Thursday, February 15, 2007

For Democrats, Time to Pad Senate Majority and Think 60 Seats

By Stuart Rothenberg

Democrats probably don’t have to worry about losing their Senate majority in 2008, but that doesn’t mean next year’s elections aren’t crucial for them.

A strong ’08 could put the party in sight of a 60-seat majority in 2010, and that filibuster-proof majority would change the rules of the game on Capitol Hill.

Last year, Democrats won a stunning 24 of 33 races, which means over the next two Senate cycles they will need to win another 36 seats, out of the 67 that will be up, to give them the magic number of 60. Given the small Democratic classes next year (12) and in 2010 (15), and the fact that Republicans will be defending a total of 40 seats over the two cycles, it’s certainly possible that Democrats can net nine seats to get to 60.

Sixty-seat majorities are possible only when a party has a mega-year that produces a huge class. The Republicans did that in 2002 and put themselves in reach of 60 seats with a good 2004. But last year was a disaster, and now it is the Democrats who have a mathematical chance to hit the all-important 60-seat mark. But first, they must build on their numbers next year.

Five or six of the GOP’s 21 Senate seats up next year already look to be at some risk, and that number could grow if there are key retirements and if President Bush’s problems continue to drag down Republican Party numbers.

Colorado topped the list of vulnerable ’08 Senate seats even before Sen. Wayne Allard (R) announced that he would not seek re-election. Democratic Rep. Mark Udall already had signaled he would run for the Senate, and it is far from clear whether Republican chances of holding the Colorado seat have been hurt or improved by Allard’s decision.

Udall’s appeal, combined with Colorado’s recent Democratic drift and the GOP’s current national dilemma, certainly improves Democrats’ chances of picking up the Senate seat.

Another Democratic Representative, Maine’s Tom Allen, also is heading for a Senate race, and his challenge of incumbent Republican Sen. Susan Collins immediately makes the race a top-tier contest. Collins is always underestimated, and she begins her reelection bid well-liked, but the state’s Democratic bent, Allen’s assets and the Republican Party’s current standing mean that Collins will have a tough race.

At least three GOP Senators in competitive or Democratic-leaning states also could have tough races, depending on Democratic recruitment efforts.

Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman seems certain to draw a serious challenger, while Oregon Sen. Gordon Smith can’t take his re-election for granted. Both Republicans have started to criticize Bush’s Iraq policy, but they represent states that went for Democratic Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) in the 2004 presidential race and that could well go Democratic again in 2008.

New Hampshire Sen. John Sununu (R) also could have a very tough fight for a second term. He won narrowly in 2002, and his party took an absolute bath in the state in 2006, losing two House seats and getting swept out of both chambers of the state Legislature.

Other Republicans look to be in relatively good shape for re-election — if they seek it. And that could be the National Republican Senatorial Committee’s problem.

At least a few Republican Senators up next year will remain on everyone’s retirement watch list, and while all of them eventually may seek (and win) re-election, for now NRSC Chairman John Ensign (Nev.) has to be worrying at least a bit about their decisions.

The names on this list include Sens. John Warner (Va.), Chuck Hagel (Neb.), Pete Domenici (N.M.), Thad Cochran (Miss.) and Elizabeth Dole (N.C.).

Savvy Republican observers agree that this cycle is a “very challenging” one for the GOP, given the numbers of Republican and Democratic seats up and the current national political environment, which would slow GOP candidate recruitment and hurt committee fundraising.

But they also know that election cycles have a way of changing dramatically over two years, and it’s possible that the picture could be brighter for the GOP 18 months from now when it comes to the 2008 elections.

Right now, Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu is the most vulnerable Democratic Senator up next year, but other Democratic Senate seats could become competitive depending on retirements and Republican recruiting.

Still, given the recent electoral performance of states with Democratic-held seats up in 2008 — including Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Michigan and Rhode Island — it is hard to see Republicans seriously contesting more than a few of those seats. So the most likely Republican scenario for winning back the Senate is to retain all of the GOP seats, knock off Landrieu and win the White House again, giving them a tie in the Senate and control with the vice president breaking the tie.

Talking about a Democratic super-majority in the Senate in 2010 may seem odd and premature, and it is. The 2008 presidential results and unknowable events over the next few years could change the political equation completely, denying Democrats an opportunity to keep their majority, let alone grow it to 60. But given the makeup of the three Senate classes, party strategists would be foolish not to be thinking about the arithmetic even now.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on February 12, 2007. Copyright 2007 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.