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The Senate is the race to watch

By Paul M. Weyrich
web posted January 12, 2004

It's that time of the year to reflect, isn't it? Or perhaps that was one of the many things I didn't get done at the end of last year. Well, no matter. I'm going to reflect, anyway. Having survived 2003, I'm glad to be alive and reasonably well now that it is 2004. We news devotees can't ever get enough of breaking stories, but I swear if there was one more breaking story last year it would have been me who broke. Talk about overload. If I was away from Fox News or the Internet for more than a couple of hours, my associates would look at me as if I just crawled out of Saddam's hole in Iraq. "You haven't heard..." So the refrain would go. At times, believe me, I wanted to shout "No, and I don't want to know". That would be the one time it would turn out to be good news. It is no wonder projections suggest that newspapers as we know them will not exist in a couple of decades, maybe sooner. After all newspapers cannot interrupt anything useful you are doing in life with "breaking news".

I have to admit that I am a political junkie. I have been since I was a freshman in high school and I went door to door for Ike and Nixon in the1956 election.

It used to be, and indeed was even up until 2000, that I would get especially enthused about Presidential elections. And in off years, Congressional elections could produce a Pavlovian response. Not this year. I can't put my finger on it but instead of not being able to wait for the next "You Decide 2004" television feature I have a real sense of dread about this election. In other years we have had a paucity of good candidates. And in some campaigns the charges got pretty nasty. There is something about this Presidential election that makes me want to request a medically induced coma now and have it reversed when this is all over.

This election does have some vague resemblance to 1968 when there was also a war on. But unless age has really done in my memory, I don't recall a Presidential campaign where the climate was as bad. During his time in office a lot of conservatives hated Bill Clinton. Still, I don't think that level of hatred can hold a candle to what is being exhibited in some liberal circles these days. Perhaps I missed something, but I don't recall seeing any conservatives who hated President Clinton so much that they became totally irrational. True there were right-wing conspiracy theories back then just as there are conspiracy theories on the left today. I'm not speaking of that. When someone is hated, it is not unusual for very reasonable people to speculate on the darkest of motives of their opponents. My late father, God rest his soul, used to tell me about the hatred some Republicans had for FDR. It reached the point that many were convinced that he plotted for a couple of years to get us into World War II. No, I am talking about a level of hatred which causes people to foam at the mouth, to become unintelligible, to cease hearing anything which might calm the rage. I have encountered this and it is ugly.

Whether you like President George W. Bush or not, whether you think he "stole" the 2000 election or not, whether you oppose the war in Iraq or not, whether you think the prescription drug benefit is a great or a terrible move, whether large deficits scare you or not, whether you favor a weak or strong dollar, whether you live for free trade or think it is a fraud, whether you believe anything George Bush does is political or not, is he worth becoming mentally unstable over? What is there about this man which causes some liberals to claim, on the one hand, that he is the most stupid and uneducated President we have ever had, while on the other hand claiming that the man is so brilliant that he calculates to the nth power his every action, figuring down to the day and time how each move will help him politically. Choose one, because it can't be both. Or perhaps by insisting that both are true some liberals have gone off the deep end mentally.

So forgive me. I used to be almost childlike in my love for Presidential contests, as I felt they were splendid examples of how the democratic process worked. I fear this election will be messy and insubstantial. I hope I am dead wrong. I hope 2004 will turn out to be interesting and fought out on issues rather than ad hominum attacks. I fear my fear is right. Perhaps studying Congressional elections instead can distract me. If the Supreme Court upholds the Texas redistricting law, we will have to be plunged into an economic depression for Democrats to take back the House. If the Texas delegation has to run in its current configuration, Democrats have a slight chance to regain control, but it is hard to see how Republicans can't win at least 223 seats, even if they blow things badly. Only 218 seats are needed for control. The very able political scientist Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia says if the Texas redistricting law is upheld, Republicans could win as many as 240 seats.

