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Twenty Questions, So Many Possible Answers

Twenty questions about the 2008 elections that will decide the size of the Democratic majorities in the next Congress:

1) Where will the top of the ticket help downballot the most?

While Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.) will no doubt help candidates running downballot in their respective home states, their coattails elsewhere in the country might prove more helpful.

With the first major-party African- American presidential nominee leading their ticket, Democrats are banking on an increase in black turnout to help boost their candidates, although this is a double-edged sword (see next question). An increase in black turnout would probably be felt most in the South, an area where Democrats are competing more this cycle than they have in some time.

But not all races where increased black voter turnout could help the party are in the South. In Ohio’s 1st district, Rep. Steve Chabot (R) won a narrow victory in the previous cycle and is being targeted again. The suburban Cincinnati district is 27 percent black and increased turnout in that community could doom Chabot.

Republicans are counting on McCain to help in districts where there is a sizable military population and also areas that are largely populated by older Reagan Democrats.

McCain could help Rep. Phil English (R), who is being targeted in Pennsylvania, and Rep. Thelma Drake (R-Va.), who faces another tough race in a battleground district with a heavy military population.

2) Where will the top of the ticket most hurt downballot?

One of the things Republicans are banking on in this election is that the top of the ticket will have long coattails in open House seats in conservative districts. Their argument is that voters in presidential years are more apt to vote straight ticket and that in open seats in places like Alabama, Kentucky and Louisiana, McCain’s double-digit margins will simply prove too large for Democratic candidates downballot to surmount.

Will Reps. Don Cazayoux (D-La.) and Travis Childers (D-Miss.), who were elected in special elections this spring, be stung by the fact that they are on the ballot with the presidential contenders? Both men represent districts with a large black population, but these are also areas where white voters do not have favorable views of Obama and McCain will easily carry each district.

The presidential race in general is problematic for Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.), who ran a TV ad linking himself to Obama, because the Democrat will carry the state.

As long as McCain keeps the race close, he probably doesn’t do too much major damage to Republicans downballot, as party strategists have repeatedly asserted they got the best possible candidate in McCain and his maverick image. But if in the next month Obama is able to gain a sizable lead, then a pending landslide would have disastrous results for Republicans downballot.

3) How many Republican incumbents will be hung out to dry by the National Republican Congressional Committee?

The massive financial advantage that House Democrats enjoy over their GOP counterparts has been well-documented. But in the next few weeks the reality of that disparity is likely to come crashing home for some Republican Members.

Gone are the days when the NRCC could spend millions to help damaged or badly underperforming incumbents limp across the finish line. NRCC Chairman Tom Cole (Okla.) has repeatedly told Members that they can’t count on the committee to save them in the end.

Still, the NRCC’s core mission remains incumbent retention, and the majority of its limited resources will likely be spent on helping re-elect Republicans. But already there are signs of some incumbents reaching the point of being deemed unsalvageable. Polls have shown Reps. Don Young (R-Alaska) and Marilyn Musgrave (R-Colo.) trailing their opponents by wide margins, and it’s hard to see the NRCC spending money to help their campaigns if those numbers don’t change drastically.

There are likely to be more incumbents who face a similar fate before Election Day, and the NRCC may be better served to spend money to try to hold on to open seats than on some Members’ re-elections.

4) Will Senate Democrats get to 60 seats?

Once viewed as a long shot, there is increasing steam behind a scenario whereby Democrats reach the 60-seat threshold needed to end a filibuster.

Democrats currently have 51 seats in the chamber. According to Roll Call’s race ratings, Democrats stand poised to pick up three seats for sure, with open-seat races in Virginia and New Mexico appearing to be lost causes for the GOP and Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) trailing badly in polls as he endures a public corruption trial.

If the Democratic party wins those, it would need to net six more seats to hit 60, and Roll Call currently has six GOP-held Senate races rated as tossups. Democrats would need to run the board on those seats or win an additional race that is viewed as not as competitive — such as knocking off Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

Many observers believe the chase to 60 will hinge on the outcome of races in three states: Minnesota, North Carolina and Mississippi. Incredibly, only one Democrat, Sen. Mary Landrieu (La.), is vulnerable. Democrats didn’t lose a single Senate seat in 2006 and could pull off that trick again this time.

5) What will be the net gain of House seats for Democrats?

House Democrats picked up 30 seats on their way to winning the majority in 2006, and not a single Democratic incumbent lost. The prospect of no incumbent losing looks unlikely in 2008, but it’s still possible that Democrats could see a gain of 20 to 30 seats.

