- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 19, 2005

Who can blame Democrats for enjoying their off-year electoral successes? They kept the governorships of red-state Virginia and blue-state New Jersey and they defeated the four initiatives embraced by Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in solidly blue-state California. Victories, to be sure, but hardly earth-shattering.

So, beyond the natural tendency to spin any political development in one’s favor, what accounts for the fact that Democrats are chortling especially heartily these days? A major factor has to be the president’s plunge in popularity. According to the FOX News/Opinion Dynamics Poll, for example, President Bush’s job-approval rating averaged 61 percent during his first term. He was a formidable asset on the campaign trail during the 2002 midterm congressional elections, when Republicans regained control of the Senate, and his 2004 re-election campaign, when Republican Senate candidates swept five red-state Southern seats vacated by retiring Democrats and defeated Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle in the bright-red state of South Dakota.

Last week, however, the president’s job-approval rating in the FOX News poll fell to 36 percent. If the president’s approval ratings remain in the doldrums throughout next year’s midterm campaign season, the re-election chances of several red-state Democratic senators will improve considerably. No wonder Democrats are so happy.

To be sure, the White House’s current popularity problems are unlikely to change the hue of the vast majority of Republican-dominated red states. This is a fact of life that still confronts most of the 16 Democratic senators whose constituents gave their states’ electoral votes to Mr. Bush a year ago. Mr. Bush’s 2004 victory margins were substantial in Nebraska (33.2 points), North Dakota (27.4), South Dakota (21.5), Indiana (20.7), Montana (20.5), Louisiana (14.5), West Virginia (12.9) and Arkansas (9.8), all presidential red states likely to remain that way. Cumulatively, these states have 11 Democratic senators; and another five Democrats represent other states (Colorado, Florida, Nevada, New Mexico and Iowa) that voted for Mr. Bush in 2004, albeit by considerably smaller margins.

In 2006, six red-state Democratic senators (Ben Nelson, Nebraska; Kent Conrad, North Dakota; Robert Byrd, West Virginia; Bill Nelson, Florida; and Jeff Bingaman, New Mexico) face re-election.

Even before the current job-approval problems confronted the White House, Sens. Nelson and Conrad benefited significantly from the decisions by current North Dakota Republican Gov. John Hoeven and former GOP Nebraska Gov. Mike Johanns not to contest the Senate races. Good fortune has also smiled upon Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida, whose state Mr. Bush won by 5 percentage points in 2004. Through Sept. 30, Mr. Nelson raised $8.5 million and has $6.5 million in cash on hand. That is $6 million more than GOP hopeful Katherine Harris has in the bank.

While the Nelson boys won close victories in 2000, Sens. Conrad and Byrd won their races going away, the former winning by 23 points and the latter by 58. Before the plunge in Mr. Bush’s ratings, the operative race for Mr. Conrad was not so much his 2000 victory as it was the 2004 defeat of Mr. Daschle in neighboring South Dakota. Like Mr. Conrad, Mr. Daschle’s previous victory margin was significantly above 20 points. Mr. Conrad, however, will not face an opponent as strong as John Thune, who narrowly defeated Mr. Daschle in 2004.

Meanwhile in West Virginia, where Mr. Bush doubled his 2000 victory margin last year, Mr. Byrd has just recorded his highest back-to-back vote ratings from the liberal Americans for Democratic Action (2003, 95 percent; 2004, 90 percent). At least in terms of ideology, Mr. Byrd, who would begin his ninth term at age 89, seems to be increasingly out of touch with the home-state voters. Before Mr. Bush’s dip in the polls, the operative race for Mr. Byrd may have been the 1980 bolt-from-the-blue defeat of the six-term liberal Sen. Warren Magnuson of Washington, who won his previous election by 25 points. For now, Mr. Byrd’s pork-delivery system will likely outweigh his recent leftward lurch.

Having won his 2000 race by 23 points, Mr. Bingaman of New Mexico, which Mr. Bush narrowly carried in 2004 after just barely losing it to Al Gore in 2000, looks increasingly comfortable as a red-state Democrat facing voters next year.

Altogether, Democrats will have to defend 18 Senate seats in the 2006 midterm election, including the seat held by retiring independent James Jeffords, who caucuses with the Democrats. The Republicans will defend 15 seats. Except for Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, Olympia Snowe of Maine and Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, Republicans will be defending their seats in red states carried twice by Mr. Bush. Apart from Nevada and Ohio, both of which Mr. Bush won narrowly in 2004, the president achieved comfortable victory margins (at least 7 points and an average of 21 points) in the remaining 10 red-state elections last year. That, at least, is something Republicans can chortle about.

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