Now that the 2004 elections are concluded, and assorted liberal media elites are finishing up their profoundly embarrassing post-election tantrums, it is time to look ahead. It is much too early to speculate about 2008, although lists of putative candidates in both parties have already emerged. (I can’t help myself, even as I criticize this practice, and insert here mention of one of my dark horse 2008 candidates, Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware, a centrist Democrat and former congressman, and, very importantly, a former governor.) It is not too soon to look ahead to 2006, however, and the prospects for the U.S. Senate.
With the GOP now comfortably ahead there and one-third of the Senate up again in 2006, it might be speculated that the Democrats would have an advantage then, especially with a lame duck Republican president in the White House.
But this does not seem to be the case. First of all, there are 18 seats held by Democrats up in 2006 and only 14 held by Republicans. Second, an examination of incumbents likely to run for re-election reveals that for now few of the Republicans seem vulnerable. A number of Democratic incumbents could be in trouble, however, particularly Minnesota’s Mark Dayton and perennial 2008 presidential mentionee Hillary Clinton of New York (should Rudy Giuliani decide to run against her in 2006).
Where there is much potential for change is likely to come from retiring incumbents. Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd will be 89 in 2006, and is already in obvious decline. It is difficult to imagine him standing for election again. Democratic Sen. Daniel Akaka of Hawaii will be 83. Other Democrats who will be in their 70s include Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, Dianne Feinstein of California and Paul Sarbanes of Maryland. Republicans in their 70s include Sens. Orrin Hatch of Utah and Richard Lugar of Indiana, but as senior and powerful members in the majority, they are perhaps less likely to retire in two years. Only Sen. Conrad Burns, who will be 71, has any visible vulnerability among Republicans in 2006.
The almost zero opportunity for the Democrats to regain the control of the Senate for at least four years has already caused several Senate incumbents to consider seriously leaving the Senate to run for governor in their states. Sen. Jon Corzine, who is up in 2006, is seriously considering running for governor of New Jersey. Sen. Charles Schumer made noises about running for governor of New York, but has now apparently decided to remain in Washington.
All of this signals unpleasant times ahead for Democrats in the Senate. Other incumbents, observing the transition that former Democratic congresssman and Cabinet secretary Bill Richardson made to be a popular governor of New Mexico (and leading 2008 presidential candidate), might be tempted to go where there is much more favorable political action — to their state capitals as governor. The establishment of 40 votes as the number of senators able to maintain a filibuster was effective from 2001 to 2004 under recently defeated Minority Leader Tom Daschle, but this is not likely to fly again in the face of President Bush’s decisive re-election, the pickup of four Republican senators and GOP Majority Leader Bill Frist’s vow to stop this precedent.
New Democratic minority leader, Harry Reid, is not likely to be a strong and forceful figure who can keep his minority caucus disciplined. The party’s Senate members, as are Democrats across the nation, are divided into sharp factions, with outspoken figures on the left (led by Sens. Kennedy and Russ Feingold) and in the center right (led by Sens. Joe Lieberman and Joe Biden), and are likely to blur further the Democratic Party’s lack of central message to the country.
The desire to block judicial appointments post-2004 does not a compelling national message make.
With dynamic young senators such as Jim Talent of Missouri, Norm Coleman of Minnesota and John Thune of South Dakota and David Vitter of Lousiana; strong women such as Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins and Kay Bailey Hutchison, and seasoned veterans such as Mr. Frist, Lamar Alexander and John McCain; the Democrats with Mr. Biden of Delaware, Barack Obama of Illinois, Debbie Stabenau of Michigan, Mr. Carper and Mr. Lieberman seem outgunned as well as outvoted.
The action in the Democratic Party, recently concentrated in the U.S. Senate, will now almost certainly move into the states and the party’s center in its grass-roots. If it wants to revive itself in time for the 2008 elections, it can’t happen too soon.
Barry Casselman writes occasionally for The Washington Times.