Massive back-to-back gains for one party would be unprecedented in the age of modern campaigning. Republicans saw big House gains in consecutive cycles in the early 1950s, but it was only after Democrats made a 75-seat gain in 1948.

Current projections put Democratic gains somewhere in the range of 15 to 25 seats. And over the next few weeks both parties will play the expectations game — with Democrats trying to lower net-gain predictions and Republicans seeking to increase them.

At this point, anything less than a 15-seat loss would have to be considered a pretty good outcome for Republicans. The size of Democratic gains is likely to hinge on just how many Republican incumbents they can pick off. The sizable money difference between the parties means that Republicans are hamstrung and will only be able to afford TV in the final two weeks of the campaign. That will be after Democrats have been on the air in most districts for weeks.

6) How badly will the country’s economic woes hurt Republicans?

This is the $64,000 question these days, and we could know the answer soon. With economic recovery legislation now passed, it will take a little time for polling to reflect voters’ attitudes on the measure and the overall state of economy. In recent weeks, several polls have shown Obama taking the lead in several key battleground states and surveys have also shown Republicans slipping at the Congressional level. Is this the turning point in the elections? Maybe. Did the October surprise already happen? We just don’t know yet.

7) Which state delegation will see the biggest wholesale change?

New Mexico is probably the winner in this category because all three of the state’s House Members will be new and one of two current Members will be the newest Senator. But with a large number of competitive races on tap, big changes may materialize in New York, Florida and Ohio as well.

8) Where will population and demographic shifts be felt most?

The big increase in Democratic registration and turnout was a major storyline during the presidential primaries earlier this year, but on Election Day we will see where those changes make the biggest difference. Three states worth watching are Nevada, North Carolina and Florida. In Nevada, Rep. Jon Porter’s (R) district has seen rapid population growth and the Republican-leaning seat is definitely trending Democratic. In North Carolina, Sen. Elizabeth Dole’s (R) re- election will likely be decided by the influx of new residents in the state. And in Florida, Rep. Ric Keller’s (R) Orlando-based district has experienced a large uptick in Democratic voter registration.

9) Will Rep. Christopher Shays (Conn.) survive as the only New England Republican in the House?

The ranks of moderate Northeastern Republicans were decimated in the 2006 elections and Shays was the last man standing at the beginning of the 110th Congress. Democrats are targeting Shays once again, this time with Greenwich Town Committeeman Jim Himes. They argue that Himes is able to run as more of an outsider than Westport Selectwoman Diane Farrell, their nominee against Shays in the previous two cycles.

The Congressman has proved to be a tough target and has carved out a niche on Capitol Hill as a moderate maverick, a profile similar to that of McCain. But the Arizona Senator will not carry Shays’ district and voters there are very accustomed to ticket-splitting. If Democrats can’t beat Shays this year they won’t be able to until his district is redrawn in the next round of redistricting.

10) Will House Republicans take a bath in Florida?

In 2006, New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio served as major battlegrounds in the Democrats’ march to win a majority of House seats, with each state playing host to four to six truly competitive races. While those states are again serving as top battlegrounds, Florida is a new addition to the list. House Democrats have tried unsuccessfully in recent cycles to make major inroads there but in 2008 they finally see their opening.

In the previous cycle, they picked up two Florida seats, finally knocking off Rep. Clay Shaw (R) and capitalizing on the woes of disgraced ex-Rep. Mark Foley (R) to win his seat when his name remained on the ballot even after he had resigned. This year the Sunshine State has five competitive races, and all but one of them involve a Republican incumbent. Keller and Rep. Tom Feeney are in the greatest peril, but the Diaz-Balart brothers, Lincoln and Mario, are also in the fights of their political lives. Freshman Rep. Tim Mahoney (D) is being targeted for defeat in Foley’s former district, and Democrats must hold that seat in order to maximize their gains in the state. Recent polling has shown Obama pulling ahead in Florida.

11) What will be the most expensive House and Senate races in the country?

None of the most populous (and expensive) states are hosting Senate races this cycle so it’s a little more difficult to come up with an obvious choice. New Hampshire and North Carolina are the two most expensive states that are hosting blockbuster Senate contests. Also in the running to be the most expensive are Minnesota, where Sen. Norm Coleman (R) is squaring off against comedian Al Franken (D), and Colorado, where outside groups have already poured somewhere near $15 million into the open-seat contest.

In the House, open-seat races in Ohio, Illinois and New Jersey are already proving to be among the most expensive. Rep. Mark Kirk (Ill.) has been the GOP’s fundraising star this cycle and the Chicago media market is costly, meaning his rematch with Democrat Dan Seals will likely be among the most expensive in the country. Shays is also in for another expensive fight.

