Is A 60-Seat Democratic Majority Possible In The Senate?

[ Posted Tuesday, June 17th, 2008 – 16:16 UTC ]


To dream the impossible dream
To fight the unbeatable foe

-- from "Man of La Mancha"


Could the Democrats enter next year with a filibuster-proof (or more properly, "cloture-proof") majority of 60 seats in the United States Senate? I've been asking myself that for the past year or so; and every time I did, I thought: "That's just too wildly optimistic, it'll never happen." But now, I can accurately plot how this astounding political feat could actually come to pass.

Now, don't get me wrong. I still think it's highly unlikely to happen, as the Democrats would have to have an absolutely perfect election -- winning everything and losing nothing. The fact that they already did this in 2006 bears consideration, but it would be foolhardy at this point to actually predict that lightning is going to strike twice in the same way.

But the path does exist now, so I'd like to lay it out as I see it. Democrats are going to have to win 10 or 11 races in order to pull it off. The good news is that only one or two of these are seats currently held by Democrats. Which means that the Democrats are going to be on offense almost everywhere in the country, and Republicans are going to be on defense.

The two races Democrats need to successfully defend are in New Jersey and Louisiana. Frank Lautenberg in New Jersey is currently up by only five points in the polls, but most observers think he'll win in November. Louisiana is closer. Mary Landrieu is currently leading her challenger 47/44, but she is seen as somewhat tarnished and will have to fight hard to keep her seat. A big chunk of her base has left the state and not returned (due to Hurricane Katrina), complicating her task. But Obama has been registering Democrats like crazy all across the South, so this may offset the Katrina losses in the end. But most political analysts think that if the Democrats lose any Senate seat at all this year, it will be Landrieu's.

Assuming Democrats hold onto New Jersey and Louisiana, there are nine (count them -- nine!) possible pickups for Democrats this year. In alphabetical order:

I wrote about this possibility yesterday, while heartily encouraging Barack Obama to make a campaign swing through the Last Frontier State. Current Republican Ted Stevens is collapsing under the weight of scandal (some of his own making, some just generic Republican scandal -- there's a lot of GOP scandal to go around in Alaska this year). And Democratic mayor of Anchorage Mark Begich is giving Stevens a run for his money. Polling has been back and forth between the two. The latest Rasmussen poll shows Stevens up by two (46/44), but other recent polls have shown Begich with as much as a seven-point lead (51/44). So it's really too close to call at this point, but it could be a late-night surprise on election night.

Colorado is an open Senate seat, always easier to win than against an incumbent Republican. And Colorado has been trending Democratic for a while now, so the signs look good for Democrat Mark Udall against Republican Bob Schaffer. The two were neck-and-neck up until a few months ago in the polls, and ever since then Udall has opened up a small initial lead to an impressive six points (47/41). While it is too early to say definitively, Colorado certainly looks like it's going to go Democratic this year.

This one would be fun to win, if only for the symbolic value. The incumbent is Senator Mitch McConnell, who just happens to be Senate Minority Leader. Knocking him off would indeed be a joy to behold. But it's kind of a longshot. While Rasmussen recently put Democratic challenger Bruce Lunsford up by five points (49/44), other polls show McConnell in the lead by an almost equal amount (50/46). So while this one bears watching for now, it's going to be a tough pickup for the Democrats. But wouldn't it be fun?

Al Franken is now officially the nominee to take on Republican Norm Coleman. But Franken has been trailing slightly in the polls for a while. The difference is not insurmountable, but it does exist. Franken had a tough primary race, though, which only just concluded, so he may get a bounce out of being named the official candidate in the coming weeks, as party regulars rally 'round. Franken has a hill to climb, but not an insurmountable one.

