For the first time in months, Republicans are feeling optimistic about this year's presidential election. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are damaging each other when they are not self-destructing. John McCain is polling competitively both in national head-to-head match-ups and in battleground states. One encounters cheerful conservatives for the first time since the afterglow of 2004.
Get over it. The congressional elections are at least as important as the presidential race and there things don't look quite so rosy for Republicans. Remember this basic rule of thumb: The more Democratic the next Congress, the more liberal the next president will be in the first two years. This rule is likely to hold no matter if it is Obama, Clinton, or McCain putting their hand on the Bible on Jan. 20, 2009. Without a critical mass of Republicans, there will be no check on President Clinton or Obama and President McCain will sign a slew of legislation along the lines of McCain-Kennedy, McCain-Feingold, and McCain-Lieberman.
Let's start by looking at the House, where Republican prospects ought to be better. The Democrats picked a lot of the low hanging fruit in 2006. Republicans would be nearly a third of the way to a majority if they just won back all the reliably GOP seats they lost two years ago because of scandals. Democratic freshmen from long-term GOP districts should be on the defensive, especially the Brad Ellsworths and Heath Shulers who needed some conservative votes to win.
Instead the GOP is continuing to lose ground in red districts, such as the recent special election loss of former House Speaker Dennis Hastert's seat. Candidate recruitment has faltered. Melissa Bean, the Illinois Democrat who toppled Phil Crane in 2004, has an A-List challenger. Ohio's Zack Space, New York's John Hall, and Florida's Ron Klein do not. Neither do Indiana's Ellsworth or North Carolina's Shuler, which does not bode well for efforts to retake the House.
TO MAKE MATTERS worse, the Cook Political Report estimates that Republicans hold 12 of the 14 seats most likely to switch parties in November. Twenty-two Republicans have announced their retirement from the House compared to just six Democrats. These retirements include GOP incumbents holding at-risk seats. Departing Congressman Tom Reynolds of New York, for example, beat an eccentric Democratic challenger by just four points in 2006.
The GOP's Senate math is even more daunting. Structurally, the Republicans were always going to be at a disadvantage since they had to defend 23 seats to the Democrats' 12. Several specific races have made matters even worse. Virginia, the only Southern state to vote for Gerald Ford over Jimmy Carter in 1976, is the Democrats' best pick-up opportunity. In this fall's Old Dominion Senate race, former Democratic Gov. Mark Warner is almost certain to trounce his Republican predecessor Jim Gilmore.
New Hampshire, New England's last Republican bastion, is in the midst of blue tide. Consequently, GOP Sen. John Sununu is at serious risk of being bumped off by former Democratic Gov. Jeanne Shaheen in a rematch from six years ago. Shaheen might have won the seat in 2002 if Sununu hadn't primaried Sen. Bob Smith.
Joining Sununu on the Democrats' most wanted senators list are Gordon Smith of Oregon, Norm Coleman of Minnesota, and Susan Collins of Maine, all of whom have strong Democratic challengers. The Democrats have also recruited Mark Udall to run for a Republican open seat in Colorado and Tom Udall to do the same in New Mexico. The only Democratic incumbent facing a serious GOP challenger is Mary Landrieu in Louisiana.
A miracle or a Democratic implosion could deliver the Senate to the GOP. Faith teaches us that the former is possible, experience proves the latter. Nevertheless, a bigger Democratic majority is the way to bet. Fortunately, all Republicans really need to have a say in how the country is run is just 41 Senate seats. Senate Republicans have proved this ever since Harry Reid became majority leader, frustrating the Democrats on Iraq, the alternative minimum tax, the stimulus package, card check, and countless other pieces of legislation.
CAN THE DEMOCRATS get to a filibuster-proof majority? Only by running the table against vulnerable Republicans and putting harder-to-reach states like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's Kentucky in play. That may be a tall order. Collins is still leading in Maine; conservative Republican Bob Schaeffer is competitive against Udall in Colorado; Smith has won some tough races in Oregon. Even Coleman, who is trailing, is close enough that he might not end up Democratic challenger Al Franken's punch line.
On the other hand, the Democrats could reach deeper into Republican territory. Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens is 84 and under investigation by the feds. Liberal groups are raising money for a challenge to McConnell. In most recent elections, a majority of the close Senate races have cut one party's way. In 2002, the Republicans won all of them except for South Dakota. In 2006, the Democrats won all of them except for Tennessee.
The ideological composition of the Republicans who return to the Senate will also be important. If moderates like Collins and Smith are reelected while conservatives like Sununu fall, it will be harder to keep filibusters together even if there are more than 41 Republicans. Bob Dole was able to derail Hillarycare and came within one vote of stopping the 1993 Clinton tax increase with just 43 Republican senators, including such Rockefeller liberals as John Chafee, Jim Jeffords, David Durenberger, and Mark Hatfield. But some of McConnell's filibusters have prevailed by close enough margins as it is.
Further complicating matters is the presidential election. Republicans haven't won most close Senate races while a Democrat rode to the White House since 1992, when Arlen Specter, Bob Packwood, Kit Bond, Alfonse D'Amato, and John McCain defied Clinton's coattails while Lauch Faircloth and Paul Coverdell picked off Democratic incumbents. If McCain carries swing states like New Hampshire, Minnesota, Colorado and New Mexico or runs up huge margins in red states like Kentucky or even Virginia, it could make the difference in the Senate contests.
In other words, Republicans must hope that McCain does well enough to pull some Senate candidates across the finish line. Conservatives should hope there are enough Republicans to pull McCain to the right.
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