Wednesday, November 05, 2003
Took another look at the 2004 Senate contests. Not too different from the last time I looked; a little more GOP-leaning because of Bob Graham's retirement. As things stand, the GOP looks likely to pick up between 1 and 2 seats on the strength of the continuing Democratic meltdown in the South. Winning less than that would be a surprise, indicative of either serious GOP incompetance or a national trend towards the Democrats. Picking up more than 2 seats would be a sign of a strong, national GOP trend.
The 2004 Senate will be like the current one, only more so: more partisan, more polarized. There are no especially vulnerable prominent liberals or conservatives. The GOP looks likely to take 3 seats from the Democrats in the South: North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia. You can bet that the GOP nominees will be down-the-line conservatives. They also have an excellent chance at picking up Florida, as the Democrat nominee alternatives look like a mess. The Democrats, meanwhile, look likely to pick up Illinois and will probably take Alaska, too. Alaska's Senator, whoever wins, will likely be a relative moderate, but an Illinois Democrat will be a solid liberal. The GOP could pick an additional Southern seat if John Breaux retires in Louisiana, and if that happened the new GOP Senator would probably be another conservative vote.
It's not really a surprise that liberals in liberal states like Schumer of New York or Dodd of Connecticut keep getting reelected. Their crusades (against judges, in Schumer's case, and against foreign-policy related appointments in Dodd's) are helping elect GOP Senators in places like North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. But they aren't hurting these guys at home. But there are more vulnerable liberals out there, notably Barbara Boxer of California and Patty Murray of Washington. These two Senators are awful in every way: partisan, ideological, ill-informed and lazy. They are not especially good at bringing home the bacon, nor are not shrewd deal-makers (both fair descriptions of Schumer, for example). Good nominees should be able to take 'em. But the GOP can't seem to put up good nominees, so they are very likely to be reelected. The GOP is having a hard time this season coming up with candidates like Norm Coleman of Minnesota, which is the kind of candidate they need to beat a Patty Murray or a Barbara Boxer. And I don't really understand why.
The GOP is also unlikely to pick up seats in Nevada, South Dakota and Arkansas, each of which should be vulnerable based on the political profile of the states in question. They can't find a strong challenger for either Harry Reid in Nevada or Blanche Lincoln in Arkansas, and Tom Daschle is the Senate Majority Leader (and therefore a tougher opponent for likely challenger John Thune, who lost in '02, not to mention that, having lost, Thune is less attractive). And that's pretty much it for possible GOP pickups. For them to win more than 2 seats net, then, the GOP has to retain either Illinois or Alaska (both long-shots), or pick up one of the theoretically vulnerable seats in California, Washington, Nevada, Arkansas and South Dakota (all long-shots), or John Breaux has to retire (unpredictable, though there have been a remarkable number of Democrat retirements this year).
Apart from likely-Democrat pick-ups in Illinois and Alaska, though, there are only really two places where Democrats have a shot at a turnover. And in each case, it would take a GOP screw-up to give the seat to the Democrats. Republicans are understandably annoyed at the self-regarding Senator from Pennsylvania, Arlen Specter. A primary upset doesn't guarantee a loss in the general; look at what happened in New Hampshire in '02. But Specter is popular generally in the state (unlike Bob Smith), and Pennsylvania is more Democrat-friendly territory. If Specter falls, Toomey will have an uphill battle against any decent Democrat opponent. How concerned is the White House? Bush is going to be fighting hard to win the state in '04. Does he benefit more from a Toomey Senate candidacy that brings GOP stalwarts out with enthusiasm, or from a Specter candidacy that gives Democrats less reason to come to the polls? Probably the latter. So Bush has two reasons to back Specter: the desire for a strong GOP Senate and the desire to keep the Dems quiescent in the general election. The other vulnerable GOP seat is in Oklahoma, due to Don Nickles' retirement, and I don't know much about the possible replacements. But given the political complexion of the state, it seems to me this one should be the GOP's to lose.
For the Dems to hold the GOP to less than a 1-seat gain, to say nothing of actually picking up seats, they'll have to either win one of the contests in North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia (which would be tough) or pull out a win in Oklahoma or Pennsylvania (either of which would depend more on GOP mistakes than their own success).
Which is why the 2004 Senate will be more polarized and partisan than even this one is. Vulnerable liberals are not going to be toppled. We'll likely see a new liberal Democrat in Illinois and new conservative Republicans in North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia. There aren't really any vulnerable conservatives, a GOP moderate in Pennsylvania faces a serious primary challenge (and one in Alaska faces a tough general election). So get ready for another season of angry, vituperative, ideological battles in the U.S. Senate, even as the GOP augments its majority.