Expect Democrats to spend whatever it takes to ensure they pick up Virginia’s 11th district, an expensive open seat in the Washington, D.C., media market. The contest between free-spending Sandy Treadwell (R) and Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), a fundraising powerhouse, could also be in the running for the most-expensive race title.

12) Will Democrats see continued success in the South?

After Democrats picked up two House seats in the Deep South in special elections this spring, GOP alarm bells were sounded.

Still, strategists chalked up the losses to a mix of poor candidates and low turnout, which is always smaller in special contests. Now, GOP insiders argue that presidential turnout in districts with similar demographics to Mississippi’s 1st and Louisiana’s 6th will keep Democrats from seeing similar success in November. But Democrats argue that they have recruited conservative candidates who fit the districts and states where they are running and therefore voters won’t mind splitting their tickets.

The answer to this question lies in open House seats in Alabama, Kentucky and Louisiana as well as Senate contests in North Carolina and Mississippi. House Democrats are already showing their commitment to playing in the region by lending significant resources to the races in Alabama and Kentucky. Likewise, Senate Democrats have been spending heavily in both North Carolina and Mississippi.

In the previous presidential election, the Senate battleground was heavily skewed toward open seats in the South. When all was said and done, a Republican won the White House and the GOP swept all of the races in the South. We’ll know on Election Day whether the Democrats’ strategy has paid off this time.

13) How many state delegations will see the balance of power shift after the elections?

Democrats hold a majority of House seats in 27 state delegations while two states are evenly split between the two parties. But with the party poised to make gains across the country, it also stands to increase the number of state delegations it controls.

For example, a pickup of three House seats in Ohio would give Democrats control of 10 of the state’s 18 seats. In North Carolina, a pickup of one seat would move the delegation from tied to the Democratic column. Likewise in Arizona, a pickup of one seat would put Democrats ahead, with five of eight seats.

In Michigan, if Democrats were to win the two competitive races — and the decision by McCain to pull out of the state increases their chances — it would give the party control of eight of the state’s 15 seats.

And in Louisiana, a net pickup of one seat would shift delegation control to Democrats.

Perhaps the biggest wholesale change could be realized in Florida, where Republicans have dominated the delegation for much of the past two decades. If Democrats were to win all four of the competitive GOP-held seats this cycle and Mahoney is re-elected, they would control 13 of the state’s 25 seats. The last time Democrats held a majority of the state’s House seats was in 1990, when they controlled 10 seats and Republicans held nine.

In New York, it isn’t a matter of which party will control the delegation after Election Day. The question is how many Republicans will be left? Republicans are all but certain to lose two open seats in the Empire State, where Democrats hold 23 of the state’s 29 seats, and two more GOP-held districts are competitive this fall. At the beginning of the decade, Republicans held 12 seats in the state.

14) Will an anti-incumbent mood damage Democrats, too?

Although the national political environment is viewed as poorer for Republicans across the board — largely due to fatigue from eight years of the Bush administration — the fact remains that voters are angry at Washington, and there are more Democrats on Capitol Hill than there are Republicans. Still, the House and Senate battleground is skewed against Republicans because Democrats recruited more (and better) candidates and because they have a sizable financial advantage.

At the beginning of the cycle, Republicans talked about targeting the 60 or so Democrats who represent districts that voted Republican in the 2000 and 2004 presidential races. But in the end, their target list doesn’t extend very far beyond the vulnerable freshmen — many of them in conservative-leaning seats — who were swept into office in the 2006 wave. As it stands now, Rep. Paul Kanjorski (Pa.) is the only veteran Democrat in real jeopardy of losing his seat. Rep. Nick Lampson (D-Texas) is also in danger. He was elected in 2006 but served in the House previously. Democratic Reps. Jim Marshall (Ga.), Baron Hill (Ind.) and Dennis Moore (Kan.) have served several terms and their re-elections aren’t a sure bet, but they currently seem to have the edge in their contests. Polls consistently show Congressional approval ratings at an all-time low. But it’s unlikely the party that controls Congress will suffer big losses because of that.

15) How many Republican Senators will win in states that Obama carries?

There are a handful of targeted Republican Senators who already know they will have to run well ahead of the GOP’s presidential ticket in order to keep their job. Among them, Smith in Oregon and Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) have the biggest hill to climb as Obama will carry their states easily. Smith is in much bigger jeopardy than Collins, as Democrats have been unsuccessful in denting her profile as a GOP moderate. Obama will likely also win Minnesota, where Sen. Norm Coleman (R) is up for re-election. And in New Hampshire, the presidential race is pretty much a tossup, which could be the saving grace for Sen. John Sununu (R), who until recently has trailed by wide margins in most polls.

