Protect Ya Neck: The 2006 Races for Senate and Governor

Vulnerable Incumbents and Open Seats Provide Action


It is time for our first fall update of the 2006 Senate and Governor contests. To the layperson, they are an eternity and fourteen months away. To political junkies, the races are already in full swing, with recruiting season approaching its end in most places and fundraising machines humming everywhere.

Enter the Senate (33 Chambers)

With an effective lead of 55-45 in the Senate, Republicans continue to have the clear early edge to retain control–especially since they only have to defend 15 of the 33 seats up for election in next year. Yet Katrina, Iraq, gas prices, growing national debt, President Bush’s unpopularity, and other factors might conspire to produce Democratic gains or even a takeover, as wild as that speculation appears today. Before we get into what it would take to do that, let’s first take a look at the Crystal Ball’s current race rankings, by outlook:

2005 Senate Make-up: 55 Republicans, 45 Democrats (Including 1 Ind.)

Senate Seats up for election in 2006: 15 Republican, 18 Democratic (Including 1. Ind.)

Current Outlook Number of Seats States
Solid Republican 9 IN, ME, MO, MS, NV, TX, UT, VA, WY
Leans Republican 3 AZ, MT, TN
Toss-up 4 MN, OH, PA, RI
Leans Democratic 7 FL, MD, ND, NE, NJ, WA, WV
Leans Ind./Dem. 1 VT
Solid Democratic 9 CA, CT, DE, HI, MA, MI, NM, NY, WI

*Note: click on each state abbreviation for individual race analysis

How could Democrats do it? First, they must hold all of their open seats (MD, MN, and possibly NJ). None of the three is an absolute slam-dunk for the Democrats, but Maryland and New Jersey are likely Democratic in the end. Minnesota’s situation is unclear, given the lack of a solid Democratic frontrunner, and Congressman Mark Kennedy has a fair-to-good chance to steal this seat from the Democrats. Yet if there is a national breeze blowing for the Democrats in November 2006, it will probably be felt in Democratic-leaning Minnesota.

Second, the Democrats must keep all endangered incumbents in the winners’ circle: Robert Byrd of West Virginia, Maria Cantwell of Washington, Kent Conrad of North Dakota, and the “Nelson Twins” (Bill of Florida and Ben of Nebraska–not Matthew and Gunnar). Conrad will be the most endangered if Governor John Hoeven (R) decides to challenge him. The other Democratic senators in this category are at least slight favorites to win another term currently.

Let’s say the Democrats luck out, and pick a strong candidate in Minnesota, with Governor Hoeven not running in North Dakota (or Conrad beating him if he runs), and all other open seats and threatened incumbents remaining in Democrats’ hands. This is far from impossible if 2006 turns out to be a Democratic year. This happy result for Democrats still leaves them six seats short of control. With Vice President Cheney presiding, the party needs 51 seats to organize.

Two Republican senators are in deep trouble, and may be ripe for the plucking. Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania is already losing to Democrat Bob Casey Jr. by double-digit margins in early tracking polls—an extraordinarily weak position for an incumbent this far out from an election. In Rhode Island Senator Lincoln Chafee faces a tough GOP primary with a conservative challenger, and then if he survives, an equally difficult general election race against the winner of the Democratic primary. In this heavily Democratic state, Chafee’s loss would not be terribly surprising. Yes, Santorum and Chafee are both survivors and incumbents, and they may be able to win despite daunting circumstances. But Democrats are right to eye them hungrily.

If the Democrats take both seats, the margin is 53R-47D. So where could Democrats find the remaining four seats? At the moment, there appear to be only five possibilities in the nation: the Tennessee open seat of retiring Senator Bill Frist (R), plus defeats of incumbent GOP senators Conrad Burns (MT), Mike DeWine (OH), Jon Kyl (AZ), and Jim Talent (MO). All of these are possible, none at the moment is likely.

The long and short of this analysis: Democrats have only a long-shot chance at Senate takeover, and they are short of opportunities to make it happen. Of course, if 2006 turns into a Democratic 1994, then even our mind-stretching list of upsets and perfect-D luck is a possibility. It’s too early to tell, but we wouldn’t bet on it, and we advise you not to bet on it either!

Governorships: The RGA and the DGA

When it comes to the contests for Governor, Democrats have reason for more optimism in 2006. Here are our current rankings:

2005 Gubernatorial Make-up: 28 Republicans, 22 Democrats

Governorships up for election in 2006: 22 Republican, 14 Democratic

Current Outlook Number of Seats States
Solid Republican 5 ID, NE, SC, SD, TX
Leans Republican 9 CO, CT, GA, HI, MD, MN, NV, RI, VT
Toss-up 8 AK, AL, AR, CA, FL, IA, IL, MA
Leans Democratic 10 AZ, KS, ME, MI, NH, NY, OH, OR, PA, WI
Solid Democratic 4 NM, OK, TN, WY

*Note: click on each state abbreviation for individual race analysis

Notice that Democrats are defending 14 Governorships, and they are already leading in 14 contests, with 8 toss-ups. Assuming an even split in the current toss-ups, Democrats would gain four statehouses for a total of 26. If 2006 turns out to be a Democratic year, they could do better than that, and regain a bigger majority of the Governorships in the fifty states. Already, Democrats are poised to snatch New York and Ohio from the GOP, and California and Massachusetts are teetering on the edge as well. On the other hand, Democratic incumbents are in some trouble in Illinois and Pennsylvania. Overall, it will be a big surprise if Democrats do not grab some kind of net gain in statehouses, but many contests have yet to solidify. As such, a more precise projection will have to wait.

Crystal Ball staffers Matt Smyth and Robin Cook contributed to the 2006 Senate and Governor updates and analysis.

Coming Soon in the Crystal Ball: House Race Updates for 2006

The Crystal Ball would like to give special thanks to the Wu-Tang Clan–one of the most influential rap groups of the 1990s, and our personal favorite–for inspiring the theme for this email. Of course, Protect Ya Neck, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), The RZA and The GZA are all the copyrighted products of the Wu-Tang Clan, referenced here solely in tribute.