Friday, August 29, 2014

So How Are The Senate Races Stacking Up?

It's been easy to avoid doing regular updates on the state of the Senate races in this year's midterms.  Very little has changed since my last update on the state of these races.  In none of them has one candidate pulled away as all the races that were expected to be close six months ago or a year ago are still close.  But I think that will change after Labor Day when voters get more engaged and the undecideds start breaking one way or another.  That's why I'm getting ahead of that Labor Day threshold and posting my thoughts on where I think the races will go now in late August.  Obviously there's a decent risk my predictions will be wrong, but this is a perfect opportunity to see how my predictive skills are after two decades of analyzing these things.

Alabama--Three-term Republican incumbent Jeff Sessions is running opposed.  Alabama is now near or at the top of the list in terms of states where anybody with a (D) next to their name has no credible  path to victory, which is why nobody is even bothering to challenge Sessions this time.

Alaska--Out of the seven of the red states that Democrats are defending seats in this fall, freshman Democrat Mark Begich is best-positioned to win this fall, and the extent to which his campaign has enhanced his advantage in advance of the heavily contested Republican primary has led a lot of analysts to take this race out of the top tier of GOP targets.  I think they're giving Begich a little too much credit.  Polling is notoriously unreliable in Alaska and always seems to overstate the advantage of Democrats, and the Republican nominee--Dan Sullivan--has finally been settled upon and has the profile of somebody well-positioned to win.  I'm leaning very narrowly towards Begich holding this seat as of this writing, but if a GOP wave of any significance begins developing nationally, Sullivan will be able to ride it to victory.  This is one of only two races I think are genuine tossups where I don't have a strong suspicion I know who wins, but the existing body of evidence points in the direction of a narrow Begich win.  We shall see if I'm right on that, but I can say with absolute certitude that any election night in which Mark Begich does not win assures that the Republicans have taken over the Senate.

Arkansas--Here's another red-state tossup that's an easier call for me.  The polls are erratic but the general consensus is that Republican challenger Tom Cotton has a small lead within the margin of error over two-term Democratic incumbent Mark Pryor.  But the profiles of the undecided voters in the polls look a lot like Republican-friendly voters.  Obama hatred simply runs too deep in Arkansas for Pryor to win there with the current polarized state of politics, and expect the next month's polls to show a very dramatic consolidation of support for Cotton.  Not only do I think Cotton will win in November, I think he'll win by 10-12 points.  +1 Republicans

Colorado--Incumbent Democrat Mark Udall has maintained small leads on Republican challenger Cory Gardner ever since Gardner got into the race in the spring.  Udall has taken advantage of shifting demographics in Colorado and has successfully used Gardner's social conservatism to hang him, much as was done to 2010 GOP candidate Ken Buck who managed to lose a race he should have won.  While Udall is still very vulnerable to a Republican wave, I think he has the whip hand in this race and is poised to beat Gardner by a few points.  My confidence level is far from huge on this prediction right now though.

Delaware--The luckiest Democrat running for the Senate in 2010 was Chris Coons, who was poised to lose to his expected opponent until "I am not a witch" Christine O'Donnell pulled off a huge upset in the primary and then went onto lose to Coons in the general election by something like 17 points.  Four years later, Coons' luck continues as he's running unopposed for re-election.

Georgia--Despite the fanfare, Democrat Michelle Nunn probably can't win in Georgia in a midterm.  If Georgia was a normal state where Nunn could get 47%, her Republican opponent David Purdue could get 46%, and the libertarian candidate could get 6% and it would mean Nunn was declared the winner, then she'd have a credible path to victory even on a midterm year where minority voter turnout tends to drop off.  But Georgia's not a normal state and the winner needs to get 50% on election night or face a runoff a month later.  And there's next to no chance with the current demographics and political climate of Georgia that Nunn can get over 50%.  Perhaps in the near future that will change as Georgia's nonwhite population is growing very quickly, but we're not there yet.  There was one scenario where a Nunn victory was possible three months ago, and it involved firebrand GOP Congressman Paul Broun winning the nomination.  Broun ended up in fourth place, and the winner was mainstream business conservative David Purdue, who is well within the ideological mainstream of Georgia.   Saxby Chambliss's seat will stay in Republican hands.

Hawaii--Appointed Senator Brian Schatz narrowly won the primary to fill out the term of the late Democrat Dan Inouye's seat over Inouye's handpicked successor Colleen Hanabusa.  Given the bad blood created over the primary, there was an opening for the Republicans if one of the few heavy hitters on the Hawaiian bench had decided to run, but since the GOP challenger is a Mr. Campbell Cavasso, it's hard to imagine Hawaii fails to defer to its Democratic tradition and elect Schatz for the remainder of Inouye's term.

Idaho--Even in 2008, in the strongest political climate for Democrats in more than 30 years and in the immediate aftermath of the embarrassing Larry Craig "wide stance" airport bathroom incident, Iowa voters still went to the polls and elected Republican Jim Risch to the United States Senate by double digits over a top-tier Democratic recruit.  Risch is up again this cycle in a much more hospitable political climate and will coast to an easy re-election.

Illinois--There is gonna be serious trouble at the top of the ticket for Democrats in Illinois this year with polls showing incumbent Governor Pat Quinn in major trouble in a state where Democrats have no business losing....ever.  The weakness at the top of the ticket is likely to percolate to other races, and I suspect one of them will be the Senate race where three-term Democrat Dick Durbin is running for a fourth term.  Make no mistake, Durbin will win comfortably, but I suspect his victory will resemble Daniel Patrick Moynihan's weak-by-his-standards victory in the Republican year of 1994.  Durbin has won by 2-1 margins in his last two contests, but my guess is he wins by only 10 points in November, likely with disastrous consequences for a number of Democratic Congressmen and legislators further down the Illinois ballot.

Iowa--The decisive advantage that Democrat Bruce Braley was expected to have over novice Republican Joni Ernst to fill the seat of retiring Democrat Tom Harkin has withered away and the race is now looked at as a dead heat.  Democrats are and should be nervous about this race, but Ernst's hard-right policy agenda should be enough to narrowly disqualify her in a blue-tinted purple state.  Braley's run a crappy campaign so far but has a giant geographic advantage having served much of the eastern half of the state during his eight years in the House, but it looks as though he'll need to ride that eastern Iowa advantage for everything it's worth given the lack of enthusiasm he has inspired.  The polls are just about all tied, but the profile of the undecided voters in the polling looks a lot like Braley voters who just haven't come home yet.  I expect they will, but of all the Senate seats in states Obama won, this is by far their most vulnerable.

Kansas--One of the few states where the situation on the ground has changed dramatically in the last few months is Kansas as Republican incumbent Pat Roberts, who recently survived a bruising primary, is suddenly narrow leading a three-way race with an independent candidate running at better than 20%.  Apparently independent candidate Greg Orman was the Democrats' 2008 Senate race emissary, so it's telling that what amounts to two Democrats are getting nearly 60% of the vote combined against Pat Roberts.  It seems unlikely that either Orman or the official 2014 Democratic candidate Chad Taylor will surge enough to score a plurality victory though, and the more likely scenario is that Roberts gains at their mutual expensive for a soft win, but for the first time since at least 1996, Kansas is a "state to watch" in the U.S. Senate races.

