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COVER STORY

Senate GOP Downsizing Again

With 11 Republican-held seats in some degree of danger, Democrats are likely to pick up eight to 10.

When the starting gun fired for the 2008 election cycle, Senate Democrats took off out of the blocks on a much easier course than the one their Republican counterparts had to run. In an election that has been more like an Ironman competition than a traditional marathon, Democrats have benefited from their ability to recruit challengers and raise money on flatter terrain than the GOP and, likewise, to be campaigning in much calmer waters.

The Democrats started the first leg of this race fresh off their 2006 pickup of six seats that gave them control of the Senate. When Democrats looked ahead this year, they saw a racecourse studded with opportunities. They needed to defend only 12 of their own seats, while Republicans faced the larger task of protecting 23. Democrats rounded the first turn in the race--persuading all 12 incumbents to seek re-election--easily. The Republicans were not as fortunate: Five of their incumbents decided that this Congress would be their last.

 

Retirements aren't always dangerous for a political party. More important are the political leanings of the states where vacancies occur and, at times, the circumstances that led to the incumbent's departure. GOP Sen. Chuck Hagel's decision to give up his seat in very Republican Nebraska, for example, didn't put that seat in much jeopardy. And embattled Sen. Larry Craig's decision to call it quits will help keep his Idaho seat in the GOP's column. However, the retirement announcements of Sens. Wayne Allard of Colorado, Pete Domenici of New Mexico, and John Warner of Virginia made their seats difficult--if not impossible--for the Republicans to hold. Those seats now rank as the ones the Democrats are expected to have the easiest time flipping.

Domenici and Warner probably would have easily won re-election. Although Allard would have had a more competitive race, he would have started with the advantage of incumbency. But all three seats are in states where Democrats have had success in recent years, states that, from the beginning of this cycle, were on Democrats' target list for the presidential race. Those states also had a backlog of qualified Democrats looking to move up the political ladder, which helped the party recruit first-tier candidates.

Senate Democrats were propelled through the second leg of their 2008 race by superior financial and tactical resources. As of September 30, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee had raised a stunning $117.3 million, compared with the National Republican Senatorial Committee's $74.3 million. Democrats' fundraising success allowed them to expand the playing field, targeting additional GOP incumbents and providing their challengers with nearly unprecedented financial support, most often through "independent expenditure" television ads that hit saturation levels in many states. As the number of competitive GOP-held seats grew, the Republicans' resources were stretched thin.

 

As in 2006, the DSCC has mounted a comprehensive field program to identify and turn out their voters. The Senate campaign committee has no doubt coordinated this venture with the record-breaking operation by Barack Obama's presidential campaign to register new voters.

In the 2002 and 2004 elections, Republican incumbents and challengers benefited from the Republican National Committee's 72-Hour Program to get the GOP base and GOP-leaning independents motivated and to the polls. The effort paid off in Republican gains. But the party didn't replicate that program in 2006, nor does it appear to have a comprehensive field operation to get Republicans to the polls this year. Although the RNC does have a coordinated campaign in many states, its drive seems more focused on the presidential race than on down-ballot contests, putting Senate Republicans at a further disadvantage.

Perhaps Senate Republicans' greatest challenge, though, has been the final leg of the race, where they have had to contend with a daunting landscape. A political environment that was unfriendly to the GOP in 2006 turned downright hostile this fall, endangering otherwise safe incumbents, even against challengers who were not Democrats' first, second, or even third choice.

President Bush was unpopular in the 2006 election cycle largely because of the Iraq war. His job-approval rating--27 percent in the most recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll--plunged lower as the economy was rushed to the intensive care unit. Moreover, Bush's unpopularity rubbed off on many congressional Republicans. Voters appear willing to accept that almost any GOP senator has marched in lockstep with the president on nearly every issue. The message, "Senator X has voted with President Bush Y percent of the time," is damaging, even when the charge is something of a stretch.

 

Voters are angry and pessimistic. In that NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, 78 percent of respondents said that the country was on the wrong track. Only 12 percent said that it was headed in the right direction. A majority (57 percent) predicted that the economy will get worse or stay the same over the next 12 months; 38 percent said that it will improve. Finally, 59 percent said they personally have been somewhat or greatly affected by the economic downturn.

Congress is even less popular than Bush. Just 12 percent of respondents said they approved of the job that Congress was doing, the lowest number recorded in this survey's history. Seventy-nine percent disapproved. Yet, even though Democrats control both the House and the Senate, voters are far more upset with Republicans.

The mid-September onset of the financial crisis made an already harsh political environment even worse for Republicans. Reeling from the federal bailout of banks and insurance companies, the shrinking value of savings socked away in 401(k) plans, and the prospect of skyrocketing unemployment rates, voters seem to be approaching a breaking point. In the postmortem analyses of the presidential contest, the financial meltdown will likely mark the tipping point. For congressional races, a different metaphor may be more apt: The worsening economy has acted like an accelerant, expanding the conflagration that was already expected to consume quite a few Republican-held seats.

