Nine is Senate Democrats' favorite number in 2008, and they're hoping 60 will be their lucky number in 2009. Moving their margin to 60 seats would give them a filibuster-proof majority and ease approval of their agenda for the 111th Congress. Pumping their 51 to 49 margin to 60 to 40 is a big increase; however, in the weeks leading up to the election, the odds are in their favor to reach lucky number 60.
Republicans are faced with defending 23 seats while Democrats have to defend only 12 seats, and only one of those is considered vulnerable. For Republicans, it's a different story, as several of their seats are in the "competitive” category.
Essentially, there are four key races that serve as a barometer of how close the count will come to 60 in the Senate, says Jim Wiesemeyer of Informa Economics and Washington consultant for Pro Farmer newsletter. Wiesemeyer, who will size up the election impacts on Dec. 2 and 3 at the Farm Journal Forum in Washington, D.C., notes: "The first race to watch is Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's (R-Ky.). If he loses, odds are Democrats will reach the 60 mark. Just a few weeks before the election, polls were even in that race. But the GOP is still hopeful they can pull off the victory.”
The North Carolina race between Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R) and state Sen. Kay Hagan (D) is another key.
The third race to keep an eye on is in Minnesota, where a three-way race is unfolding among Sen. Norm Coleman (R) and challengers Al Franken (D) and former Sen. Dean Barkley (I).
"Colorado is also a key state,”
Wiesemeyer adds, "one that has been turning more Democratic with each election.” That race features former Rep. Bob Schaffer (R) against Rep. Mark Udall (D) to decide who will succeed Sen. Wayne Allard (R), who kept his promise to serve only two terms.
In the House, where all 435 members are up for election, there are 35 open seats (the incumbent is not running). Eight of those are held by Democrats and 27 by Republicans. Wiesemeyer relates that "months ago, I would have said Democrats would gain 10 to 15 seats. Then that moved to 15 to 20, and now I'd say 20 to 30 … or more. There's a trend there.”
What is turning the tide toward Democrats and away from Republicans? "The economic rescue plan and Americans' disdain for it are clearly helping the Democrats build an even stronger working majority in the House,” he says.
Here's a quick rundown of several Senate contests to monitor.
Alaska: Sen. Ted Stevens (R) is on trial for allegations that he lied on Senate financial disclosure forms. Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich (D) may be able to override any coattails from GOP vice presidential candidate Gov. Sarah Palin.
Idaho: The race to succeed retiring Larry Craig (R) features GOP Lt. Gov. Jim Risch against Rep. Larry LaRocco (D). It's a repeat of the 2006 lieutenant governor campaign, which Risch won.
Iowa: Senate Ag Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D) hasn't won by more than 55% in his Senate races, but he's predicted to return for a fifth term against a political unknown, Navy veteran Christopher Reed (R).
Kansas: Sen. Pat Roberts (R) should return to Washington handily, even though he'll face former Rep. Jim Slattery (D). Kansas hasn't sent a Democrat to the Senate since 1932.
Louisiana: Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) is facing a strong challenge from state Treasurer John Kennedy, who switched to the Republican party last year.
Mississippi: Sen. Thad Cochran (R) is a shoo-in to return to the Senate. The real contest revolves around who will fill the remaining term of Sen. Trent Lott (R). Roger Wicker has been in the seat since 2007 and faces former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove (D).
Montana: Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D) will return to Washington for a sixth term. He faces Bob Kelleher, representing the chaotic Republican party. Kelleher is a perennial candidate, having run as a Democrat and a Green party candidate—he wasn't even allowed to speak to the state's Republican convention.
Nebraska: Former USDA Secretary Mike Johanns (R) is expected to have no trouble against Scott Kleeb (D).
New Hampshire: Sen. John Sununu (R) is refacing a rematch with former Gov. Jeanne Shaheen (D), who Sununu defeated 51 to 47 in 2002.
Oklahoma: Jim Inhofe (R) should keep the seat he's held since 1994 against state Sen. Andrew Rice (D).
Oregon: Sen. Gordon Smith (R) is vulnerable in the contest against state House Speaker Jeff Merkley (D). Smith is the only Republican senator on the West Coast in the lower 48 states.
South Carolina: Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) should return to the Senate in his face-off against Bob Conley (D).
South Dakota: Recovered from his brain hemorrhage, Sen. Tim Johnson (D) faces state Rep. Joel Dykstra (R), who most call the underdog.
Tennessee: Sen. Lamar Alexander (R) is expected to have little trouble against former state Democratic Party Chairman Bob Tuke (D).
Texas: Sen. John Cornyn (R) should defeat state Rep. Rick Noriega (D).
Virginia: In a contest of former governors for the seat being vacated by Sen. John Warner (R), Jim Gilmore (R) faces Mark Warner (a Democrat and no relation to the retiring Republican). Odds heavily favor this seat to be taken by the Democrat.
Wyoming: Sen. John Barrasso (R) is expected to keep the seat he was appointed to after the death of Sen. Craig Thomas (R). Sen. Mike Enzi (R) is also expected to return to Washington. Reason for the optimism: The state hasn't sent a Democrat to the U.S. Senate in nearly 40 years.
You can e-mail Roger Bernard at email@example.com.