Kentucky--If a Democratic candidate as strong as Alison Lundergan Grimes had run against Mitch McConnell in 2008, she'd probably have won.  But since 2008, the Democrats' base vote in East Kentucky coal counties has completely collapsed.  East Kentucky counties that went 64% for John Kerry as recently as 2004 went 73% for Mitt Romney in 2012.  While Grimes is unlikely to do as badly as Obama in the coal counties, she's unlikely to do as well as Kerry either....and Kerry still lost Kentucky...big-time.  With that in mind, it remains impossible for me to imagine what a winning Democratic coalition looks like for a federal race Kentucky in 2014, and the conclusion I keep reaching is that it doesn't and can't exist.  I'm impressed with how long Grimes has stayed in the game though, neck and neck with McConnell in the polls even now although there's some indication that McConnell is beginning to pull away.  My guess is McConnell continues to pull away as summer turns to fall and the race won't be particularly close in the end.  Interestingly, even McConnell's campaign advisers believe his ceiling is 51% or 52% this cycle.  I suspect they'll be pleasantly surprised on election night to find out his ceiling is a couple of points higher than that.

Louisiana--As is so often the case, Louisiana's Senate race is poised to be the nation's most unsettled, with multiple Republicans vying against three-term Democratic incumbent Mary Landrieu, who always manages to find a way to win even in what's become a very tough red state.  There are two Republicans with a viable chance.  The establishment choice is Congressman Bill Cassidy while the Tea Party favorite is military man Rob Maness.  It seems almost certain that the 50% threshold Landrieu needs to meet on election night isn't gonna happen, triggering a December runoff.  With that in mind, Landrieu's chances of survival likely depend upon where things stand regarding control of the Senate.  If the Republicans have already captured their six seats to take over the Senate on November 4, there will be less urgency among the GOP base and Landrieu COULD slide on by again.  But if Senate control still hangs in the balance heading into the runoff, expect an easy Republican victory.  In either scenario though, I'd give Landrieu far less than 50% survival odds given how inelastically red her state has become during the Obama era.  GOP +2

Maine--I'm not sure any other state has an independent streak the way Maine does.  While it leans Democratic, if they find a Republican or independent whom they find temperamentally suitable, Mainers will latch on and repeatedly re-elect.  This is the secret to three-term Republican incumbent Susan Collins' success.  In the Democratic wave of 2008 when Collins last ran, she managed to pounce a top-tier Democratic challenger by 20 points.  She'll assuredly score an even bigger victory this year against fourth-tier Democratic challenger Shenna Bellows in a seat the Democrats can't believe they repeatedly fail to take away from the GOP.

Massachusetts--Given his fairly soft 10-point margin in the special election to fill John Kerry's old seat in blue Massachusetts last year, it's a little surprising Democrat Ed Markey hasn't gotten a more serious challenger than whatever "Some Dude" is challenging him for the fall.  Safe to say that Markey wins by more than 10 points this November given the complete lack of a serious challenge waged against him.

Michigan--There was a period a few months ago where Republicans thought they had a serious chance at taking Carl Levin's vacated Senate seat in blue Michigan, but it seems less likely now.  The Republican candidate Terri Lynn Land doesn't seem ready for primetime and Democratic Congressman Gary Peters is far more likely than not to ride the state's partisan advantage to victory.  This remains a race to watch though as far crazier things have happened before than the prospect of a GOP upset here.  Definitely odds-against though and even most Republican analysts agree at this point.

Minnesota--Another GOP longshot is Minnesota, where Democratic incumbent Al Franken is coasting along with comfortable leads in the polls over upstart, self-funding GOP challenger Mike McFadden, who at least for now doesn't seem like much of a threat.  I never would have guessed six years ago after Franken barely beat the insufferable Norm Coleman with a 42% plurality in the most Democratic election cycle in a generation that he would have been able to incur this much goodwill among Minnesota voters to be poised for an easy re-election.  However, if a GOP wave forms, which is still a real possibility, it's not unthinkable that Minnesota voters could warm up to McFadden and Franken could get flat-footed, making his low-voltage re-election campaign a little more of a gamble than I'm comfortable with, particularly with Minnesota voters tendency to break towards Republicans at the end of the campaign.  My bet is still on a mid-single-digit Franken victory, however.

Mississippi--Back when Tea Party firebrand Chris McDaniel seemed poised to win the Republican primary last spring, there was serious chatter about the possibility of an earth-shattering upset from Democratic candidate Travis Childers.  Ever since Thad Cochran's amazing survival story to win the GOP primary, however, Childers has dropped off of every election analyst's radar.  I think that's mostly right as Childers chances dropped from slim to nearly none after Cochran hung on, but I still think it's a race to watch as we don't fully have a handle on the extent of McDaniel supporters' rage and unwillingness to fall behind Cochran at this point.  I suspect it may be pretty intense, and if enough of them skip the election or vote for Childers out of spite, he has the slimmest imaginable path to victory.  Incredibly unlikely though.

Montana--In another race where Democrats' chances have dropped from slim to none, appointed Democratic Senator John Walsh who was filling out Max Baucus's term after a cleverly calculated ambassadorship appointment was caught in a plagiarism scandal serious enough that he dropped out of the race.  Walsh was already behind Republican Congressman Steve Daines in the polls and the Democrats had to scramble to replace him, scraping the bottom of the barrel with an eccentric left-wing female legislator who has a nose ring and should play in Montana about as well as the frontman for a death metal band.  Democrats have next to no chance at holding this seat after months of having very little chance of holding it.  Former Governor Brian Schweitzer could become the goat of the Democratic party if the Senate flips to the GOP by one seat given he probably would have held this seat for Dems but refused to run.  GOP +3

Nebraska--Twenty years ago, this bright red state had TWO Democratic Senators.  It was a fluke, but it underscored how elastic the state's voters were then compared to now, when they're not putting up any fight at all to contest and OPEN SEAT vacated by Republican Mike Johanns.  I've said before that Nebraska probably has more Democrats today (primarily in Omaha) than it did a quarter century ago yet seems to be more Republican given the hardening of conservative support towards the party of the pachyderms. Young conservative Ben Sasse prevailed for the Republicans in a heated primary which served very close to a general election coronation and he's not expecting much of a challenge from Democratic Some Dude David Domina.

New Hampshire--There was one poll last week showing carpetbagging former Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown within a couple of points of current Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen, but the totality of polling shows Shaheen with a secure and decisive leads that I suspect will hold.  Republicans have a decent bench in New Hampshire so it strikes me as odd that they put all their marbles on Massachusetts' sloppy seconds.  New Hampshire is a state prone to responding dramatically in wave elections, so if there's major national momentum towards Republicans in the next two months, Brown is still in the game, but I'd rate his chances as pretty slim.

New Jersey--Democrat Cory Booker won a special election last year by a fairly weak "barely double digit" margin last year given his right-wing doofus of a challenger in a dark blue state, but that was a special election with a low turnout.  Booker should have an easier time in this year's midterm getting a full six-year term, but given how inelastic New Jersey is, a 15-18-point win is probably the best he can expect even in a best-case scenario.

New Mexico--I have no idea what sacrificial lamb the GOP is putting up against Democratic Senator Tom Udall, and given that Udall is only running for a second term, that speaks volumes for how tough of a state New Mexico has become for Republicans to compete in.  Their bench is getting smaller and smaller while the demographics of the electorate are getting increasingly Democrat-friendly.  Udall should win by 20 points or more.

