Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
November 7, 2002
POLITICS: 2004 Senate Predictions: The Democrat-Held Seats
It's not too soon for political junkies to start looking ahead to the 2004 Senate elections. There's a reason why: strategy for those elections, as well as the presidential election, will do much to drive the parties' calculations of how long the Republican window of likely White House-Senate control is (the landscape of House elections doesn't change much from year to year; one House election raises concerns in both parties pretty much the same as any other). Let's take a look. The Democrats, who will likely enter the elections needing to gain between 2 and 4 seats to regain control (you can't predict deaths or resignations or party switches, but we'll have a better idea after Louisiana and South Dakota are settled), but they will face an uphill battle: defending 19 seats to the GOP's 15. (You can go to the FEC's website for the results of the 1998 Senate elections for these same 34 seats.) I'm also figuring that there's a better than even chance that a popular Bush is facing either Gore again or someone like John Kerry, running on a basically populist, anti-war and generally left-leaning campaign after the fashion of Gore's post-convention strategy; obviously, if Bush falters badly, the whole calculus changes.
1. RETIREMENTS: The only one I know of so far is Zell Miller in Georgia, which in a presidential election year could be a GOP pickup. Miller's replacement on the Democratic ticket is likely to be more liberal than he, although the best bet is moderate Roy Barnes, who just lost his bid for re-election as governor. Daniel Inouye in Hawaii and Fritz Hollings in South Carolina also seem like potential retirees given their age and seniority. It's also possible that Tom Daschle in South Dakota or John Edwards in North Carolina could step down if one of them wins the presidential nomination; in this climate, I doubt anybody would quit a race just to be a vice presidential candidate.
2. SAFE SEATS IN SAFE STATES: I'd tentatively list as safe bets Chris Dodd in Connecticut (unless John Rowland, just re-elected as governor, runs); Inouye (probably a safe seat even if Inouye, who's held the seat since Hawaii got statehood, dies or retires); Barbara Mikulski in Maryland; Patrick Leahy in Vermont; Daschle (his popularity may be taking a hit at the moment, but SD voters seem unlikely to dump him entirely unless the presidential race is such a gigantic blowout that it massively skews turnout); Chuck Schumer in NY (unless Giuliani runs against him). Barbara Boxer is also fairly safe unless the Republicans can really drive a wedge between her and California's left-leaning electorate on the war, but high turnout for the presidential race is likely to help Boxer.
3. THE GREEN STATES: Three Democratic Senators are running in states where strong Green Party showings made the Bush-Gore race extremely close last time; these seem like fairly safe seats but they could become contested races if the GOP finds a strong, moderate-sounding candidate on the Norm Coleman model: Russ Feingold of Wisconsin (who I would think of as the safest of the three, although he actually won narrowly last time while the others cruised); Patty Murray in Washington; and Ron Wyden in Oregon. Given that the 2000 Senate race in Washington was so close and the GOP's Gordon Smith just cruised to victory in Oregon on Tuesday, you have to figure the Republicans will target at least one of these races with a real challenger.
4. THE SOUTH: Here's where the President's popularity will be key, as it was this year. Defending a Democratic Senate seat in the South while a popular Republican president is heading the ticket. The Democrats will be defending five seats: Edwards, Hollings, Blanche Lincoln in Arkansas, John Breaux in Louisiana, and Bob Graham in Florida. Hollings is the most endangered; he and Edwards are the only two who got less than 55% of the vote in 1998, and Edwards was running against an incumbent. Breaux, a noted moderate, seems the safest, although Graham has been fairly solid on the war, which will be particularly necessary if that's the lead issue in the presidential campaign.
5. THE REST: That leaves three swing seats. One is held by a popular senator, Evan Bayh, in conservative Indiana. He doesn't look like much to worry about for the Democrats. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota also cruised last time. The third is Harry Reid in Nevada; in 1998, Reid won by less than 500 votes, and in 2000, Bush won the state by a razor-thin margin. This is likely to be a nail-biter, although as usual the issue of the nuclear dump at Yucca Mountain will figure prominently.
THE PROGNOSIS: The Democrats will fight many and expensive battles in 2004, but only a handful really look scary right now if you're a Democrat - Reid, Hollings, Miller and maybe some of the other southerners. Still, having at least three seriously endangered seats makes the job of assembling a net gain of 2 or more seats a daunting one.
(I'll take on the 15 GOP seats later.)