- The Washington Times - Friday, August 4, 2006

In the summer of 2000, when the congressional campaigns were heating up, Republicans held a relatively comfortable 55-45 advantage in the Senate. That July, Georgia Sen. Paul Coverdell, a former Peace Corps director and a rising star in the Republican leadership, unexpectedly died after suffering a stroke. Georgia’s Democratic governor replaced him with a Democrat, and the Senate balance became 54-46. Although a few Republican incumbents faced tough challenges, on the eve of the election Republicans were expected to capture Democratic-held Senate seats in Virginia and Nevada, which they did. That meant that Democrats would have had to win seven Republican-held seats to achieve majority status.

To the surprise of many, Democrats won six of those seven races by capturing Florida’s Republican-vacated open seat and ousting five Republican incumbents in Delaware, Minnesota, Washington, Michigan and Missouri. Montana’s Republican Sen. Conrad Burns narrowly won re-election with 50.6 percent of the vote, setting up a 50-50 tie in the Senate but giving Republicans control by virtue of Vice President Dick Cheney’s tie-breaking vote.

This summer Republicans again control the Senate by a 55-45 margin. Democrats will need a net gain of six seats to capture majority status, which they briefly enjoyed for about 18 months after James Jeffords, Vermont Republican, became an independent and began caucusing with the Democrats in June 2001. In the 2002 elections, the Republican Party regained its Senate majority (51-49) and added four seats in 2004.

When an electoral wave occurs, it is usually accompanied by one party winning a disproportionately high share of the close races. As Michael Barone observed in the 2004 edition of the Almanac of American Politics, “Republicans won a majority in the Senate in 1980 because they won 11 of the 13 closest races. They lost that majority, with the same seats up, in 1986 when they lost six of the eight closest races.” Six years ago, if the Democrats had prevailed in Montana, they would have won nine of the 11 closest races and control of the Senate. Winning eight of the 11 tightest races did not cut it in 2000. Six years later, the same seats are up for grabs.

If a Democratic senatorial wave occurs this year, its origin will be traced to the increasing political strength of some Democrats and the steady deterioration of several Republicans since the beginning of 2005. Nearly two years ago, following President Bush’s impressive re-election margins in several red states, it was red-state Democratic senators who were thought to be potentially vulnerable. As it happened, according to the latest nonpartisan analysis by political handicapper Charlie Cook, the re-election of several red-state Democrats now appears to be either virtually certain (Bill Nelson of Florida and Kent Conrad of North Dakota) or very likely (Robert Byrd of West Virginia). Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, where Mr. Bush smashed John Kerry by more than 2-1 in 2004, looks far less vulnerable today than he did after the 2004 election.

Republican trends have been moving in the opposite direction. A month after Mr. Bush’s re-election, when Mr. Cook first looked at the November 2006 senatorial landscape, he rated three Republican-held Senate seats as “toss ups”: Rick Santorum’s (Pennsylvania), Lincoln Chafee’s (Rhode Island) and the Tennessee seat being vacated by Sen. Bill Frist. At that time, nine Republican seats were considered to be “solid Republican” seats for 2006. By January 2006, however, Mr. Cook rated only seven Republican seats as “solid” and added Sen. Mike DeWine of Ohio to the toss-up list. The seat held by Mr. Burns of Montana, which was considered “solid Republican” in late 2004, was progressively downgraded, first to “likely” and then to “lean[ing] Republican” by January. Today, the Montana seat is in the toss-up column. So, too, is the Missouri Senate seat held by Jim Talent, which Mr. Cook first considered to be “likely Republican.”

Meanwhile, Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl, whose seat was initially rated as solid, has been incrementally downgraded to “lean[ing] Republican,” one step above toss up. The Virginia seat held by George Allen, which was first rated as likely, moved up to solid before being downgraded back to likely. James Webb, a Vietnam War hero who served as Ronald Reagan’s Navy secretary, won Virginia’s Democratic primary and has been performing better than his relatively empty bank account would project.

Today, Mr. Cook rates six Republican-held seats (Missouri, Montana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Tennessee) as toss ups. Only one Democrat-held seat (the open seat in Minnesota) is in this highly vulnerable category, although Mr. Cook recently reported that the Washington seat held by freshman Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell “barely avoided being listed” in the toss-up category. Moreover, he expects that at least two of the four other Democratic seats currently categorized as “lean[ing] Democratic” (freshmen Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, Robert Menendez of New Jersey, Ben Nelson of Nebraska and the open seat in Maryland) “will surely become more competitive and wind up in the ‘toss-up’ column this fall.”

If Messrs. Kyl and Allen prevail, then the Democratic path to majority status will only be accomplished by winning all six Republican toss-up seats without suffering a single defeat among the 18 seats Democrats are defending. That is a tall order, but it is worth recalling that few experts predicted that Republicans would win their Senate majorities in 1980 and 1994 or that the party would lose its majority in 1986 and come very close to losing it six years ago.

In his column this week in the National Journal, Mr. Cook surely sent shock waves through the White House and the Republican cloakrooms in both the House and Senate. He boldly declared: “Unless something dramatic happens before Election Day, Democrats will take control of the House. And the chances they’ll seize the Senate are rising toward 50-50.” That’s a straightforward message for the whole of the Republican Party.

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