Five polls in three states that were considered second or third-tier pick-up opportunities for Democrats suggest that the bottom may be falling out from under us. In North Carolina, Rasmussen Reports shows state Sen. Kay Hagan with a statistically insignificant lead over incumbent Sen. Elizabeth Dole. At first, I had hoped that this would be an outlier. Unfortunately, Public Policy Polling released another poll confirming that Hagan had in fact closed the huge gap with Sen. Dole. The good news is that both polls show Dole with big leads among independents, and that Democrats were likely oversampled. The bad news is that the new polls show that Hagan, while probably still behind, is within striking distance of the incumbent with nearly six months to go. This is one seat in which the DSCC can exploit its cash on hand advantage to go on the attack while the NRSC will be unable to respond, leaving Dole to fend for herself. Fortunately, Dole enjoys a 10:1 cash on hand advantage. Unfortunately, these new poll numbers are likely to help Hagan to raise far more than she could have hoped before they were released. If Dole is to fully exploit her cash on hand advantage, she needs to go on the air now to define the still largely unknown Hagan to voters before Hagan has the opportunity to do it herself. If this race is won in June, Dole holds on. If, however, she allows Hagan to introduce herself to the state, all bets are off.
In Texas, two new polls show challenger state Rep. Rick Noriega within the margin of error with Sen. John Cornyn. While those numbers are certainly troubling, Texas is an extremely expensive state, meaning that national Democrats would have to make a much more significant commitment to help make Noriega competitive. What’s more, Cornyn’s fundraising advantage makes the money race in North Carolina look competitive. Cornyn enjoys more than a 26:1 advantage, dominating Noriega, who had less than $330,000 on hand at the end of March. The question thus becomes, “Are Democrats willing to make a play for a tremendously symbolic seat in Texas, which would illustrate a national repudiation of the Bush Administration, rather than spend their resources in cheaper states in hopes of driving up their numbers in less costly states. The other problem here is that this will inhibit Cornyn’s ability to campaign with other Republicans in their respective states.
Finally in Oregon, Rasmussen shows Sen. Gordon Smith with a statistically insignificant lead over Jeff Merkley. Since the last poll, which was taken in July, Smith lost two points, falling to 45%, while Merkley gained 8 points, jumping up to 42%. Democrats had suffered major recruiting failures here and would likely be leading now had any of their top targets decided to make the bid. Even so, Merkley, a B-lister at best, has managed to narrow the gap, mainly on the weakness in the President’s popularity. The Democrats will continue to try to tie Smith to the President in spite of his independent voting record. Smith, for his part, is trying to choose his opponent at this point. Again, the incumbent has a huge cash on hand advantage, but this is one seat for which national Democrats will definitely make a play.
Although each of these polls is worrying in its own right, that is only half the story. If two of our safe and one of our semi-safe incumbents are all facing the prospect that they could actually lose in November, what does that say about other races? It is extremely worrying to consider what other polls might come out in the next week or two. If North Carolina and Texas are competitive, what of Alaska, Kansas, Kentucky, Nebraska and, with the special election today being so competitive, Mississippi? Unless Republicans move quickly to rectify this situation, our worst fears may come to pass in November, with Democrats now facing the realistic possibility that they could actually find the 60 votes they need to stop a filibuster. At this point, we can take almost nothing for granted (the two Senators from Wyoming are both going to win), and we must accept that we are going to lose - badly - in November and allocate resources accordingly to avert the potential disaster of a return to permanent minority status.