Can the Democrats win back the Senate?

The Baehr Essentials


There has been a series of articles in recent weeks suggesting that the Democrats are in surprisingly good shape to spring a major upset and win back control of the Senate. While not impossible, it is unlikely that this will occur.


The major Senate races will be affected by the Presidential race. If either President Bush or Senator Kerry pulls away to a more decisive win (say 5 or 6% or more in the popular vote), there will certainly be a down—ticket effect.  The pundits and professional politicians who have been touting a Democratic takeover of the Senate have tended to be most effusive in their enthusiasm during the weeks when Senator Kerry was doing well in the polls.  At the moment, with the exception of an ABC/Washington Post poll that gives Kerry a 4 point lead in a three man race including Ralph Nader, all the other national polls show Bush ahead by from 1 to 10 points. I suspect the 10 point Bush lead (Harris poll), and the 4 point Kerry lead are outliers. Bush is probably ahead today by a few points, still basking somewhat in the post Reagan funeral glow.


There are ten Senate races that are considered tossups or likely to result in party shifts.  Two open seats are considered by strategists in both parties to be likely to move to the other party. In Illinois, Republican Senator Peter Fitzgerald is retiring, and Democrat Barack Obama had a healthy lead in the polls over his opponent, Jack Ryan, even before the racy news revealed this week in Ryan's divorce documents. There is some speculation that Ryan may now leave the race. The loss of this seat is matched by the all but certain Republican pickup of the  seat of retiring Democratic Senator Zell Miller in Georgia.  The candidates for the general election race have not been decided yet in Georgia, but it probably won't matter. Of course, given Miller's voting record, this has been a Republican seat in all but the vote for Majority Leader already.


These two races would leave the Senate as it is, 51 Republicans, 48 Democrats, and turncoat Jim Jeffords, as a supposed independent. Were Kerry to win the Presidency, the Democrats would need to pick up only one seat to get to 50, given that Jeffords will vote with the Democratic Party to organize the Senate. This would enable Kerry's Vice President to cast the deciding vote in the 50—50 Senate, as Cheney did before Jeffords defected in early 2001.
Assume the Democrats pick up that one seat to get to 50/50:  even that probably will not be enough. Kerry will have to resign his Senate seat to become President, and Republican Governor Mitt Romney would undoubtedly select a Republican to fill his vacant seat, assuming Democrat efforts to change the law governing Senate vacancies do not succeed.  This would give the Republicans back the 51—49 majority until a special election were held in Massachusetts in November. If Romney is not allowed to fill the vacancy until an earlier special election is held in March or April (the gist of the proposed legislation in Massachusetts), the GOP would still hold a 50—49 lead until the special election. Given the political makeup of the state, the Democrats would be favored in such an election, unless Romney himself became the Senate candidate.  In any case, it appears that the Democrats will have to gain two seats to get to 51 following the election, since 50 will not be enough if either Kerry wins or Bush wins.

Of the remaining 8 contested seats, 4 are open seats currently held by retiring Democrats —— Louisiana, Florida, South Carolina, and North Carolina.  Another 2 are open seats currently held by retiring Republicans —— Oklahoma and Colorado. In addition, there is one incumbent from each party whose seat is considered highly vulnerable —— Tom Daschle, Democrat in South Dakota, and Lisa Murkowski, Republican from Alaska.  Of the 8 contests, Democrats currently hold the seat in five states, Republicans in three. For the Democrats to take back control of the Senate, they will therefore need to win 7 of the 8 races to gain the net two seats they will need to get to 51.


This sounds like a very difficult task. It becomes even more difficult when one realizes that in each of these 8 states, George Bush defeated Al Gore in 2000. Obviously, Florida was all but a tie in the 2000 election.  But Bush beat Gore handily in the other seven states. So for the Democrats to take back the Senate they will have to hold 4 open seats in the South in a Presidential election year, hold Daschle's seat in South Dakota, a state Bush won by 22% last time, and then win two of the three seats now held by Republicans in Colorado, Oklahoma and Alaska. 