Tom DeLay

If that happens Tom DeLay may replace George Bush as the most hated man on the left. So if the House is uninteresting, what about the Senate? There is an outside chance that the Democrats could take it back. But that would mean holding all five seats of the Southern Democrats who are retiring, plus winning Illinois and/or Alaska and Oklahoma. That is a pretty tall order. It becomes a near impossibility if the Democrats nominate a Presidential candidate who is not attractive to as many as a quarter of the party faithful. If they do nominate a candidate who can unite the party, then it will take a close election for the Democrats to win the Senate. Clearly, it is almost certain the Democrats will win Illinois. It will be hard for them to win Senate seats in Alaska and Oklahoma if Bush is carrying those states by 20 points as he did last time. But it might happen. Sen. Lisa Murkowski is not pro-life the way her father was, and he suffers from the nepotism charge since he appointed her.

While the Democrat candidate, two term former Gov. Tony Knowles is also not pro-life, there is talk of pro lifers running a third party candidate. Knowles was first elected Governor because of that kind of split among the Republicans. So unless Sen. Murkowski can dodge that bullet she might be defeated. Right now in Oklahoma, former Oklahoma City Mayor Kirk Humphries is running neck and neck with Rep. Brad Carson, the lone Democrat in the Oklahoma Congressional delegation. Some conservatives, worried that Humphries will not run an aggressive enough campaign, are urging Rep. Ernest Istook to get in the race as well. Istook took himself out at the urging of Senator Jim Inhofe and others. But at the time he said he had closed the door, but hadn't locked it. Istook is a very able campaigner and would certainly give Carson a run for his money, assuming he could defeat Humphries in the primary.

It will be hard for Democrats to hold on to all five Southern Senate seats. Depending on the political climate in Florida, a Democrat is more likely to hold on to the seat there than in any of those Southern states. They have also demonstrated that they can win tight races in Louisiana, having won a close run-off in 2002 for the Senate and an equally close Governors race in 2003. Senator John Breaux has been grooming Cong. Chris John to succeed him, although Cong. David Vitter, if he makes the runoff, will let Rep. John know he has been in a real race. If Georgia produces the right result in the GOP primary, there is a real chance to elect a Republican there, but if the primary goes the wrong way, Georgia could well stay in the Democrat column. North Carolina tends to elect Republicans to the Senate in Presidential years. It will be tough for the Democrats to hold that seat, but they might. South Carolina is now the most Republican of the five states, but tens of thousands of jobs have been lost there in the textile and other industries. There is also a potentially divisive GOP primary.

With a skilled campaign, a Democrat might hang on there but it will be tough. There is one other race where an incumbent could be in some trouble. Sen. Patty Murray of Washington state is being opposed by Congressman George Nethercutt. Nethercutt ousted then-Speaker Tom Foley. Right now, Murray is way ahead but that is the sort of race that could have a strong finish. Senator Barbara Boxer of California is also in some trouble but unless the Bush campaign determines that they have a chance to win California, a Senate candidate would be hard pressed to find the resources to make the race competitive. In a late surprise move, Thune is in. Last month, Thune said he would not be a candidate for his old job, but things have changed and the former U.S. Rep. John Thune, (R-SD) will challenge Democratic Sen. Tom Daschle. This will be exciting because Thune can give Daschle a real race. Of and by itself beating the Democratic leader would be huge for Republicans, but it would also give Republicans more control of the Senate.

In short, the Senate is the one place where the politics will be interesting and hopefully not as vitriolic as the Presidential race. Since there is a shot at Democrats taking back the Senate (right now it is, for practical purposes 51 to 49 GOP), lots of resources will be spent on both sides.

So, I guess I'll try to stay awake and satisfy my political cravings by following the Senate very closely. Perhaps in doing so it will help me filter out what I see coming at the Presidential level.

Paul M. Weyrich is Chairman and CEO of the Free Congress Foundation.

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