- The Washington Times - Monday, March 20, 2006

In 2000, amid peace and prosperity and with George W. Bush at the top of the Republican ticket, five incumbent Republican senators were defeated. The Democrats, while losing the White House six years ago, managed to gain four seats in the Senate. The resulting 50-50 Senate, which was still organized by Republicans by virtue of Vice President Cheney’s tie-breaking vote, nevertheless set the stage for a Democratic takeover after Jim Jeffords of Vermont left the Republican Party in the spring of 2001 and became a Democrat-caucusing independent.

In the 2002 election, for the first time since the 17th Amendment (adopted in 1913) provided for the direct popular election of senators, the party occupying the White House regained majority control of the Senate in a midterm election. National-security dynamics played a crucial role.

Indeed, less than a month before the 2002 election, 29 of 50 Senate Democrats joined 48 of 49 Senate Republicans to authorize the use of military force against Iraq. The 2002 use-of-force vote among Democratic senators contrasted sharply with their 45-10 opposition in 1991 to the use of force against Iraq after it invaded Kuwait. One of the 10 Democrats approving military force in 1991 was Al Gore. Interestingly, more than 60 percent of House Democrats opposed the use of force against Iraq in both 1991 and 2002. Throughout the 2002 political campaign, meanwhile, a major issue focused on the creation of the Department of Homeland Security as the central domestic front for the war on terrorism.

Even a precarious economy in October 2002 could not dissuade voters from giving the president a solid overall job-approval rating of 61 percent, according to a poll conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. In addition, Republican Senate candidates benefited immensely from the public’s strong approval of “the way Bush is handling the situation in Iraq” (56-34, according to Pew) and the public’s overwhelming approval of the way the president was “handling terrorist threats” (71-22).

Thus, with the public’s solid approval of the president’s policies providing a strong wind at their back, Republicans narrowly recaptured the Senate in 2002 by increasing their membership from 49 to 51. In the 2004 elections, Mr. Bush, whose policies against “terrorist threats” were approved 49-40, displayed impressive coattails. After sweeping five Southern Senate seats vacated by retiring Democrats, Republicans increased their majority to 55 seats. This year, if Democrats, as expected, win the Vermont Senate seat being vacated by the retiring Mr. Jeffords, they will still need six additional seats to gain control of Senate.

Last week’s Pew poll said Mr. Bush’s overall job-approval rating had plunged to 33 percent — a record low for his presidency. The poll also said the public disapproved of the way the president was handling “the situation in Iraq” (65-30) and “the economy” (57-34). Perhaps most worrisome of all for Republican Senate candidates was the public’s surprising 49-42 disapproval of the way the president is “handling terrorist threats.” It was the first time ever that a plurality of the public — and a surprisingly high plurality — expressed disapproval of the president on this issue, which was so central to the 2002 and 2004 election campaigns. Once again, national-security dynamics are poised to play a major role in senatorial elections.

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