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13 races that could lock up the US Senate for the left

Some analysts see Dems winning filibuster-proof majority of 60

How bad is it for GOP senators?

WASHINGTON β€” How hostile is the political environment for Senate Republicans this year?

In Oregon, embattled GOP incumbent Sen. Gordon Smith has aired commercials praising Barack Obama, John Kerry and Ted Kennedy β€” everybody, it seems, but Republican standard-bearer John McCain.

In Minnesota, endangered Republican Sen. Norm Coleman, who once described President Bush as the answer to his prayers, is now mimicking Obama instead with a "Hope Express" bus tour.

Even deep in the heart of Dixie, appointed Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker crows on his campaign home page about leading the opposition to Bush Medicare policies.

"I don't think that anybody realized it was going to be this tough of a cycle," said Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev. "We're dealing with an unpopular president. We have a financial crisis. Republicans get a lot more of the blame than Democrats do."

Ensign should know. He's the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the campaign arm of the Senate GOP.

Two years ago, when he inherited the job, Republicans held 49 of the 100 Senate spots and were thinking they needed to win just one Democratic seat β€” Louisiana, maybe β€” to regain control.

But now, pundits and political pros are instead talking of a Republican meltdown that, in one scenario, could give the Democrats a filibuster-proof majority of 60.

With a week to go before Election Day, the math looks good for the Democrats.

Here's a look, in alphabetical order, at the races that will decide how close Democrats get to 60:

Twelve voters in Washington, D.C., might well decide whether Republican Sen. Ted Stevens returns for a seventh term. That's the jury currently deliberating in the felony trial of the indicted 84-year-old senator. Despite the criminal case lodged against him, Stevens has been locked in a close race with Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich. A conviction ends Stevens' career.

Rep. Mark Udall has been clinging to a lead over Republican Bob Schaeffer. Schaeffer, a very conservative former congressman, has been running a solid campaign and has remained on the offensive on energy and taxes. Udall is more liberal than other Democrats elected to statewide office, but it's shaping up as a tough year to be a Republican running in Colorado. Just ask McCain.

Freshman Sen. Saxby Chambliss, a staunch conservative who won the seat amid controversial ads tying Democrat Max Cleland to Osama bin Laden, is in a surprisingly competitive race against a relatively unknown Democrat named Jim Martin. Jim Martin, who's he? Well, if there's a huge African-American turnout, he might just be a surprise senator.

Democrats seem to think that Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell is vulnerable every six years. And each time, McConnell manages to win. The Senate minority leader is facing a well-financed challenge from Democrat Bruce Lunsford, who remains within striking distance. But the odds remain in McConnell's favor. Obama is not doing well in the Bluegrass State.

The only Democrat even remotely at risk in 2008 seems to be Sen. Mary Landrieu. She's popular and has worked hard for her storm-ravaged state. But Republicans have two things going for them: The state is trending Republican at the top of the ballot, and tens of thousands of African-American voters have left Louisiana in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Still, Landrieu is favored over Republican John Kennedy.

Democrat Al Franken β€” yes, the former comedian and author of Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot β€” might get sworn in as a U.S. senator in January by lame-duck Vice President Dick Cheney. To get there, Franken has to close the deal with Minnesota voters. Most polls show him narrowly ahead of Republican Norm Coleman.

Democrats don't have much business winning a seat in the Deep South, but former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove is in a tight contest with Republican Sen. Roger Wicker. Wicker doesn't have much statewide name ID, since he is an appointed senator (to replace Trent Lott, who quit). A high African-American turnout for Obama could help Musgrove.

New Hampshire
The incumbent in most danger now is New Hampshire's John Sununu. He's in a rematch with former Gov. Jeanne Shaheen. It was close last time and looks close now. Shaheen appears to have the upper hand, but Republicans say Sununu is narrowing her lead.

New Mexico
There's a Democratic tide in the Land of Enchantment. Rep. Tom Udall is favored to seize retiring Republican Pete Domenici's seat. Republican nominee Steve Pearce, a hard-line conservative, has had trouble getting traction.

North Carolina
Democratic state Sen. Kay Hagan is giving freshman Republican Elizabeth Dole fits. Most recent polls have Hagan in the lead. It's a bad year for Republicans in North Carolina, and the Democrats have a ticket led by two women and an African-American. The Democratic base is sure to turn out.

State House Speaker Jeff Merkley is giving incumbent Republican Gordon Smith a run for his (substantial) money. Smith has some things going for him: money, moderation and popularity. But Bush is very unpopular here, and Smith, like all Republican senators, has voted with the president frequently.

Republicans say they aren't in the least worried that freshman John Cornyn could lose. For a long list of reasons, Cornyn should win: Texas remains a red state, he has a big money advantage and he's ahead in every poll. Still, some Democrats argue that Houston state Rep. Rick Noriega is within striking distance.

Democrat Mark Warner, a moderate former governor, is running more than 20 points ahead of his predecessor as governor, Jim Gilmore. With Democrats on the march in the Old Dominion, Warner should win in a walk.

13 races that could lock up the U.S. Senate for the left | Politics | Chron.com - Houston Chronicle
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