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Democrats Could Win Key Senate Races | The Nation

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Democrats Could Win Key Senate Races

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The first sign that Oregon Senator Gordon Smith, once thought to be among the more secure of the Republicans seeking re-election this year, recognized he was in trouble came in June, when his campaign seemed to claim the endorsement of a colleague seeking the presidency. And it wasn't John McCain, the candidate Smith had endorsed long before most other GOP leaders. A TV ad for Smith, who has cultivated a maverick image while voting with the Bush administration more than 90 percent of the time, began by asking, "Who says Gordon Smith helped lead the fight for better gas mileage and a cleaner environment?" After a dramatic pause came the answer--"Barack Obama"--along with images of Obama's website and campaign materials.

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John Nichols
John Nichols
John Nichols, a pioneering political blogger, has written the Beat since 1999. His posts have been circulated...

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The former Secretary of State and President Obama seem to be struggling with the whole "when in the course of human events..." thing.

Smith's commercial was based on a false premise and an inaccurate reading of statements by Obama, who backs Democrat Jeff Merkley's progressive populist challenge to the two-term Republican incumbent. If re-elected, Smith would almost certainly devote his energies to blocking the initiatives of an Obama administration. Merkley is opposed to the Iraq War, concerned about Bush administration threats to the Constitution and inclined toward the hometown side of the Main Street versus Wall Street calculus that is playing out in this period of turbulence. He was up early and hard with an ad bashing Smith's backing of Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson's bailout bill. Like many of the best Senate challengers this year, Merkley stands a little to the left of Obama on trade policy and protecting civil liberties. And he's precisely the sort of experienced battler--a state legislative leader with a background as a Pentagon analyst and Congressional aide--who could be a muscular player in a supersized Senate Democratic caucus.

Smith's Obama-embracing ad highlighted the desperation of GOP senators who have recognized that McCain isn't much help in their uphill battle just to maintain their weakened position in the chamber they lost control of in 2006. It also illustrates the complex dynamics at play in the thirty-five Senate races that will be decided November 4. With the authority to approve cabinet and judicial appointments, treaties and trade deals, as well as arcane rules that allow a minority to block major legislation, the Senate can make or break a presidency--especially one as ambitious as Obama's most ardent backers see in the offing.

Like the House, where Democrats are well positioned to expand on their thirty-six-seat majority, the Senate will almost certainly be in Democratic hands come January. But the current 51-to-49 Democratic advantage is hardly sufficient to deliver on Obama's promise of "change we can believe in." And as the volatility of the presidential race--as well as aftershocks from the Wall Street meltdown and sudden shifts in Iraq and Afghanistan--dominates the media, it is difficult to pinpoint the extent to which Democrats will advance. There is no mystery, however, about the core question of the 2008 Congressional competition: will an election that favors Democratic Senate candidates more than any in recent decades (twenty-three Republican seats are up for election, many of them held by vulnerable incumbents, as opposed to just twelve by Democrats, all of whom are leading in the polls) provide the party with a sufficient majority to forge a new Washington consensus--a dramatic break from the crises, corruptions and compromises of the Bush/Cheney era?

"Bush didn't move our country off track by himself--he had a caucus full of Senate Republicans enabling him every step of the way," explains Chuck Schumer, who is reprising his 2006 role as a chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC). "For six years in the majority, Republicans rubber-stamped Bush's failed policies, and for the last two years in the minority, they have obstructed meaningful change. Republicans have filibustered a record number of times, stopping legislation to end the war in Iraq, blocking efforts to reduce gas prices and even obstructing expanded healthcare for our children.... It's clear that in order for President Obama to move our country forward, he'll need more than the razor-thin majority we currently hold in the Senate."

