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A look at the Senate's '08 election scorecard

September 13, 2007 |  3:52 pm

Warner_2 With Democrat Mark Warner announcing today --- via e-mail and a YouTube video --- that he will seek the Virginia Senate seat Republican John Warner (no relation) is giving up in next year's election, there's little question where one of the happiest places in Washington is located these days.

That would be the headquarters of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, where Mark Warner's decision is being toasted as the latest bit of glad tidings to come its way.

As the former --- and very popular --- governor of Virginia, Warner provides Democrats a strong shot at gaining a Senate seat in a state where they've been on the rebound anyway. More broadly, his candidacy now puts as many as seven GOP-held seats clearly at risk. Depending on the course of a couple of controversies, two more could be in play.

Among Democratic-held seats, meanwhile, one, maybe two, appear in jeopardy.

Bottom-line: barring a major reversal of political trends, Democrats not only are poised to build on the narrow Senate majority they surprisingly captured in the 2006 election, they could substantially expand it.

As this year's debates on the war in Iraq have vividly demonstrated, it's one thing to be in control of the Senate but it's quite another ...

to have a working majority. And that's what could be within the grasp of the Democrats.

Unlike the House, where a simple majority dominates, 60 votes are often needed in the 100-member Senate to keep legislation from being talked to death. Currently, the Democratic caucus numbers 51 (comprising 49 members of the party and two independents who meet with them).

Some Democratic initiatives attract support from the handful of moderate Republicans who remain in the Senate. But time after time this year, an inability to hit the 60-vote mark has thwarted Democratic leaders from pushing their agenda.

It's the prospect of getting much closer to those 60 votes that has Democratic political operatives excited as they eye the next election. And they'll be almost giddy if, on the heels of Warner's announcement, the dream candidate they have in mind for Nebraska decides to take the plunge.

That would be Bob Kerrey, a Democrat who won the governorship and a Senate seat in the traditionally GOP state before retiring from politics a few years back. With Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel telling Nebraskans earlier this week that he would not be seeking reelection, Kerrey is mulling a run to replace him.

Along with Virginia (for sure) and Nebraska (maybe), here are the other at-risk Republican Senate seats in the '08 vote:

* Colorado, where incumbent Wayne Allard is bowing out. Democratic Rep. Mark Udall (son of one-time Democratic presidential contender Mo Udall) is the early favorite to claim the seat.

* Maine, where strong opposition to the Iraq war endangers incumbent Susan Collins.

* New Hampshire, where incumbent John Sununu also must buck an intense antiwar tide. He'll really be under the gun if Democrat Jeanne Shaheen, a former governor, decides to oppose him.

Franken_2 * Minnesota, where the Democratic challenger to incumbent Norm Coleman may be Al Franken, best known nationally for his lengthy stint on Saturday Night Live, as well as for his bestseller, "Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot." (Some Democrats worry that Franken might be a bit too edgy for many voters; most bloggers wistfully contemplate his potential for livening up Senate debate).

* Oregon, where incumbent Gordon Smith must struggle to survive his state's Democratic-tilt but could benefit from the lack of a heavy-hitter foe.

In the best-case scenario for Democrats, New Mexico and Alaska could feature competitive contests.

In New Mexico, Republican Pete Domenici has been tarnished by his role in the firing of the U.S. attorney who was based in his state (part of the larger flap that did in Atty. Gen. Alberto Gonzales). Still, he's about as entrenched as a politician can be (he first won his seat in 1972), and has a vast well of support to draw upon.

In Alaska, Republican Ted Stevens will be vulnerable if he becomes further entangled in a corruption probe(he's already endured an FBI search of his home). Still, his time in the Senate exceeds even Domenici's (Stevens won an appointment to his seat in late 1968) and his current problems probably would have to blossom into a full-blown scandal to threaten his reelection chances.

The sole obviously vulnerable Senate Democrat comes from the region where the party is weakest --- the South --- and from the state where poor government response to Hurricane Katrina tainted all politicians --- Louisiana. Incumbent Mary Landrieu will have to overcome both of these factors, but she's shown keen political skills in the past.

Both parties will be closely watching South Dakota, where Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson only recently returned to any semblance of work after suffering a brain hemorrhage in December. Johnson insists he'll run for reelection, but some doubt it. The GOP will make a major push for the seat if he doesn't (and might even if he does, given the questions about his health that almost assuredly will persist).

Perhaps this rosy national picture for Democrats helped nudge Warner back into politics. After all, it was only 11 months ago (almost to the day) that he declared he would not be launching a presidential campaign for which he had been laying the groundwork.

Personal considerations were the main reasons he cited for his decision, saying he wanted to spend more time with his three teenage daughters.

"While politically this appears to be the right time for me to take the plunge, at this point I want to have a real life," Warner said. "And while the chance may never come again, I shouldn't move forward unless I'm willing to put everything else in my life on the back burner."

Like many parents, Warner may have discovered that his teens didn't really want him around the house that much.

-- Don Frederick

Photo: Mark Warner; Credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Photo: Al Franken; Credit: AP

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