Top 5 Vulnerable Senate Seats

It's a bit early to be predicting winners and losers for the 2010 elections — remember how right on we were in casting Hillary Clinton as the Democratic "frontrunner" well in advance? But with lots of polls already out and fundraising figures being monitored daily, we thought it would be a good time to post our inaugural list of the top five Senate seats that are most vulnerable to switching parties in 2010.

And they are, in order:

1. Arlen Specter (R-PA)
I just don't think Specter is going to survive his May GOP contest against ex-Rep. Pat Toomey, who came within two percentage points of beating him in the 2004 primary. And back then, Specter had advantages he doesn't have now. Both President Bush and Sen. Rick Santorum campaigned hard on his behalf, back when both were more popular than they are now. He doesn't have them now. Plus, many moderate Republicans left the party during the 2008 election and became Democrats. They can't cross over and vote for Specter in the Republican primary. Arlen's best hope: somehow convincing them to return to the GOP fold. Arlen's second best hope: multiple challengers in the primary from the right enable him to sneak by. Already, Peg Luksik, an anti-abortion activist who twice ran for governor, is also running Arlen's third best hope: becoming an independent and eschewing the GOP primary altogether. (One thing he can't do is "pull a Lieberman" — lose the primary and then run in November as an independent.) I think there's a bit of hyperbole in reports of Democrats simply adoring Specter, but there is no question he is clearly a much stronger candidate with the entire electorate than with solely Republicans. In the end, I think Toomey is going to be the Republican nominee and I don't see how he wins statewide. He is too conservative and Pennsylvania is turning more and more blue. Should Specter's vulnerability become more apparent, look for the Democratic field to get crowded.

2. Jim Bunning (R-KY)
Unlike Specter, Bunning's problems are less ideological and more personal. A major-league baseball Hall of Famer who served in the House and earlier ran for governor, the conservative Bunning barely won re-election in 2004 and has had serious trouble raising money for this go-around. He is feuding with Kentucky's senior senator, GOP Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, and has lashed out at Texas Sen. John Cornyn, who chairs the National Republican Senatorial Committee, accusing him of plotting against him behind his back. Bunning is a cantankerous, prickly type who says what he thinks. Sometimes his comments are perfectly in sync with his state's conservative electorate. Sometimes they elicit the rolling of the eyes, or worse, like the time when he pronounced Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had nine months to live. There are hints, as well as out-loud suggestions, that some Republicans would like him to bow out (McConnell is thought to be among them). Possible replacements (or primary challengers) include David Williams, the president of the state Senate, who is close with McConnell but who has his own problems with conservatives on issues such as taxes, or Secretary of State Trey Grayson, who says he would run only if Bunning did not. Democrats include Lt. Gov. Dan Mongiardo, who narrowly lost to Bunning in 2004, and state Attorney General Jack Conway, who may be the party's best bet.

3. Open Missouri seat, where Kit Bond (R) is retiring
Democrats have their dream candidate here: Robin Carnahan, the secretary of state, who is the daughter of the late Gov. Mel Carnahan and Jean Carnahan, who was appointed to the Senate seat her husband had won posthumously in 2000. Fundraising numbers out this week show Carnahan having raised more than $1 million in the first quarter of 2009, nearly doubling the total brought in by her likely Republican opponent, Rep. Roy Blunt, the former House GOP whip. Blunt raised just $550,000 during the quarter, though he can transfer several hundred thousand more from his congressional account. Watching all this is Sarah Steelman, the former state treasurer, who was narrowly defeated in the the GOP gubernatorial primary last year. Still, either Blunt or Steelman would go into the race as the underdog to Carnahan.

4. Open New Hampshire seat, where Judd Gregg (R) is retiring — Democrats are hoping to continue the winning streak they began in the 2006 and 2008 election cycles, and taking Gregg's seat next year would be the icing on the cake: they haven't held both Senate seats in more than three decades. Immediately out of the box after Gregg's announcement was Rep. Paul Hodes (D), who first won his House seat in 2006, defeating GOP incumbent Charlie Bass — after losing to him by 20 points two years earlier. The two Republicans who are at the top of the party's wish list are coming off defeats: John Sununu, who lost his Senate seat last year, or Bass. There are some Republicans, by the way, who are not totally convinced that Gregg can't be talked out of retirement. His aborted move to the Obama Cabinet has resulted in a feistier, more visible Gregg, and should he change his mind the entire calculation would change. But the odds are against it.

5. Chris Dodd (D-CT)
The inclusion of Dodd on this list is an interesting one. Since his initial election to the Senate in 1980, Dodd has won re-election with percentages of 65, 59, 65 and 66. But Dodd has gotten some unfavorable reviews lately, first off reports that he received a sweetheart deal from Countrywide Mortgage, and then over the news of the role he played in the $165 million in bonuses given to executives of the American International Group (AIG) — the insurance giant that was bailed out by the federal government. A Quinnipiac University poll earlier this month had the likely Republican candidate, former Rep. Rob Simmons, leading Dodd 50-34 percent. There is no doubt the anger directed at Dodd is real. Even the announcement this week that he has raised $1.05 million in the first quarter was tempered by the fact that the total included contributions from just five Connecticut residents — giving $4,250 in all. The rest were from contributions out of state or political action committees. Dodd will outraise and outspend whomever the GOP puts up, be it Simmons or state Sen. Sam Caligiuri or anyone else. But if the anger can be sustained through next year, Dodd could find himself out of a job following the 2010 election — exactly 40 years after the last Democratic senator from Connecticut was defeated. And that was his father, Thomas Dodd.

Other seats to watch:

Illinois: Let's face it, there's no way that Sen. Roland Burris (D) will be his party's nominee next year. I'm not convinced he runs, and he certainly won't win the primary. But that still doesn't eliminate the Republicans, who could employ an anti-corruption/good government theme and win with Rep. Mark Kirk, a moderate, should he run. But Democrats will be far better off without Burris as their nominee.

Ohio: This is for the seat being vacated by George Voinovich. Republicans have not had a good couple of years in Ohio, but former Rep. (and ex-Trade Representative) Rob Portman will be a strong candidate. Democrats are likely to put up either Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher or Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner.

Delaware: It's still unclear how voters perceive the neat arrangement by which Ted Kaufman (D) was appointed to fill the next two years of the seat vacated by now-Vice President Joe Biden. It was, of course, designed to keep the seat warm for state Attorney General Beau Biden, Joe's son, who is currently in Iraq with the Delaware National Guard and will return later this year. Republicans' only hope is for Mike Castle, the popular congressman and former governor, to run. Still, there's no guarantee that Castle will take the plunge. Either way, he's going to have a fight on his hands. This week, former Lt. Gov. Jack Carney — who dearly wanted the Senate appointment himself — announced he will challenge Castle for his House seat next year.

Nevada: There are clear signs that the popularity of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has slipped back home. It's early, but the GOP bench seems thin in Nevada. One thing that's certain: fellow Sen. John Ensign, who lost to Reid by just 428 votes back in 1998, will work hard on behalf of the Republican nominee.

Florida: If Gov. Charlie Crist (R) decides to forego another term and run instead for the Senate seat being vacated by fellow Republican Mel Martinez, he would be favored to hold the seat. If he doesn't run, it will be a free-for-all.



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.