Democratic majorities in Congress will become a lot bigger in January, as Americans are expected to vote based on their economic fears and frustrations on Nov. 4.
In a turbulent election that is shaping up to be the political equivalent of a tidal wave, campaign forecasters now say that as many as eight or nine Republican Senate seats will fall to the Democrats - possibly 10 - which would give them a filibuster-proof, iron grip on the chamber.
“Voters are blaming the nation’s financial crisis on Republicans, causing the [GOP‘s] candidates’ poll numbers to sink noticeably,” elections tracker Stuart Rothenberg said last week. “We are raising our current estimate from five to eight seats to six to nine seats.”
Other election analysts are similarly forecasting that a large number of Republicans are going to be washed overboard by a perfect storm driven by a deepening recession, an unpopular president and the belief by 90 percent of the voters that the country is seriously on the wrong track.
Open Republican seats in New Mexico and Virginia are likely takeovers, with five more seats leaning toward a flip - including Sens. Elizabeth Dole in North Carolina, Gordon Smith in Oregon, Ted Stevens in Alaska, John Sununu in New Hampshire and an open seat in Colorado.
Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman is a tossup at best in a three-way race that includes former “Saturday Night Live” comedian Al Franken, a dilettante who would be a pushover in any other environment. But even Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky are now threatened, and just a few weeks ago both lived in the “safe” column.
The only Democrat in any trouble is two-term Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana. She has won her two previous races narrowly (52 percent in 2002) and leads in recent polls, but she is clearly vulnerable to an upset from GOP state Treasurer John Kennedy.
When word circulated through Washington last week that Mitch McConnell, seeking a fifth term, was in a tighter-than-expected re-election fight against wealthy businessman Bruce Lunsford, Republican officials knew their party was in deeper trouble than they had expected.
In many races, the banking bailout plan approved by Congress is hurting incumbents who voted for it, and Mr. McConnell is being attacked in TV ads by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee for backing deregulation of the financial services industry.
“McConnell opened the gate and Wall Street ran wild. Now our entire economy is at risk,” the ads says. Never mind that a Senate bill to tighten regulatory oversight of the housing mortgage industry, which Mr. McConnell supported, was killed by Democrats who said the bill would undermine “affordable housing,” i.e. subprime mortgages.
New York Sen. Charles Schumer, who chairs the DSCC, voted with Mr. McConnell and most Democrats for the $700 billion bailout bill, but this is war, he says, and if he can knock off a Republican on this issue, well, that’s the way the system works, he tells reporters.
Is Mitch really endangered? “Yes, but the odds are in his favor,” said veteran Senate analyst Jennifer Duffy of the Cook Political Report. “He’s running a better campaign and has a pretty damaged opponent, but in this environment anything can happen and it’s not going to be a big win.”
The trouble-plagued economy is the political killer in this campaign cycle. A recession looms, the stock market has tanked, worker 401(k) mutual funds have plunged, consumers aren’t spending and it will take months before the economic rescue plan shows real results at the street level.
“The economy is the problem. A Democratic pollster told me the voters’ fear is real, it’s not amorphous like after the Sept. 11  attacks. They’re looking at their 401(k) plans and seeing they don’t have much money left,” Miss Duffy told me. “Every day the stock market drops, Republicans have a terrible night when they conduct their tracking polls,” she said.