Because of their growing number of advantages, Democrats late this summer found themselves in a position to aim higher. Suddenly, gaining the nine seats they need to reach the theoretically filibuster-proof 60 became realistic. Although some observers speculate that shooting for 60 was always part of the Democrats' grand plan, party strategists did a good job of playing down the possibility until recently, when fundraising appeals and even television ads started a drumbeat and the media began assessing the Democrats' chances.

Aiming for 60

So, how close are Democrats to attaining the magic number of 60? Too close for the liking of Republican strategists.

After not losing a single seat in 2006, Democrats are again on track to protect all of their incumbents. For much of this election cycle, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana was the only vulnerable Democratic incumbent. A number of factors contributed to her precarious position, including her state's increasingly Republican tilt and her history of running weak campaigns. But Landrieu seemed to learn from her mistakes, and she ran aggressively this time. She did not let her GOP challenger, state Treasurer John Kennedy, gain much traction. And Kennedy hasn't proven to be as strong a competitor as many strategists expected. The Republican base has not fully embraced him, partly because he was a Democrat until August 2007. Landrieu is poised to win a third term.

If Democrats can hold all 12 of the seats they have up this time, they will need to pick up nine more to reach 60. The party's best opportunities are in the open-seat races in Colorado, New Mexico, and Virginia. The Virginia contest was virtually over before it started. Former Democratic Gov. Mark Warner jumped into the race soon after GOP incumbent John Warner announced his retirement. After Rep. Tom Davis opted out of the Senate race, former Gov. Jim Gilmore became the GOP nominee, but he has struggled to raise money and organize a competitive campaign.

In New Mexico, Democrats ultimately cleared the field for Rep. Tom Udall to be their nominee for Domenici's seat, while Republican Reps. Heather Wilson and Steve Pearce battled each other in a divisive primary. Pearce narrowly defeated the more moderate Wilson, but his conservative credentials haven't served him well in the swing state's general election contest. As Obama's chances of carrying the state improved, Pearce's already slim chances of holding the seat for his party diminished and then vanished.

Democrats had a harder time nailing down the seat in Colorado, where Democratic Rep. Mark Udall, Tom Udall's cousin, is running against former GOP Rep. Bob Schaffer. Colorado is another swing state that both presidential nominees have targeted. The NRSC and several Republican-leaning third-party groups have spent heavily to try to hold the seat. Over the past couple of weeks, though, it has become apparent that Udall has built a decisive lead.

Flipping this trio of open seats would expand the Democratic majority to 54. In the Democrats' quest for an additional six, the Republican seats of Sens. John Sununu of New Hampshire, Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina, Gordon Smith of Oregon, and Ted Stevens of Alaska appear the most vulnerable.

Given New Hampshire's changed political climate and influx of Democratic voters, it is not surprising that Sununu has trailed former Democratic Gov. Jeanne Shaheen throughout the race. In 2002, Sununu defeated Shaheen by 4 points in an open-seat contest. This year, Shaheen's support has hovered around 50 percent, while Sununu has been mired in the low-to-mid-40s, a dangerous place for any incumbent.

In North Carolina, Dole faces an aggressive challenge from state Sen. Kay Hagan, who has questioned the incumbent's effectiveness and attentiveness to her constituents. Dole hurt herself by failing to spend a lot of time in the state in 2005 and 2006, when she chaired the NRSC. Also working against Dole is the Obama campaign's bid to put North Carolina in play in the presidential contest. The Senate race is tight, but Dole trailed Hagan--from 1 to 5 points--in all of the public polls taken in October. Again, it is difficult for incumbents in this position to come back, because few of the "undecideds" are likely to end up voting for the status quo.

Oregon's Smith is a good example of how even moderate Republican incumbents can be successfully tied to the unpopular Bush, and Democrats have been aggressively making that link. The charge is sticking because voters don't have a good sense of who Smith is or what he has accomplished in the Senate. The Democratic challenger, state House Speaker Jeff Merkley, has pounded on the need for change and attacked Smith's voting record. Although Smith trails Merkley, polling indicates that both candidates are slogging along in the low 40s. In a state as blue as Oregon, where Obama has a sizable lead over John McCain, the odds appear to be working against the incumbent.

Meanwhile, a federal court dealt the Senate GOP a blow this week. On Monday, a jury in Washington found Stevens, 84, guilty on all seven felony counts of concealing $250,000 in gifts and renovations to his residence. The incumbent could be sentenced to 35 years in prison. He says he plans to appeal, and has accused prosecutors of misconduct.

In almost any other state, such a conviction would certainly end a political career. But although Stevens's chances of being re-elected are slim, it is not inconceivable that voters will give him a seventh term. After all, before his trial started in late September, he trailed his Democratic challenger, Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich, by 10 points. As the trial wore on, Stevens's poll numbers improved. And the most recent public survey, taken midway through the trial, gave Begich just a 1-point advantage.