Schumer's goal of securing sixty seats, and with them the ability to block Republican filibusters, is audacious--but not unimaginable. The less ambitious goal of growing the caucus to fifty-seven--thus ending the need to rely on the McCain-backing Joe Lieberman and a handful of hypercautious Southern and Western senators to maintain a majority--is more than just imaginable; it is a very real prospect. Indeed, as veteran analyst Charlie Cook noted in late September, "Holding its [Senate] losses down to four seats would be manna from heaven for the GOP."

If the Senate Democrats get to the upper fifties, a President Obama and Democratic senators will be able to reach out to GOP moderates--Arlen Specter, Olympia Snowe, Richard Lugar--to break deadlocks on issues from the Iraq occupation to healthcare. Obama will have more freedom in making judicial appointments. And a Democratic caucus that does not have to bow to its most conservative members will be freer to press Obama to take progressive positions, especially when it comes to trade and fiscal policy, in which this year's Democratic candidates tend to respond more to the needs of workers, farmers, consumers and the environment than to the whims of Wall Street. With the fiscal challenges an Obama administration is sure to face, given the looming harsh recession, a cooperative Senate will be essential if he is to implement the healthcare, education or housing programs on which he has campaigned. And if a continued downturn requires him to conceive a new New Deal, he will be able to implement it only if the Senate is with him. Conversely, if McCain wins in November, a solidly Democratic Senate would be the primary barrier to his agenda on economic, social and, above all, military matters.

The first steps toward substantially improving the Senate Democratic count are easily identified. Three of the four seats that are likely to slip from the GOP's grasp are in states where Republican incumbents are quitting: Virginia, where former Democratic Governor Mark Warner holds a daunting poll lead; New Mexico, where popular Democratic Congressman Tom Udall is way ahead and the National Republican Senatorial Committee recently quit the fight; and Colorado, where Udall's cousin Mark, also a Congressman, has maintained a steady lead in the face of a $10 million campaign by Republicans and GOP-allied groups to take him down. Both Udalls highlight their opposition to authorizing the 2002 Iraq War resolution, and to the Patriot Act in 2001. They are, as well, heirs to the Western environmentalist tradition of their fathers, Stewart (Tom) and Mo (Mark), and have made alternative energy development central to their platforms.

For Democrats to surge into a dominant position, however, they have to do more than collect open seats. They must beat GOP incumbents in states like Oregon, New Hampshire and Minnesota--where Al Franken has overcome early stumbles and vicious Republican attacks to pull narrowly ahead of Norm Coleman. Voters in these states were never that enthusiastic about the Bush agenda and have soured on it so much that they might be inclined to change not just the partisan hue of the White House but Washington as a whole. To be sure, not all the Democratic challengers in these states are liberals. New Hampshire's Jeanne Shaheen, for instance, is a classic Clinton Democrat with a tendency toward "no new taxes" rhetoric and a record of having supported the Iraq War resolution. But her election would be an essential building block in the development of a strong Democratic majority. To get that strong majority, Democrats will also need some lucky breaks in states that backed Bush and will likely back McCain but that have senators, such as Alaska's Ted Stevens and Kentucky's Mitch McConnell, whose personal and political misdeeds have left them in virtual ties with well-known and well-financed Democratic challengers [see Bob Moser, "Kentucky at War," October 1, 2007].

Finally, the Dems must capitalize on what is expected to be a historic African-American turnout in Southern states like Mississippi--where former Democratic Governor Ronnie Musgrove is running nearly even with appointed GOP Senator Roger Wicker in most polls--that are solidly for McCain in the presidential race but that could see Democratic contenders with deep roots and populist campaigns attract just enough McCain voters to secure seats. Musgrove is placing a heavy emphasis on his opposition to free-trade deals favored by the administration and most Senate Republicans but disdained by hard-pressed working-class voters. The same goes for North Carolina Democrat Kay Hagan, who has pulled ahead of incumbent Elizabeth Dole, a firm free trader, by telling voters that "for too many years...trade deals have been written to pull down wages and working conditions in the US and other developed countries, instead of pulling them up in the developing world. As corporate profits and CEO pay have soared, the incomes of ordinary North Carolinians have stagnated."

