Republicans have started sounding the alarm about the presidential race now that John McCain is trailing Barack Obama by anywhere from two to 11 percentage points. The battleground states aren’t looking much better, with Obama leading in the polling averages for even Florida, Virginia, and Missouri.
Understandable that Republicans would be worried. But have they taken a look at the Senate races? For the last two years, your humble servant has been saying to anyone who will listen: The more Democratic next year’s Senate, the more liberal the next two years’ legislation will be no matter who wins the White House. If conservatives want to stop Obama’s health care plan, McCain’s trial balloon about having the federal government buy everybody’s bad mortgages, or either man’s costly cap-and-trade program, they will need a critical mass of filibuster-ready Republicans in the Senate.
Right now, that project isn’t looking too good. The latest round of Senate polls shows Democratic gains in heretofore safe states. Republican incumbents who weren’t on virtually anyone’s radar screen months ago are in deep trouble.
Take Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, one of the great GOP success stories of the 2002 elections when he unseated one-term Democrat Max Cleland. Georgia has been trending Republican in recent election cycles. The presence of even a losing presidential candidate at the top of the ticket should be able to help — Bill Clinton won Georgia in 1992 only by the grace of Ross Perot. Even Perot wasn’t enough to keep the Peach State from falling to Bob Dole in 1996, and it’s been safely in the Republican column ever since. McCain still leads there by double digits even with former Georgia Congressman Bob Barr on the ballot as a Libertarian.
Yet things aren’t looking too good for Chambliss right now. A Sept. 30 Survey USA poll showed Chambliss leading Democrat Jim Martin by just two points. (McCain leads Obama by eight in the same poll.) Then came a Research 2000 survey showing Chambliss clinging to a 1-point lead. Neither poll showed the incumbent close to 50 percent, although a Rasmussen poll was released on October 8 giving him a 50 percent to 44 percent lead.
Then there’s Elizabeth Dole, whose early polling woes in North Carolina were supposed to be a fluke. Yet here we are less than a month away from the election and this generation’s Senator Dole isn’t consistently ahead of her Democratic challenger Kay Hagan. An October 6, Democratic poll showed Hagan up by nine points while an independent Survey USA poll had Dole with a statistically insignificant lead well below the 50 percent mark (44 percent to 43 percent). North Carolina has even become a problem for McCain, who clings to a 3-point lead according to Survey USA but trails Obama in other recent polls. This suggests that even if McCain carries the Tar Heel State, coattails will be scarce.
In Mississippi, Roger Wicker, the Republican filling Trent Lott’s Senate seat, was always expecting a tough race. His Democratic opponent is former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove. But you might have expected Wicker to have started to pull away by now, given that the red-state versus blue-state lines have been drawn in the presidential contest. Not so, however — Rasmussen has Wicker up by just two, winning just 49 percent of the vote.
Oregon Sen. Gordon Smith is one Republican who looked likely to survive a Democratic landslide. Smith has won tough races before and his state likes liberal Republicans — just ask Mark Hatfield and Bob Packwood. But even he is now in trouble: In late September, he started trailing his weak Democratic opponent Jeff Merkley. Even before Merkley took the lead, Smith was well below 50 percent. A Research 2000 poll shows Smith down five points and only carrying 40 percent of the vote despite two terms in office.
Even Sen. Norm Coleman of Minnesota, who looked like he had pulled away from liberal joker Al Franken, is having trouble in some polls. Minnesota Public Radio has Franken up four, with Minnesota Independence Party candidate (and onetime interim senator) Dean Barkley taking 14 percent of the vote. The Star Tribune says Franken is leading by nine while Survey USA puts Coleman ahead by ten.
With Democratic pickups looking possible in Colorado (the Denver Post has Mark Udall leading Republican Bob Schaffer by five), likely in New Hampshire (Survey USA puts Jeanne Shaheen eight points ahead of GOP incumbent John Sununu), probable in New Mexico (Rasmussen has Tom Udall up 15 over Republican Steve Pearce), and almost certain in Virginia (Mark Warner is beating Republican Jim Gilmore, his predecessor as governor, by 30 points), a functionally filibuster-proof Senate is not outside the realm of possibility should a Chambliss, Coleman, or Dole fall.
The only Republican incumbent who is consistently in the lead despite a serious Democratic challenge is Susan Collins of Maine, who will be next to useless in filibusters of popular liberal legislation. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell also appears to be pulling ahead of Democrat Bruce Lunsford in Kentucky, leading by nine points on Sept. 30. Indicted Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens is up by one point, but below 50 percent.
What about Republican pickups? At the end of September, Mary Landrieu was up 13 points over a GOP challenger with an unlikely name, John Kennedy. After that, it is all long shots. Frank Lautenberg has opened up a 16-point lead in New Jersey. With a 35-point lead, John Kerry looks like he is going to cruise to his biggest margin ever over a Republican opponent.
In the last three elections, the winning party has come close to running the table in all of the highly competitive Senate races. The Democrats have 60 seats within reach, though that outcome is far from certain. Republicans should remember there is more at stake this year than the presidency.