Looking at the 2008 Senate races

The Senate elections in 2008 look even more promising for Democrats – especially in Minnesota.

Jason Stahl

When you’re a political junkie, it’s never too early to begin speculating about the next election. Since I clearly fit this category, I’m going to start speculating about 2008 even though the Congress just elected has not taken office yet. However, since I already wrote about the 2008 presidential elections last month, I want to instead focus today on the U.S. Senate elections in 2008 – in particular the Senate election in Minnesota.

The Senate in 2008 will be much more promising for Democrats than it was in 2006. Despite winning the Senate three weeks ago, it is easy to forget that it was not an easy year for Democrats. Democrats were defending 18 seats while Republicans were defending 15. This meant that for Democrats to take control of the Senate in 2006, they would have to hold all of their seats while picking off Republicans in tough areas such as Virginia, Missouri and Montana. Democrats did both of these things, which is why they will now be in charge of the Senate.

The picture in 2008 looks much rosier for Democrats. Democrats will only be defending 12 seats while Republicans will be defending 21. Moreover, many of the seats Republicans are defending are those which have only been held by Republicans for one term – which means those legislators will not have the benefits of long-term incumbency to run on.

One such seat exists right here in Minnesota where first-term Republican incumbent Norman Coleman is looking to defend his Senate seat in an increasingly hostile environment. Given the shellacking Republican Mark Kennedy took in the 2006 Senate race, Coleman has a right to be worried about maintaining his seat. However, in addition to the recent election results, Coleman has other, more personal, reasons to worry about maintaining his seat. Of the 21 Republican Senate seats up for re-election in 2008, Coleman has the fifth-lowest approval rating. Moreover, in this same category, Coleman is one of only five Senators who has an approval rating below 50 percent.

There are multiple reasons why Minnesotans have not warmed up to Coleman during his nearly four years in office. However, I would submit that the primary explanation has to do with Coleman’s reputation as a political chameleon.

In college, Coleman was a liberal anti-war Democrat who helped organize protests against the Vietnam War at a time when the war was unpopular. In the 1990s, as mayor of St. Paul, Coleman switched from the DFL to the Republican Party when it became clear that he could not get elected in a statewide office as a DFLer. After entering the Senate in 2003, Coleman switched from the bipartisan platform that he ran on to a hard-line conservative position – voting with President George W. Bush 98 percent of the time his first year in office when Bush was at the height of his popularity. Now, with Bush’s approval rating at historic lows in the state and nationwide, Coleman is again touting bipartisanship arguing that he would be a possible vote with the Democrats if they needed to overcome a Republican filibuster in the Senate. All of this leads Minnesotans to constantly wonder: Who is the real Norman Coleman?

This, of course, does not mean that DFLers will have an easy time knocking off Coleman. He has the power of incumbency and a powerful media megaphone given that the Republican National Convention is being held in the Twin Cities in 2008. This means that DFLers will have to field a strong candidate against him. Given that no DFLers have declared their candidacy, it is a bit early to speculate on who the candidate will be, but anyone paying attention to Minnesota politics knows that comedian and radio personality Al Franken has shown interest in a possible candidacy. As a Democrat, I am far from making up my mind as to whom I will be supporting, but I must say that a Franken candidacy worries me. In the end, I just don’t think that the overall electorate will take him seriously. This factor will allow Coleman to get maximum advantage out of his limited incumbency. In the end, for all of Franken’s good intentions, I think Democrats will have to choose a stronger candidate to beat the chameleon Coleman. Who this candidate will be remains to be seen.

Jason Stahl welcomes comments at [email protected]