North Carolina--NC strikes me a tipping point state, along with AK, for determining control of the Senate.  It's a state I would argue the Democrats must have to retain control, so the heat is on Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan, who unfortunately is not holding up at a stellar candidate for the party yet continues to hang in there in the polls despite herself.  It's a tenuous hold though, as there's a libertarian candidate polling as high as 8% who's unlikely to remain that high by November and will more likely than not forfeit his support to the challenger, Republican Thom Tillis.  Tillis has problems of his own with the unpopularity of the Republican Legislature in North Carolina (Tillis is Speaker of the House) but ultimately I suspect in a midterm electorate in NC, hatred for Obama will trump hatred for the state legislature.  Hagan is still very much in the game as she was when I expressed mild confidence earlier this year that she'd hold the seat, but that was before I realized how weak of a candidate she is.  Unfortunately, I think Tillis is now better positioned to win than she is.  GOP +4

Oklahoma--There are two seats open in Oklahoma this year, and the outcome is assured in both of them.  Geriatric James Inhofe is running for a fourth term and will win a 77-county landslide as will James Lankford, the Republican Congressman who's the GOP nominee to fill the final two years of the resigning Tom Coburn.  There are a couple of Democrats from yesteryear in Oklahoma who could conceivably be heavy-hitters on a statewide ballot, but in the current political environment I don't think it's possible for a Democrat to win statewide in Oklahoma, and I suspect Democrats like Brad Henry and Dan Boren knew that as well which is why they chose not to run even in an open seat.

Oregon--Any momentum that Republican challenger Monica Wehby had around the time of the GOP primary was sucked out of her campaign with the revelation of stalking charges against her ex-boyfriend.  It seems more like a lover's quarrel that he was seeking to embarrass her about, but in a state as increasingly inhospitable to Republicans as Oregon, she couldn't afford any distractions.  Freshman Democrat Jeff Merkley has been a bit of a backbencher and may have been vulnerable in a perfect storm, but it seems increasingly unlikely that perfect storm will materialize and he's likely to win by 10 points the way things are breaking.

Rhode Island--Three-term Democrat Jack Reed is one of the safest Senators in one of the safest blue states in the country.  He'll win by his usual landslide margin against GOP Some Dude Mark Zaccaria.

South Carolina--Like Oklahoma, South Carolina has two Senators up for election this year.  The resignation of Republican Jim DeMint last year was followed by the appointment of Tim Scott, an African-American Republican from the U.S. House.  Scott will have no problem crushing his token opposition nor will Lindsey Graham, who's going for his third full term this November as well.  Graham seemed potentially vulnerable to a Tea Party challenge, but his opposition couldn't unite behind a single candidate so Graham lives another day even amidst one of the nation's most right-wing Republican electorates.

South Dakota--Even Harry Reid has publicly written off the Democrats' chances of holding the seat of retiring Democrat Tim Johnson this year, but that seems more like sour grapes over the fact that Tom Daschle's Chief of Staff Rick Weiland muscled Reid's preferred candidate--former Congresswoman Stephanie Herseth Sandlin--from even entering this race.  I tend to be skeptical of any scenario where a Democrat was gonna hold this seat this year in a state Mitt Romney won by 18 points in 2012, but Herseth Sandlin probably would have been better positioned to take advantage of GOP candidate Mike Rounds' unexpected weakness as well as the independent bid by former Republican Senator-turned-Obama-supporter Larry Pressler.  The uncertainty Pressler's bid brings to the table makes me hold out a slim reed of hope that Weiland has a path to victory, but it seems pretty hard to imagine that Weiland can finesse a scenario where he's the last man standing here.  I suspect Rounds consolidates late support and wins decisively.  GOP +5

Tennessee--A swing state a generation ago, Tennessee might as well be Wyoming at this point for Democrats as the party's support has completely collapsed everywhere outside of Memphis and Nashville and they have no credible candidate to run in any statewide race as evidenced by their latest nobody of a Senate candidate, Gordon Ball, to run against Republican Lamar Alexander this year.  Alexander's only real race was in the primary where he prevailed against Tea Party riffraff and is now poised to win in a 30-point blowout in November.

Texas--The first Republican incumbent to topple a Tea Party challenger this primary season was two-term Senator John Cornyn, who impressively managed to dispatch right-wing nutbag Congressman Steve Stockman even amongst a Texas Republican primary electorate.  Cornyn is now obviously positioned to win in a 20-point landslide in November.

Virginia--Hard as the media tried to manufacture a race here, Republican money man Ed Gillespie has so far not managed to touch Democratic Senator Mark Warner with a 10-foot pole in the polls.  Gillespie may be playing a long game here with gubernatorial ambitions somewhere down the road but it would take a wave of epic proportions for him to dethrone Warner from this seat and I can't imagine it will happen this cycle.

West Virginia--Pretty sure there was no Democrat--including Jay Rockefeller himself--who could have held this seat vacated by the retiring Democratic Senator Jay Rockefeller in a state seething with broiling anti-Obama rage over the coal issue.  But the Democrats have made a valiant effort with the state's telegenic Secretary of State Natalie Tennant who has run a good campaign in an impossible situation.  Her challenger is mainstream Republican Congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito who has built a significant name for herself over her many years in the House and has led in the polls in every race.  There was little doubt we'd be at this point by Labor Day weekend, but I'd say this race can now officially be declared GONE for Democrats.  GOP +6

Wyoming--Three-term Republican Mike Enzi's only real challenge for this seat was poised to come from Liz Cheney before she dropped the primary challenge.  Now Enzi can coast into another landslide general election victory in November.

My prediction of a 51-49 Republican Senate is unchanged from my last round of predictions but I did narrowly flip two seats--Alaska towards the Democrats and North Carolina towards Republicans.  Those are the only two states where I don't feel either side has a clear advantage at this point and expect they could remain this ambiguous until November.  I'd be surprised if the Democrats won any of the Romney state seats beyond those two though and can still envision a scenario where a stronger GOP tide emerges and carries Iowa and Colorado to Republicans.  I'll probably make one final set of predictions in October but feel my instincts have served me well on most of these races thus far.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Comparing Past Augusts

Going back to 1983 to compare previous Augusts a decade apart, with August having become my favorite month in recent years despite the fact that I keep turning another year older during the month...

August 1983 vs. August 1993 vs. August 2003

Winner: 2003--The summer of 2003 had been one giant blah affair for me for the first 75% of the summer....until I finally took the big three-day road trip I had been putting off for a couple of years that took me through the central counties of South Dakota and North Dakota and then across the northern tiers of counties in far northern Minnesota.  I didn't even really know why I took the specific route I did but it led me to the perfect points of interest each state had to offer and will go down as one of my greatest road trips of all-time, so great that I did a redo in 2013 for the 10-year anniversary.  I also had 100-degree heat on two of the three days of the trip, and I welcomed the heat.  I took this trip on my first vacation while working at the newspaper and in the days following relaxed at the folks' place and went to the Minnesota State Fair to see a Suzy Bogguss concert.  A weak summer came alive in the clutch, and was followed by an escalation with a girl I had begun to hit it off with earlier that year.

