- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 19, 2005

The 2006 Senate elections are more than 18 months away. Nevertheless, based on today’s never-ending political cycles and in recognition of the stakes involved, manifested most clearly by the unprecedented filibuster campaign waged by Democratic senators against 10 appellate-court nominees, it can never be too early to speculate upon what effect next year’s Senate elections will have on the self-styled “World’s Most Deliberative Body.”

Historically, midterm Senate elections have rarely been helpful to the party occupying the White House. In particular, midterm Senate elections held after an incumbent president has been re-elected are especially dangerous for the White House party. Specifically, since the 17th Amendment provided for direct election of senators beginning in 1914, the White House party has lost control of the Senate on three occasions in the midterm elections (1918, 1946 and 1986) after an incumbent president was re-elected.

In the 1918 elections held one week before Armistice Day, which ended World War I, “Republicans captured control of both houses of Congress, and [President] Wilson went off to the Paris Peace Conference a rejected hero. Wilson’s health broke in his futile efforts to enlist American support for the League of Nations, and the Republican Senate first emasculated and then rejected the Treaty of Versailles,” Congressional Quarterly’s authoritative “Guide to Congress” pointedly noted.

In 1946, in what effectively was the midterm election following President Franklin Roosevelt’s third successful re-election campaign, Democrats lost 12 Senate seats and control of Congress’ upper chamber. The third time the party of a re-elected president lost control of the Senate in midterm elections occurred in 1986. Perhaps offering insight into next year’s Democratic strategy, in 1986 Democrats relentlessly, and successfully, demagogued a 1985 Senate budget-resolution vote that froze Social Security benefit levels for a single year. Republicans lost eight Senate seats and their majority control in the 1986 electoral debacle.

History, of course, is but a guide. In 2002, against all historical precedents, the GOP became the first White House party to recapture control of the Senate in the first midterm election. For 2006, moreover, Republicans will likely enjoy several important advantages. Next year Democrats must defend 17 seats, compared to 15 for Republicans. Independent, Democratic-caucusing Sen. James Jeffords of Vermont, who committed political treason by leaving the GOP in 2001 and thereby transferring control of the Senate to the Democrats, also faces re-election.

Five Democratic senators (Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, Robert Byrd of West Virginia, Kent Conrad of North Dakota, Bill Nelson of Florida and Ben Nelson of Nebraska) face re-election in Bush-won red states. Mr. Bush barely won in New Mexico, which he narrowly lost in 2000, but he achieved comfortable margins in West Virginia (13 percentage points), North Dakota (27 points) and Nebraska (33 points). And the president’s margin in Florida was a relatively strong 5 points.

Only three Republican incumbents will defend seats in states won by John Kerry in 2004. But in two of those cases — Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island and Olympia Snowe of Maine — the incumbent’s striking moderation will arguably appeal to the voters more than Mr. Kerry did. Meanwhile, Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Rick Santorum won re-election in 2000 by a margin (6.9 points) that was almost three times the size of Mr. Kerry’s 2004 Pennsylvania victory (2.5 points).

Democrats are defending six seats: Maria Cantwell of Washington; Mr. Nelson of Florida; Mr. Nelson of Nebraska; Debbie Stabenow of Michigan; Jon Corzine of New Jersey, who is running for governor in 2005; and Mark Dayton, who is not seeking re-election. They won in 2000 with 51 percent or less. Only two Republicans face the electorate in 2006 after winning their preceding Senate contests with less than 51 percent, and both (Conrad Burns of Montana and Jim Talent of Missouri) will be running in Bush states and likely facing much weaker opposition. Three super-millionaire Democrats effectively self-financed their very narrow 2000 victories — Miss Cantwell ($10 million), Mr. Corzine ($60 million) and Mr. Dayton ($12 million). For various reasons, that option appears unavailable for the 2006 races in Washington, New Jersey and Minnesota.

The Democrats who racked up the largest majorities in 2000 (Mr. Byrd, 78 percent; Hawaii’s Daniel Akaka, 73 percent; and Mr. Kennedy, 73 percent) also happen to be the oldest candidates of either party (88, 82 and 74 years old on election day, respectively) seeking re-election.

Regarding filibustering appellate-court nominees, it is worth noting that then-Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, the filibuster ringleader who won his previous Senate re-election campaigns by 62 percent and 65 percent of the vote, went down in defeat in 2004 in the big red state of South Dakota. (Kent Conrad, take note.) Twenty cloture votes were conducted during the 108th Congress in futile efforts to stop filibusters against 10 circuit-court nominees. A review of those 20 votes reveals the following: Among the 17 Democratic senators whose seats are being contested next year, only Ben Nelson of Nebraska voted to end filibusters against more than one judicial nominee. Bill Nelson of Florida joined Ben Nelson in voting to end the filibuster against Miguel Estrada. Not a single one of the other 15 Democrats in question voted even once to end a single filibuster during the 20 cloture votes.

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