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Will the Senate Tip? | The Nation

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Will the Senate Tip?

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But can lucky breaks and shifting sentiments really add up to fifty-one seats--the magic number that, no matter who wins the presidency, would put Democrats in charge of the Senate next January? Corzine thinks so, and a growing number of analysts, such as Charlie Cook, editor of The Cook Political Report, say Corzine's crew has "a legitimate shot at winning back control of the Senate." Here's how the math works:

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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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§ Most Democratic incumbents are in solid shape. Senate minority leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota faces the toughest re-election race, but the June 1 victory of Democrat Stephanie Herseth in a special election for a South Dakota House seat suggests Democrats are holding their own in a state that gave Bush 60 percent of the vote in 2000. Senators Patty Murray of Washington and Wisconsin's Feingold face credible competition, but they're both ahead in the polls. Eleven other Democratic incumbents, ranging from Vermont's Leahy to New York's Chuck Schumer, look to be safe bets.

§ The retirement of five Southern Democratic senators, which one Republican state chairman said would put Democrats in a "Custer's Last Stand" position in the Deep South, have not proved to be as devastating as anticipated. In four of the five states, Democrats recruited candidates they identified as their strongest contenders: Tenenbaum in South Carolina, Erskine Bowles in North Carolina, Chris John in Louisiana and Betty Castor in Florida. All four have long track records of public service; all are moderates with home-state reputations that allow them to run as regional rather than "nationalized" Democrats; all tend to emphasize economic differences with the Republicans--particularly on issues like global trade--rather than social and foreign-policy concerns; and all put distance between themselves and Kerry.

This requires a subtle balancing act: The Democratic base may like the Massachusetts senator and his reasonably liberal stands on social issues, but Democratic Senate candidates in states like the Carolinas will almost certainly need to attract Bush voters to win. The prospect that Democrats will win crossover votes is real enough that they are considered competitive in open-seat contests across the South. Only in Georgia do most observers say that GOP contenders have clear leads over the Democrats who are seeking their party's nomination: Representative Denise Majette and businessman Cliff Oxford. It's still likely that Democrats will lose seats in the South. But the possibility that they will hold two or three means they will not be set back so far that they won't be able to make up the difference in other parts of the country.

§ The retirement of three Republican senators, and the vulnerability of at least one more, create the prospect that Democrats will pick up as many as four seats outside the South. In Illinois, the Democratic Senate candidate who has drawn the most national attention this year, Barack Obama--who is running as a critic of the war and a proponent of economic justice--leads by twenty-two points in the latest Chicago Tribune poll. Obama is already being hailed by New York Times columnist Bob Herbert as "the point man for a new kind of politics designed to piece together a coalition reminiscent of the one blasted apart by the bullet that killed Robert Kennedy in 1968." In addition to Obama, Democrats have a good chance to win GOP-held seats with candidates like state Attorney General Ken Salazar in Colorado, former Governor Tony Knowles in Alaska and Representative Brad Carson in Oklahoma. Salazar and Knowles lead in the polls, while Carson is running even. Salazar and Carson have both emphasized winning back rural Democratic voters by campaigning heavily in small towns with detailed farm and rural-development proposals.

In Kentucky, State Senator Dan Mongiardo has done much the same in a surprisingly strong challenge to GOP incumbent Jim Bunning. Polls place Mongiardo within striking distance of Bunning. Two other Democratic challengers, Missouri State Treasurer Nancy Farmer, who is running against Senator Kit Bond, and Pennsylvania Representative Joe Hoeffel, who faces Senator Arlen Specter, can point to poll numbers that suggest they could yet threaten the incumbents. And progressives will want to keep an eye on New Hampshire, where 94-year-old campaign finance reform advocate Doris "Granny D" Haddock, who just entered the race as a Democrat, can be expected to mount a colorful challenge to Judd Gregg, the GOP incumbent.

If the Democrats re-elect their incumbents, hold three of the five Southern seats and win the four GOP-held seats outside the South, where they are currently running strong, they're at fifty-one. It's doable, but Corzine is not popping champagne corks. Late Democratic primaries in Louisiana, Florida and Colorado will drain resources and could yet produce party divisions. (In Florida Al Gore weighed in with a statement to the Miami Herald describing one Democratic candidate, Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas, as "the single most treacherous and dishonest person I dealt with" during the 2000 campaign.)

There are also concerns, expressed by activists like Donna Dewitt, that Democratic candidates such as Tenenbaum are so busy courting Republican voters that they could turn off Democrats. "It's important to attract new backers, but you've also got to engage the base, and you don't do that by running as Republican-lite," she says. Dewitt's right: Hollings and most other successful Southern Democrats of the past were clearly at odds with Republicans, especially on economic issues, and this year's crop of Democratic challengers will lose if they get too close to the GOP line on issues such as trade policy. Tenenbaum, whose cautious early campaigning caused the most concern, may be getting the message; she recently came out strongly against the Bush-backed Central American Free Trade Agreement.

Ultimately, however, what home-state activists and national players like Corzine worry about most is not message but visibility--the prospect that Senate races, most of them not in the eighteen or nineteen presidential battleground states, will fall off the radar in a year when so much attention is being focused on the race for the White House. Says Corzine, "This is my greatest fear: that we don't get the resources and support for these candidates who can win because everybody is so gunned up about the presidency that they take their eyes off the ball. We've got to win the presidency, but we've also got to win the Senate."

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