August 1984 vs. August 1994 vs. August 2004

Winner: 1994--The summer of 1994 was great in general, but this was the month when my dad finally got back into a steady work routine after having several summers off for a seasonal job he previously worked, meaning I got the place to myself day after day for the first extended period of my life.  The summer of 1994 was the year I found my groove in a lot of ways and was still enjoying my first major revisit of 80s TV and it was also the origins of my CD collection, as I received a CD player for my birthday along with CDs for Faith Hill and Suzy Bogguss.

August 1985 vs. August 1995 vs. August 2005

Winner: 2005--In the last hurrah of my final "free summer" while I was in between jobs and loafing at the folks' place, I got to thoroughly enjoy a nightly routine at the Freeborn County Fair for the first time in years and also approached the 20th annual family visit to the Minnesota State Fair with baited anticipation and hype in a way I hadn't up until that year.  Late in the month, the backdrop of the Hurricane Katrina devastation was tempered some by the premiere of the TV show that would become of my all-time favorites: "Prison Break" in its first season glory.

August 1986 vs. August 1996 vs. August 2006

Winner:  2006--Both  August 1986 and 2006 were mixed-bag years (August 1996 was among the worst months of my life) but 2006 ended up having more pros and cons, my first "modern" August that included my fair and road trip routines all combined into one.  I had moved to Des Moines early in 2006 and took my first vacation week for the Freeborn County Fair, and then sampled my first Iowa State Fair visit a week later, a visit that became a new tradition.  I also had a great trip to the Minnesota State Fair, a road trip through eastern South Dakota, and was giddy about the upcoming midterm elections where the Democrats were poised to make big gains.  So what was the downside of this "mixed bag" year?  The girl I connected with most in my many unsuccessful years of courting the opposite sex disappeared forever on me late in the month.

August 1987 vs. August 1997 vs. August 2007

Winner:  1997--There were a lot of exciting developments in August 2007 but 1997 still exceeded it, enjoying my final month of the great summer working at the rural electric co-op with my neighbor buddy, and also finally getting the chance to watch the dozens of hours of 80s action shows I taped in late July from the FX cable network.  To some extent, those hours were a little disappointing, but it was still a blast to revisit them and to go out in style from the summer that took me back to my desperately needed comfort zone after that horrific first year of college.  Of course the bad news was the clock was ticking until I had to go back to college in September.

August 1988 vs. August 1998 vs. August 2008

Winner:  1998--I was overcome with attraction to "Andie", my blond postal co-worker in the later weeks of the summer of 1998 and we dated a couple of times before her premature return to school mid-month.  It was very exciting to fall for a girl who liked me back, particularly when she was as hot as Miss Andie was.  The postal job that was a pain in the butt back in the June had really grown on me by summer's end and I felt like a grew a lot that summer heading into my junior year of college the following month.

August 1989 vs. August 1999 vs. August 2009

Winner:  2009--Without question my all-time best first date was with "Brooke", a barely legal hottie who I connected with earlier in the summer and took to the Lost Island water park in Waterloo, Iowa, in August.  It was one of the best days of my life and that alone made August 2009 the slam-dunk winner of this trio of contenders, but I also got to attend my last Minnesota Twins game at the Metrodome with some high school friends that month and balance all my fairs and road trips as well as score a second day at the Minnesota State Fair for the first time ever.  Hard for me at this point to imagine another month in my future that will be as packed with good memories as August 2009.

August 1990 vs. August 2000 vs. August 2010

Winner: 1990--How cruel it is that the #1 and #2 months of my entire life are pitted up against each other.  August 2000 was my first foray into online dating as well as online political debate, and both ventures yielded some friends I'm still close with today.  But it's still light years behind August 1990, the month that molded my personality more than any other month before or after.  I was 12 years old going into the month and 13 coming out of it, tagging along with my dad daily through the car lots of southwestern and south-central Minnesota doing vinyl repair work.  I was at the brink of discovering my love for road-tripping before this venture but afterwards I was a lifetime hard case.  Furthermore, puberty was now fully setting in and seeing all the cute girls walking the sidewalks near the car lots became more and more thrilling for me as the weeks went on, setting the foundation for the hot girls I was about to come in contact with daily at my new junior high school.

August 1991 vs. August 2001 vs. August 2011

Winner:  2001--It was a tough call between August 1991 and 2001, but the best of the summer of 1991 was behind my by this point in the summer while the summer of 2001 still had its best to come, enjoying all my fairs--which included a free concert by Ronnie Milsap at the Minnesota State Fair late in the month--as well as my late night visits to the Yahoo! Politics Chat debating the early months of the pre-9/11 Bush administration with a group of regulars whose company I came to enjoy.  But the escalating daily banter with Dana, a girl I met online and who would become one of my most legendary love interests, was what made August 2001 the most exciting.

August 1992 vs. August 2002 vs. August 2012

Winner:  1992--Here's a battle of three stinkers if there ever was one but I guess 1992 was the best of the worst.  My cousin came down from northern Minnesota for what would be his last visit during my boyhood years, even though the plans didn't work out entirely smoothly.  Beyond that though, my excitement about recording old MacGyver episodes from cable were on hold that month because the cable network was airing a plethora of episodes I already had recorded, the Minnesota Twins' promising season collapsed amidst the August pennant hunt, and the Presidential campaign was largely stalled out except for the Republican Convention.  It was a thoroughly average month but a tick better than August 2012 and miles better than the disastrous August 2002.

Unfortunately, my next installment will profile the month of September, although to be fair I've had a few exciting Septembers in years past.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Comparing Past Julys

Last month, I went back to 1983 and compared past Junes.  This month I'm gonna do it with July.  Funny how that works out....

July 1983 vs. July 1993 vs. July 2003
Winner:  1983--A lot of the same things that helped June 1983 win this category continued into July, including my growing collection of "Return of the Jedi" and "Smurfs" glasses from Burger King and Hardee's, along with the tail end of my stay at the Albert Lea Child Care Center before I upgraded to a babysitter in Hartland.

July 1984 vs. July 1994 vs. July 2004
Winner:  1984--My youthful bond with Cousin Dusty was formalized with the weeklong mid-July stay this year.  I was almost seven years and spent the week at my grandparents' place with Dusty and his older siblings.  Dusty and I had enjoyed ourselves during previous visits but it was taken to a new level with this trip, capstoned by a trip to Valleyfair.  Shortly after, I found a new babysitter in Hartland, the babysitter who would be my long-term sitter for the next five years, following an unpleasant three-month stay at another babysitter's place.  It was a definite upgrade. 

July 1985 vs. July 1995 vs. July 2005
Winner:  1985--There was no clearcut winner here, but the tiebreaker tipping in 1985's favor was my fledgling baseball card collection, which had just hit its crescendo moment with the purchase of the 1985 Topps set--my first--in late June.  The month of July included daily card talk with the teenage son of my babysitter, who had a pretty impressive collection of his own with cards going back to the late 70s and was a pretty good sport about letting me look through his collection and talk about cards we were mutually pursuing.

July 1986 vs. July 1996 vs. July 2006
Winner:  2006--This was the first summer of my "new life" in central Iowa where I had moved a few months earlier and settled into a new job, and I really began to reap the dividends of that move by July as I was using up some of my vacation time to keep alive my road trip and county fair traditions.  I also included a new tradition with the Summerfest celebration that takes place in my adopted hometown, only a few blocks from my apartment.  I made the short walk to Summerfest that July and have been attending ever since.  It was also the last July 4th for my German shorthair Pokey (his favorite day of the year) and he enjoyed the setting off of fireworks as much as ever even at age 12.

