Election Night Prep: Senate Curtain Raiser

While the Minnesota Senate race has generated a fair amount of visibility, Senate races overall have been mostly ignored across the nation as the presidential contest has sucked up nearly all of the oxygen in the room.  That’s too bad, because there’s an interesting macro story there as well as a number of fascinating local races worth watching.  As you settle in for a long evening of election viewing next Tuesday, here’s a quick snapshot of what to look for in these races and an overall story that will unfold all across the nation and may make it worth waiting up to see what happens in far-flung Alaska.

The Big Picture: The Democrats currently have a 51-49 advantage in the Senate.  That majority is about as thin as possible because it is achieved through the support of Joe Lieberman, Independent (and McCain supporter) of Connecticut, and Bernie Sanders, Independent of Vermont.

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Wrong Race, But Right Race

One of the many interesting story lines of the 2008 Democratic Presidential Primary is whether race and gender are net positives or negatives, politically speaking.

A Kentucky survey of likely Democratic primary voters published over the weekend added some interesting fuel for this debate. The poll found that both race and gender are net negatives, but race looks to be the much more limiting political handicap.

Senator Clinton’s gender was a 3 point net political negative, with 14% saying her gender makes her less electable, and 11% saying it makes her more electable. That three point difference is within the survey’s 4.5% margin of error.

By contrast, Senator Obama’s race was found to be a 17 point net political negative, with a whopping 21% saying his race makes him less electable and just 4% saying it makes him more electable.

Caveats: If you use these data to think about the General Election, remember that this is Kentucky, not the whole country, and the survey sample doesn’t include Republicans or Independents.

Also, it may be that the strong Clinton corps in Kentucky — she’s leading by 27% — is echoing the contention that Clinton is the much more electable General Election candidate. Senator Clinton is publicly selling that argument, and some of her supporters may be parroting it here.

But if this finding is anywhere near correct, it’s remarkable that Senator Obama has made it this far. While the news media tend to imply that the “historic” parts of the Obama and Clinton candidacies give them wings that allow them to soar above the others, their race and gender may be more weights than wings. And Senator Obama’s leg irons appear to be much heavier than Senator Clinton’s.

In a typical presidential election year, the race handicap would probably be insurmountable. But because the fundamentals are so strong for Democrat presidential contenders in this unusual year, with a slumping economy, controversial war and unpopular incumbent President, Obama may have a shot.

The 2008 race may present a narrow window where an African American could actually win the presidency. But if Obama does win, it looks to be despite his skin color, not because of it.

- Loveland

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