A sign of a campaign in trouble is normally the plea to make sure the winner doesn’t win too big. In the Australian context, we’ve often had the “send a message” ploy from Oppositions in state elections – Premier X and Party Y is bound to win big, so vote your grumbles and make them more responsive. When the incumbent’s support is soft, it can win you the election – two examples that come to mind are Wayne Goss in Queensland in 1995 (though strictly speaking it took a contested election and a subsequent by-election, etc, etc) and Jeff Kennett in Victoria in 1999. There was a twist on this tactic last year from the Liberals federally – with the “Labor coast to coast” scare, though that was despair from the incumbent rather than an insurgent Opposition. In America, where the legislative and executive branches are elected separately, it’s easy to run this sort of thing – hence the ploy from the McCain/Palin campaign to start a furore over “leftest government ever” if Obama is added to big Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress.
Mind you, I can’t see personally how anyone would be scared of Harry Reid, or why he’s some ultra-liberal commie pinko. And Nancy Pelosi and “San Francisco values”? Well, look what happened in ’06. In the House, the Democrats are hunting deep in red state territory and in the Republican suburbs and exurbs, actively campaigning in over 60 GOP held districts, while the Republicans play defence. Gains of 20-30 seats are expected.
But there’s probably more interest in the Senate contest. The Senators up for election this time around were elected in 2002 – a good year for Republicans. There’s some hope that the Democrats will increase their current majority from 51, perhaps reaching 60 – a point at which the minority can no longer hold legislation hostage through filibuster threats. (Note, though, that party discipline is nowhere near as tight as it is in parliamentary systems, though it’s much tighter among the Republicans than it used to be since they became more ideologically unified.) The Dems now include among their wafer thin majority two independents – Socialist (more like European style social democrat) Bernie Sanders of Vermont and “Independent Democrat” Joe Lieberman of Connecticut. Lieberman may well lose his committee chair after the election, but in terms of his re-election prospects, he’s still got some incentive to caucus with the majority.
Nate Silver has all the good oil on which races to watch. Stirling Newberry also has a worthwhile analysis of the contests in the South – Virginia, where former Governor Mark Warner (D) (and former 08 presidential hopeful) should easily take Richard Lugar’s seat after retirement, Georgia, where Jim Martin (D) looks good against Saxy Chambliss (R) (and where there might be a runoff under state law if the Libertarian candidate can prevent either the Dem or Repub from getting 50%), and North Carolina where Elizabeth Dole (R) looks to be in trouble. Longer shots are one of the two races in Mississippi (to fill the unexpired part of Trent Lott’s term), and Kentucky where GOP Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is vulnerable. John Cormyn’s seat in Texas is a really long shot, but turnout – if it’s big and big for Obama – may well be a factor in making a lot of the races tighter than they appear to be.
In Alaska, Ted Stevens (R) (he who put the “tubes” in the intertubes) looks like he’s finished after his corruption conviction last week, but stranger things have happened. Comedian Al Franken (D) in Minnesota may pick up the seat, though there’s a wildcard with a strong independent, and Franken hasn’t been the strongest candidate. There’s been some talk that moderate Republican Susan Collins might be in trouble in Maine, but I’ll believe it when I see it.
But the two big unknown knowns are Obama’s coat-tails (and the turnout factor) and state by state idiosyncracies. 58 would seem to be a safe number for the Democrats to aspire to, but it may be higher, and there may be states that produce surprises.
Update: Nate Silver on the final Senate polls:
A clear favorite has been established in all but one of the 34 senate races on the ballot today. Although the Democrats remain in as strong a position in the aggregate as they have been all year, their odds of emerging with a 60-seat caucus now appear fairly long — no better than about 15 percent.
The race where there’s no favourite is Minnesota.