Gideon's Blog

In direct contravention of my wife's explicit instructions, herewith I inaugurate my first blog. Long may it prosper.

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Monday, September 27, 2004
Quick politics post: how is the Senate shaping up?

Currently, I'd bet on the GOP gaining 1 seat. Worse than that should leave them distinctly disappointed. But the map doesn't look as favorable as it did just a short while ago, I'd say.

I've said before I think Bush is favored to win, though I think current polls overstate the likely margin and that he could still well lose. But it's not obvious to me whether he'll have strong positive coattails (as in his 2002 campaigning) or negligible ones, or even negative ones (as in 2000).

Specifically, I wonder (a) whether Bush is going to campaign in some states that the GOP Senate candidates are vulnerable in, and (b) whether there will be any meaningful ticket-splitting by people who are not thrilled with Bush but are appalled by John Kerry, and wind up voting for a Democratic Senate candidate while pulling an ambivalent or reluctant lever for Bush. I particularly am thinking about the confluence of the two factors: states that are heavily Bush-favored, where Bush campaigning made a difference in 2002 but where he will not have time to visit in 2004, and where there are chunks of the GOP base who are less than thrilled with certain aspects of Bush's performance.

There are basically nine interesting races to watch this year. Two might barely have been interesting - Georgia and Illinois - but it's already clear that the GOP will pick up a seat in Georgia and the Democrats will pick one up in Illinois. Two others - California and Washington - are depressing because lousy Democrat incumbents are going to win yet again. I don't know what it will take to get rid of Boxer and Murray. Then there are five incumbents that looked like they might be vulnerable a year ago if the right challenger came along - for the GOP, Kit Bond in Missouri and Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania; for the Dems, Blanche Lincoln in Arkansas, Harry Reid in Nevada and Byron Dorgan in North Dakota - but they are cruising to reelection at this point.

That leaves the following nine races:

Alaska: is nepotism a natural and admirable human inclination or a political scandal? My bet is Murkowski bites it, and the Democrats pick up a seat here. Even if Bush does well nationally, he's not going to go to Alaska to campaign for her, and Alaskans won't have any trouble splitting their vote.

Colorado: I think Coors is going to pull this one out, for two reasons. First, Coloradans liked Ben Nighthorse Campbell, and they voted to keep Allard in 2002, who was a lot less appealing than Coors. So I'd think Coors would have a good shot. Second, I think Bush is going to keep campaigning in the state even if Kerry pulls out, as they say he has. Why? Because the polls at the Presidential level are still too tight, and Bush *has* to win this state. Because Bush wants this Senate seat to stay in the GOP column, and his presence in the state could make a difference. And because Bush needs to defeat the referendum on allocation of Electoral Votes (which would allocate them proportionally to the popular vote in the state) or 4 to 5 of Colorado's 9 votes pretty much automatically go to Kerry. I think Bush's presence will put Coors over the top. But you know, I don't know how the campaign is going, the polls are pretty much neck-and-neck, and Karl Rove thought Bush should campaign in California in 2000, so who knows what brilliant ideas he has this time.

Florida: I think the GOP has the edge here as well, but I'm very interested in one little aspect of the dynamic in this race. Martinez was heavily favored by the Bush White House in the primary. He's a former Bush cabinet member, so you'd expect Bush to back him. But he's also Cuban, and Bush needs to keep high support from the Cuban community to win Florida again (and by a more convincing margin this time). So Bush came out pretty strongly and obviously for his guy. Is there any resentment against Florida Republicans who did not back Martinez in the primary? I frankly don't expect that any such resentment would overcome the positive response from Cubans or Martinez's generally positive profile as a candidate. But it will be interesting to see, if Martinez loses and Bush wins, where the ticket splitters are from, geographically, ethnically and politically.

Louisiana: Don't know much about the race, but isn't the GOP due for some good luck down here? Anyhow, Vitter is polling well and I think the oddsmakers favor him for ultimate victory, so I do, too.

North Carolina: Bowles in a walk. He should have won against the awful Liddy Dole in 2002, and would have with a better campaign. This year, he's got a better campaign, and his opponent's best line of attack is that Bowles once worked in (horrors!) the Clinton White House. Somehow, I don't think that's going to be enough to turn the tide. Bowles is a very decent guy, and I think he'll be a good Senator - much, much better than the departing John Edwards.

