Democrats need six seats in order to hold a majority of the U.S. Senate next year. As I explained recently on Maryland Politics Watch, it's tough but possible.
Critical to any chance for Democratic success is not losing any Democratic seats. The most endangered Democratic incumbent is New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez, who was appointed to fill the vacancy when Sen. Jon Corzine became Gov. Jon Corzine. This race remains extremely tight though the last five polls now give Sen. Menendez a slight edge of 45-41 over his GOP opponent, Tom Kean. Jr.
At one point, Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell was also considered highly vulnerable but she appears to have a firm lead--an average of 9 points according to the last five polls. Democrats also hold solid leads in two open seats currently held by Democrats in Maryland and Minnesota. Ben Cardin leads Michael Steele by an average of 7 points in the last five polls in Maryland. Minnesota has been trending Republican in recent presidential elections, Democrat Amy Klobucher leads Republican Mark Kennedy by an average of 11 points in the last five polls in Minnesota.
Democrats appear likely to defeat several incumbent Republicans. Extremely conservative Sen. Rick Santorum is headed for defeat in Pennsylvania. The last five polls have Santorum losing to Democrat Bob Casey by an average of 9 points--disastrous for an incumbent. Sen. Conrad Burns is in deep trouble in Montana. Gaffe-prone Sen. Burns trails Democrats Jon Tester by an average of 7 points in the last five polls.
Though the national Republican Party was able to save Sen. Lincoln Chafee from defeat in the Republican primary, they appear unlikely to repeat the feat in the general election. Sen. Chafee trails Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse by an average of 6 points in the last five polls. Sen. Mike DeWine trails his Democratic opponent, Rep. Sherrod Brown, by an average of 6 points in the last five polls.
While it is not so hard to envision Democrats picking up four seats, the last two seats needed for Democratic control will not be as easy to win. Missouri is a crucial state that has repeatedly proven a heartbreaker in gubernatorial and senatorial contests in recent years. Once again, the polls show an extremely tight contest. Democrat Claire McCaskill leads incumbent Sen. James Talent by an average of just two points in the last five (and ten) polls.
Normally, incumbents who trail their challengers at all are in deep trouble. Republicans, however, have shown a stronger ability to turn out their voters in recent elections that should prevent Democrats from taking anything for granted. A strong ground game will be critical to McCaskill's efforts. Will George Bush's approval ratings have plummeted sufficiently and will Democrats have improved their GOTV machine enough to finally win one in Missouri?
Tennessee and Virginia are even tougher nuts to crack. This assessment would not surprise Tom Schaller; his new book Whistling Past Dixie rightly argues that the South is not the most likely place for Democratic gains these days. However, Rep. Harold Ford, Jr. leads Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker by an average of 3 points according the last five polls. Ford has been careful to run as a moderate in a state that has trended heavily Republican since it went for the Clinton-Gore ticket in 1996. If elected, Ford would be the first Democrat elected to the Senate from Tennessee since Al Gore won reelection in 1990.
Bush carried Tennessee with 57 percent of the vote in 2004 so Democrats cannot expect an easy Ford victory despite his current lead in the polls. Moreover, some scholars think that polls tend to overestimate the support for black candidates because some whites lie and say they are undecided or voting Democratic as they don't want to appear racist even though they intend to vote Republican. Still, Harold Ford is extremely talented and pulling out all the stops in his effort to leap from the House to the Senate.
Despite Sen. George "Macaca" Allen's best efforts to lose what should be a safe Senate seat, he still leads Democrat James Webb by an average of six points in Virginia according to the last five polls, though a new poll from the Washington Post gives Allen a lead of only two points. Unlike Tennessee, Virginia has been trending Democratic though it is still tough for Democrats to get above 50 percent in statewide contests, especially federal ones. Webb needs a serious cash infusion if he is to close the gap. It also wouldn't hurt if popular ex-Gov. Mark Warner campaigned hard for Webb.
Democrats had hopes of defeating Arizona Sen. John Kyl. However, Sen. Kyl leads Democratic Party Chair Jim Pedersen by an average of 9 points. Still, Kyl remains below 50 percent in the polls so one should not give up on Pedersen just yet, especially if the anti-Bush tide runs as strong as Democrats hope this year.
Democrats will conservatively gain three seats this year and I'd be surprised if they managed less than four. Winning the six needed to take control of the Senate still appears a bit of stretch and will require Democrats to run the table of tight races. Nevertheless, Senate races often appear to fall in bunches and Democratic control is now a real possibility.
Note: The polling data to which I've linked in this post is constantly updated so the numbers can change from the current information I've reported here.