July 1987 vs. July 1997 vs. July 2007
Winner:  1997--The magical escape from my freshman year of college pressed forward with more blissful release as I worked with my old neighbor buddy at the rural electric cooperative, caught up on the TV shows I missed during the regular season, and enjoyed my annual road trip traditions, all in much higher spirits than the two years prior.  But late in the month, I added a new level of excitement by hauling the VCR to my grandparents' place during Freeborn County Fair week (they live across the street from the grounds) and recording dozens of hours of 80s action show reruns that I had been licking my lips about for over a year when the FX cable network originally added "The Fall Guy", "The A-Team", "Miami Vice", and "Hart to Hart" to their nightly schedule.  In a roundabout way, I managed to get a flesh wound that landed me in the emergency room as a direct result of my excitement over this TV lineup, but it was more than worth it.

July 1988 vs. July 1998 vs. July 2008
Winner:  1988--Tough competition here as July 1998 was my peak month as an Albert Lea mail carrier in the throes of a summer romance with a hot blond co-worker, but even that month can't compete with July 1988 when I took swimming lessons at the Albert Lea pool for two weeks and immersed myself in the peak period of watching the Nickelodeon cable network during the days I stayed at my grandparents' place.  Finally being able to swim and jump off the diving board was exciting, but checking out the daytime Nickelodeon schedule on weekdays which had up to that point eluded me made for one of the most exciting and memorable summer months of my childhood.

July 1989 vs. July 1999 vs. July 2009
Winner:  1989--Hard to go wrong with those late 80s and early 90s summers, and July 1989 had a little bit of everything including cable reruns of action show favorites at my babysitter's place and an exciting trip to my cousin's place in northwestern Minnesota in which we ventured north to Winnipeg, Canada, for two days, a particularly exciting adventure that included my first visit to the horse races.  There was one bad day in July 1989 though....the late July day when I got braces on my teeth.  Thankfully, the installation of the braces didn't disrupt any of my cousin visits or other summertime benchmarks.

July 1990 vs. July 2000 vs. July 2010
Winner:  1990--In just about any other pairing throughout my life, July 2000 would have been a slam-dunk winner, and I almost feel guilty for not giving it the writeup it deserves.  But July 1990 managed to exceed it, weaving together the weeklong (and most epic) trip to Thief River Falls to visit my cousin (capstoned by my first visit to a water slide park Fun Mountain) with the momentous pivot point of my youth, the late July tour of southern Minnesota with my dad who was doing vinyl repair work at car lots throughout the region.  Right at the precipice of my teenage years, I got in touch with a long-festering fascination for the gypsy life and loved the daily travels to southern Minnesota car lots, exploring new towns and meeting some of the people that lived there.  Few months in my life were as pivotal--or as exciting--as July 1990.

July 1991 vs. July 2001 vs. July 2011
Winner:  1991--The general aura of the summer of 1991 was very likeable in itself, with my preciously held daily routines taking hold of watching News 12 Midday, listening to Minnesota Twins games on the radio during their historic championship season, and my evening MacGyver Marathon (my first) but there were two specific standout events of July 1991 that easily catapult it above the competition.  The first was my family's July 11 trip to the Noah's Ark water park in the Wisconsin Dells, my first and last visit there.  The second was the granddaddy of more than two decades of road trips, the July 23 trek to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, with my dad.  This road trip was mostly an extension of the previous summer's tour of southern Minnesota car lots, but it stands out to this day as the most exciting and enriching road trip of my life.

July 1992 vs. July 2002 vs. July 2012
Winner:  1992--A pretty weak selection here but 1992 is nonetheless the only one that stands out with anything worthwhile.  The Twins were at that point still in the pennant run and I was listening (or sometimes watching) games daily that summer until their late summer collapse.  Beyond that, I continued to stitch together my collection of MacGyver reruns on VHS, recording episodes whenever I went to my grandparents' house and the USA cable network was airing an episode I didn't already have.  And even though it was a depressing affair because of their centrist posture, I watched my first political convention in July 1992 when Bill Clinton and Al Gore accepted their party's nomination.

Be back in a few weeks with August analysis.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Comparing Past Junes

I've always been a nostalgic person who looks back at years past with an analytical mind and a ton of memories.  With approximately 30 years worth of tangible memories under my belt, I thought it would be a fun exercise to split the years apart, on a month-by-month basis, into grids of three a decade apart and see which year I look back at most favorably.  My earliest consistent memories are from the summer of 1983, so I figured I'd start there.  I'll do this every month until next May and see if I can draw and conclusions from the analysis.  It might just be that I'll have done a personally satisfying thought experiment without any worthwhile conclusions to glean.  Either way, let the contest begin....

June 1983 vs. June 1993 vs. June 2003
Winner:  1983--I was five years old and spending my days at the Albert Lea Child Care Center, immersed in a world of collectible "Return of the Jedi" glasses from Burger King and mid-80s action show awesomeness in the evenings.  None of these three years is worthy of a sweeping win, but 1993 and 2003 were less inconsequential than 1983 in the grand scheme.

June 1984 vs. June 1994 vs. June 2004
Winner:  1994--The best month of my best summer during my high school years, I had a fun visit to northern Minnesota for my cousin's high school graduation and went in the company of another cousin and we had a great time.  I also really got into country music during the format's most creatively satisfying year and I had my first thorough revisit of mid-80s TV, authenticated by late night reruns of "The Fall Guy" and "The A-Team" on a Minneapolis TV station that sometimes came in.  And of course, the unfolding drama of the OJ murder arrest added some extra spice to the proceedings.

June 1985 vs. June 1995 vs. June 2005
Winner:  2005--I was enjoying a lazy summer at the folks' place having been recently canned from my newspaper job and really got into the laid-back lifestyle, which basically amounted to my first real vacation in three years following the strenuous newspaper schedule.  My best memory was taking to eBay to purchase several mid-80s TV Guides that I had long since lost which featured end-of-season ratings information to glean through.  I was also regularly communicating with a hot blond named Whitney who I had chatted with for a couple years at that point but got into a pattern of daily e-mail exchanges with in the early weeks of summer 2005.

June 1986 vs. June 1996 vs. June 2006
Winner:  1986--It's a dubious win here because there was nothing specifically great about June 1986, other than my parents building up my hopes that a vacation to Disney World might be forthcoming later that summer, but there was still enough fond memories for the month to except the mediocre June of 2006 and the terrible June of 1996.  Wednesday nights with back-to-back "MacGyver" and "Hardcastle and McCormick" reruns were a high point along with my highly memorable visit to the Thunderbird Hotel in Bloomington for my first baseball card show, complete with an autograph signing from Willie Mays!

June 1987 vs. June 1997 vs. June 2007
Winner:  1997--After more than two years of making myself miserable in anticipation and ultimate attendance of college, the summer of 1997 was my long-awaited redemption.  I got a breezy summer job at the rural electric co-op with enviable hours and even got to work with an old buddy from high school.  From road trip fever to revisiting 80s TV action show favorites rerun on the FX cable network at the time, I reconnected with all my passions and just got to enjoy life again in a way I hadn't really done for what seemed like a lifetime.  Most people's experience returning home after their freshman year of college ended up being a huge disappointment for any number of reasons.  For me, it was one of the best summers of my life, and never was it sweeter than in the summer's opening month.

