A Senate Truly Controlled by Democrats?

Washington Matters

A Senate Truly Controlled by Democrats?

Congressional Republicans have a lot more to worry about than simply losing ground. Democrats have a serious shot at ending up with the 60 seats they need to truly control the Senate by having the votes to block GOP filibusters and pass the legislation they want. That would be great news for a President Obama and a grim prospect for a President McCain.

While most analysts and observers pooh-pooh the notion of Democrats hitting the magic mark of 60, it's becoming clear that there are enough wobbly Republican seats to put it well within the realm of possibility.

Senate Republicans are in the weakest condition I have seen them in in 26 years of covering national politics. And while it's certainly true that a great deal can happen in five months, it is also true that trends such as these tend to get worse, not better.

Republicans have at least seven seats that are in serious jeopardy (Alaska, Colorado, Minnesota, Mississippi, New Hampshire, New Mexico and Virginia), and if the political atmosphere is anywhere as poisonous for them in November as it is now, they can count on losing most of them. On top of that, there are two Republican senators in relatively liberal states --
Maine and Oregon -- that are problematic despite the popularity of the two moderate incumbents.

But that's not the end of it. Republicans have at least three more Senate seats -- seats held by veteran incumbents in solidly red states that have long been considered safe -- that are in danger. Polls show that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of
Kentucky, Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina and Pat Roberts of Kansas face serious challenges. McConnell appears to be in the most trouble, only four points ahead of his Democratic foe, according to one recent poll. And Dole and Roberts are displaying enough weakness that well-run campaigns by challengers in a big Democratic year could sweep them away. While Roberts holds leads of nine to 12 points in three recent surveys, two of them show him polling below 50% -- a political distress signal -- for the first time since he won the seat.

Having these three seats in jeopardy is an especially ominous sign for three reasons:

  • Senate races are generally very local and independent of national trends, but these races suggest that voters are seeing Senate contests this year from a national perspective and appear ready to reward one party and punish the other for what they see as the sour state of the union. If a tidal wave of Democratic support can strike this deeply into the heart of the Republican Party, surely it will wipe out most of the other more tenuously held seats.
  • Vulnerability of party stalwarts in heavily Republican states exposes an extraordinary depth of disappointment -- if not rage -- that is not only difficult to reverse, but can also easily snowball. Opponents smell blood and grow more motivated to organize and vote, while the incumbents' supporters become discouraged. And the Democrats already have significantly more cash to bankroll advertising campaigns and get out the vote drives.
  • Having so many seats in play while Democrats have only one seat in serious jeopardy (Mary Landrieu's seat in Louisiana) will force Republicans to spread out their already strained resources. And reliable fund-raisers and campaigners such as McConnell and Dole will be pinned down at home trying to salvage their own seats.

With such potent forces already gathering, and feeding one another, it's really not difficult to see Democrats taking most or all of the seven most vulnerable seats and two to four of the five others that appear to be in play, putting gains of eight to 11 seats well within the realm of reason.

And it's only June. Two years ago this month -- and even on the eve of the election -- few thought Democrats had much chance of winning the six seats they needed to capture of majority. But the growing resentment toward Republicans and President Bush helped them keep every House and Senate seat they already held and win every competitive Senate race save one.

What's different this year is that the atmosphere has grown even more poisonous for Republicans and the political map is far trickier and more hostile. And the surprises and shocks may not be over for the GOP. In 2006, at least two states (Rhode Island and Virginia) that later fell to Democrats were on almost no one's radar screen. So don't be surprised this year if another one or two seemingly safe seats become iffy when a challenger catches fire, a GOP incumbent unexpectedly stumbles or a full-fledged Democratic whirlwind simply begins to batter down even some of the strongest of Republican fortresses.