16) Will ’08 be another year of the woman?

Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin’s addition to the Republican presidential ticket, on the heels of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s (D-N.Y.) primary campaign, further increased talk of the importance of female voters in 2008. There is little doubt that independent-leaning women will be a key voting bloc. But also noteworthy is the number of female candidates who have a good shot at winning Congressional races. Among them are Darcy Burner in Washington, Betsy Markey in Colorado, Suzanne Kosmas in Florida, Debbie Halvorson in Illinois and Mary Jo Kilroy in Ohio. Markey and Kilroy would replace women if they win. In the Senate, the ranks of women could grow by just one, if former New Hampshire Gov. Jeanne Shaheen (D) wins and Landrieu is re-elected. In North Carolina state Sen. Kay Hagan (D) faces Dole, but a win by Hagan wouldn’t produce a net gain.

17) How many second-chance candidates will win?

There are quite a few rematches on tap this November. Former GOP Reps. Melissa Hart (Pa.), Jeb Bradley (N.H.), Anne Northup (Ky.) and Mike Sodrel (Ind.) are all taking on the Democrats who ousted them from office in 2006. Of the group, Bradley probably has the best shot at regaining his old seat. This will be Sodrel’s fourth matchup against Rep. Baron Hill (Ind.) so voters in that district are very familiar with both men.

There are also several candidates who came close to winning in 2006 and are running again. Burner, taking on Rep. Dave Reichert (R-Wash.), Larry Kissell (D), taking on Rep. Robin Hayes (R-N.C.), and Dan Seals (D), taking on Kirk in Illinois, all stand a good shot at winning this cycle in their second try. Kissell and Seals got very minimal attention from national Democrats in 2006, and now party leaders are willing to spend liberally to help them. In Ohio, Kilroy is running for the second time, but she won’t face retiring Rep. Deborah Pryce (R). Also in the Buckeye State Rep. Jean Schmidt (R) faces a rematch with Democrat Victoria Wulsin, although the Republican is still favored to win.

18) Will an election-eve verdict in Stevens’ trial have a ripple effect?

Stevens is trying to get his public corruption trial over before he faces voters in November. Polls have shown he is in serious danger. If he is exonerated, that could change. But if he is found guilty before the election, Republicans elsewhere might feel the sting. In Florida, Feeney has already apologized to voters for his ties to convicted ex-lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Having the Senate’s senior Republican found guilty isn’t likely to help Feeney’s efforts to change the subject from corruption in Washington. A guilty verdict could hurt vulnerable Republicans elsewhere, too, as it would remind voters why they hate Congress.

19) Will any Democratic ethical troubles come back to bite the party?

The federal corruption trial of Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.) is set to begin in December. Ways and Means Chairman Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) asked the House ethics committee to investigate his financial disclosure missteps and living arrangements.

Yet in recent years ethics issues have stung Republicans much worse than they have Democrats (think Abramoff, Foley and Duke Cunningham). Republicans are working to link Democratic incumbents and candidates to Rangel’s woes, but at this point it’s hard to see their charges gaining much traction.

20) Who are the most vulnerable Senators up for re-election in 2010?

OK, so this question won’t really be answered when voters go to the polls in November, but this cycle’s results could have a big impact on the 2010 playing field. For instance, if Dole loses in North Carolina, does first-term Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) automatically look like a more inviting target for Democrats?

Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio) has always been a more beloved figure in the Buckeye State than former Sen. Mike DeWine (R), who was ousted in 2006. Still, the statewide Democratic wave there in 2006 has to have piqued Democrats’ interest in that Senate seat.

Voinovich could also choose to retire — in fact, any number of Republicans could if the Senate GOP falls too deep into the hole in the next Congress.

Observers expect a competitive race in Kentucky, regardless of whether Sen. Jim Bunning (R) runs for re-election. And in Pennsylvania, Sen. Arlen Specter (R), who will be 80 in 2010, has already said he will seek re-election despite his recent bouts with cancer. He could face a primary challenge from the right and possibly a challenge from “Hardball” host Chris Matthews, who would run as a Democrat.

And 2010 will be the first year Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) will face voters while serving as Majority Leader. Democrats are targeting Reid’s GOP counterpart, McConnell, this cycle in Kentucky. We expect Republicans will at least attempt to return the favor.

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