June 1988 vs. June 1998 vs. June 2008
Winner:  1988--The summer of 1988 is one I'll always look back at fondly, particularly for it being the pinnacle of my one-year obsession of the cable network Nickelodeon.  My cousin from northern Minnesota was also a Nickelodeon fan and he came for a visit in late June, melding both worlds.  Beyond Nickelodeon, I also really got into the soap opera "One Life to Live" that summer as I stayed days at my babysitter's place in Hartland. 1988 was also the "drought" summer with steamy 100-degree temps day after day, and at least at that age I rather welcomed the heat.

June 1989 vs. June 1999 vs. June 2009
Winner:  1989--Easy to defer to the childhood summers in a competition with no clearcut winners, and it's hard to go wrong generally with the summer of 1989.  I started off the summer traveling with my grandparents to visit my cousin in northern Minnesota and getting my first steady diet of Nintendo, specifically the game "Bubble Bobble" which I still have a soft spot for.  From there, it was summer reruns of my favorite season of "MacGyver" and was my final summer at the babysitter's place, only this year with cable TV and reruns of "The Fall Guy" and "T.J. Hooker" airing daily.  I look back at this as my last "childhood" summer and it easily trumped the middling memories of June 1999 and 2009.

June 1990 vs. June 2000 vs. June 2010
Winner:  1990--Having this trio of months together is unfortunate since 1990 and 2000 were my best summers of all-time, but it's not quite as tough for the month of June because 1990 easily bested June 2000.  Every week of the summer of 1990 brought something new and memorable, and in the month of June I had my first taste of genuine freedom, being able to stay up late and no longer having to go to the babysitter's during the day.  This meant TV viewing until all the networks signed off, watching among other things, "Entertainment Tonight" where weekend anchor Leeza Gibbons was my first celebrity crush and my opening foray into puberty.  I went with my cousin to Valleyfair late in the month and recorded the remaining reruns of "MacGyver" from season 5 that I had missed when they first aired.  And June was actually the least memorable month of this very pivotal summer.

June 1991 vs. June 2001 vs. June 2011
Winner:  1991--While not as spectacular as the summer before, June 1991 still offered a good selection of great memories including the 7th grade class trip to Valleyfair, the Minnesota Twins' 15-game winning streak which got me back into baseball in a big way, and the final spurt of fascination in my baseball card collection before it flamed out forever.  I also held my first "MacGyver Marathon" beginning that June and despite merely being a retread of stale videotaped leftovers, it was very exciting.  June 2001 was pretty solid as well but 1991 easily bested it.

June 1992 vs. June 2002 vs. June 2012
Winner:  1992--I was briefly tempted to go with 2002 here, because despite ending up as a summer from hell, the first month of the summer served up some good memories and held a lot of promise.  Since that promise was eventually squashed though, I fell back on Old Reliable with 1992.  After a mostly enjoyable trip to Duluth early in the month where my dad served as a delegate to a political convention, my summer settled into familiar territory, defined by my daily consumption of Minnesota Twins games on the radio and my lottery-style cobbling together of cable "MacGyver" reruns when making weekly visits to my grandparents, hoping to capture the episodes I hadn't already recorded.

Tune in next month and see how I compare three decades worth of Julys.

Sunday, June 08, 2014

I Just Don't Have The Passion For Elections And Road Trips That I Used To

When I think back to 10 years ago this summer, it's striking just how much less connected I am now to what were my driving passions in 2004.....endless analysis of elections before and after the vote....and my road trip routines.   My passion level for both have seemed to grow and fall in tandem, both originating in the early 90s when I began to do some of earliest exploration of Minnesota towns in particular while assisting my dad with his brief vinyl repair business.  Not long after that I received my first World Almanac which featured county-level election returns from across the country.  In the late 1990s, the escalation continued as I started to expand my horizons to explore new territory on my Minnesota road trips in tandem with my receipt of the Minnesota blue book, which broke down 1996 general election returns down to the precinct level.

But it was the year 2000 when everything came together for what would be my peak period of road trip and election passion.  Several opportunities arose for me to take road trips to uncharted territory in 2000, so much so that I formalized an effort to get to all 734 incorporated towns in Minnesota.  And of course, the closest and most exciting Presidential election in history occurred in 2000 as well, further conflating my dual obsessions.

The peak period for road trip fever for me was 2001-2004, as every over-the-top drive assured me of charting a stack of territory I'd never visited before.  After 2004, I retained most of my passion for road trips for a few more years, but my Minnesota road trips in particular lost their urgency after 2007 when I completed my tour of every town in the state.  As for elections, I held on at peak passion level from 2001-2006, and the frequency of my politics-related posts on this blog tells the story of my declining intensity.  Back in 2006, the first year Mark My Words was online, the blog was abuzz with several election-related posts per month tracking the Democrats fight to win that year's midterms.  For a variety of reasons, the frequency of my political/election posts on this blog has greatly diminished, but the primary reason is that the passion for full-time election obsession is gone.

So why is the passion gone?  For road trips, it's a matter of having visited everyplace within a reasonable driving condition of my hometown.  In 2014, I find the most enjoyable road trips to be the ones where I visit a lot of new territory, but having already explored so much within driving distance, it's getting harder to find trips that take me to places I've never been.  If I go someplace in North or South Dakota, for example, I have to trip several hours in familiar territory to get to whatever the destination is, meaning I spend a lot of time checked out coming to and from.  I'm adjusting some of my road trip patterns to the south and east as opposed to the north and west and hope to have some more interesting road trips in the years ahead as a result.  With that said, I think my patience and attention span for these road trips is no longer what it used to be, so I don't anticipate the era of wide-eyed, youthful passion for road trips to ever return in its 2000-2004 heyday.

My loss of zeal for elections first became evident in 2007.  For the previous three election cycles, I spent until the next cycle feverishly categorizing and recategorizing numbers into tidy charts and grids.  It never really got old and I ate, slept, and breathed election analysis before and after the first Tuesday in November.  But in 2007, I quickly grew tired of this usual pattern, even after the very impressive midterm election victory the Democrats pulled off the year prior.  And while I couldn't get enough of the pre-election coverage in earlier cycles, the 2008 primaries burned me out and I was checked out of the 2008 election until after Labor Day.  Now I really got into the 2012 election lead-up but have only been running quarter-throttle for this midterm cycle as I did in 2010.  As for the obsessive charting and categorization of election returns after the election, I still do it, but it tends to last for about three months after the election and then vanish for the next 20 months unlike a decade ago when I charted these election figures continuously.  My increased cynicism about the futility of election outcomes no matter who wins has not helped in sustaining my passion level either.

