WASHINGTON — The sun is setting on the permanent Republican majority that seemed to offer so much promise after the 2004 election. Or so the chattering class would have us all believe. Public opinion polls now consistently show the voters disapprove of the GOP’s agenda. Social Security reform appears to be going nowhere. The war turns to quagmire. The judicial fight demonstrates the GOP’s lack of control over its own legislative majority in Washington. And will those tax cuts ever be made permanent?
Yet no one predicts with a straight face the Democrats will be the beneficiaries of this stalled agenda (which is largely the Democrats’ doing, by the way). The conventional wisdom holds that the Democrats aren’t gaining even as Republicans lose steam because the Democrats offer no new ideas. Theirs is, in the words of President George W. Bush, “the philosophy of the stop sign. The agenda of the roadblock.” Even their fellow Democrats claim the lack of new intellectual offerings by the Democrat minority is the principal factor holding back a 1994-style upheaval in 2006. Typical of this thinking is the recent strategy memo titled “The Democrats’ Moment to Engage,” by the liberal polling outfit Democracy Corps:
…the president’s deep troubles have produced no rise in positive sentiment about the Democrats. Their thermometer ratings are significantly below 2004, with equal numbers offering warm and cool response to the party. The positive ratings (38 percent) are 5 points below that for the Republicans.
The Democrats can achieve major gains, however, if the party moves decisively to a new stage of engagement. They must poise [sic] sharp choices — ones that define the Democrats, not just the Republicans and ones that, in every battle, make the Democrats the instrument for reforming and changing Washington.
This is hogwash and everyone in Washington knows it. The moment the Democrats articulate an agenda, their already fragile coalition will atomize. And we know from experience that as the election nears the issues debate will even out as the mainstream media’s ability to influence the agenda gives way to the paid advertising of the major parties.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, the reasons the Democrats are not poised to benefit from the Republicans’ recent lackluster performance are structural, not ideological; founded in hard electoral facts, not fluctuating public opinion. To put it another way, the Democrats aren’t likely to make major gains in 2006 because they can’t. During the next couple of weeks I will lay out the case against a Republican collapse, for good or ill, based on an electoral structure that rewards incumbency, punishes challengers, and strongly favors the GOP. In politics, the saying goes, everything will be different in 18 months. “Everything” here refers to the issues of the day, the things we discuss around the proverbial water cooler. But political realities shift much more slowly, if at all.
Today, I will look at the campaign for control of the U.S. Senate.
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Unlike the overpowering Republican fundraising advantage between the Republican National Committee and the Democrat National Committee and between the National Republican Congressional Committee and the Democrat Congressional Campaign Committee, the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) and the Democrat Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) are near parity. The NRSC has raised just under $17 million so far this year and has approximately $6 million cash-on-hand. The DSCC has raised just under $16 million and has $8.9 million cash-on-hand. The DSCC’s cash-on-hand advantage is based almost exclusively on a one-month fundraising bonanza last April.
Job number one for these committees is to win competitive open seat races. Job number two is to defend vulnerable incumbents. Job number three is to unseat incumbents from the other party, if possible. The Democrats will need to maintain their fundraising parity with Republicans if they are to succeed in any or all of these three goals because they have more work to do in 2006 than their GOP counterparts.
Eighteen Democratic seats are up next year (including three open seats) compared to 15 for the Republicans (with only one open seat.) Moreover, five Democrat incumbents can reasonably be called “vulnerable” or “potentially vulnerable” compared to only three Republicans. Finally, these “vulnerable’ or “potentially vulnerable” Democrats are in disproportionately more expensive media markets, meaning Democrats will get less bang for their bucks.
The frontline in the battle to control the Senate will be in three of next year’s four open seat races: Minnesota, Maryland, and Tennessee (the fourth is Vermont, which is not winnable for the Republicans). Two of these states — Minnesota and Maryland — are open seats the Democrats must defend. The Republicans must defend the open seat in Tennessee.
Minnesota is a genuine swing state that has gradually trended Republican in recent elections. Bob Dole received 36% in Minnesota in 1996. George W. Bush received 46% in 2000 and 48% in 2004. In the last two election cycles, the people of Minnesota have elected a Republican to the U.S. Senate and to the governorship and the congressional delegation is now split evenly between Republicans and Democrat-Farm-Labor (4 seats each). Both parties are likely to nominate tier one candidates.
Maryland and Tennessee are not swing states. Maryland is as blue as almost any state in the nation (Kerry 56% – Bush 43%) and Tennessee about as red (Bush 57% – Kerry 43%). But in both of these cases, the respective minority parties are likely to nominate tier one candidates. In Maryland, Lt. Gov. Michael Steele has all but announced he will run. In Tennessee, Rep. Harold Ford Jr. has announced he will seek the open seat. Both Steele and Ford are unconventional African-American politicians (Steele is, obviously, a Republican while Ford is a right-of-center Democrat) who will generate considerable national attention and support. Nonetheless, the majority parties in both states are sure to put forward tier one nominees.
Effective communication in these states will be of varying costs. The Washington, D.C. market, which dominates Maryland, is by far the most expensive market in these open seat races, possibly twice the cost of advertising in Tennessee. Minnesota will likely cost a little less than Tennessee. (Estimates are imperfect because market forces can change advertising rates swiftly and dramatically.) The upshot is the Democrats will have more money tied up playing defense and the Republicans will spend theirs playing offense.
This makes a huge difference in terms of the portability of resources. For example, if the Republicans discovered at some point that the Maryland seat is simply un-winnable, they could pull the cash out of the expensive Washington, D.C. media market and redirect it to, say, some closer-than-expected challenger elsewhere. The Democrats don’t have that luxury because they need to hold the Minnesota and Maryland seats.
