A Republican takeover of the Senate in November was about as close to a sure thing as it gets in today's politics. But now the contest could become a bit more difficult after some unsavory backroom deals cut by two Democratic leaders.
Republicans needed just four seats to win a majority in the Senate, and there are enough vulnerable Democratic-held seats for them to do that. But the GOP can't afford to lose any seats of its own.
Republicans still have a strong chance of taking control of the Senate in the fall elections. There are just too many seats ripe for the GOP's pickings. But two things have happened that have thrown a wrench into Republicans' 2012 prospects.
First, Republican Sen. Olympia J. Snowe of Maine, who was a sure slam-dunk to capture another term, is retiring, giving Democrats a strong chance to take her seat.
Second, an open Democratic Senate seat in Nebraska, a deeply conservative state that's a major GOP target, has turned into a potentially competitive race since former Sen. Bob Kerrey announced he will run for the seat he once held.
Something else is going on here behind the scenes. Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, fearing his days as majority leader may be numbered, has aggressively made Mr. Kerrey an offer he could not refuse: full seniority if he returns to the Senate and maybe some plum, hard-to-get committee assignments to boot.
Mr. Reid's accomplice, Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York, has been working closely with Mr. Reid on his no-holds-barred candidate-lobbying mission. Last week, it was announced that they also had persuaded former Maine Gov. Angus King - an independent who endorsed George W. Bush for president in 2000 - to run for the seat.
Forget about party loyalty here or even the sovereignty of each state to select its own candidates. At least three Democrats were in the running for Ms. Snowe's seat before these two powerful Senate leaders handpicked Mr. King, who will run as an Independent.
The only pivotal political question that mattered to Mr. Reid and Mr. Schumer was this: If Mr. King wins the open seat as an independent, how would he vote when the new Senate decides which party will control that body?
Mr. King made clear he will caucus with the Democrats, and the deal was closed.
But Mr. Reid and Mr. Schumer may have overplayed their hand. Their secretive role behind the scenes in these races will no doubt become a damaging issue in both contests.
Their weakest hand clearly is in Nebraska. Mr. Kerrey was a liberal senator with no great accomplishments who retired from politics in 2001 in order to be president of the New School in New York City, where he lives in Greenwich Village. He has turned more hard left ever since, saying in a videotaped interview, "The longer I live [in New York], the further left I get on health care."
If Mr. Kerry was known for anything in his Senate days, it was for delivering speeches so filled with contradictions it was hard to discern what he was saying. He could pop off with remarks that embarrassed his Democratic supporters and party leaders.
During the Clinton years, he was quoted in a lengthy profile in Esquire magazine saying, "Clinton is an unusually good liar. Unusually good."
In an interview with me in his Senate office in 1995, he said many of the GOP's Contract With America reforms were good for the country, that Democrats would have to support them and that Mr. Clinton was guilty of "cooking the books" in his budget proposals.
Veteran election handicapper Stuart Rothenberg says, "Kerrey deserves to be taken seriously. But skepticism is warranted. After all, he's been out of the state for years, has been mentioned as a potential candidate in New York and has already flip-flopped about his interest in the Senate race."
Nebraska, if anything, is even more conservative than it was when Mr. Kerrey held his Senate seat. President Obama won less than 42 percent of the vote there in 2008, and Mr. Kerrey says he has no intention of living in his home state. If he wins, he probably will reside in Washington. Polls already show him down by double digits.
"Times have changed, and that makes Kerrey an even longer shot in Nebraska," Mr. Rothenberg said in a recent analysis. He scores the race "Republican Favored."
Maine is another case entirely. While its two senators are Republican, as is its governor, both House members are Democrats, and Mr. Obama carried the state by nearly 58 percent of the vote.
Rep. Chellie Pingree, a dyed-in-the-wool liberal, had led in the polls for the Democratic Senate nomination, but after Mr. King's entry, she reluctantly withdrew her candidacy.
A recent Public Policy Polling voter survey showed Mr. King with a narrow lead in a three-way race.
Mr. King, a popular former two-term governor, seemed to straddle both parties through much of his career, but he has made it clear in the past decade that in his heart and soul he was always a Democrat. He supported Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry for president in 2004 and Mr. Obama in 2008.
Still, this latest smoke-filled-room deal showed that Mr. Reid isn't playing by the usual rules in this year's Senate races and will do just about anything to hold on to his powerful post. Republicans are crying "dirty tricks."
"This is just the latest backroom deal we've seen from national Democrats, and it adds to the cynicism that voters in Maine and around the country rightfully feel toward those running Washington these days," said Rob Jesmer, executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
Right now, the question for Mr. Kerrey and Mr. King is simply this: Are you the candidate of the people of your state or the candidate of the party bosses in Washington?
Donald Lambro is a syndicated columnist and former chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.
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