has a bit of a female problem. He famously was caught on the D.C. Madam’s list back in 2007 and was an apparently frequent customer. Conservative Democrat Charlie Melancon is running against Vitter, but has yet to prove to be a credible threat. Three years is an eternity in politics, so voters might have already forgotten about his transgressions. It doesn’t help Melancon that the state has seen a shift towards Republicans since Hurricane Katrina. The African American base that helped make this Southern state competitive has largely been displaced.

North Carolina
Incumbent: Richard Burr (R)
Challenger(s): Secretary of State Elaine Marshall (Democrat)
Prediction: Leans Republican

Democrats Cal Cunningham and Elaine Marshall faced each other in a June runoff election. Neither of them received the 40 percent necessary in order to avoid a runoff. Marshall won 36 percent of the vote in the May 4 primary to Cunningham’s 27 percent. Marshall won the runoff and will be the Democratic nominee in the fall. The fact that Democrats did not have a nominee before June is not good news as it meant period to raise money and frame the debate against incumbent Republican Richard Burr. The good news for the Democrats is that Burr is not a popular incumbent, with an approval rating well below 50 percent. It also doesn’t hurt that Burr voted against extending unemployment benefits in a state that has a nearly 10 percent unemployment rate.

South Carolina
Incumbent: Jim DeMint (R)
Challenger(s): Alvin Greene (Democrat)
Prediction: Likely Republican

Alvin Greene surprised everyone with his victory in the South Carolina primary. No one had heard of him. In fact, he had been discharged from the military involuntarily (although honorably), faced legal troubles last year and is currently unemployed. He had only $114 in his campaign account. He did not buy any television ads, held no formal events and did not even have a campaign website. Democrats in the state quickly assumed that the Republican establishment had planted a fake candidate in the field to protect firebrand conservative Jim DeMint from a serious challenge. Whatever the case, DeMint is safe to continue his ways as a mouthpiece for some of the most conservative voices in America. This seat will stay in Republican hands.

West Virginia
Incumbent: Carte Goodwin (D) – Retiring
Challenger(s): Joe Manchin (Democrat)
Prediction: Likely Democrat

This is a seat that literally was not on anyone’s radar until just weeks ago. Why? It was not scheduled to take place until 2012. The death of Senator Robert Byrd led to the state legislature, at the behest of Governor Joe Manchin, to pass a law that allowed for a special election to occur this November. Governor Manchin, a popular Democrat in an increasingly Republican state during presidential elections, did not want to appoint himself to the seat as it could hurt his reputation ahead of the 2012 election. Instead, he appointed an aide to fill the seat in a similar way that Charlie Crist did in Florida so that he could run in the November special election. Interestingly, the oldest member in the history of the Senate (Byrd) is being replaced by the youngest (Goodwin) at the age of 36. Representative Shelley Moore Capito was seen as the Republican Party’s best chance at winning this seat. She decided to decline the opportunity. With Manchin’s approval rating at 80 percent, this is a safe seat for the Democrats and one that they will not likely need to spend much time on.

Adjustments

As we move along throughout the election cycle, I am going to continue to add new races to our list. While I do that, I am also going to make adjustments along the way to races where significant movement is seen. One of those races is in Iowa where Senator Chuck Grassley could face one of his toughest re-election battles since he was first elected in 1980.

As you may recall, Grassley was among a handful of Republicans willing to compromise with Democrats on the health care bill. It was nothing more than a stalling tactic. Grassley went back home telling crowds in Iowa that the bill was going to result in death panels, at the same time he was in negotiations with Democrats. Not exactly an act of goodwill.

Grassley’s antics are almost certainly going to become campaign fodder for his Democratic opponent Roxanne Conlin. You can count on Conlin pounding Grassley for standing with insurance companies and demanding to know whether Grassley would vote to repeal the bill. The latest polling puts Grassley under 50 percent and Conlin within single digits. That’s a significant drop from a few months ago when his lead was over 20 points greater.

I’m moving this race into “Lean Republican” from “Likely Republican”. It may soon qualify for “Toss-Up” status if Grassley continues to bleed support.

The other two races that are changing are Illinois and Wisconsin. Democratic nominee Alexi Giannoulias is slightly trailing Republican Congressman Mark Kirk in this open Senate seat race according to recent polls. This race is now a “Toss-Up” thanks to the failing of Giannoulias’s family bank. If the election were held today, Giannoulias would lose this race. Thankfully for him and the Democrats in Illinois, voters have a short memory span and the election is not for another six months. That gives him plenty of time to remind voters that Mark Kirk voted against health care and has boasted that he would like to see Barack Obama be a one-term president. It also didn’t help that Mark Kirk was caught lying about his military record on multiple occasions, including on the House floor.

Finally, there is Wisconsin, where incumbent Democrat Russ Feingold avoided a potentially bloody general election against former Wisconsin governor and HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson. Governor Thompson is about the only Republican with a legitimate shot of knocking off Feingold, so I am moving this race into the “Likely Democratic” column. Below is a map of both the Southern and Midwestern Senate races as described in these first two election projection updates:

Map

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  1. [...] more frequently. The last projections that I published looked at races in the Midwest and South. Now we’re going to have a look at the Great Plains/Mountain [...]

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