- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 15, 2003

A major stumbling block to enacting President Bush’s agenda is the Republican Party’s slim one-vote majority in the Senate. When taking party moderates into consideration, GOP leaders do not even have a practical working majority to pass moderately conservative legislation, particularly on domestic issues. From tax cuts to government reform to a prescription-drug subsidy for seniors, bills coming out of Congress could be significantly better with just a few more conservative votes in the Senate. If the president’s popularity remains high and the economy doesn’t soften dramatically before the 2004 elections, the party could pick up those needed seats, and more. To date, however, party leaders have not done what is needed to take advantage of the opportunities.

On its face, Republicans already have an edge in next year’s Senate faceoffs. Compared to their competition, Democrats have four more seats to defend and are saddled with financial problems at party headquarters. Not only does the Democratic National Committee have significant debt to manage, but its congressional candidates will see less cash coming their way as the party directs the lion’s share of funds to the presidential race, where they must try to compete with the record fund-raising levels of Mr. Bush. Among Republican strategists, humble estimates are for a two- or three-seat pickup; bold optimists are saying the president’s party could gain as many as seven new votes in the upper chamber. While being so close to a filibuster-proof majority is the stuff of any Senate majority leader’s dreams, a look at the states suggests that GOP campaign managers have a lot of work to do.

One area of the GOP battle plan that is lacking is candidate recruitment in states that are pro-Bush, such as North Dakota and Arkansas. In the latter, it is our guess that Asa Hutchinson, former congressman and current Homeland Security undersecretary, will jump in the race. But to date he hasn’t made an announcement, and word is the White House has yet to urge him into it. Recruiters are having trouble finding candidates to take on the insecure seats of Patty Murray in Washington and Russell Feingold in Wisconsin. What should be an easy Republican pickup in Georgia is complicated by what is sure to be a nasty primary battle between Reps. Johnny Isakson and Mac Collins. The same trouble is expected in Florida, where Rep. Mark Foley and former Rep. Bill McCollum are both going after the seat many Democrats predict will be vacated by Sen. Bob Graham, who is running for president.

Republicans have a few close seats of their own to defend, too. Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski, who was appointed by her father to fill his Senate office when he was elected governor, has received consistently high disapproval ratings. And last week, former Gov. Tony Knowles announced that he would challenge her. He was elected statewide in 1994 and 1998. The notoriously weak Illinois GOP is having problems fielding a known candidate to take the place of retiring Sen. Peter Fitzgerald. Democratic campaign planners consider Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback vulnerable, and Pennsylvania’s Arlen Specter — who is below 50 percent in some approval and re-elect polls — could be weakened by a primary challenge from conservative Rep. Pat Toomey.

All in all, it is a bad omen for the Democrats that their best news is that Republicans are not taking early advantage of the Democrats’ many weaknesses. And the fact that the GOP has a good chance at ousting Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle and Minority Whip Harry Reid shows how little prestige the party’s hierarchy holds. Election maps are rarely this favorable, with 10 of the Democrats’ 19 contested seats in states Mr. Bush won in 2000. Still, Republicans need to field good candidates and a unified opposition to defeat even vulnerable incumbents.

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