This one is neck-and-neck. Incumbent Roger Wicker is defending his seat from Democratic challenger Ronnie Musgrove. Polls have been widely swinging back and forth between the two. The latest poll shows Musgrove up by one (47/46), but again, the polls have gone up and down. Once again, Barack Obama may have some coattails here if he can radically improve the voting rate of eligible black voters, which may be a deciding factor in this race. But even so, it is Mississippi, so it's going to be a tough fight.

New Hampshire
Republican incumbent John Sununu is most likely going to lose to the very popular Democrat Jeanne Shaheen. This will complete the Democratic sweep of this state which was begun in 2006. New Englanders are increasingly tired of electing moderate Republicans, and are instead switching over to electing Democrats with increasing regularity. Shaheen has been consistently polling five to ten points ahead of Sununu for months now (she's currently up 50/43), so this one looks safely in the Democratic column.

New Mexico
Tom Udall (cousin to Colorado's Mark) is going to win New Mexico's open Senate seat. I say this with certainty, since even the Republicans are throwing in the towel on the race. Importantly, this is a loss of a seat for them -- and they've already decided it'd be a waste of money to fight for it. The reason is Republican Steve Pearce has been polling so dismally against Udall that there is just no chance he's going to win. The current poll puts him down an astounding twenty-five points (60/35). Chalk this one up for the Democrats.

This one is going to be close, but I'm hopeful that Democrat Jeff Merkley can upset sitting Republican Senator Gordon Smith. Smith has been terrified of his prospects for the past year or so, which has actually led him to start voting with the Democrats on major legislation. While it's nice to have Republicans cross the aisle in this fashion, it's even nicer to have the seats in Democratic hands. Smith has been leading steadily in the polls, but Merkley has been closing the gap. But the trend line is currently inconsistent -- while two separate but identical polls put him behind Smith by only three points (45/42), the latest showed a bigger gap (47/38). But in general, Merkley has been working hard to cut the lead, so Oregon is certainly worth watching in the weeks ahead. Obama might also have some coattails here, especially with the youth vote.

We close with another lock for the Democrats. Not only are Democrats dominating New England, they also are starting to eat into the South. Bad news for Republicans indeed. Virginia will enter 2009 with two Democratic Senators. Democrat Mark Warner is just wiping out his Republican opponent Jim Gilmore in the polls by margins bigger than in New Mexico. Currently, Warner is up twenty-seven points (60/33). The Republicans admitted defeat in this state as well, and have just given up hope on Virginia's Senate race. Interestingly, this is possibly the only state where Warner may help Obama with some coattails, instead of the other way 'round. Warner is a much-loved figure in the state, and may turn out some Democratic votes as a result. And Virginia could well go for Obama in the presidential election, but it's going to be close. So a percent or two may be the deciding factor.


That's the lot. As I said, Democrats would have to run this list perfectly to have a chance at having such numbers in the Senate that the Republicans would become completely irrelevant (due to their inability to shut things down whenever they feel like it).

And -- to rain on this parade a bit at the end, here -- Democrats still only get to that magic number of 60 by holding on to Joe Lieberman. And while not a lot of people have mentioned it, it seems obvious that Lieberman might wait until after the election, and then change his party affiliation to Republican. The man is currently following John McCain around the campaign trail like a puppy on a leash, so it's not too big a leap to see him bolt to the GOP after it's all over.

Still, it's nice every once in a while to dream the impossible dream....


-- Chris Weigant


6 Comments on “Is A 60-Seat Democratic Majority Possible In The Senate?”

  1. [1] 
    fstanley wrote:

    If Sen. Obama and the DNC can get together to coordinate a campaign and invest time and money where needed I think this might be the year for dreams.


  2. [2] 
    Michale wrote:

    I am only gonna comment on a couple of the states, as my knowledge iddn't nearly as complete as yours. :D

    As an aside, though.. I have mentioned about my desire to move the family to Alaska. If, per chance, they could change the designation from the LAST FRONTIER to the FINAL FRONTIER, then I think I would be there!! :D


    The Al Franken race is probably not going to go the way you hope. And, ironically enough, it's the same reason why the General Election is probably not going to go the way the Dems hope.

