The United States needs more senators like Alabama’s Jeff Sessions. The Republican Party needs to recruit more senatorial candidates who have that potential. And the conservative movement ought to prod the Republican Party, sooner rather than later, to do so.
First things first: Senator Sessions won election last week to a third term by a landslide margin, with 63 percent of the vote. He outpolled ticket-header John McCain in both percentage of the vote and in raw votes, even though far more votes were cast in the presidential contest than in the Senate one. He did so even though what is arguably the most conservative congressional district in the state had no House race on the ballot to help drive up conservative turnout (Rep. Jo Bonner won re-election without opposition), but its major city, Mobile, was the home base of his semi-moderate black opponent, state Sen. Vivian Figures, who benefited from an extra-heavy black turnout there and throughout the state due to Barack Obama’s presence on the ballot. And Sessions did so even as Republicans in Alabama lost one U.S. House seat they had formerly held, failed to pick up the seat of a retiring Democrat that they were favored to win, and came within a whisker of losing a state Supreme Court seat they had held for years. In short, Sessions substantially outperformed the rest of the Republican ticket, which is a testament to the growing popularity of this stalwart conservative workhorse.
Sessions is no spellbinding orator. And he is no legislative wheeler-dealer. What he is, though, is a man of principle who doggedly works to put those principles into practice. Long before this year’s sudden national interest in drilling, Sessions worked successfully to help expand drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. Long before President George W. Bush made free trade with Colombia a priority (as yet unaccomplished), Sessions was pushing the need to make that nation a key ally. And it was Sessions who served as the longtime professional mentor, nomination sponsor, and unyielding advocate for one of the very best federal appeals court judges in the country, Bill Pryor of the 11th Circuit.
On Tuesday I spoke with Sessions, who expressed great concern about the odds facing conservatives in the next few years. Among his words of wisdom:
“I think the conservatives have to lead. We need to get out there and communicate and lead effectively.”
“I think ideas are powerful. Ideas matter. I’m convinced that if we stay locked within the [Senate] chamber, we are doomed…. Americans values will be weakened. What we’ve gotta do is rally the American people. From the people comes the power, and what the Democrats fear most of all is losing power.”
He said Republicans erred by not continuing to make the case for conservative judges: “Seventy percent of the people are on our side on that issue. I think the Gang of 14 occurred with Harry Reid’s blessing,” because it took the issue out of the public realm. (Paraphrasing: He added that the case for judges needs to be made in big picture terms, not as a procedural argument over one judge at a time.)
“You’ve gotta have principles that you are fighting for. You can’t lead a movement or a party with ‘moderation’.”
But (now leaving Sessions’ interview behind) it’s tough to lead, or to fight, when the playing field is tilted against you. Republicans are seriously outnumbered in the Senate. At most, there will be 43 of them, with a chance of as few as 40. And true conservatives number probably no more than half that. In short, the next two years will see reed-thin margin for error in opposing Obama’s leftist policies.
WHICH BRINGS US to the 2010 Senate races. Republicans who harbor any hopes for a quick political recovery must begin, right now, to line up powerful candidates for every seat where victory is the slightest bit conceivable. Right now, the number of potentially vulnerable Republican and Democratic seats is about even. Unfortunately (from a GOP standpoint), Democratic senators Lincoln of Arkansas, Bayh of Indiana, Mikulski of Maryland, Schumer of New York, Wyden of Oregon, and Leahy of Vermont all seem to enjoy re-election for the asking. But a host of others seem to have potential weaknesses: Dodd in Connecticut may even retire, Boxer of California already has an announced conservative challenger (as of yesterday) in Chuck DeVore and a potential challenge from moderate Gov. Schwarzenegger as well, Delaware will be seriously contested by popular moderate Republican U.S. Rep. (and former Gov.) Mike Castle, and the seats of Salazar in Colorado, Inouye of Hawaii (he’ll be 86 by then), Obama’s replacement in Illinois, Reid of Nevada, Murray of Washington, Feingold of Wisconsin, and even Dorgan of North Dakota all offer at least outside chances for Republican campaigns.
