Tuesday, November 09, 2004
Blogging from Japan, my first visit to the country. Got in last night, walked around for an hour, had dinner and collapsed in a heap. Meetings this morning followed by a lull after lunch, which gave me time to visit a Shinto shrine, followed by more meetings. Non-surprises: (1) Tokyo is super-clean. (2) The food is very good (I love Japanese food; Japanese breakfast this morning was a special treat). (3) The whole bowing thing has me regularly confused. Surprises: (1) lack of traffic noise. There are plenty of vehicles but much less noise than New York. Why? Have they figured out some way of muting the noise? (2) English. No, the waiters don't tend to speak English, but there is lots more English signage than I expected, which has certainly been helpful. And among those who speak English, the level of competance seems considerbly higher than I expected. (3) Security people not only at the entrance but also inside office buildings. And in pseudo-military costume (white gloves, epaulettes, etc.). Crime is very, very low in Japan, so what is this about? Status? Full-employment? (4) The Shinto gods drink sake. Shows excellent taste, I'd say.
So: enough about my trip. Shall we talk about the 2006 Senate?
After the last election, Democrats can make two consoling arguments: (1) the Senate was an uphill fight, with lots of open seats in GOP-friendly territory, so the lopsided result isn't as terrible as it seems; (2) Bush won only 51% of the vote, so even though it's the first majority since 1988, it's not a realignment of American politics. There are two problems with this consolation.
First, the problem isn't that the Dems happened to lose in GOP-friendly territory - it's that they lost even when they ran decent candidates, like Erskine Bowles. North Carolina has got to be the loss that bothers the Democrats the most, since Bowles had been ahead, had high name-recognition, and was a moderate, pro-business centrist. He's the kind of guy who is supposed to be able to win. Moreover, the problem is that the GOP appears better able to win on Democratic turf than vice versa, at least in the last two elections.
As for winning 51%: no question, that's no landslide. But the GOP retains a clear if thin structural advantage in the Electoral College, and the consequence is that they can *go* for 51%. And winning with 51% means, ideologically, moving the ball further down the field; a 51% majority is going to be more ideologically cohesive than a 60% majority, pretty much by definition. So if you go for 60%, you've got a more fractious coalition. I'm not just spinning here; there's a real sense in which the best outcome from a partisan perspective is a close but decisive election like the GOP just had. The Democrats, to win, can't afford to fight trench warfare over 150,000 or so votes in Ohio. They need to do what it looked like Kerry was trying to do early in the general election campaign: take the war to enemy territory in the Southwest and in the Upper South. The latter effort flopped massively. With the right candidate, the former is more promising. But regardless, they've got a tougher row to hoe than 51% would suggest.
In any event, the 2006 elections will be closely watched for signs of a backlash against the GOP. Knowing nothing but the fact that the GOP now has control of the entire government, and that Bush will be in his sixth year, anyone would bet on the Democrats picking up a number of seats. The GOP is in control of the agenda: they control the Presidency and both Houses of Congress, and they just knocked off the Democrats' leader in the Senate. They will, logically, be held resonsible for anything bad that happens between now and November 2006. Furthermore, betting on a robust economy for the next two years is optimistic. We've been bumping along in recovery mode, more or less, for two years now, and interest rates are still at record lows. Either the economy is still shakey, in which case betting on two years of solid growth is optimistic, or the economy is going to heat up now, in which case interest rates should rise, which should cause things to slow down by 2006. Finally, the second year of a Presidential term is historically the worst for the stock market. I hope, of course, that everything goes splendidly on the economic front, but all else being equal that's probably not the way to bet.
All this augurs for GOP losses in 2006. But on the other hand, the landscape, surprisingly, is not so bad. Not as good as 2004, with five Southern seats abandoned by Democratic incumbents, but better than you'd think.
Let's look, first, at potential retirements. There are four Democratic Senators who may retire due to age or infirmity: Akaka of Hawaii, Byrd of West Virginia, Kennedy of Massachusetts, and Sarbanes of Maryland. Herb Kohl of Wisconsin is also rumored to be considering retirement, and John Corzine of New Jersey is likely to quit to run for Governor, so that's a total of six possible retirees. West Virginia is an increasingly red state, and Wisconsin is 50-50, but those aren't the only plausible wins. As noted, the GOP has shown an ability to win in Democratic states more than the other way around (Hawaii, Massachusetts and Maryland all have new Republican governors) so while Democrats should be presumptively favored in most of these races, none of these states should be counted out if the seats are open.
By contrast, potential GOP retirements are Burns of Montana, Frist of Tennessee (to run for President), Lott of Mississippi, Lugar of Indiana, and Thomas of Wyoming. None of these are easy states for Democrats to win in these days. In 2004, the Democrats got a pass in Illinois (where they were favored anyhow) and took Colorado as well; but Colorado, while it is still a "red" state, is changing demographically in ways that help the Democrats. Mississippi, Indiana and Wyoming are another story entirely. So there are both more potential Democratic retirees and the GOP retirees are in states that are relatively easy for the GOP to defend; if the Democrats win every blue state and the GOP wins every red state among the retirees, the GOP picks up West Virginia and has a shot as Wisconsin.