I'll always have a soft spot for both road trips and elections.  I still feel some level of excitement even for the road trips that have lost the majority of their luster over the years, and some of the road trips still prove thoroughly exciting, enjoyable, and memorable.  Furthermore, I still get a major case of election fever every fall, even on odd-numbered years, and take to my VHS cassettes to watch recorded coverage of past elections before burning out on it in time for the holidays.  I suspect this pattern will continue on both elections and road trips.  It's sad in a way that my youthful giddiness for politics and road-tripping has ebbed in the last decade as I'd like to get that passion back at times, but time and people change (even me occasionally!) and resisting that change is futile.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The Top-50 Country Songs Of The Last 10 Years

For most of my adult life, I've lamented on the downhill slide of commercial country music, and I suspect just about everybody over the age 30 would concede that country music today pales in comparison to the quality of music that came out of Nashville 20 years ago, 30 years, and 40 years ago.  But I still listen to country radio far more than any other genre searching for hidden gems, and they still exist.  Although the country songs I connect with as a 30-something adult are fewer than were in previous eras, just about every year produces a handful of songs that really hit me where I live.  This list of the 50 best country songs of the last 10 years to those quality modern country songs....

1.  Me and Emily--Rachel Proctor (2004)
2.  Till Summer Comes Around--Keith Urban (2009)
3.  Don't Ask Me How I Know--Bobby Pinson (2005)
4.  Tornado--Little Big Town (2013)
5.  Sunny and 75--Joe Nichols (2013)
6.  Whiskey Lullaby--Brad Paisley and Allison Krauss (2004)
7.  Kerosene--Miranda Lambert (2006)
8.  Turning Home--David Nail (2010)
9.  Love Lives On--Mallary Hope (2008)
10. Texas Plates--Kellie Coffey (2004)
11. You're My Better Half--Keith Urban (2005)
12. Raymond--Brett Eldredge (2010)
13. I Don't Want To--Ashley Monroe (2007)
14. Trip Around the Sun--Jimmy Buffett and Martina McBride (2004)
15. If Heaven--Andy Griggs (2005)
16. I Loved Her First--Heartland (2006)
17. I Keep Coming Back--Josh Gracin (2006)
18. Man of the House--Chuck Wicks (2009)
19. I Don't Want This Night To End--Luke Bryan (2011)
20. Eden's Edge--Amen (2011)
21. Walking in Memphis--Lonestar (2004)
22. Let it Rain--David Nail (2011)
23. From a Table Away--Sunny Sweeney (2011)
24. Need You Now--Lady Antebellum (2009)
25. American Honey--Lady Antebellum (2010)
26. Blowin' Smoke--Kacey Musgraves (2013)
27. I Hold On--Dierks Bentley (2014)
28. The Sound of a Million Dreams--David Nail (2012)
29. Online--Brad Paisley (2007)
30. Guinevere--Eli Young Band (2010)
31. God Love Her--Toby Keith (2009)
32. He Oughta Know That By Now--Lee Ann Womack (2005)
33. Men Don't Change--Amy Dalley (2004)
34. If You're Going Through Hell (Keep on Going)--Rodney Atkins (2006)
35. Mama's Broken Heart--Miranda Lambert (2013)
36. Red Light--David Nail (2008)
37. Back to December--Taylor Swift (2011)
38. Long Black Train--Josh Turner (2004)
39. Shinin' on Me--Jerrod Niemann (2012)
40. What Hurts Most--Rascal Flatts (2006)
41. I Would Cry--Amy Dalley (2005)
42. Famous in a Small Town--Miranda Lambert (2007)
43. God's Will--Martina McBride (2005)
44. Good Directions--Billy Currington (2007)
45. Sarabeth--Rascal Flatts (2005)
46. Stupid Boy--Keith Urban (2007) 
47. Runaway--Love and Theft (2009)
48. In Color--Jamey Johnson (2009)
49. Cruise--Florida Georgia Line (2012)
50. Here--Rascal Flatts (2008)

10 More Honorable Mentions

Even If It Breaks My Heart--Eli Young Band (2012)
Brothers--Dean Brody (2010)
As If--Sara Evans (2007)
Love Story--Taylor Swift (2008)
Pretty Good At Drinking Beer--Billy Currington (2010)
Better--Maggie Rose (2013)
Bless the Broken Road--Rascal Flatts (2005)
I Wanna Make You Close Your Eyes--Dierks Bentley (2009)
Days of Gold--Jake Owen (2013)
Maybe She'll Get Lonely--Jack Ingram (2008)

Now in one respect, I could do a top-50 song list just from the year 1994 and produce a list as good as this one for an entire decade, but the fact that I needed a separate list of 10 honorable mentions to pack in more songs that touched me at some level does suggest that country radio still occasionally gets it right.  The trendline heading into the middle of this decade is not a good one, but I'm sure there will continue to be a dozen or so songs a year that I always turn up when I hear them played on the radio.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Trajectory's of TV's TGIF

Like most people who came of age in the 80s and 90s, I have fond memories of ABC's long-running bloc of Friday night sitcoms that they brilliantly marketed as "TGIF" beginning in early 1990.  While TGIF's era as an institution scoring massive ratings was relatively short-lived, its various incarnations were a mainstay on ABC's Friday night for more than 15 years.  Quite honestly, most of the shows were pretty bad.  A couple were good and some had just enough charm to keep me interested as I transitioned from boy to teenager, but not many of them would stand up well to 2014 audiences given that they were barely serviceable a quarter-century ago.  Still, TGIF was above all else really strong marketing on ABC's part, and I look back fondly at the "event" that wrapping up my week and vegetating in front of the TV was during those peak middle school years of TGIF.  And I thought it would be interesting to trace the entire TGIF trajectory from its origins, to its heyday, to its nadir and ultimate demise.

The show that for all intents and purposes launched what would become TGIF several years later was an unlikely fit for the family sitcoms that would define the evening, and that was the long-running political comedy "Benson" starring Robert Guillaume.  Despite lasting seven seasons, "Benson" was never a hit, but rather functionally useful counterprogramming for ABC in tough timeslots.  By 1982, that timeslot would be Friday nights against CBS's ratings powerhouse "The Dukes of Hazzard" right at the moment that series was starting to decline.  It would have been hard to imagine that ABC's counterprogramming of "Benson" against "The Dukes of Hazzard" in 1982 would ever bring about what became TGIF, but it kind of did.

While "Benson" didn't fit the mold of TGIF-style shows, it was the lead-in for a new series in 1983 that fit the template perfectly--"Webster"--and "Webster" became an early hit, dragging lead-in "Benson" along for the ride and combined they won the timeslot against "The Dukes of Hazzard".  But there was still a long way to go before the TGIF branding would take its form.

Even with "The Dukes of Hazzard" collapsing in the mid-80s and ultimately expiring in the spring of 1985, CBS still dominated Friday nights and it slowed ABC's transition to a two-hour comedy block despite the ongoing success of "Benson" and "Webster" at the 7:00 hour.  ABC continued to program action shows like "Masquerade", "Hawaiian Heat", and "Street Hawk" at 8:00 as counterprogramming against "Dallas", but buckled in March 1985 and took on "Dallas" with its sitcom block, moving "Benson" to 8:00 and heading the night with "Webster", rounding out the hours with the short-lived sitcom "Off the Rack" at 8:30 and the much more successful "Mr. Belvedere" at 7:30.  The move was met with mixed results but ABC had another iron in its fire with their fall lineup in 1985.....