Worse for Democrats, they could win all three of these open seats (plus Vermont) and still gain only one seat in the Senate, whereas the GOP has two opportunities to move a state into the Republican column.
When seasoned political observers assess the “winnability” of a particular challenger campaign, issues generally rank among the least important factors. Instead we look at data from previous elections, voting trends, and fundraising reports. I have reduced these indicators to three straightforward questions: (1) Is the incumbent a member of the losing party in the 2004 election? (2) Has there been a noticeable trend in voting behavior in recent years that alters historical electoral inertia (for example, my home state of New Hampshire is unquestionably trending Democrat, while West Virginia has undeniably become more Republican) and is this shift dramatic enough to jeopardize the incumbent’s electability? (3) Has the challenging party nominated a top flight candidate, i.e., can he or she raise the necessary resources to mount a serious challenge?
Needless to say, these are incredibly high thresholds for most challenger campaigns, which is why incumbents generally win reelection easily. Based on the above criteria, and please understand we are still a long way from 2006, I believe Republicans stand a chance to upend five Democrat incumbents and Democrats stand a chance against three Republican incumbents.
The potentially vulnerable Democrat seats are in Washington state (Sen. Maria Cantwell), North Dakota (Sen. Kent Conrad), Nebraska (Sen. Ben Nelson), West Virginia (Sen. Robert Byrd), and Florida (Sen. Bill Nelson). The potentially vulnerable Republican seats are in Missouri (Sen. Jim Talent), Pennsylvania (Sen. Rick Santorum), and Rhode Island (Sen. Lincoln Chafee.)
(Note: Even though Maine went for Kerry in 2004, I have intentionally left Sen. Olympia Snowe off the “potentially vulnerable” list because, well, because she’s going to win re-election handily, so there.)
Without boring the reader, I will explain in a nutshell why I singled out these seats:
Democrat Sen. Maria Cantwell won her seat in 2000 by a scant 2,200 votes after outspending the incumbent Slade Gorton two-to-one. President Bush improved his vote share in Washington State only marginally between 2000 and 2004, from 45% to 46%. But Seattle is an extremely expensive media market and Republicans will make a strategic decision to run hard here to force Democrats to spend heavy resources defending another seat.
President George W. Bush won North Dakota with a hearty 63% of the vote in 2004. Nonetheless, Democrat Sen. Kent Conrad won reelection in 2000 with 62%. But Republican success in sister enigma South Dakota may finally help the GOP generate a formula for success in this culturally conservative but heavily D.C.-dependent part of the country. If popular Republican Governor John Hoeven decides to enter the race, expect the intensity here to approach the Thune-Daschle race of last year. Besides, this is an inexpensive place for Republicans to invest resources to try to pick up a seat.
President Bush received 66% of the vote in Nebraska last year. Meanwhile, Democrat Senator Ben Nelson received only 51% of the vote in 2000 while outspending his Republican opponent two-to-one. Nebraska is also a fairly inexpensive place for Republicans to play offense.
Is Sen. Robert Byrd (D-KKK) really vulnerable? Isn’t it pretty to think so? President Bush received 56% of the vote in West Virginia in 2004 and this state is slowly trending Republican. If Rep. Shelley Moore Capito runs against Byrd, Republicans will have a strong challenger to back. Full market penetration in West Virginia requires advertising in the Washington, D.C. market, which means forcing Democrats to spend real money to defend another incumbent.
This most famous of swing states is easily the most expensive Senate seat in play in 2006. Democrat Sen. Bill Nelson won the seat in 2000 with only 51% of the vote. His Republican challenger will mount a well-funded and aggressive challenge complete with round-the-clock national attention in this state where President Bush increased his vote share from 2000 to 2004. Again, Democrats will have to dedicate massive amounts of limited resources to defend this seat, whereas Republicans get to play offense.
Republican Sen. Rick Santorum is the most vulnerable incumbent in America. His polling numbers have sagged all year long and he will face a well-funded challenge from the likable Democratic State Treasurer Bobby Casey. In this case, it is the Republicans who will have to dedicate extraordinary amounts of money to defend a seat. But here is where the strategy of fielding challengers in other expensive states pays off; with their backs against the wall in pricy Washington state, West Virginia, and Florida, Democrats will have less money to play with in trying to defeating Santorum.
Democrats may or may not field a reputable challenger against Republican Sen. Jim Talent. But the fact is, Talent won in 2002 with only 50% of the vote. Meanwhile, President Bush received 53% of the vote in 2004.
There are a great many things that could go wrong for Republicans here. President Bush received only 39% of the vote in 2004. Republican Sen. Lincoln Chafee may face a challenge in the primary from Cranston Mayor Steve Laffey. The Democrats could field a top flight candidate. Or Sen. Chafee could become a Democrat tomorrow. Regardless, this will be a difficult seat for Republicans to hold in 2006.
And that’s it.
LET’S ASSUME A 1994-STYLE Democrat tidal wave on Election Day 2006: Democrats keep all their incumbents and open seats and pick up the Tennessee open seat, the Rhode Island seat, the Pennsylvania seat, and the Missouri seat. (Vermont, which will likely go from being held by independent Jim Jeffords to being held by Socialist Bernie Sanders, is a wash.) That’s a net pickup of four seats, which means Republicans will maintain a 51-48-1 majority.
In 18 months (actually, we’re down to 16 months before the election), everything will be different. President George W. Bush will have nominated as many as two Supreme Court justices, we’ll have more heartaches in Iraq, terrorists could strike again. The economy could continue to boom or it might backslide. These are variable. But the above items are not up for conjecture. They comprise the political realities for Democrats who hope to reclaim the Senate.