- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 8, 2003

It is 17 months before the next national elections, and Republicans already smell victory in the air. In Capitol Hill watering holes and the halls of congressional office buildings, members and aides are whispering about the prospects of a major power shift in favor of the GOP come November 2004. Senate strategists are daring to predict a possible six- or even seven-seat pickup, which would strengthen the majority party’s currently undependable 51 votes. More Republican senators would make significant changes in policy possible exponentially, and prevent legislative logjams, such as the stalling on President Bush’s tax cuts. At this early date, however, it is prudent to keep in mind that everything would have to go right to bring about such a lopsided outcome.

Providing fuel for GOP optimism is the list of senators up for reelection. The Democratic Party has four more Senate seats to defend than do Republicans, and 10 of the 19 in play are reasonably possible turnovers. Particularly exciting to Republicans is the opportunity to knock off Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle with former Rep. John Thune, who lost by only 524 votes to Sen. Tim Johnson last year. As South Dakota’s only House member, Mr. Thune was elected statewide three times, and a recent poll has him leading Mr. Daschle by two points. Democratic recruiters already are considering presidential candidate Bob Graham’s seat vacant because Florida law prevents him from running two races at once, and he seems intent on seeking national office. Homeland Security Department undersecretary Asa Hutchinson, a former House member, is said to be eager to take on Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln in Arkansas, which should worry her.

Geography can play an important role in horse races. As National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman Dan Allen told us, “Many of the competitive races fall in Bush country, where the president was strong in 2000, which bodes well for our candidates in 2004.” Ten of the contested Democratic seats are in states Mr. Bush won in the close 2000 race. For example, Bush-Cheney won North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia by 13, 15 and 17 points respectively. Georgia’s Zell Miller announced his retirement in January, and South Carolina’s Ernest Hollings isn’t raising any money and is expected to announce that he’s stepping down too. Numerous polls have shown that first-term North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, whose attention is focused on running for president, would get beaten by Mr. Bush by between 15 and 20 percentage points in his own state, and would face an uphill battle defending his seat. Perhaps the most intriguing rumor is that Louisiana Sen. John Breaux is increasingly dissatisfied as a moderate in an increasingly liberal party — and might duck out of a reelection bid. Mr. Bush won the state by 13 points in 2000.

A few insecure Republican seats pore a little rain on the party’s parade. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who was appointed to fill her father’s post when he was elected governor of Alaska, is below 50 percent in some statewide polls. Peter Fitzgerald will be hard to replace in Illinois — where the GOP is not very solid — Pennsylvania’s Arlen Specter faces a potentially damaging primary fight and the Democrat Senatorial Campaign Committee considers Sam Brownback a worthwhile target in Kansas. Otherwise, the Republicans’ 15 contestable seats are relatively safe.

President Bush is not leaving anything to chance, and is on track to raise more campaign contributions than ever before in history. If his popularity remains high, much of the funds will be available to distribute to close races — an advantage Democratic candidates aren’t likely to receive from their ticket. At the start of 2003, the Democratic Party was $5.5 million in debt. Extra cash for ads and get-out-the-vote drives can be the deciding factor coming down the stretch. We try not to encourage irrational exuberance, especially with an economy impossible to predict. But the chessboard looks promising for the Grand Old Party.

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