Murray’s vulnerability probably depends on whether or not Dino Rossi, loser of two close gubernatorial races, can be convinced to set his sights on Washington. Reid’s uneven performance as Majority Leader has made him ripe for picking off. In Connecticut, Republican Gov. Jodi Rell is quite popular. Colorado remains a state with a strong conservative infrastructure, and there’s talk that iconic quarterback John Elway might run for the GOP. Dorgan has always seemed politically strong, but if popular Republican Gov. John Hoeven could somehow be convinced to make the race, things could get interesting very quickly. If Inouye retires, Republican Gov. Linda Lingle may have a shot. And while Feingold is probably safe, Wisconsin is a state that can always surprise.
Count’em: That’s ten Democratic seats where Republicans could compete.
Republicans, though, have their own vulnerabilities. The safe ones are Shelby of Alabama (with $13 million in the bank), Crapo of Idaho, Coburn of Oklahoma, Bennett of Utah, and probably Thune of South Dakota and DeMint of South Carolina. It also would take a serious upset to knock off Alaska’s Murkowski, Iowa’s Grassley, and Gregg of New Hampshire.
But in Arizona, John McCain’s seat is vulnerable to challenge from Gov. Janet Napolitano, whether McCain retires or not. In Florida, Mel Martinez barely won the first time, and the state always is a toss-up. Isakson of Georgia should be fairly safe, but it’s not a done deal. Ditto for Burr of North Carolina. Meanwhile, Bunning of Kentucky, Vitter of Louisiana (and D.C. Madam fame), Specter of Pennsylvania, Bond of Missouri, and Voinovich of Ohio all could be involved in barn-burners. So could whoever runs to replace the retiring Sam Brownback in Kansas. That’s ten seats that could be at least somewhat challenging to hold.
ALL OF WHICH EXPLAINS why recruitment is so necessary. It should start now. The Republican Senatorial Committee, the RNC, and outside conservative groups should be researching, extensively, the political situations, the rising-star politicians, the leading businessmen, and the famous names in every one of the 19 states identified here as switchable, to put forth a strong candidate in all 19. And sometimes the best answer might even be to reach backwards. If McCain retires for instance (which actually would be a good idea), former California U.S. Rep. Barry Goldwater Jr., even at age 72 then, might make a fitting replacement in the seat McCain inherited from Goldwater’s father. Or Dan Quayle, who will still be a young 63 then, could make a political comeback; people might forget that Quayle had a pre-V-P history of being an absolutely superb campaigner. Or perhaps either of two conservative congressmen, Jeff Flake or John Shadegg, could be talked into trying to take a step up.
Likewise in Louisiana, if Vitter is convinced to step aside, a step backward in time might do the trick. Retiring Rep. Jim McCrery, or long-retired powerhouses Billy Tauzin or Bob Livingston, all remain extremely popular in their home states. And former Gov. Buddy Roemer never really lost the political bug, and Louisianans who tired of him as governor may yet think his crusading persona could do some good in Washington. Or, on the contrary, freshman U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise, a true rising star, might be ready sooner than expected for a statewide bid.
The simple fact is that the Senate is where the real legislative fights will be in 2011 and 2012 — the fights that set the tone for the 2012 presidential campaign. Even with the filibuster available, you can’t win fights if you don’t have the numbers — and you can’t have the numbers in the Senate unless you have the candidates who can win.
Jeff Sessions, and superb colleagues of his like DeMint, Coburn, John Cornyn, and Jon Kyl, can fight for solid principles with all their hearts, but it won’t do any good if there are too few other senators who are at least persuadable for the right. Ideas are powerful. Ideas do matter. But only if good people are there to promulgate them.
The time to start recruiting those people is now.