Democrats in Washington and New Jersey sighed with relief when scandal-plagued Senator Robert Torricelli ended a doomed run for a second term. Torricelli’s re-election campaign was sinking in an ethics scandal fast taking on the appearance of an episode of The Sopranos–a few days before his withdrawal, one television station aired an uninterrupted thirty-eight-minute report on charges that the New Jersey Democrat collected a Rolex watch, suits and other gifts in return for official favors. Noting that the loss of a single Democratic seat could change the Senate’s balance, Torricelli painted his exit as an act of party loyalty: “I will not be responsible for the loss of the Democratic majority in the United States Senate.” But whether he jumped or was pushed, there was no question that Torricelli’s personal problems had become the national Democratic Party’s crisis.
Torricelli’s withdrawal does not, however, guarantee that the crisis has passed. New Jersey Democrats have tapped former Senator Frank Lautenberg to take Torricelli’s place. But they are still battling Republican legal efforts to keep the new nominee off the November ballot. And the party’s troubles do not stop at the borders of the Garden State. So closely divided is the Senate (fifty Democrats and one allied Independent versus forty-nine Republicans) and so tight are this year’s Senate contests (at least eight seats, four currently Democratic and four currently Republican, fall into the too-close-to-call category) that individual stumbles have national ramifications. The switch of just one seat from Democrat to Republican would split the Senate, handing Vice President Cheney the tiebreaking vote.
In Iowa, another once-safe Democratic incumbent, Tom Harkin, is scrambling to extricate himself from a scandal over the secret taping of a strategy session of his Republican challenger. Other vulnerable Democratic incumbents include Minnesota’s Paul Wellstone, Missouri’s Jean Carnahan and South Dakota’s Tim Johnson. While Democratic challengers like Arkansas’s Mark Pryor and Colorado’s Tom Strickland are giving weak Republican incumbents a challenge, GOP candidates now appear to be leading races for open seats in Texas, South Carolina, North Carolina and New Hampshire. The party will not give up on any of these races. But the need to divert money and energy to a New Jersey race that was supposed to be settled, and now perhaps to Iowa, further reduces the ability of national Democrats to aid challengers like Bill Bradbury, who is fighting to unseat Oregon’s incumbent Republican, Gordon Smith, and Chellie Pingree, who seeks to oust Maine’s Susan Collins.
Before his campaign flamed out, Torricelli tried to convince New Jersey voters to ignore his ethical shortcomings and focus instead on the fight for Senate control–pitching himself as “the fifty-first vote” for education, healthcare and urban initiatives. But New Jersey voters–like their counterparts in the thirty-three other states with Senate races–have been slow to see their home-state fights as part of a nationwide struggle to determine the extent to which Congress limits George W. Bush’s ability to reshape the federal judiciary, manage a sputtering economy and set the course of the war on terrorism.
Much of the blame for this circumstance rests with Senate majority leader Tom Daschle and other Democratic leaders. When the Bush Administration was working to make national security the marquee issue of the midterm elections–following White House political director Karl Rove’s stated plan–Daschle and House minority leader Richard Gephardt failed to vigorously challenge the President’s politicization of the war on terror or to establish the urgency of domestic issues: stalled economic engines, disappearing retirement accounts and rising poverty rates. Instead of identifying the Bush push on Iraq as the distraction it is, Daschle and Gephardt played along or played into the Administration’s hands.
That failure to turn the raw materials of economic uncertainty and corporate crime into campaign issues has a lot to do with the Democratic Party’s subservience to big-money donors–a relationship forged at least in part by Torricelli, who, as Daschle’s handpicked head of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, raised $103 million for Democratic Senate campaigns in 2000 and bragged about beating the Republicans in the dubious struggle to secure soft-money contributions. But it also has something to do with uncertainty about how to be an opposition party to a GOP President with high poll numbers.
With barely a month to go before Election Day, Daschle and his team need to remember that Democrats made dramatic gains in the midterm elections of 1982 and 1986–picking up twenty-six House seats in ’82 and eight Senate seats in ’86–by presenting themselves as the party of opposition to a popular Republican President’s unpopular policies. They must do so again this year, or they will remain one personal scandal, misstep or catchy TV commercial away from losing the Senate.