Will the Senate Tip?

Will the Senate Tip?

The Democratic Party is poised to regain the majority.


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.

Just imagine how different hearings by the Intelligence Committee would be if West Virginia Democrat Jay Rockefeller IV were sitting in the chairman’s seat, as opposed to Kansas Republican Pat Roberts, a man whose plodding approach to the Bush Administration’s misuse of intelligence regarding weapons of mass destruction represents an epic failure of legislative oversight.

By the same token, if Kerry makes it to the Oval Office his attempts to address the disastrous failure to fund No Child Left Behind education programs would certainly be affected by whether the Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee was chaired by New Hampshire Republican Judd Gregg, the chief Senate defender of Bush’s mandate-rich but cash-starved education agenda, or Massachusetts Democrat Ted Kennedy, one of the few senators who is not afraid to talk about fully funding federal mandates. Indeed, Common Cause president Chellie Pingree suggests that while a Democratic Senate could be counted on to temper Bush, it could also be counted on to push Kerry in a more progressive direction. “The Senate can really focus the debate and get a President to pay attention to matters that need to be resolved,” says Pingree, a former Maine legislator who was defeated in a 2002 US Senate race. “A President may come in wanting to be cautious, wanting to govern from the center on major issues like energy policy, Medicare, prescription drugs. The Senate, when it is controlled by his own party, can push him to take tougher stands–I actually expect that would happen more with a President Kerry and a Democratic Senate.”

That’s certainly what Corzine, one of the most progressive members of the Senate, is counting on. Suggestions that Democrats might actually come out of the 2004 election season with a President and control of the Senate provoked laughter when Corzine took over the DSCC in late 2002, after the Democrats had lost control of the Senate in one of the worst midterm election setbacks ever for an opposition party. While the fight for dominance in the House of Representatives, where Republicans now hold an eleven-seat majority, could turn out to be competitive if Kerry takes off as a candidate, the Senate, where Republicans hold only a two-seat majority, is already up for grabs. That doesn’t mean that Democrats will retake the chamber. It just means that they have a chance to do so.

“When I came in, people were talking about minimizing losses,” recalls Corzine, a first-term senator who shook up the DSCC to make it more flexible and efficient and who gets credit for improving Democratic fortunes. He’s been a particularly effective recruiter of candidates and has convinced a number of state parties, though not all of them, to pull together and avoid bitter primary fights. And, although there are still worries about the extent to which Democratic contenders will be outspent in most states, he has persuaded fellow Democratic senators to raise money for candidates in competitive races. But Corzine is the first to admit that “we’ve gotten some political breaks that no one could have predicted: Republican retirements that offset our retirements and, maybe even more important, a shift in the mood regarding the direction of the country.” Lingering concerns about the economy are one factor; the other is that the war in Iraq no longer plays as positively as it once did.

On a recent campaign day in Appleton, Wisconsin, a Republican-leaning city that produced Senator Joseph McCarthy, Democratic Senator Feingold got a flavor of the changing mood. When Feingold, who won a second term in one of the closest races of 1998 and is seeking a third term this year, stopped into the Copper Rock Coffee Company, he encountered a group of locals who wanted to talk about the mess in Iraq. Feingold, who voted against the war, called it a “monumental failure of American foreign policy,” and many customers nodded in agreement. “People are really ill at ease about the war,” he says. “I think that makes it a lot harder for the Administration to question the patriotism of Democrats who disagree, or who seek a better debate.”

That’s a big deal, because in 2002 patriotism–defined as support for the President–proved to be a factor in the Democrats’ loss of the Senate. The most well-known example was Georgia Senator Max Cleland, the disabled Vietnam War vet who lost after being accused–directly in Republican attack ads and indirectly in Bush campaign appearances that suggested the “patriotic” vote was for his GOP opponent–of lacking the commitment to defend the country. White House political czar Karl Rove had planned to make national security issues a centerpiece of Republican campaigning in 2004 as well, but that’s become a dicier strategy as Americans have become more and more disturbed by the Administration’s conduct of the war in Iraq–and by the thought that, as Feingold and others suggest, Bush has steered resources away from the real war on terror.

The Abu Ghraib prison-abuse photos have taken their toll on Bush even in states like Oklahoma, where Democrats hope to pick up a Republican-held Senate seat. “He’s not near as popular in Oklahoma as he was. He’s lost a lot of support out here,” says Myrna Burman, the veteran political director of the Oklahoma AFL-CIO, of Bush. “I’m not saying that somebody’s going to beat him here, but he has gone down. I think a lot of people are worried about him. They may not express that worry by voting against him. But they might do it by voting for a Democrat for the Senate–somebody to keep an eye on him.”

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:

§ 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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