Democratic Party spokesmen point to the strong candidates they have recruited for many of the races.  In South Carolina, Democrat Inez Tenenbaum, the state's popular Superintendent of Education will oppose Republican Congressman Jim DeMint, who won a runoff for the nomination this week. DeMint is a free trade enthusiast, which will put him in the crosshairs of protectionist textile interests in the state.  In North Carolina, Erskine Bowles will make his second try for the Democrats, after his defeat by Elizabeth Dole in the 2002 race. Hs opponent will be Republican Congressman Richard Burr, who is not well known statewide. A recent poll gives Bowles an 8 point lead. Bush won both North and South Carolina by double digit margins in 2000 (13% and 16% respectively). Were John Edwards added as Kerry's Vice Presidential nominee, it would enhance the Democrats' chances in both states.


In Florida, neither party has a clear frontrunner for their party's primary, though one of the leading contenders for the Democrats is Betty Castor, the current State Education Commissioner, and the former President of the University of South Florida, a school somewhat disgraced by a former professor's links to Palestinian terror groups.  A leading contender for the Republicans is Mel Martinez, the former Secretary of Housing in the Bush administration. Martinez could consolidate Cuban and Hispanic support for President Bush in the Florida Presidential race, were he nominated.  There are at least five serious contenders for the two parties' nominations in Florida, so head—to—head polling is not very informative at this stage.


Louisiana has an open Senate race on election day. If no candidate wins 50% of the vote, the top two vote—getters will face each other in a runoff, regardless of their party. Such a runoff occurred in the 2002 Senate race in the state.  At the moment, a Republican Congressman, David Vitter, is the frontrunner, though he is polling well short of 50% in a crowded field. No Republican has ever been elected Senator in Louisiana.  Bush carried the state by 8% in 2000. 


For the Democrats to retain all four seats is possible, but not likely. It would be the equivalent of drawing to an inside straight.


The Democrats are pleased with their candidates in Oklahoma and Colorado as well. Congressman Brad Carson is the likely Democratic Party nominee in Oklahoma (primary election on July 27).  Two Republicans, Oklahoma City Mayor Kirk Humphreys and Congressman Tom Coburn, are both seeking the GOP nod. Early polls show Carson ahead of either Republican. While Oklahoma is traditionally a very strong Republican state in Presidential years (Bush won by 22% in 2000), it did elect a Democratic governor in a very close race in 2002.

In Colorado, a similar situation exits. The Democrats cleared their field for Attorney General Ken Salazar. Salazar is an attractive candidate in this increasingly Hispanic state. The two leading Republican contenders are beer magnate Peter Coors, and former congressman Bob Shaffer.  Salazar leads in early trial heats against both Republicans. Bush won Colorado by 9% in 2000.


The two endangered incumbents have different issues to contend with. Tom Daschle faces former Congressman John Thune, who narrowly lost his Senate bid in 2002 by a few hundred votes to Tim Johnson. That race was torn by controversy over charges of illegal voting on Indian reservations. In the 2002 race, Johnson argued that South Dakota needed to re—elect him so that Tom Daschle could remain as majority leader, which would enhance South Dakota's legislative standing. Running for re—election as Minority Leader, Daschle will not have that same argument to make.  Daschle leads Thune by a few points in early polling.


In Alaska, Republican Lisa Murkowski has been a target since her father appointed her to his former Senate seat after he became Governor. Former Governor Tony Knowles is a popular figure in the state, and is the unopposed Democratic nominee challenging Murkowski.  Knowles has been ahead of Murkowski by a few points in early polling.  Bush won the state by 31% in 2000, and another strong run by the President would help Murkowski.


Were Kerry to win with Edwards as his VP, that would improve the prospects for the Democrats in the four open Southern Senate races. If Kerry added either of the two Democratic Senators from Florida to the ticket (Bob Graham or Bill Nelson), this would help Kerry in this state, and improve the chances of retaining the Florida Senate seat for the Democrats. 


Given the margins that Bush achieved in this solid patch of 'red' states in 2000, it is likely that he will have coattails in some of these states.  While the current polling puts many of the Democrats in the lead in these states, it is not at all clear that this will be the same situation that exists in November.  All the nominees for both parties will be very well—funded for the general elections. The Democrats won most of the close Senate races in 2000, and the Republicans won most of them in 2002.  If Republicans won half of the 8 contests, they would add to their Senate margin, and hold a 52—48 edge. Democrats need  to win 7 of the 8 to take control. Odds are this will not happen.