Alaska voters are well aware of Stevens's ability to bring home enormous sums of federal money. "Uncle Ted," as he is known, has been the most prominent politician in the state for more than 40 years. Many voters know him personally. Alaskans have paid close attention to the trial. And there is anecdotal evidence that many don't think the failure to report gifts is a serious crime. Instead, they see Stevens as a victim of overzealous prosecutors who tried to hide evidence and keep the defense from getting access to potential witnesses. All of that works to Stevens's advantage.

Many Republican leaders, including Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, her party's vice presidential nominee; McCain; and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, have called on Stevens to resign. Democrats are also working to remind voters that a majority of legal appeals fail and that even if Stevens succeeds on appeal, the Senate could vote to expel him.

Such tactics may well persuade a majority of voters that they are better off electing a new senator. But the tactics could also backfire if independent-minded Alaskans feel that outsiders are interfering.

Begich struggled to get attention during the trial, but now that Stevens has returned to the state to campaign, the Democrat will undoubtedly be a constant presence in the news.

The odds are against Stevens, but this resourceful politician should not be counted out yet.

Closing In

Winning in New Hampshire, North Carolina, Oregon, and Alaska would put Democrats at 58 seats, leaving them in search of at least two more wins among the five remaining vulnerable Republican incumbents.

GOP Sens. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia and Norm Coleman of Minnesota are slightly ahead of their Democratic opponents, as is appointed Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi. The Georgia race didn't become competitive until early October, and Democrats' newfound hope there can be attributed almost entirely to the economy. Chambliss has run a television ad explaining his support for the bailout package. That vote angered many conservatives, some of whom were already upset by his position on immigration. The Democratic challenger, former state Rep. Jim Martin, remains largely unknown to voters, despite his 18 years in the Legislature and a bid for lieutenant governor in 2006.

Chambliss seems to have stopped or at least slowed Martin's momentum by attacking his challenger's legislative record, but one complication makes the outcome of this contest uncertain. Under Georgia law, if no candidate gets 50 percent of the vote, a runoff is held in early December. Chambliss hasn't hit that 50 percent mark in polling. The Libertarian Party candidate in the race could prevent him--or Martin, for that matter--from crossing that threshold.

In Minnesota, Coleman is locked in a statistical dead heat with Democrat Al Franken. Independence Party nominee Dean Barkley, who was appointed to serve in the Senate for two months after the October 2002 death of Paul Wellstone, is pulling 18 percent of the vote in most recent polls. Coleman and Franken are both in the mid-30s.

Coleman made this race harder for himself by announcing in mid-October that he wouldn't run any more negative ads. The NRSC has continued to air television spots attacking satirist Franken, however, allowing Democrats to accuse Coleman of breaking his pledge, even though Coleman has no control over what the NRSC does. Nevertheless, Coleman has put himself in a no-win situation figuratively--and perhaps literally.

Franken also added a new element to the race by airing a late television ad in which Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton talks about the importance of Democrats' having 60 Senate seats and touts Franken as the possible 60th seat. Clinton got trounced here in Minnesota's presidential caucuses, so it will be interesting to see whether her appeal motivates Democrats or fires up Republicans.

Barkley's presence in the race makes predicting the outcome very difficult. The eventual victor might win with less than 40 percent of the vote.

In Mississippi, Wicker has two worries going into Election Day. The first is turnout among African-American voters, who could make up 35 to 38 percent of the electorate. Such a surge could propel former Democratic Gov. Ronnie Musgrove to victory because he would then need to win only 22 to 25 percent of white voters' support. In 2004, Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry took just 14 percent of the white vote and 40 percent of the state's total.

Wicker's second problem is that because this is a special election, the candidates' party affiliations won't be listed on the ballot. That could significantly shorten McCain's coattails. Few public polls have been taken in this Senate race. The most recent ones show Wicker leading, although not by more than the margin of error.

The Final Target

The final vulnerable Republican seat is in Kentucky: Senate Minority Leader McConnell faces two-time gubernatorial candidate Bruce Lunsford. McConnell has emphasized his clout and ability to bring home federal dollars. He has attacked Lunsford for his business dealings, particularly his role as a director and the former chief executive officer of a chain of clinics that provide health care services to veterans. Lunsford has relied largely on a message that emphasizes the need for change and links McConnell to Bush.

Recent polling put McConnell a few points ahead but not outside the margin of error. Apart from running a strong, well-financed campaign, McConnell has two advantages. First, McCain should carry the state easily; the Obama campaign, in fact, is barely present. Second, Kentucky is only 7 percent African-American, so high turnout among black voters shouldn't alter this contest.

Winning McConnell's seat would be a tremendous prize for Democrats, both for its psychological impact and for the opportunity to avenge the 2004 defeat of then-Democratic Leader Tom Daschle. Still, McConnell is favored to eke out a win.

Going into Election Day, Republicans have 11 seats in some degree of danger. To reach 60, Democrats need to capture nine, a task that is hardly impossible. In all likelihood, they will add eight to 10 seats to their majority.

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