What do Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean and National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Ensign have in common?
The answer is that both agree, at least for now, that the Democratic Party will increase its present 51-to-49 seat advantage in the U.S. Senate after elections this November.
In back to back meetings hosted by the Christian Science Monitor in Washington last week, the chairman of the DNC and head of the campaign arm for Senate Republicans differed only in the number of seats they anticipated Democrats will have after the ’08 elections. Dean told a Monitor breakfast on Wednesday, June 11, that he expected “we’ll pick up from 5-to-7 seats” in the Senate. At a Monitor lunch the next day, Nevada Sen. Ensign told reporters that for his party to lose no more than three seats this fall “would be a terrific night for us. I don’t want to slip below the four-seat loss.”
On Friday, a day after Ensign set the bar for a loss of Republican seats in the Senate, I attended an off-the-record lunch of folks who watch campaigns, candidates, and polling closely. The conclusion of these “political insiders” was with 24 Republican-held Senate seats (two — in Mississippi and Wyoming — to fill vacancies) and only eleven Democrat-held seats facing the voters, with five Republican incumbents retiring and all Democrats seeking re-election (and with an NBC-Wall Street Journal poll showing voters nationwide preferring a Democratic Congress to a Republican Congress by 52%-to-33%) the question is not whether Republicans will lose Senate seats but just how many.
The critical significance of an enhanced Senate majority for Democrats cannot be understated. Although no one is yet betting that Democrats will come near the 60 seat-“super-majority” they need to break Republican-led filibusters, a gain in the 5-to-7 seat figure Dean predicted would make it extremely difficult for a President McCain to secure a Supreme Court nominee unacceptable to Democrats, or to have vetoes of spending bills sustained.
At the same time, a larger Democratic majority would make it easier for a President Obama to get confirmation of liberal nominees to the high court, (assuming, of course, that Republicans do not engage in the practice they criticized Senate Democrats for and filibuster judicial appointees) a high-spending budget, or whatever is on his agenda.
Of ten states holding what he considered the most competitive races, Ensign listed only one — Louisiana — that is in Democratic hands. The Pelican State’s two-term Sen. Mary Landrieu faces a strong challenge from a Republican state treasurer with the noteworthy name of John Kennedy. Two other states he named have incumbent Republican senators retiring: Colorado, where former Rep. Bob Schaffer is locked in tight battle with Democratic Rep. Mark Udall, and New Mexico, where Rep. Steve Pearce faces Democratic Rep. Tom Udall (yes, the two Senate nominees are first cousins). Recent polls give New Mexico’s Udall a fifteen-point lead statewide, although conservatives note that Pearce waged a dramatic come-from-behind primary win over moderate Rep. Heather Wilson, who had the blessings of retiring Sen. Pete Domenici.
No one is writing Pearce off.
Ensign did put Virginia on his “top ten” list, but right now Republican former Gov. Jim Gilmore is trailing Democratic former Gov. Mark Warner in double-digits in most polls. Last week, former GOP state legislators Vince Callahan and John Chichester, both moderate Republicans, made headlines by endorsing Warner.
There may well be some dark clouds out there for Republicans in the Senate races. In Mississippi, several recent polls have shown Sen. Roger Wicker, appointed to replace fellow Republican Trent Lott when the veteran senator resigned from office late last year, now in a neck-and-neck race with Democratic opponent and former Gov. Ronnie Musgrave. North Carolina’s Sen. Elizabeth Dole, long thought to be a slam-dunk for re-election, got a bit of a jolt with a poll showing her race tightening up. Dole faces Democratic State Sen. Kay Hagan, niece of the late Florida Sen. and Gov. Lawton Chiles.
“Overnight is an eternity in politics,” former Secretary of State James Baker once mused. The daunting poll numbers and overall math in the Senate races could change for Republicans. For now, however, that Howard Dean and John Ensign more or less agree on the outcome has to be a bit alarming, to say the least, for Republicans in ’08.