The pitfalls of the autumn campaign, with its fits and starts since Obama's triumphal acceptance speech at the Democratic convention in August, have tamped down the talk among his more enthusiastic backers of a long-coattails landslide like those of Lyndon Johnson in 1964 or Ronald Reagan in 1980, when not just a party's presidential candidate but large Senate majorities are swept into Washington. Among other things, McCain's selection of social conservative Sarah Palin as his running mate has renewed GOP hopes that they can turn out enough base voters to secure vulnerable incumbents--especially Alaska's Stevens, who despite his recent indictment hopes to ride Palin's home-state apron strings to victory over impressive Democratic challenger Mark Begich.

But Democratic senatorial prospects were never pegged entirely, or even substantially, to Obama's chances. As the senator from Illinois surged in mid-winter, the sense that 2008 might be a transformational year for Democrats helped Schumer with late-stage recruitment of able candidates and establishing a fundraising advantage over Republicans. That advantage has held despite Schumer's having to compete with Obama's relentless demands on donors to fund his presidential run.

The interplay between the Obama campaign and those of Senate Democrats has not always been smooth. Obama wants a big majority; he bluntly admits that "big changes don't happen without big Senate majorities." But he has rebuffed pleas from majority leader Harry Reid that he release some of his money to help Senate candidates. Faced with the prospect of heavy late-stage spending by "independent" groups that favor McCain, Obama chose to keep his cash and instead pen fundraising letters for Schumer's DSCC, as has his running mate, Senator Joe Biden. (Biden is running both for the vice presidency and his Senate seat this year, as is allowed under Delaware law.)

While they may have wrangled a bit over money, Senate Democrats and their candidates have established a smart working relationship with Obama--as the June dust-up between Smith and challenger Merkley revealed. Obama is popular in Oregon, a liberal-leaning state that has voted Democratic in the past five presidential elections. His campaign has been on the ground in Oregon--where he won the May primary with almost 60 percent of the vote--for the better part of a year. Long before Obama drew 75,000 people to a spring rally in Portland, Smith's aides were concerned that the Obama campaign would swell the state's fall turnout with first-time and infrequent voters who would show up to back Obama and then start ticking the names of down-ticket Democrats.

It was a reasonable concern, one that might in another year have been effectively countered by the sly strategies underpinning the Smith ad. But the Republican's scheme ran into a roadblock: Schumer, the hyperpartisan and hyperaggressive New York senator who managed his party out of minority status in 2006 by focusing unprecedented resources on second- and third-tier contests the party had historically neglected, had recruited a savvy challenger who was unwilling to cede Smith an inch. With Schumer's assistance, Merkley had assembled a crack campaign team that instantly condemned the ad as false, produced a video clip of Obama telling Portland's Willamette Week, "I think Gordon Smith's problem is that he rarely breaks away from George Bush and the Republican agenda that I think has done this country great damage," and put the icing on the cake with a fresh statement from the Obama camp saying, "Barack Obama has a long record of bipartisan accomplishment and we appreciate that it is respected by his Democratic and Republican colleagues in the Senate. But in this race, Oregonians should know that Barack Obama supports Jeff Merkley for Senate. Merkley will help Obama bring about the fundamental change we need in Washington."

The smooth coordination between the Obama and Merkley campaigns worked wonders. Merkley--more closely aligned with the popular Obama than ever before, and capitalizing on a series of missteps by the incumbent--moved by mid-July into a narrow lead, which he maintains to this day. Oregonian political writer Jeff Mapes says, "We've clearly got a heck of a race on our hands."

As it happens, Democrats have got a heck of a lot of races on their hands this year. The combination of Obama's base-building candidacy and Schumer's recruiting and fundraising has paid off handsomely. Democrats can still speak credibly not just about electing Obama but about providing a president Obama with the sort of governing majority that makes the promise of change much more than a rhetorical flourish.

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