These are dark days for the GOP. Chris Cillizza, the Washington Post's political prognosticator, is starting to talk seriously of the Democrat's being in position to obtain a filibuster-proof majority of 60 seats in the Senate after the 2010 election, and possibly after the 2008 elections.
Cillizza admits that the 2008 scenario is a bit far fetched: the Democrats would have to defeat GOP incumbents in Maine (Susan Collins), Oregon (Gordon Smith), New Hampshire (John Sununu) and Minnesota (Norm Coleman), win the open seat in Colorado, and then win four other seats, either additional open seats in states where GOP senators might be retiring: New Mexico (Pete Domenici), Virginia (John Warner). Mississippi (Thad Cochran), Nebraska (Chuck Hagel), and Oklahoma (Jim Inhofe) or spring upsets against other incumbents seen as less vulnerable at the moment: North Carolina (Liddy Dole) or Kentucky (Mitch McConnell). And there is one other thing Cillizza acknowledges the Democrats would have to do for this long-shot to come in, namely hold their own vulnerable seats in 2008: South Dakota (the ailing Tim Johnson), Louisiana (Mary Landrieu), and perhaps Montana (Max Baucus).
It is worth noting that at this point in the 2006 election cycle, the Republicans, much like the Democrats today, were coming off of a very successful election year, in which President Bush was re-elected with a 3 million popular vote margin. They picked up 4 Senate seats to get to 55 and a few House seats to get to 232. The 2006 races, particularly in the Senate, looked target rich for the GOP, with 18 of the 33 contested seats held by Democrats, 4 of the 5 open seats (including the appointed seat in New Jersey of Bob Menendez, Maryland, Minnesota, Vermont, and Tennessee) held by Democrats, and a few other Democrats running for re-election for the first time after narrow wins in 2000 (Debbie Stabenow in Michigan and Maria Cantwell in Michigan). It appeared possible the GOP could add a seat or two to its majority in the 2006 midterms.
The Senate results in 2006 were the equivalent of the Democrats drawing an inside straight flush. Had George Allen never used the term "Macaca," he would have held his seat with a comfortable margin, rather than lose it by 11,000 votes out of well over 2 million cast in Virginia. If the GOP had invested more in Conrad Burns in Montana (an inexpensive state for media campaigns), they could probably have protected that seat, which was lost by only 3,000 votes (less than a 1% margin). Missouri was another narrow defeat for the GOP, lost in large part because the GOP failed to respond effectively to Michael J. Fox's grotesquely misleading attack ad on the issue of stem cell research. These ads also hurt George Allen in Virginia.
Had the GOP held 1, 2 or 3 of the 6 Senate seats that were lost in the 2006 elections, we would have a totally different political dynamic in Congress at the moment. No bill setting a deadline for leaving Iraq would arrive on the President's desk to be vetoed. We would not have a string of Senate investigations of White House officials.
Obviously the political environment turned very dark very quickly for the GOP between 2004 and 2006, and the primary ingredients in that shift were the Iraq war, and to a much lesser extent, corruption and personal scandals. The Iraq war could damage the GOP again in 2008, though there is a better than 50/50 shot at the moment that the Republican Presidential candidate will be someone who is not closely associated with the war. Much of the animus against the party at the moment is directed at President Bush, who will not be on the ballot.
I think it is highly speculative to posit, as Cillizza does, that the Democrats are well positioned for a 4 seat pickup in 2008 at a minimum. Gordon Smith and Susan Collins are both perceived as moderates and are popular in their states, though both states lean Democratic. Norm Coleman will have a challenging race, but if his opponent is Al Franken that will only prove that you need not go to the Ringling Brothers Academy to become a clown. The Colorado open seat leans towards the Democrats. In New Hampshire, the Sununu name is a respected one, and the tidal wave against the GOP in the state in 2006 is not necessarily going to be repeated in 2008. The Democrats can field competitive candidates in New Hampshire (the current and former Governors would be the strongest), but the seat is hardly lost at this point.
In terms of playing defense, one would have to say that both Louisiana and South Dakota will be tough holds for the Democrats in 2008. Mary Landrieu has won two very close races, and the demographic shift in the state since Hurricane Katrina will not help her in 2008. Tim Johnson's health appears to be slightly improving, but it is unclear if he will run again in 2008, and he too has won two very close races in a state where GOP presidential candidates routinely get close to 60% of the vote. . The Democrats could win most or all of the close races in 2008, as they did in 2006, and still only net gain a few seats (1 or 2). 2010 is a long time away to speculate on those races. If the GOP nominates a Presidential candidate with broad national appeal next year (as opposed to one with very strong regional appeal) that will likely help embattled GOP Senate and House candidates.
And if I am wrong, and Cillizza is right, the GOP can look to 2012, when the Democrats will have to defend 24 of the 33 Senate seats in that cycle. Talk about target rich environments.
Richard Baehr is chief political correspondent of American Thinker.