    Franken got pretty beat up by his own people... Much like Obama did.


  3. [3] 
    BLaws wrote:

    There are a couple of other races that are a bit more unlikely but ones to watch:

    Maine - Sen. Susan Collins (R) promised to serve only 2 terms each of her two runs. She's now flipped on that position and is running for a third. The race is being described as competative. Polls are in the high single digits.

    Georgia - Vernon Jones (D) is polling 7 points behind incumbant Saxby Chambliss (R) who has a mid 50's approval rating. With a large AA turn out for Obama in Georgia, Jones could pull off an upset.

    For the real long shot, I'd watch South Carolina:

    Lindsey Graham (R) faces challenger Bob Conley (D). Conley is a Ron Paul Democrat, more conservative than Graham. Conley is a pro-life, observant Catholic. His cultural conservatism and opposition to mass immigration makes him appealing to many traditionally conservative democrats and disillusioned Republicans. He could also benefit from the turn out in the AA community due to Obama. AA's make up 30% of the population of SC, with a record turn out it could make Conley very competative as AA's tend to vote Dem down the ballot.

    This race could be similar to the 3 house seats the Repubs already lost, due to the Dem running being a very conservative Dem, while Lindsey has been painted as too Liberal by his primary challenger and others. Being locked at the hip with John McCain isn't helping him either with many in SC.

    Should he pull it off it would almost bring as much glee to me as Mitch McConnell getting beat here in Kentucky.

  4. [4] 
    longtimewatcher wrote:

    In addition to Maine, I would add NC and the slightly longer shot of TX.

    I would rate Dole at very much at risk, and Cornyn seems to be having trouble showing 50% approval.

    With exception minority turnout in those two races, they could flip.

  5. [5] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    OK, some good comments here. Before I begin, I'd like to point out something I inadvertently left out of the article -- my facts came from (somewhat outdated at times, but a very nice map) and Another poll-watching site to check is

    Michale -

    You're right, the Franken race was like a microcosm of the presidential nomination race. But we've got five months to get together as a party, both nationally and in Minnesota, and I remain optimistic about both.

    BLaws -

    I thought about including Collins in Maine, but Mainers (Mainiacs?) I know tell me this is all but impossible. If she wins another term, Maine will be the last holdout for moderate Republicans in all of New England (their other Senator, Olympia Snowe, is also a moderate Republican). We'll see... I'd love to see Maine flip, but still see it as a longshot at this point. The last poll I saw had Collins up 52/42, but her challenger is closing the gap.

    Georgia is another possibility, you're right. It's even a possibility in the presidential race, due to Bob Barr, Libertarian candidate, being from Georgia. If he shaves enough of McCain's vote off, Obama could win the state. And even that possibility, you're right, could cause a huge voter turnout swell for the Democrats.

    South Carolina? Lindsey Graham too liberal?? Wow. Well, I guess he's against torture, but I'd hardly call him a liberal. But I will keep an eye on this race from now on, thanks.

    longtimewatcher -

    North Carolina I've heard talked about as well. Hagen seems to be closing the gap with Dole, but the latest poll I have has Dole up 14 points (53/39), but other polls show a much tighter race.

    Texas, however, is still a real longshot. I'd put money on Obama winning the state before I'd put money on Cornyn being defeated. He's up 17 points currently (52/35), but I'll keep an eye on it, too, I promise.


  6. [6] 
    BLaws wrote:

    "South Carolina? Lindsey Graham too liberal?? Wow. Well, I guess he's against torture, but I'd hardly call him a liberal."

    Well, that's what his challenger in the primary said. ;)

    But now that I checked out a few things... turns out that the Dem challenger that lost... is running on a 3rd party platform. So forget South Carolina. The idiot that lost is just going to split the vote and removed any chance of beating Graham.

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