As the 2008 campaign approaches, Democrats look almost certain to maintain and expand their Senate majority, writes LIZ MAIR.
The magic number in Senate politics is 60 - the "supermajority" of senators required to break a filibuster. After the 2004 election, some Republicans reckoned that a 60-member partisan caucus might soon be within their grasp. But the 2006 election dashed those hopes. Now, as the 2008 campaign season approaches, Senate Democrats look almost certain to maintain and expand their majority. Indeed, if current trends hold - a big if - they may wind up tantalizingly close to the 60-vote plateau.
In the 2008 election, 34 Senate seats will be up for grabs - and Republicans currently hold 22 of them. Five of the Senate Republicans up for reelection are retiring at the end of their current terms, so in those races the GOP will lack the advantage of incumbency. Republicans remain broadly unpopular with much of the electorate. According to a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, only 35 percent of Americans want the GOP to regain its Congressional majority. Perhaps most troubling for Republicans, a number of the Senate seats being contested next year represent states that are either trending Democratic or are already Democratic strongholds - much to the delight of New York Senator Chuck Schumer, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
One such state is Virginia, where two ex-governors, centrist Democrat Mark Warner and conservative Republican Jim Gilmore, are vying to succeed five-term Republican John Warner (no relation to Mark Warner). Governor Warner is already the heavy favorite to win. He left office in 2006 with a remarkable 72 percent approval rating, raised more than $1 million in just over two weeks of campaigning, and remains well known in liberal-leaning, population-heavy Northern Virginia. A recent Washington Post poll showed him beating Gilmore by 30 points.
This reflects a broader trend in the Old Dominion State, where Democrats are clearly on the rise. They have won the past two gubernatorial races, and last year they toppled Republican Senator George Allen, who had once been touted as presidential material. So the chances of the GOP's holding the Virginia seat look exceedingly slim.
So do Republican chances in Colorado, where Republican Senator Wayne Allard is retiring against a backdrop of growing anti-GOP sentiment. His most likely successor will either be conservative Republican Bob Schaffer, a former congressman, or liberal Democrat Mark Udall, who currently represents Colorado’s 2nd Congressional District. Recent history does not bode well for Schaffer.
In 2004, Colorado voters elected the Salazar brothers, two Hispanic Democrats, to replace retiring Republicans Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a senator, and Scott McInnis, a congressman. They also put Democrats in control of the state legislature, and very nearly went for John Kerry in the presidential contest. In 2006, Democrats increased their legislative majority, won the governor’s mansion, and picked up a further congressional seat. So it comes as little surprise that pundits are already predicting a Schaffer loss in 2008, despite strong fundraising and apparent support from the state GOP.
New Hampshire is yet another problem for Republicans. After supporting George W. Bush in 2000, the Granite State went for Kerry four years later. In 2006, New Hampshire dumped its two Republican congressmen and gave Democrats control of both houses of the state legislature for the first time since 1874. Next year, Republican Senator John Sununu will probably face a rematch with his 2002 opponent, Jeanne Shaheen, a former Democratic governor, whom Sununu narrowly beat last time around. A recent University of New Hampshire poll showed Shaheen trouncing him by a margin of 54 percent to 38 percent. She boasts a 56/25 favorable/unfavorable ratio, compared to a 40/37 ratio for Sununu.
Sununu seems to be plagued by his partisan label more than anything else—and he’s not alone. In New Mexico, whichever GOP Senate candidate is nominated to succeed retiring Republican Pete Domenici will face that same problem, as will GOP Senators Norm Coleman of Minnesota, Gordon Smith of Oregon, and Susan Collins of Maine. (Coleman, Smith, and Collins all represent states that went for Kerry in 2004.)
Only in Louisiana does the letter “R” look to be a positive attribute for a 2008 Senate candidate. Indeed, Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu may be in jeopardy. Just last month, Republican Congressman Bobby Jindal won the Louisiana governorship with 54 percent of vote, enough to avoid a second-round runoff. For the upcoming Senate race, Republicans have recruited John Kennedy, the state treasurer, who was so determined to beat Landrieu that he switched his party affiliation.
There is another interesting angle in Louisiana: the post-Katrina displacement of many traditional Democratic voters. The hurricane forced a disproportionate number of Bayou State Democrats to relocate outside Louisiana, where they continue to live—and vote.
Of course, that also sums up how awful things look for Republicans heading into next year’s election: their only realistic hope for a 2008 Senate pickup stems partly from a natural disaster.