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The fight for the Senate

By Bruce Walker
web posted September 13, 2004

After the presidential election, the next most important political battle to watch in November will be the senatorial elections. The House of Representatives, after all, is the federal institution which is intended to most perfectly reflect the popular will. Unlike the Senate and the Presidency in the Constitution, who whose election was directly or indirectly made by state legislatures, House members were chosen directly by the people.

Moreover, the Supreme Court in the 1960s undid its earlier damage in the 1930s when it "interpreted" out of federal law the requirements placed by Republican congresses that congressional districts be equal in population (do not expect any political science instructor to know that gerrymandering was first ended by Republicans in Congress - that would expect that political science instructors know actual history.)

Republican gains in state legislatures during the last ten years, along with the fact that most incumbents are Republicans (and Democrats, confident that they would soon have a majority, stupidly opposed term limits) means that there are a handful of competitive seats. The Texas redistricting will give Republicans seven more congressmen without a single vote changing and Republicans who lost special elections in South Dakota and Kentucky will win one or two seats back for Republicans in November.

Translation? Republicans will gain at least four and as many as ten House seats, even if Democrats do well in the few truly competitive districts. Perhaps one day Democrats will push for term limits and for laws with the language Republicans put in federal laws over a century ago which required districts be "compact, contiguous and as nearly equal as practicable in population." Until they do, however, Republicans will rule the House of Representatives.

It is not coincidence the Democrats - who do not control most governorships or the most important governorships; who do not control most state legislative chambers; who do not control the House of Representatives, guided by a calm and thoughtful Speaker Hastert; and who do not control the White House - have focused all their dilatory actions on the Senate.

Until recently, it looked like Democrats have a river boat gambler's chance of retaking the Senate. After Labor Day, Republican prospects have brightened considerably. Consider the following.

Mel Martinez, supported by the President, the Governor and the Republican establishment, easily won the Republican nomination for the Senate in Florida. This Cuban-American conservative who has a pleasant personality and a long career of public service has an excellent chance of picking up a seat for Republicans (and helping the President carry Florida) in the Sunshine State.

Democrats largely have conceded that they will lose seats in both Georgia and South Carolina. National Democrats who savage Zell Miller forget that he is a very well known and very popular Democrat in four states with Democrats defending open Senate seats. As Democrats are compelled to write off North Carolina, the Miller Effect and Bush campaigning will increase the prospects of Republicans gaining yet a fourth seat in the Southeast.

If those races are called early, then the whole dynamic of the other Senate races changes, because with a gain of four Senate seats in the Southeast, which will be some of the first states whose elections are decided, will mean Republicans will control the United States Senate, even if they lose the four races which they can lose, and that voters in those states will have to choose between electing a minority party Democrat or a majority party Republican to the Senate.

By the time polls close in Oklahoma, and certainly by the same the polls close in Colorado and long before the polls close in Alaska, voters of those states will know whether they are electing a senator of the same political party as the Majority Leader of the Senate and of the President or electing a protest senator.

Tom Coburn
Coburn

The first state, Oklahoma, will pit two genuinely popular men - former congressmen Tom Coburn and retiring congressman Brad Carson. Everything points to a Coburn victory. His old congressional district, the Democrat stronghold in Oklahoma, is essentially Congressman Carson's old district. Both men are extremely popular and respected in that district, which means Carson cannot pile up a huge majority. Moreover, Coburn, like Martinez, won the Republican primary much more easily than expected.

President Bush will carry Oklahoma easily and polls now show Coburn with a clear lead. By the time Colorado and Alaska finishes voting, a Coburn win in Oklahoma will mean Republicans will have a larger majority in the Senate assured. That fact, in conjunction with the fact that President Bush will carry Alaska easily and Colorado fairly easily, will make winning one of those two races almost certain and both very possible.

Democrats may well also have some stunning and bad news before those polls close - Tom Daschle, the poster boy of Democrat obstructionism and the Democrat Floor Leader in the Senate, may well be repudiated by the voters of South Dakota. The loss of yet another Senate seat is bad enough, but the loss of their Senate leader will smell like a debacle.

Conservatives will place a bet, given the right odds, that Alan Keyes by hold a Senate seat in Illinois, but the odds are against it. What is not uncertain is that he will neutralize the efforts to energize blacks in Illinois. If Keyes wins, then Democrats may not capture a single Senate seat all evening long.

Just to the north, in Wisconsin, Russ Feingold may face real problems. His "reform" has proven a sick joke. Wisconsin, whose legislature is Republican, now consistently shows President Bush ahead. President Bush will be in Wisconsin - a lot - over the next two months. Feingold could lose.

In Dixie, the Louisiana Senate race will have the Republican Vitter emerge as the leading vote-getter and, at worst, in a runoff later in November. There is a chance that Vitter may actually get a majority, in which case he wins the Senate seat for Republicans that evening instead of competing for it weeks later. Republicans will probably win one of these three Senate races unexpectedly and pad their majority more before the West Coast and Rocky Mountain states vote. If that happens, Republicans will be assured of a significantly larger majority in the Senate when Californians and Washingtonians vote.

Conventional wisdom is that Senate Reid in Nevada is a sure winner, but he is running in a state which will likely go for Bush for a job that will be much less powerful if Republicans gain Senate seats. Conventional wisdom may be dead wrong: Reid, who barely won reelection last time, may lose this time.

If this happens, look for the dam to burst. If Reid has lost in Nevada, it will mean that Republicans have gained at least a net gain of five Senate seats (in addition to his seat) and being a Senate Democrat will matter very little in 2007. Two very weak Democrats, Murray in Washington and Boxer in California, will still be facing uncast ballots.

Arnold changes the whole situation in California and the decision by President Bush to always compete in California may well prove to be his craftiest move. If President Bush actually carries California, then he will have won by an undisputed landslide and Senator Boxer will lose to a respected and well known moderate Republican.

Patty Murray is also facing a very savvy Republican who knocked off a sitting Speaker of the House exactly ten years ago. Washington State Democrats are bickering and Washington is a winnable state. If Bush carries Washington, Nethercutt will win too.

This means Republicans may reach, or come close to reaching, their filibuster-proof majority if President Bush continues to do well in head to head polls against Senator Kerry. This will put Democrats on the horns of a dilemma and we are already seeing evidence of it in South Dakota. Senate Democrat candidates in states which President Bush will carry easily (which is most of the key races) will either need to stand by Kerry and go down in flames or disassociate themselves and insure a crushing Kerry defeat.

The problem for Democrats is that protecting their Senate Democrats by standing a step or two away from Kerry will demoralize the Democrat base in other races. That means that not only will Kerry lose big, and Bush become a "legitimate" president, but that Democrats will lose many state government races as well, as the cracks in Democrat unity encourage Democrats to stay home.

Moreover, the longer President Bush maintains his bounce, the more contracted and desperate the decision for Senate Democrats. Daschle is running ads with him hugging President Bush now, because he knows that late September and early October is far too late. The cracks in Democrat unity are growing and soon the fissures will be gaping holes.

Bruce Walker is a senior writer with Enter Stage Right. He is also a frequent contributor to The Pragmatist and The Common Conservative.

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