When Ernest “Fritz” Hollings, the cagey Washington power broker who has held a South Carolina Senate seat since 1966, announced his retirement last year, the assumption was that he would be the last Democrat to represent the state in the Senate. Hollings had held on through close election after close election, in large part because of his ability to deliver federal largesse to the folks back home. But it was hard in the ugly aftermath of the 2002 electoral debacle–when Democrats lost important races across the South–to imagine that a state that gave George W. Bush 57 percent of the vote in 2000, and elected a Republican governor and senator in 2002, would send a new Democrat to the Senate in 2004.
However, the assumptions of a year ago, or even of six months ago, are no longer operative. Democratic candidate Inez Tenenbaum, South Carolina’s superintendent of education, leads in the polls–despite the fact that one of her opponents dismisses her as “an Emily’s List liberal.” And Tenenbaum’s not alone in showing unexpected strength. Democrats are running even or ahead in four of five races for open Senate seats in the South, and they’re also even or ahead in contests for Republican-held seats in Illinois, Oklahoma, Colorado and Alaska.
Suddenly, in a year when continued GOP control of both houses of Congress seemed assured, and the presidential election was supposed to be the only competition that mattered, there is a real race for control of the legislative chamber that can make or break a President’s agenda. New Jersey Senator Jon Corzine says Democrats need to get these Senate races on their radar. “The thing I keep telling people is: If John Kerry’s elected, to get anything done he’s going to need a Senate that’s on his side; and if, God forbid, George Bush is re-elected, America is going to need a Senate that’s not on his side–that’s willing to ask questions about judicial appointments, conduct hearings, use its oversight authority,” says Corzine, who heads the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC). “Either way, the essential thing is to have a Democratic majority in the Senate. And it’s not a stretch anymore to say that it can happen.”
South Carolina AFL-CIO president Donna Dewitt agrees. Yet Dewitt–like activists in other states that are not targeted as “presidential battlegrounds” but that have competitive Senate contests–worries that most national party leaders, unions and “shadow campaign” groups like America Coming Together have been slow to turn their attention to the Senate contests. Her point is well taken. There are indeed days when it seems as if everyone in the Democratic Party and in the shadow groups developed to register and mobilize voters is focused only on winning presidential battleground states like Ohio and Missouri. “It’s not an either/or thing,” says Dewitt. “Of course it’s important to beat Bush. But we have to give John Kerry a Senate he can work with.”
Doing that will require some recalculations regarding focus and the allocation of resources, which is never easy in the midst of an election year. It will also require progressives to get comfortable with the fact that they might have to help elect some less-than-liberal Democrats from some less-than-liberal states. “Like it or not,” Dewitt notes, “control of the Senate is going to be decided in states like South Carolina.”
While the presidential competition between Bush and Kerry remains the highest-profile fight of 2004, there is no question that the far less closely watched fight for the Senate will play a huge role in defining the political realities of 2005. Think of it this way: If a re-elected President Bush sets out to expand the troop presence in Iraq, he would have a hard time selling the plan to a Democratic Senate where the Armed Services Committee would be chaired by Michigan’s Carl Levin, and where the Appropriations Committee would dance to the gavel beat of West Virginian Robert Byrd, who like Levin opposed authorizing the use of force in Iraq. And if Bush continues his push to expand the Patriot Act’s assault on civil liberties, he would surely face problems with a Senate Judiciary Committee chaired by Vermont’s Patrick Leahy, a critic of Administration proposals to grab broader powers to detain and deport immigrants, and whose Constitution subcommittee would be chaired by Wisconsin’s Russ Feingold, the only member of the Senate to oppose the Patriot Act in 2001.