Of course, this is all highly speculative; no one, after all, has yet announced their retirement.
So: let's look at vulnerable freshmen. Not counting Corzine (who, as noted, is likely to quit), there are seven Democratic freshmen up for reelection in 2006: Cantwell of Washington, Carper of Delaware, Clinton of New York, Dayton of Minnesota, Nelson of Florida, Nelson of Nebraska and Stabenow of Michigan. By contrast, there are only four GOP Freshmen up for reelection in 2006: Allen of Virginia, Chafee of Rhode Island, Ensign of Nevada, and Talent of Missouri. So again, knowing nothing else, the numbers favor the GOP.
But when you look at the individual races, things look even more GOP-favorable. Among the Democrats, Carper and Clinton strike me as quite safe; the other five are all distinctly vulnerable. Cantwell barely won in 2000. Yes, she's in a Democratic state, a state where the GOP can't even knock off the dreadful Patty "Osama is popular because he builds day-care centers" Murray. But with the right challenger, it's a possible target. Dayton is much more vulnerable; Minnesota is trending GOP, has a great organization, and Dayton is awful. Both Nelsons are in GOP-leaning states and neither is massively popular. And as for Stabenow, she is very weak herself and her state is eminently winnable by the GOP. The odds of the GOP taking several of these seats, even with strong candidates, is low; but the GOP has five real opportunities to try to pick off a weak Democratic freshman. They should be able to win at least one if they have any luck at all.
On the GOP side, meanwhile, Ensign and Talent strike me as reasonably safe, if not as safe as Clinton and Carper, and Allen should have a substantial tailwind given that he's from Virginia; the biggest risk is that Governor Warner runs against him. Chafee, meanwhile, may well switch parties if it comes to that, so this should be counted as a GOP loss regardless of who wins, but a loss doesn't really move the balance; Chafee, even if he stays in the GOP, will vote frequently if not usually with the Democratic caucus. So again, there appear to be distinctly more opportunities for the GOP to unseat Democrats than the other way around.
Finally, looking at the veterans unlikely to retire, I don't see any likely prospects for either party. The Democrats might try to knock of Dewine in Ohio, or the GOP to go for Conrad of North Dakota, but either is something of a long shot.
So that's how 2006 in the Senate looks to me: the Democrats have history on their side, the GOP has geography and Senate "Class" characteristics on theirs.
The governors' races in 2006 look potentially interesting, and the geography looks more encouraging for Democrats. It will be very interesting to see who wins in Florida, Ohio and Colorado, where GOP incumbents are term-limited out of office. All of these states are "purple" to one degree or another, and capture would be very heartening to the Democrats. Arnold Schwarzenegger should cruise to reelection in California, but George Pataki may pack it in back in my home state, and if he does that's promising territory for a Democratic pick up. (I'm curious to see if Spitzer runs for Governor, or whether he realizes that he has, in some ways, more power right where he is as New York's Attorney General.) Finally, there are a number of first-term GOP governors of blue states up for reelection for the first time in 2006: Lingle in Hawaii, Romney in Massachusetts, Ehrlich in Maryland. They should, by and large, be favored for reelection, but they won't get a pass. Where are the GOP opportunities for pick-ups? Not many. Red-state Democrat governors up for reelection include Freudenthal in Wyoming, Bredesen in Tennessee, Henry in Oklahoma, Sebelius in Kansas, and Napolitano in Arizona. Are any of these incumbents notably unpopular? Outside the clear GOP-leaning states, the best shots at knocking off a Democrat are probably Rendell in Pennsylvania and, if Vilsack retires, Iowa.
Finally: how does 2006 set things up for 2008? The number of plausible GOP candidates is very long, easily a dozen. Many of these candidates (e.g., Allen, Romney, Kyl, Sanford) are up for reelection in 2006. Others (Owens, Jeb Bush) are term-limited into unemployment. Others (Frist, Pataki) are rumored to be looking to retire from their current jobs to focus on the Presidential race. Yet others (Hagel, McCain) are not up for reelection in 2008. Still yet others (Giuliani, Ridge) do not currently hold elective office, and will not between now and 2008. It will be interesting to see how 2006 narrows the very wide field, or if it does. By contrast, there are far fewer plausible Democratic candidates, and most (Clinton, Richardson, Bayh, Edwards) are either shoo-ins to win reelection or have no current employment. 2008 looks likely to be the most fragmented GOP field since 1988; by contrast, the Democrats could well unite behind a consensus choice as early as the GOP did in 2000, for better or worse. Could make for an interesting dynamic.