Oklahoma: You know, the Republicans have been counting this chicken for quite a while, but I don't think it's going to hatch. Carson, from all reports, is a pretty strong candidate. Yes, Coburn has had a bad news week or two, so perhaps I should cut the current polls some slack. But Bush is not going to have time to come to Oklahoma to stump for him, and Coburn's bad news was basically his own doing. This one will be close, but I think the Democrats have a very good shot at a pickup here. Particularly if Kerry is clearly going down, they'll pour resources into races like this one.

South Carolina: DeMint looks like he's going to mop the floor with Inez Tenenbaum. With Senator Lindsey Graham, prospective Senator Jim DeMint, and Governor Mark Sanford, the South Carolina GOP should be in a position to have a lasting - and positive - impact on the national party. Something to be proud of.

South Dakota: Forgive me, but I think Daschle is going to win this one pretty clearly. It's really tough to win a fight with the party leader, and Daschle is not a rookie at this game. This is another race - like Oklahoma - where I think coattails might be negative; i.e., if Kerry falls into a serious swoon, Democrats will direct money and energy here to keep hope alive. But it will certainly be close.

And finally . . .

Wisconsin. Wisconsin?!?!? Why Wisconsin? Well, don't get me wrong; I think Russ Feingold is going to win, though by a relatively tight margin. The only reason I mention this race is that I think Bush is going to win Wisconsin in November, even if the election is very close. He's currently leading in several polls by a few points; he's also leading in Iowa and tied in Minnesota. This is not California circa 2000, a waste of GOP time and energy; there is a real change happening in this part of the country, and Bush is rightly going to spend time and money here all the way to the end. In any event, the race for Senate in the state has barely begun, but while Feingold fits the quirky profile that these states seem to love, he's always won close and Bush's aggressive pitch in the state could just conceivably tip the state to the GOP. I don't expect it; I think Feingold will keep this seat for the Democrats. But there's a political sea-change happening in Fighting Bob Lafollette and Tailgunner Joe McCarthy.

(Aside: *why* this change is happening is a good question. I think there is a temperamental and a demographic reason. The temperamental reason is: this is the heart of the Progressive tradition in American politics, and the Democrats have abandoned that tradition. The party that wants to change things, reform programs - that's the GOP. The Democrats opposes or moderates the GOP direction of reform, as the GOP opposed or moderated the Democrats in their heyday as the party of change. So for the Progressive temperament, the GOP is a better home than the Democrats today. The demographic reason is: as the Democrats become more and more the party of non-white minorities (including Hispanics), the GOP gets whiter and whiter. And Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa are very white parts of the country (each is at least 90% white and at most 4% Hispanic). The same demographic trends that have driven California and are driving Arizona, Nevada and Colorado in a more Democratic direction are driving Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota in a GOP direction. Of course, there are very white Democratic states - e.g., Vermont - and very racially mixed GOP states - e.g., Texas. I'm not suggesting that the demographic factor is some kind of universal predictor. But I do think it's a key factor in the transformation of this region.)

So if you tally the above, you'll see turnovers in Georgia, Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina for the GOP, Illinois, Alaska and Oklahoma for the Dems, for a net gain of 1 seat for the GOP. (Dems retain North Carolina, South Dakota and Wisconsin; the GOP retains the open seat in Colorado.)

How much could this change? Well, Georgia, South Carolina, Illinois, North Carolina and Wisconsin are, I think, unlikely to vary from my prediction. And I think betting on toppling an incumbent party leader who's won several election (i.e., Tom Daschle) is a silly thing to do. So there are five real tossups: Florida, Louisiana, Alaska, Oklahoma and Colorado, all open seats. I have the GOP winning three of the five. But Democrats are currently polling ahead in all but Louisiana, but Louisiana has this weird system where all the candidates from both parties compete in one election, so the polling is hard to interpret. So I wouldn't bet a lot of money on more than a 1 seat gain, and certainly not on a gain of more than 2 seats. But hey, you never know.