The United States has for some time been undergoing a process known in political science circles as "realignment." At first, the referred mostly to Republicans replacing conservative Democrats in the South in federal races. But, the flip side of the process involved Democrats replacing moderate Republicans in the North.
Democrats have a good shot at winning three of the four Senate seats in the Northeast which were won by Republicans in 2000. There is also a good chance that Joe Lieberman, who won election as a moderate Democrat in 2000, will be replaced by a more liberal Democrat is 2006. These states, together with neighboring Midwestern Ohio, which also has a Democratic party leaning U.S. Senate race, will bring Democrats half way towards securing Democratic party control of the U.S. Senate. Thus, while it is not the only story in this year's election, realignment in the Northeast is likely to be one of the most important ones.
Realignment is catching up to the state of Rhode Island this year in its U.S. Senate race. Moderate Republican incumbent Lincoln Chafee faces much more conservative Republican Cranston Mayor Stephen Laffey in the U.S. Senate race primary to be held a week from Tuesday, on September 12, 2006.
Lincoln Chafee is rated by the American Conservative Union as the most liberal Republican in the Senate.
Sheldon Whitehouse, a former Rhode Island Attorney General, is almost certain to win the Democratic party primary in the race.
In April of this year, Chafee was leading in the primary by a 56-28 margin. The most recent poll, conducted August 28-30 showed Laffey with a 51-34 lead over Chafee. This is consistent with a trend that saw Chafee's lead slip in May, and drop to a single point in two different polls in June.
If Laffey wins, Sheldon Whitehouse has a cakewalk. The most recent general election poll, taken August 24, had Whitehouse leading Laffey by a 58-26 margin. Whitehouse has led every poll placing him head to head against Laffey since the race began by a safe margin, as would be expected in a strongly liberal leaning state which has held onto Chafee only because of his incumbency and moderation.
Even if Chafee wins, he has a tough fight. None of the seven Whitehouse-Chafee matchup polls taken in the period from May to the present, have given Chafee a lead of more than three percentage points, well within the margin of error. Those most recent Whitehouse-Chafee poll shows Chafee with a one percentage point lead in a 43-42 race. This is horrible for an incumbent, because few people are undecided about a long term incumbent, while many no opinion votes end up favoring a challenger once people get to know him. The rule of thumb is that an incumbent with under 50% support in a poll is in serious trouble.
As of June 30, Whitehouse had more cash on hand for the race, at $1.8 million, than either Chafee with $1.3 million, or Laffey, with $0.9 million. Of course, since Chafee has a much tougher primary than Whitehouse, whose opponent has Carl Sheeler had about a quarter of a million dollars on hand on June 30 (the most recent poll of that race, in June, showed Whitehouse leading 60-8), Chafee and Laffey have both likely been burning through their campaign funds much more quickly than Whitehouse. When the dust settles on September 13, 2006, Whitehouse will have a comfortable financial edge over whomever prevails.
Chafee isn't the only endangered moderate Republican in the U.S. Senate, and there aren't many of them to start with.
Jim Jeffords, of liberal Vermont, kept his seat, but bolted from the Republican party where he had been viewed as a moderate, to become an independent in 2001. He is not running again. Bernie Sanders, a Democratic socialist leaning independent who currently represents Vermont is the House, is the runaway favorite in every poll matching him against possible general election opponents. None of the eleven polls in that race has shown him with less than a twenty percentage point lead against any opponent. In an August poll, he led the Republican front runner by 28 percentage points, almost a two to one margin.
Another incumbent in trouble in the Northeast in trouble is conservative Republican Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania. He faces moderate Democrat Bob Casey, Jr., the incubent state treasurer in Pennsylvania.
Casey has led all fifty-four polls matching him against Santorum since February of 2005. The most recent, on August 24, gave him a 44-39 lead. This indicates that the race is considerably tighter than earlier polling had indicated, and also shows the impact of a Green party run by rail industry consultant Carl Romanelli, who was placed in the ballot on August 1st, which is attracting 3-5% of voters who would otherwise probably have supported Casey. Santorum, with only 39% support as an incumbent Senator is certainly in trouble, but Pennsylvania's moderate trend in recent years to the point that it has become a Presidential election swing state, make it too early to call this race.
Casey needs the benefit of the general anti-Republican sentiment which is sweeping the nation this year in the wake of growing public dissatisfaction with the Bush Administration's handling of the Iraq War.
UPDATE: A USA Today poll released on September 1 has Casey leading Santorum by 18 percentage points among likely voters. This is a huge change from previous poll last week (by another firm). Now, fifty-five straight polls from about half a dozen polling firms have shown Casey in the lead in this race.
The only Northeastern Republican who is not seriously threatened in the 2006 election is two and a half decade incumbent moderate Republican Olympia Snowe of Maine who faces Democrat Jean Hay Bright, a progressive leaning reporter, in the general election. The most recent poll in the race, from August, shows Snowe with a 68-20 lead in the race.
Olympia Snowe is rated as the third most liberal Republican in the U.S. Senate by the American Conservative Union.
Other Northeastern Republicans and Republican moderates
The remaining Northeastern Republicans in the Senate, moderate Republican Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the moderate Republican Susan Collins of Maine, and the Republican incumbents from New Hampshire, Judd Gregg and John Sununu, do not face re-election this year.
Specter is rated by the American Conservative Union as the second most liberal Republican in the U.S. Senate, after Lincoln Chafee. They rate Susan Collins is the fourth more liberal Republican, coming right after third most liberal Olympia Snowe, also from Maine. Neither of New Hampshire's Republicans are particularly conservative, although Gregg is less prone to voting the party line than Sununu.
Maine, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Vermont and Rhode Island all favored Gore and Kerry respectively, over President Bush, in the 2000 and 2004 elections. New Hampshire favored Kerry in 2004, and favored Bush over Gore in 2000. In both of these races for New Hampshire's electoral votes, the margin of victory was less than two percentage points.
Ted Stevens of Alaska, the fifth most liberal Republican in the U.S. Senate according to the ACU, faces the voters next in 2008. Given the fact that he will be a couple of weeks shy of his 85th birthday then (and 91 years old at the end of that term), and that he is already the longest serving Republican in the Senate, he is unlikely to run again. Alaska was a safe state for Bush in both the 2000 and 2004 Presidential elections.
All currently sitting Republicans according this and most other organizations that rate Senators from liberal to conservative are more conservative than all sitting Democrats on a lifetime voting record basis. But, Chafee, Snowe and Collins were all rated as more liberal than some Democrats by the ACU in 2005.
No Republicans are expected to pick up Senate seats in the Northeast this year.
Democrat Ned Lamont has roughly even odds to replace Joe Lieberman (a Democratic party incumbent who lost the Democratic party primary and is now running on the Astroturf Connecticut for Lieberman party) in Connecticut. The Republican party there has largely abandoned its own candidate in the race in favor of Lieberman, who while he was viewed as a moderate to conservative Democrat before the Democratic primary election this year, is far to the left of any Republican in the Senate and would vote for a Democratic leadership ticket if re-elected.
NOTE: All ACU ratings cited above refer to a lifetime ranking.