Senate: Democrats Eye 60 Seats -- They're Close

Washington Matters

Senate: Democrats Eye 60 Seats -- They're Close

Democrats will gain at least a half dozen seats in the Senate, increasing their ranks well beyond the current 51 to 49. Republican senate campaign officials and a few GOP lawmakers are privately bracing for that. But could Democrats gain enough to reach 60, the magical number needed to really control the Senate floor agenda? We saw it as a possibility as early as last June...and since then, the propects have grown, though it's still a tough row for Democrats to hoe.

Democrats actually have 49 seats now, but two independents, Joe Lieberman, Conn., and Bernie Sanders, Vt., caucus with Democrats, giving the party the barest control of the chamber with 51 and allowing their leader, Harry Reid, Nev., to set the schedule.  

A few pickups are a given, and more are getting closer to that. Details are on our election forecast map

(1) Former Gov. Mark Warner, Va., will take the seat of retiring Sen. John Warner, R, (no relation). That's pretty much assured.


(2) Rep. Mark Udall, D, looks set to replace retiring Sen. Wayne Allard, R, in Colorado.

(3) Rep. Tom Udall, D, (cousin of Mark), is positioned well to replace retiring Sen. Pete Domenici, R, in New Mexico.

(4) Former Gov. Jeanne Shaheen, Vt., looks good to replace incumbent John Sununu, R. She's holding a solid lead.

(5) Sen. Ted Stevens, R, is on trial in charges related to a corruption sting and could lose to Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich, D. Even if Stevens is acquitted, he has been damaged. No question, there.


(6)  Sen. Elizabeth Dole, R. is clearly in trouble in North Carolina. She's never been an easy fit in the state, and challenger, state Sen. Kay Hagan, D, is leading, if slightly.

(7) Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., is in a very tight race now with challenger ex-State Rep. Jim Martin, D.

(8) Sen. Norm Coleman, R, has seen his earlier lead drop to challenger Al Franken, D. A big vote for Democratic presidential candidiate Barack Obama in Minnesota could lift Franken, who earlier had been considered a long shot.

(9) Sen. Mitch McConnell, R, the minority leader, is in a tighter race than he expected against businessman Bruce Lunsford, D.


(10) Sen. Gordon Smith, R, is running against a Democratric tide in Oregon. It's not clear if he will be able to turn back a challenge by state Rep. Jeff Merkley, D.

Elsewhere, we expect Sen. John Cornyn, R, to save his seat in Texas, as well as Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine. But neither has a large comfort margin.

Democrats have a chance of getting to 60. They'd need to have everything go their way, though. 

There's also a question about Sen. Lieberman, who calls himself an independent Democrat and who has fallen out of grace with the caucus for supporting John McCain for president and speaking at the GOP convention. His future in the caucus is uncertain at best.


Sixty is often called the magic number, because under Senate rules it is the minimum required votes to cut off debate and move to an up or down vote on the subject at hand.

Even if Democrats get 60, they would not be able to rule with abandon or disregard to minority view. There are several Democrats who may not vote with the group...strays, depending on the issue or the politics and pressures of the day or just because they may want attention. 

Former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-SD, who managed a nearly evenly divided Senate once described the effort of getting his entire caucus to vote en bloc. "It's herding cats times ten," he said of his colleagues.

Still, though, the prospect of 60 Democrats in the Senate next year is something both parties are considering more closely now, and less of a far outside chance. It's in the realm of possibility.