Waiting for Godot ... or Hagel, Warner, Cochran and Craig

by Stuart Rothenberg April 26, 2007 · 12:05 AM EDT

By Stuart Rothenberg

While the clock ticks on the 2008 election cycle, Republicans are holding their collective breath about the political futures of four veteran GOP Senators.

Nebraska’s Chuck Hagel, Virginia’s John Warner, Mississippi’s Thad Cochran and Idaho’s Larry Craig all have been coy — and that’s an understatement — about their re-election plans, and at least three of those seats could be at risk if the incumbents retire at the end of their current terms.

That’s right, four states that have each voted for a Democratic presidential nominee just once since the 1960 Richard Nixon-John F. Kennedy election — Idaho, Nebraska and Virginia in 1964, and Mississippi in 1976 — could see competitive Senate contests if things fall apart for the GOP and into place for Democrats.

The Democrats’ opportunities stem from the presence in at least three of the states of formidable potential Democratic candidates who already have proved their appeal and seem to have the ability to run credible campaigns.

No, we aren’t talking about fundamental partisan shifts (Virginia is the only one of the four where one could plausibly argue that partisan allegiances are shifting), but that would be of little comfort to the Republican National Committee, the National Republican Senatorial Committee or Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) if any of those Senate seats were to be won by Democrats.

Of the four states, the only one where Democrats lack a strong bench and a top-tier challenger-in-waiting is Idaho. If Craig, who has so far been tight-lipped about his political future, decides not to seek a fourth term, Democratic prospects would improve, but only slightly.

Only three Democrats have been victorious in the 36 gubernatorial and Senatorial elections held in Idaho since 1950. Frank Church was elected four times to the Senate (the last time in 1974), while Cecil Andrus won four gubernatorial contests and John Evans won two. The party did not even have a nominee against Sen. Mike Crapo (R) in the 2004 Senate race.

Former Rep. Larry LaRocco (D) has declared his candidacy for the Senate next year, and businessman Larry Grant (D), who drew 45 percent of the vote in a losing Congressional bid last year, is thought to have some statewide interest. But no Democrat in the state seems to have anything close to the advantages of five-term Rep. Mike Simpson, who represents half of the state and would be an obvious Republican replacement for Craig, were he to retire.

Of the three other states, Virginia appears to be the GOP’s worst nightmare. While the state still leans Republican, recent elections demonstrate increasing Democratic strength, particularly when Democrats nominate a moderate statewide candidate.

If John Warner retires, popular former Democratic Gov. Mark Warner would be a clear favorite to win the seat. Republicans certainly would have formidable candidates in an open-seat race, including Rep. Tom Davis and, possibly, former Gov. Jim Gilmore, who currently is running for president (of the United States of America, that is). But Mark Warner’s success as governor, fundraising ability and overall appeal would, at the very least, put Republican control of the seat at great risk.

Nebraska certainly has a reputation as a Republican state, but unlike Idaho it has a history of electing Democrats as governor or to the Senate. In fact, Democrats have won nine of the state’s past 11 Senate races and half of the state’s past 10 gubernatorial elections. Clearly, a strong Democrat in Nebraska can be formidable in any statewide election except president.

If Hagel doesn’t seek re-election, or if Republicans have a divisive primary, Democrats could well turn to Omaha Mayor Mike Fahey. Fahey, 63, is serving his second term as mayor of the state’s largest city. Before he entered government, Fahey was a small-business man, having founded and run a title insurance company. (Even former Democratic Sen. Bob Kerrey might choose to consider an open-seat bid.)

Finally, Mississippi could be at least a bit of a problem for the GOP if Cochran were to retire.

While the state GOP has a deep bench of potential Senate candidates that includes at least two Members of Congress, Reps. Chip Pickering and Roger Wicker, and a popular governor, Haley Barbour, Democrats might be able to recruit former state Attorney General Mike Moore for an open seat. Moore was the first attorney general to file a lawsuit against the tobacco companies, and he is often mentioned as a possible candidate for the Senate if and when a seat becomes open.

Moore would have a difficult time winning a federal race because of the state’s conservatism and strong Republican bent, but he would give Democrats a credible candidate whom Republicans would have to take very seriously.

The reason that these four races are of considerable concern for Republicans is that the party already is guaranteed to be on the defensive this cycle even without any further retirements. And GOP strategists certainly don’t need to be worrying about Senate seats that are locks if incumbents run for re-election, especially when they are in normally reliably Republican states.

Democrats are watching closely for opportunities to “expand the playing field” in next year’s elections. These four states with potential open Senate seats could be just what they are looking for.