Early last year, some notable Senate leaders on both sides of the aisle speculated that the Democrats just might gain enough seats in 2008 to hit 60 votes, a filibuster-proof majority on strict party-line votes. At the time, the prospect seemed pretty outlandish.
When I heard it from Democrats, it seemed like overly optimistic happy talk -- the kind frequently ventured after a landslide win such as the one they enjoyed in 2006. Hearing the idea from Republicans was a bit more interesting, but I considered it a fundraising tool, the kind of "apocalypse is coming" hyperbole that first appeared in over-caffeinated direct mail -- and, more recently, e-mail--appeals for money. Since neither the Federal Trade Commission nor the mail-fraud folks at the U.S. Postal Service pay any attention to political fundraising, Republicans were pretty safe crying, "The sky is falling!"
These days, Democrats still seem very unlikely to make the nine-seat gain necessary to reach 60, no matter whether Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut is wearing a blue, red, or independent purple jersey next season. But talk of hitting that threshold doesn't sound nearly as insane today as it did 20 months ago. Although Republicans enjoyed a brief burst of euphoria immediately after John McCain selected Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate, effectively giving the 72-year-old nominee the political equivalent of a Vitamin B12 shot, the rush has subsided. And most folks who watch Senate races closely say that the outlook for Republicans has deteriorated in recent weeks.
Today, holding its losses down to four seats would be manna from heaven for the GOP. Party leaders would take a five- or six-seat loss in stride, given the circumstances. A seven-seat loss would be bad but not shockingly horrible. Even an eight-seat loss is possible if Democrats draw an inside straight, as they did in 2006.
For Republicans, holding the open GOP seat in Virginia has been hopeless for a long time. Keeping the seat being vacated by Republican Pete Domenici in New Mexico is likewise close to a lost cause. And although the Palin pick helped GOP incumbent Ted Stevens close the gap in Alaska, he remains the underdog, both with his home-state voters and the jury that was being selected this week in his federal ethics trial in Washington.
Six other Republican seats are now basically toss-ups -- those held by Norm Coleman of Minnesota, Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina, Gordon Smith of Oregon, John Sununu of New Hampshire, and Roger Wicker of Mississippi, plus the seat that Wayne Allard is giving up in Colorado. The GOP's prospects in Minnesota, Oregon, and North Carolina have dimmed a bit in the past month or two. The GOP candidates are trailing by a little in New Hampshire and Colorado; running about even in Minnesota, Oregon, and North Carolina; and polling a bit ahead in Mississippi.
Meanwhile, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky have solid leads but spirited challengers. Both are still favored, but McConnell's margin of victory could be much smaller than commonly expected. In the only contest where a Democratic seat is in jeopardy, incumbent Mary Landrieu of Louisiana is running the best Senate race of her career and so far appears to be on track to win a third term.
It seems farfetched that Republicans would lose Stevens, Sununu, Dole, Coleman, Smith, and Wicker, in addition to relinquishing the even more endangered open seats in Virginia, New Mexico, and Colorado, but a net loss of nine seats -- or eight if they topple Landrieu and keep Collins and McConnell in office -- is no longer implausible. In 2006, the odds against a six-seat Republican loss were equally strong, but it happened.
History shows, moreover, that close Senate races tend to break in the same direction, as they did two years ago.
The bottom line is that things have gotten worse for Senate Republicans over the past few weeks, so much worse that a magnitude of losses that seemed impossible just a few months ago now seems entirely possible.
This article appears in the September 27, 2008 edition of National Journal Magazine.
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