In Senate races across the country, Republicans are losing it. And if this keeps up–a big “if,” to be sure–the party could yet lose its slim 51-to-49 majority in the chamber that can make or break a presidency. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. At the start of the 2004 campaign, Republicans were expected to improve their position–thanks to the retirement of five senior Democratic senators in the South. Successful recruitment of candidates and lucky breaks kept the Democrats competitive into the summer, but by Labor Day it was getting hard to see a scenario in which the party could offset the GOP advantage. Then the over-confident Republicans, who nominated extreme and erratic candidates in a number of states, started losing the wheels on their bandwagon. To wit:

§ In Oklahoma, GOP nominee Tom Coburn, a right-wing former Congressman who beat a more moderate Republican in the primary, looked like a good bet to hold his state’s open seat for the Republicans. But he saw his lead start to shrink after reports surfaced that Coburn, an obstetrician, had allegedly sterilized a women without obtaining proper permission. Then Oklahoma’s Democratic attorney general said that revelations about Coburn’s billing practices in that case suggested that, had they been exposed at the time, he could have been charged with Medicaid fraud. His lead slipped further when a tape recording surfaced of Coburn saying “lesbianism is so rampant in some of the schools of southeast Oklahoma.” By mid-October, Democrat Brad Carson held a narrow lead in the polls, despite the fact that George W. Bush leads John Kerry by a double-digit margin in the state.

§ In South Carolina, another state that Bush is expected to win by a wide margin, Democrat Inez Tenenbaum has caught up with Republican Jim DeMint in most polls. Tenenbaum, a tepid candidate who has failed to aggressively challenge DeMint’s support for free-trade pacts, which have devastated the state’s textile industry, did not start moving in the polls by her own initiative. Rather, DeMint’s gaffes–he’s been rambling on in public statements about banning not just gays and lesbians but single moms from teaching and, perhaps more significant in the socially conservative state, he’s stumbled badly in debates on questions of how best to preserve South Carolina’s vulnerable manufacturing base–appear to be making the race competitive.

§ In Kentucky, where Republican Senator Jim Bunning was seen as a sure re-election bet, the incumbent’s bizarre behavior has reframed the race. Bunning compared his Democratic challenger, Dan Mongiardo, a respected physician and state senator, to the sons of Saddam Hussein. During a visit to Paducah–home of the Quilters’ Museum–Bunning requested additional police protection because he said he feared an Al Qaeda attack. Then, in early October, Bunning refused to appear in person for a long-scheduled debate, instead demanding to take part via satellite from Washington. It turned out that Bunning used a TelePrompTer during at least some of the debate. The senator’s response to the revelation was to claim that Mongiardo’s backers had assaulted his wife at a picnic, but there was no evidence of an attack. The Bunning campaign also aired a commercial that falsely claimed that a luxury home and private jet, shown in the ad, belonged to Mongiardo. The Louisville Courier-Journal editorial page refers to the Bunning ad as “despicable,” while the Lexington Herald-Leader describes the ad as so “offensive and unfair” that a voter watching them “might well conclude that politics is an amoral wasteland into which only a masochist would venture.” Both newspapers endorsed Mongiardo, who has moved into a tie with Bunning in at least one poll.

These twists on the campaign trail have created an opening for Democrats in November’s contest for control of the Senate–as opposed to the competition for the House, where it appears that incumbency and majority leader Tom DeLay’s redistricting shenanigans in Texas have foreclosed prospects for a Democratic takeover–but it is only an opening. Right now, the party is certain to win one Republican Senate seat (in Illinois, where Democrat Barack Obama is up by forty-five points) and could pick up as many as four others–Alaska, Colorado, Oklahoma and Kentucky. But one Democratic incumbent, Senate minority leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota is vulnerable, and one seat being vacated by a Democrat, in Georgia, is all but certain to go Republican. In addition, races for currently Democratic seats in Florida, Louisiana, North Carolina and South Carolina remain tight enough that they could go either way. Depending on how the seats fall, Democrats could end up with anything from a 53-to-47 advantage to a 56-to-44 deficit. But the best bet right now is something in the middle–perhaps a 50/50 split, where ties would be broken by Dick Cheney or John Edwards. And it’s no longer difficult to see a way to that 51-to-49 majority that would put Delaware’s Joe Biden in charge of the Foreign Relations Committee, Vermont’s Patrick Leahy in charge of Judiciary, Massachusetts’ Ted Kennedy in charge of Education /Labor and West Virginia’s Robert Byrd, the Senate’s loudest critic of the war on Iraq, in charge of appropriations for military adventures abroad.

The challenge for Democrats in the final days of a 2004 campaign season that has been so closely focused on the race for the nation’s top job is to recognize that, no matter how the Kerry-Bush race turns out, the fates have handed them a chance to gain control of the legislative chamber that will determine the success or failure of a Kerry or Bush presidency. A Kerry win with a Democratic Senate would be the best ticket for change. But if Kerry doesn’t make it a Democratic Senate might be the best hope for the world. Either way, the fight for the Senate–and Republican gaffes are making it a real fight–will go a long way toward defining which party really wins on November 2.