Ah, the Senate. Supposedly the "deliberative" body of Congress, responsible for approving judicial nominees, home of the filibuster, and of people like Robert Byrd who've been there for so long more than half of their constituents were born after they started serving. Damn.
Presently, the Senate has 49 Dems, 49 GOPers, and two independents who usually caucus with the Dems (although don't bet on what Joe Lieberman might do; I won't include him in the Dem figures, but I will include Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who is a near-certain Dem vote on most issues). Normally there would be 33 seats up for election this year, but in Wyoming and Mississippi, sitting Senators either passed away (WY) or resigned (MS) and replacements were appointed by the governor, necessitating new elections. Consequently there are 35 seats in play this year, 12 of which are held by Democrats and 23 by Republicans. Six are open.
Of the 29 incumbents running for re-election, the following are certain to hold their seats:
Alabama – Jeff Sessions, R
Arkansas – David Pryor, D
Delaware – Joe Biden, D
Iowa – Tom Harkin, D
Illinois – Dick Durbin, D
Kansas – Pat Roberts, R
Maine – Susan Collins, R
Massachusetts – John Kerry, D
Michigan – Carl Levin, D
Mississippi – Thad Cochran, R
Montana – Max Baucus, D
New Jersey – Frank Lautenberg, D
Oklahoma – James Inhofe, R
Rhode Island – Jack Reed, D
South Dakota – Tim Johnson, D
South Carolina – Lindsay Graham, R
Tennessee – Lamar Alexander, R
Texas – John Cornyn, R
West Virginia – Jay Rockefeller, D
Wyoming – Mike Enzi, R
Wyoming – John Barrasso, R
Taking into account the current makeup of the Senate (including seats not in play this year) and the sure-bet incumbents, we have a Senate makeup of 48 Ds, 36 Rs, and the 2 Is; I'll call that a 49-36-1 split. That's a tough road for the GOP to travel, and they're not going to keep the Senate as close as it is right now.
Of the open seats (ID, CO, NM, NE, VA, MN), four of them appear to be in the bag: Idaho and Nebraska will elect new GOP Senators (Jim Risch and Mike Johanns respectively) (49-38-1), while Virginia will elect Mark Warner and New Mexico will elect Tom Udall, and both seats will flip from GOP to Dem (51-38-1). So control of the Senate is effectively already guaranteed for the Democrats. The question has been, can they get to 60 seats and ensure a filibuster-proof majority. So the remaning ten seats are the ones you want to watch. Three are likely GOP victories (GA, KY, MS). Three are likely Dem victories (NH, LA, CO). The other four are real tossups and anybody could win (NC, MN, OR, AK). I'll break them down poll closing time:
Georgia: Incumbent Republican Saxby Chambliss would win easily in any normal year, but this isn't normal. Chambliss leads by a point or two in recent polls, but turnout will be key. If Martin loses but keeps Chambliss under 50%, the two will face a run-off. If Martin wins this race, it's a runaway night for the Democrats. That said, this race could be one of the closest of the night, so don't expect it to be an early call and a clear indicator of trends.
Kentucky: Incumbent Republican Mitch McConnell should win this race, but challenger Bruce Lunsford has outperformed everyone's expectations. Polls are mixed and turnout will be a factor, but no poll has showed Lunsford in the lead yet. Obama is performing poorly in the state and will have no coattails to speak of, so Lunsford must count on depressed GOP turnout and an anti-Republican and anti-incumbent wave that has not yet materialized in Kentucky. The polling shows a very tight race but don't be surprised if this one goes to McConnell by five to ten points; a Lunsford victory implies a Democratic tsunami.
New Hampshire: Incumbent Republican John Sununu seems unlikely to hold on to his seat against popular former governor Jeanne Shaheen. Polling over the past two months puts Shaheen ahead by about seven points with little change in the race. You could actually argue that Shaheen is underperforming (polls last year had her up by 20 points) but the seat seems safe for her nonetheless. Should she lose this race, the notion of a "Democratic Wave" will be bunk, and everything will be up for grabs.
Mississippi: Don't be confused when you see Thad Cochran win re-election here by 30+ points; it's the seat formerly occupied by Trent Lott that's a real contest. Lott retired last year, dissatisfied with life in the Senate and eager to return home to a still-Katrina-ravaged house, and his seat was filled by former Congressman Roger Wicker, R. Wicker hasn't had much time to ingratiate himself with the rest of the state outside his former district, and faces a stiff challenge from former governor Ronnie Musgrove. Musgrove could be leading this race now and it's tough to say why he isn't; of the three likely GOP victories among these ten seats, this one makes the least sense to me. Musgrove should be barely ahead, really. Polling has been thin (four since September 1, fewer than landslide states like Michigan and Massachusetts) and, with one exception, shows a race within two points. The state is a sure thing for McCain and to some degree Musgrove is relying on a large black turnout for Obama who will support him as well; that could be dangerous in a state that's not a real contest and where black turnout is historically lower than in other Southern states. This is one of the ones I'll really be watching; if it's a big Dem year Musgrove should win it, but if Wicker keeps the seat it can't be considered a surprise. The only surprise would be a ten point margin for either side. This race will be very close.
