Yesterday, I revealed Part 1 of my look at the 2008 Senate races in the Tier III and non-race categories. Today, let's look at Tier II, the races that are itching to become Tier I races but aren't there quite yet for whatever reason, and a special category that I'll call Tier I-A.
Due to recent incumbent retirements, these two seats are just itching to jump to Tier I status, but have yet to have a named challenger, though in both cases many people are assuming certain powerhouse names will declare. But until they actually do, I can’t put them in the top tier just yet. And if they end up not declaring, these will drop to Tier II or even III. Counting down towards the top tier....
9. Nebraska: Chuck Hagel (R) has announced his retirement, and now all eyes turn to former Nebraska Governor and Senator Bob Kerrey (D) to see if he will challenge for this open seat. If he enters, this jumps up to become a top-tier race. Current Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns (R), who was also a former Governor of Nebraska, may enter this race too. If both do, then it will be an epic battle of two giants in Nebraska politics. Already, Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning (R) is in the race, originally planning to primary Hagel if need be. If Kerrey does not enter the race, then Omaha mayor Mike Fahey (D) is the next choice for the Democrats.
8. Virginia: Virginia icon John Warner (R) recently announced he would be retiring rather than seek another re-election. Just about everybody seems certain enough that former Governor Mark Warner (D) will jump into this race. If he does, this automatically becomes a top-tier race. Warner left the governorship with a whopping 80% approval rating. On the GOP side, Rep. Tom Davis and former Governor Jim Gilmore, who dropped out of the presidential race, seem to be likely entries to replace John Warner. This has the potential to turn into a very nasty primary, which would only serve to help Mark Warner even more. Gilmore was known as the governor who helped drive the state into near-bankruptcy with his car tax cut, and Warner as the one who fixed the problem when he took over for Gilmore. So if they were to face each other in the general, well, that would be quite interesting.
Update: And just on cue, Rasmussen Reports released a new poll showing Mark Warner would CRUSH Jim Gilmore by a 54%-34% margin, and Tom Davis by a 57%-30% margin.
Alaska: Ted Stevens (R) is always a candidate for retirement, being 84 years old right now, but says he will seek a sixth term. Stevens is also now under FBI investigation for his connection with Veco Corp., where several executives have already pled guilty to bribing his son Ben, who was the former state senate president. Democrats feel either former Governor Tony Knowles or Anchorage mayor Mark Begich would be their top contenders for this seat. I put this in Tier II because the seat may at least change hands, if not parties.
Kentucky: Even though Mitch McConnell (R) became the Senate Minority Leader, he is a top target of the Democrats. Right now, the focus in Kentucky is on the Governor’s race, where incumbent Ernie Fletcher (R) is in serious trouble of being voted out of office in a landslide to Steve Beshear (D). Should that happen, it will only encourage Kentucky Democrats even more to take on McConnell. McConnell has seen his disapproval rise over the past year, and now Kentucky Attorney General Greg Stumbo (D) has formed an exploratory committee to challenge him. The grassroots seem to prefer Lt. Col. Andrew Horne (D), a Marine who has served in both the Persian Gulf War and the Iraq War.
New Jersey: Frank Lautenberg (D) said he’s running again, but his age is always a concern, as he is already 83 years old right now. But no top-tier challenger has yet stepped up to challenge him.
North Carolina: Elizabeth Dole (R) dodged a bullet when Governor Mike Easley, who cannot run for re-election because of term limits, said he would not run for her Senate seat. Good news for her, as a January poll had showed him beating her. However, North Carolina’s Public Policy Polling showed Dole only beating state rep. Grier Martin (D) by a 43%-37% margin, and it’s looking more like Martin will jump in the race. Again, any incumbent not polling above 50% in a head-to-head matchup is in trouble. But until Martin formally declares, this stays in Tier II.
South Carolina: This race is in Tier II because Lindsey Graham (R) may actually be primaried out of his own party, for his support of Bush’s immigration plan. The natives are restless. A party switch is much less likely, but a different senator serving in this seat come 2009 is a distinct possibility.
Texas: John Cornyn (R) should be safe, but the recent defection of one of the most influential Hispanic Republicans in the country, Houston businessman Massey Villareal, to the Rick Noriega (D) camp, signals perhaps a change in the Latino community in Texas. They already kicked out the only Mexican-American Republican in Congress last December when Henry Bonilla (R) lost his re-election bid to Ciro Rodriguez (D). The analysis showed that Latinos that had reliably voted for Bonilla in the past abandoned him in mass droves. In Maverick County, Bonilla got 59% of the vote there in 2004, and lost that county by a whopping 86%-14% in 2006, mostly because of the immigration issue, and his support for building a fence along the border. The same may be happening now to Cornyn. Also in the race is wealthy trial attorney Mikal Watts (D). Party activists feel Noriega has a much better chance at knocking off Cornyn than Watts would. Noriega is a Lt. Col. in the Texas National Guard, and served in Afghanistan after 9/11.