NBC was poised to cancel veteran sitcom "Different Strokes" in 1985 but ABC picked it up, moving it to Friday night as a tentpole at the 8:00 hour scheduled in between "Webster", "Mr. Belvedere", and "Benson".  The network had by now compiled a lineup that looked very much like the TGIF tradition even though it would be nearly five years before the TGIF designation became official.  Unfortunately, "Different Strokes" bombed on Friday nights against "Dallas".  "Webster" and "Mr. Belvedere" were hanging in there at the 7:00 hour with middling numbers, but all evidence pointed to ABC taking on CBS just a little too soon with their sitcom lineup to be effective.

The next two seasons were very challenging for the network and its fast-changing Friday comedy lineup.  The ratings continued to drop for "Webster" and "Mr. Belvedere" and by the spring of 1987 "Webster" was canceled by ABC (it continued in syndication for one more season).  "Mr. Belvedere" hung on by a thread and returned in October 1987 as the lone haggard veteran of a Friday lineup full of rookie sitcoms.  Two of them, "I Married Dora" and "The Pursuit of Happiness" were flops that barely made it to Christmas, but the show ABC was most excited about kicked off the 7:00 hour and hung around despite bad early ratings.....the future sitcom smash "Full House".

With CBS and NBC duking it out with ratings heavy hitters "Dallas" and "Miami Vice", ABC was struggling mightily and reconfiguring their low-rated sitcom lineup every few weeks until the scheduling coup that revived the patient's pulse was made in March 1988....when successful Wednesday sitcom "Perfect Strangers" moved to Friday night to head up the comedy lineup.  Almost immediately, ratings perked up for the entire lineup, and just in time to help "Full House" and "Mr. Belvedere" avoid likely cancellation.

The aforementioned trio, along with newcomer "Just the Ten of Us", finally became a consistent ratings force by the fall of 1988.  The risk paid off as "Perfect Strangers" held its former Wednesday night audience and introduced enough viewers to lead-out "Full House" that its ratings skyrocketed that season, so much so that in the fall of 1989, ABC pushed "Full House" to the top of the Friday night schedule at 7:00.  "Mr. Belvedere" was shuffled off to its Saturday night graveyard that fall and replaced with another new show that would define TGIF for years to come--"Family Matters".  There was nothing memorable about the earliest incarnation of "Family Matters" as it was about as generic of a sitcom as was ever created until midseason when geeky neighbor kid Steve Urkel was introduced and became a cultural phenomenon and the biggest "star" in the duration of TGIF.

Urkel's arrival coincided almost perfectly with ABC's decision to market this Friday night sitcom bloc as TGIF, which was introduced in February 1990.  The network had finally found the right mix of shows and the right marketing technique to capture lightning in a bottle.  Somewhat surprisingly, and perhaps because it was racier than the other kid-friendly shows on the lineup, "Just the Ten of Us" was canceled in the spring of 1990.  Its replacement in the fall of 1990, the Heather Locklear sitcom "Going Places", also seemed an odd fit for the TGIF lineup but would eventually be shoehorned to fit the TGIF mold.  And while "Going Places" was the weak link, the rest of the TGIF lineup was soaring in the 1990-91 season, far and away the most successful year the lineup had.  In March 1991, "Going Places" was replaced by the lackluster "Baby Talk", a sitcom that went through three different actresses playing the mother in two seasons, but ratings were nonetheless gangbusters.  In the spring of 1991, all four TGIF sitcoms were mainstays in the Nielsen top-25, with "Full House" and "Family Matters" frequently in the top-10.  But it would be a short stay at the top of the world....

ABC decided to spread the wealth in the fall of 1991 and moved "Full House" to Tuesday night.  It was a successful move for both "Full House" and ABC's Tuesday night, but TGIF suffered for it.  "Family Matters" now headed the lineup and Urkelmania proved past its peak.  While "Family Matters" hung on in the top-25, its halcyon days were soon over without the assist from "Full House" (and I must confess I never got the appeal of "Full House" and didn't miss it at all when it bolted from TGIF).  Replacing "Full House" was another show perfectly fitting the TGIF mold, the Patrick Duffy-Suzanne Somers sitcom "Step by Step", which would be a long-running mainstay on TGIF but nonetheless represented a certain past-peak aura for the franchise.  "Perfect Strangers" was tiring and in its final season, and ratings for TGIF dropped pretty dramatically over the duration of the 1991-92 season.  I was in eighth grade at the time and found that my tastes were maturing as the TGIF lineup was dumbing down.  The "event" feel that was there for TGIF the previous two seasons just wasn't there anymore.

It faded further for me in 1992, when "Perfect Strangers" ended.   I never got into "Dinosaurs" too consistently and the revolving door of shows that came and went in the 8:00 hour ("Camp Wilder", "Getting By", "Hangin' with Mr. Cooper") never grabbed me either.  All that was left to hang my hat on was "Family Matters" and "Step by Step" in the 7:00 hour and those were fading as well, both in terms of quality and audience size.  TGIF nonetheless produced one more long-running semihit that premiered in the fall of 1993..."Boy Meets World"....which lasted an impressive seven seasons where it put the entire TGIF franchise to sleep in the year 2000.  Not sure whether the show genuinely sucked or whether I had simply outgrown this kind of show by that point, but "Boy Meets World" never did it for me.  And by the spring of 1994, I finally ended my Friday night tradition of watching at least one hour per week of ABC's TGIF lineup.

But with or without me, the lineup went on into the mid-90s with "Family Matters", "Step by Step", and "Boy Meets World" continuing as mainstays and "Sister, Sister" and "Hangin' with Mr. Cooper" going along for the ride in some capacity for a few more years.  One final modest hit was added to the lineup in 1996 with Melissa Joan Hart as "Sabrina the Teenage Witch", a show I probably watched more than any other TGIF show in the second half of the 90s, but mostly just for Melissa and often with the mute button on!  But the TGIF world got shook up like never before in 1997 when ABC canceled "Family Matters" and "Step by Step", believing they were burned out.  But CBS saw an opening and picked both shows up, directly challenging what was left of ABC's TGIF lineup (anchored by "Sabrina" and "Boy Meets World").  The CBS challenge proved ineffective though as "Family Matters" and "Step by Step" flopped on CBS and were canceled in 1998.

In 1998, the CBS challenge was behind ABC and they had TGIF turf to themselves for a couple years before the death spiral.  They even revived the now mid-teen Olsen twins for a sitcom called "Two of a Kind" that only lasted one season.  The TGIF branding stuck around for two more seasons until "Boy Meets World" and "Sabrina" both went of the air in 2000.  ABC returned with sitcoms that fall but ditched the TGIF branding and went for an older audience.  After more than a decade, the official TGIF promotional coup had ended, probably outlasting the expectations of most.  There's been a half-hearted revival of the format in recent years with Tim Allen and Reba McEntire sitcoms airing Friday evenings, but they haven't made much headway in restoring the TGIF brand, which is likely dead at least until sitcoms are en vogue again with television audiences.

You can't blame the network for unearthing the TGIF time capsule though as there was something oddly special about that snapshot in time when a mostly silly grouping of sitcoms was successfully sold to younger-skewing TV viewers and turned into ratings gold.  And since I happened to come of age at the pinnacle of TGIF mania in 1990 and 1991, I have more nostalgia for it than most.  Most of these shows would be pretty terrible revisiting as an adult, but I'm sure even now I could still identify that touch of charm that endeared me and millions of my contemporaries to these shows a quarter century ago.