The Fight for the Senate

The Fight for the Senate

The man behind the “Jeffords Jump” is aiding Democratic efforts to stay on top.

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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.

Some groups are bluntly addressing the reality that everyone inside the Capitol understands: “Today the White House and the House of Representatives are controlled by the right wing of the Republican Party. And with just one more vote they’ll control the United States Senate,” declares a television ad that People for the American Way has begun running in key states. With a Halloween-scary image of Attorney General John Ashcroft onscreen, a voice explains, “Their unchecked political power would be devastating for a woman’s right to choose, our environment, Social Security and corporate accountability.” That ad seeks to reinforce the inclination of voters to oppose the sort of partisan dominance that the Republicans seek. A late-September Washington Post poll found that, by a 56-34 margin, likely voters would prefer to have a Democratic Senate serve as a check on the President.

To counter the notion that he needs limits placed on his power, Bush is hitting the road for a presidential-campaign-style push that will see the chief executive–whose personal approval ratings remain high–working to get Republican voters energized and to convince undecided voters that switching control of the Senate is an act of patriotism. In Minnesota, where Bush desperately wants to defeat Wellstone, the only vulnerable Democratic incumbent to reject the White House’s demand for blank-check authorization to attack Iraq, the President smiled as Wellstone’s White House-recruited GOP challenger, former St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman, described Bush’s presidency as “part of God’s answer.”

God’s answer or no, Bush understands the seriousness of what is at stake. He will make as many as four campaign stops a day during the final two weeks before November 5, reading always from the White House script regarding election issues–Iraq gets lots of attention, while the economy is, well, something the Administration is “working on.” He also continues to accuse Senate Democrats of being a little too soft on Saddam Hussein, guilty of holding up his Homeland Security bill and “lousy when it comes to my judges.”

Bush knows the November 5 voting could define his presidency. If Senate control shifts to the Republicans, the White House has readied plans for an immediate push to lock in long-term tax cuts, launch a major drive to limit lawsuits against corporations and place judicial nominations on a fast track. Of particular interest to the business supporters who are providing critical funding to GOP Senate candidates is talk by Administration aides of launching a drive to reduce corporate taxes dramatically.

Democrats have no natural counter to Bush’s push. Former Vice President Al Gore, who won the most votes in the 2000 presidential contest, has been stingy about aiding fellow Democrats–and, as of mid-October, most of the once and perhaps future presidential nominee’s appearances were aiding the party’s House contenders. While Gore has seemed to lack focus, former President Bill Clinton–who clearly loves the adoration that greets him on the campaign trail he never really left–has been a savvy and effective presence, raising money and appearing at rallies for Democrats like Oregon’s Bill Bradbury, who is mounting a strong but still uphill challenge to Republican Senator Gordon Smith. Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York has used her star status and fundraising skills to benefit candidates in tough races, especially women who are mounting difficult challenges to GOP incumbents, such as Maine Democrat Chellie Pingree.

Senators with presidential ambitions have also been active. In addition to Daschle, Connecticut’s Joe Lieberman, Massachusetts’s John Kerry and North Carolina’s John Edwards all have raised money for the party’s Senate candidates and put in appearances in states with close races. Conveniently for them, there are important Senate races in Iowa, site of the first 2004 Democratic caucus, and New Hampshire, where the first primary will be held. Edwards has poured energy into the North Carolina candidacy of former Clinton Administration Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles, the Democratic nominee against Republican Elizabeth Dole. A come-from-behind win by Bowles, which now seems possible, would be read as a win for Edwards as well. But none of the prospective presidential contenders have distinguished themselves as the essential Democrat of the 2002 campaign.

If there is a campaigner for the Democrats who has proven to be more of a campaign-stop star than expected, it is the senator who isn’t a Democrat: Jim Jeffords. When the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee held what at the time was its biggest fundraising bash of the year, a Washington event that took in $6 million for 2002 campaigns, Jeffords headlined. He has checked out special-education programs at a New Hampshire high school and urged voters to elect Governor Jeanne Shaheen to an open Senate seat there. He has visited a literacy program at a South Dakota youth center and put in a pitch for embattled Democratic Senator Tim Johnson. He has been the featured guest at a St. Louis gala for Senator Jean Carnahan, who is locked in a fierce battle to retain the seat to which she was appointed after her late husband beat then-Senator John Ashcroft in 2000. Jeffords has jetted into Texas to assist former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk, whose election to an open Senate seat would be a major embarrassment for Bush. And he has stood side by side with Wellstone, both in voting against the White House’s Iraq resolution and on the campaign trail. Complaining often of the “cynical” Bush Administration’s abuses of power, and warning that those abuses will only increase if Republicans are again allowed to call all the shots in Congress, Jeffords says: “I made the change that established [Democratic] control. You can be sure I don’t want to see it reversed.”

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