North Carolina: Incumbent Republican Elizabeth Dole is in a near-tossup race with challenger Kay Hagan. Recent polling averages put Hagan slightly ahead, but the race is close and both candidates still have money to spend. Turnout will be huge (it's supposed to rain on Tuesday), and it's tough to say whether this race or the Presidential race will be clear first; for my money, it's unlikely the two races will be split. Advertising, which we unfortunately get to watch here in SC, has turned incredibly nasty of late (mostly on Dole's part), so it could be interesting to see whether that has any effect on either turnout or the eventual victor. But I expect this race to go on long past the 8:30 closing time.
Louisiana: Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu is the only Dem incumbent who could lose her seat. I say "could," but really, it seems pretty unlikely now. The GOP targeted the race earlier this year and it seemed close, but in the last few weeks the GOP has pulled ad money from their candidate in the face of polling showing Landrieu with a 10+ point margin. Still, Louisiana has lost a lot of its Democratic population and Landrieu shouldn't be considered a sure thing. If she loses, it's likely already been a pretty good night for the GOP, but this is still one to watch.
Minnesota: Don't believe anything about this race until the votes are counted. Minnesota has the strongest third party in the entire country, the Independence party (which refers to being independent of the two other parties, not a preference for an independent Minnesota), built largely by Jesse Ventura. The Independence candidate, Dean Barkley, has already been a Senator once before (for about two months after Paul Wellstone's death) and is polling at 15%. Tellingly, his support has grown substantially in just the past two months—just like Jesse Ventura's did when he ran for governor in 1998. The incumbent, Norm Coleman (R), polls within a point or two of Democratic challenger Al Franken—the one from Saturday Night Live. Franken could have this thing in the bag by now if he wasn't Al Franken, but he is prickly and cold, bland on the stump and unimpressive in small groups. In short, Franken is a lousy candidate being buoyed by a good Democratic year and discontent with the incumbent. In most states, we'd assume the 15% support for the third party candidate would diminish by election day, but this is Minnesota and it's not impossible that Franken could turn off enough people to lose this. The question would be, could Barkley sneak in and win? Remember, Jesse Ventura was behind in the polls by ten percent or more on election day 1998. Undecideds broke for Ventura, and people who were uncomfortable with their choices from the other two parties did the same. This is exactly the same situation we have here: Coleman isn't even all that popular with Republicans in the state, and Franken isn't exactly loved by anyone but dedicated Air America Radio listeners (of which there are about three dozen nationwide). The two parties have dumped money into the race to tear down the two candidates, while Barkley's ads have relied on the same off-kilter sense of humor that won Ventura's ads much praise a decade ago and have cast him as the only candidate not concerned with destroying his opponents' reputation (the major parties have, predictably, ignored him). With only a week to go Barkley is still more likely to be a spoiler than a Senator, but the race is impossible to predict.
Colorado: Democratic Congressman Mark Udall should win this race comfortably against former Republican Congressman Bob Schaffer. Again, if Schaffer wins it's already been a remarkably good night for Republicans, but this race has the potential to surprise. Note that Mark Udall's cousin, Tom Udall, is all but certain to win the open Senate seat in New Mexico.
Oregon: Incumbent Republican Gordon Smith should have been safe, and would be in a non-Democratic year. Smith is a moderate who plays well with Democrats, supports environmental causes gay rights issues favored by a majority of Oregon voters, and has even said nice things about Barack Obama, but if the Democratic wave materializes Smith is likely to be swept away by challenger Jeff Merkley. By the time this race is called we'll have a good idea of what the Senate looks like already, and the tossup nature of the race may no longer be an issue: if it's a good Democratic night, expect Merkley to win comfortably; if the wave is small or nonexistent, Smith should survive.
Alaska: Perhaps the worst thing you can do a week before the election is be convicted on seven counts of felony corruption, but that's what incumbent Republican Ted Stevens has done. John McCain has already called on him to step down, but if he does, who runs in his place? Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich, the Democrat, was already running even or slightly ahead in this race and it seems unlikely that Alaska voters will rally 'round the corrupt old man they were already thinking of dumping now that he's been declared guilty. You'll be in bed by the time polls close in Alaska, more than likely, and we'd like to believe that no voters anywhere would happily return a corrupt convicted felon to office… but this has been a year when lots of things we'd like to believe have nonetheless been at issue. Begich should win this one but it could be a squeaker and until we have post-conviction polling available it's hard to say for sure.