If Senator Jim Jeffords had shown up for the annual steak fry at the Warren County Fairgrounds outside Indianola, Iowa, two years ago, the obscure Vermont Republican would have been about as welcome as a midsummer drought–that is, if anyone had recognized him. But Jeffords is no longer obscure, and no longer a Republican. At this year’s event he was the honored guest, greeted with hearty handshakes by men in overalls, invited to flip fillets on the grill and hailed by his host, liberal Democratic Senator Tom Harkin, as an American hero. Jeffords earned a standing ovation for a speech in which he told the crowd, “I’m campaigning to make sure that we retain control of the Senate.”
The “we” Jeffords referred to is the Senate Democratic Caucus, which took charge of the chamber after last year’s “Jeffords Jump” ended the 50-50 split that had given Republicans effective control, with Vice President Dick Cheney breaking partisan ties in his party’s favor. Jeffords’s decision to quit the Republicans and caucus with the Democrats rewrote the game plan for George W. Bush’s Administration, which had been moving with few impediments to fill appeals court openings with conservative judicial activists, to exploit the power of Senate committee chairmanships to narrow debates in Congress and to ramrod through the House and Senate a political agenda that began with a sweeping package of tax cuts for wealthy Americans.
After complaining about the Administration’s arrogant extremism, Jeffords switched to Independent status in May 2001. South Dakota’s Tom Daschle grabbed the majority-leader job while Democrats swept into key committee chairmanships. Suddenly, judicial nominees were being asked to explain their segregationist ties and records of antichoice activism, while Administration attempts to gut rules on issues ranging from workplace safety to water quality became fodder for committee hearings. The Senate had become “a major obstruction to the President and his ability to get his agenda through,” Pennsylvania Republican Rick Santorum griped earlier this year. No one doubts the sincerity of Republican rage over their loss of power last year–least of all Jeffords, who is still taunted as a “traitor”–and no one doubts Republican determination to win the Senate back this year.
Yet, on the eve of the 2002 election, the battle for the Senate lacks the definition of the 1986 competition, when anger over Reagan Administration farm policies cost Republicans control of the chamber, or the 1994 competition, when disenchantment with the Clinton Administration’s first-term missteps shifted the Senate back to Republican control. Daschle’s failure to devise a strategy to counter Bush’s focus on Iraq, and his need to put out fires like the collapse of New Jersey Senator Bob Torricelli’s re-election campaign–not to mention a caution rooted in the party’s ties to special interests–prevented the Democrats from staking out the clear agenda on corporate crime and economic issues that might have given them a national frame to retain control of the Senate.
As the election nears, few see a big shift coming. It is the small shift–one seat this way or that–that party leaders focus on. With more than a dozen tight contests, and with eight races too close to call–including those of Democratic incumbents Paul Wellstone of Minnesota, Jean Carnahan of Missouri and Tim Johnson of South Dakota–everyone with a big name or a big checkbook has waded into the contest. Sucking up soft-money dollars soon to be outlawed under the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform law–which, conveniently, goes into effect the day after the election–the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has raised a record $109.5 million so far, while the National Republican Senatorial Committee has collected $115.7 million. Meanwhile, in addition to millions of dollars that will be spent by candidates seeking to fill thirty-four Senate seats, party committees and interest groups will pour additional millions into a last-minute frenzy of political advertising more intense than many key states have ever before seen.