- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 11, 2006

In the Senate, where Republicans will have ruled for more than 10 of the last 12 years, the party would have to suffer a net loss of six seats in November in order for Democrats to regain control. By historical standards, that is not very tall order. On the other hand, if historical trends had played out during the 2002 midterm elections, Republicans would not have recaptured control of the Senate. And George W. Bush would not have become the first president, since the 17th Amendment providing for popular election of senators was adopted in 1913, whose party regained control of the Senate during a midterm election.

As we noted in an earlier editorial about the 2006 campaign for control of the House of Representatives, midterm elections have not been kind to presidents or their parties. Beginning with the first popular election of senators in 1914, there have been 23 midterm elections. According to “Vital Statistics on Congress 2001-2002,” the president’s party has suffered a net loss in the Senate during 16 of those 23 elections. Since the Great Depression, only the Democrats in 1962 gained more Senate seats in a midterm elections than the Republicans picked up in 2002. Moreover, since World War II, the president’s party has lost control of the Senate during three midterm elections: Harry Truman, 1946, when Republicans gained 13 seats; Dwight Eisenhower, 1954, when Democrats gained two seats; and Ronald Reagan, 1986, when Democrats gained eight seats.

The president’s party has fared especially poorly in Senate midterm elections held during an administration’s second term — what Congressional Quarterly has aptly dubbed “The Sixth Year Swoon.” There have been nine second midterm elections since the 17th Amendment was adopted. The president’s party lost Senate seats in eight of those elections. The only exception was 1998, when there was no change. During those nine second midterm elections, the average number of Senate seats lost by the president’s party, compared to the previous general election, was six, which precisely equals the Democrats’ magic number in 2006.

At this stage of the 2006 election campaign, it is, of course, impossible to know if Republicans will maintain control of the Senate in November. Historical trends and the president’s current political problems notwithstanding, Democrats face an uphill battle, including the seemingly mundane but potentially consequential fact that Democrats must defend 18 seats compared to 15 for the Republicans.

In an era when incumbents generally enjoy strong advantages, Republicans will likely be defending their 15 Senate seats with 14 incumbents .The only announced retiree is Bill Frist of Tennessee, whose state Mr. Bush twice carried, including in 2000 against native son Al Gore, who had been twice elected to the Senate and twice elected vice president by Tennesseeans. On the other hand, three of the 18 seats that Democrats must defend (including the Vermont seat held by the retiring independent James Jeffords, who caucuses with the Democrats) will be open seats with no incumbent. The other Democratic open seats are in Minnesota, which elected a Republican senator in 2002, and Maryland. Meanwhile, New Jersey’s Democratic seat must be defended by the newly appointed Robert Menendez, who replaced Jon Corzine, who was elected governor.

Three of the 15 Senate seats being defended by Republicans are in states won by John Kerry: Olympia Snowe of Maine, Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island and Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania. Five of the 18 seats being defended by Democrats are in red states won by President Bush: Robert Byrd of West Virginia, Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, Kent Conrad of North Dakota, Bill Nelson of Florida and Ben Nelson of Nebraska. Admittedly, as the president’s popularity and approval rating have declined, so too has the relevance of the red/blue dynamic. Still, a presidential resurgence could be a pivotal factor in a few of these races.

To be sure, Democrats received extremely welcome news when Republicans failed to enlist their preferred candidates to challenge Democratic incumbents in West Virginia, North Dakota, Nebraska, Washington, Michigan and Florida. Unquestionably, these were major setbacks for the GOP. Despite his 46-year tenure in the Senate, a year ago Mr. Byrd looked vulnerable in a state that turned red in 2000 and then re-elected Mr. Bush by 13 points.

A year ago, in the wake of the defeat of Senate Minority Leader Sen. Tom Daschle in the bright red state of South Dakota, North Dakota’s Mr. Conrad looked vulnerable in a state that gave President Bush 63 percent of its vote in 2004. First-term Sen. Ben Nelson, who won in 2000 with 51 percent of the vote, was especially vulnerable in Nebraska, where Mr. Bush collected 66 percent of the vote. In Michigan, which Mr. Kerry won with 51 percent of the vote, first-term Sen. Debbie Stabenow, who upset an incumbent Republican with 49 percent of the vote in 2000, looked vulnerable. As did Washington’s Maria Cantwell, another incumbent-defeating 49-percenter in 2000 from a blue state. A year ago, after Mr. Bush won Florida by 5 points and nearly 400,000 votes, first-termer Bill Nelson, who won Florida’s open seat in 2000 with 51 percent of the vote, looked vulnerable as well. Without first-tier opponents in 2006, however, all of these Democrats look far more secure than they otherwise would be, especially Messrs. Byrd and Conrad, both of whom recently moved into Congressional Quarterly’s “Safe Democratic” column.

For all their victories in the recruiting battles, Democrats must still face some unpleasant arithmetic. Even if they succeed in holding 100 percent of the 18 seats they are defending, they still must capture six Republican-held seats to gain control. True, Mr. Santorum’s Pennsylvania seat looks especially vulnerable today; and Conrad Burns in Montana and Mr. Chafee could face problems, as could Mike DeWine in Ohio. If the Republican Party’s national stock goes south, Tennessee’s open seat and Missouri offer opportunity. To get to 51, Democrats would have to hold their own and then run the table on the six Republican seats noted above. Historical standards notwithstanding, that is a tall order today.

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