GOP suddenly worried Dems could hold 60 Senate seats

McClatchy NewspapersOctober 30, 2008 

WASHINGTON — Looking for election night drama?

Don't stop at the historic presidential contest at the top of the ticket. Nearly a dozen Senate races around the country could reshape politics on Capitol Hill.

"Democrats have a realistic shot at getting a supermajority of 60 seats," Republican pollster Neil Newhouse said. "Races we never really dreamed would become competitive are now within the margin of error."

Even red-state strongholds such as Georgia and Kentucky are suddenly in play.

Blame it on President Bush, who's been deeply unpopular for the past two years, and on the public, which is downbeat about where the country is headed. The financial crisis was the equivalent of a roundhouse right, and opposition to the Iraq war remains strong.

Republicans have known for months that they were going to lose seats this year. Some have said that dropping only five or six Tuesday would be a "good night."

The outlook in the House of Representatives isn't much better. Congress-watchers predict that the Democrats could add 25 to 30 seats to their 36-seat majority.

"The GOP motto is, 'If we didn't have bad luck, we wouldn't have no luck at all,' " said Jennifer Duffy, a Senate analyst for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. "What has gone right for them? There's just a lot of throwing up of hands right now."

The big question is how many Senate seats will flip?

Democrats now have a 51-seat majority, including two independents who caucus with them. However, one is Sen. Joseph Lieberman, an independent Democrat from Connecticut, the party's 2000 vice-presidential nominee and now its bete noire.

His former colleagues are nursing a grudge because he's campaigned for Republican presidential candidate John McCain and attacked Barack Obama at the Republican convention. Democrats are looking for payback, while Republicans have put out the welcome mat.

If the Democrats get to 60 seats, that would give them — on paper, anyway — a filibuster-proof majority. They could then parry the Republicans' weapon of choice, which has stymied some of their legislative agenda over the past two years.

That would take a nine-seat rout, however, a tall order even in a Democratic-leaning season. It's been three decades since one party held that many seats: the Democrats in 1978-79, with a 61-seat majority.

"As for 60, it is possible," Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, told the National Press Club last week. "But given the red terrain we're fighting in, it's very difficult. And I don't want people to get such high expectations, because it's hard to win in states like Georgia or Mississippi."

Not impossible, however. Here's the lay of the land:

Senate Democrats started the year with an advantage. They have to defend just a dozen seats, while Republicans have 23 on ballots around the country.

Most of the Democratic seats are viewed as safe, according to surveys by Congressional Quarterly, the Cook Political Report and other analysts.

Democratic Sens. Mary Landrieu in Louisiana and Frank Lautenberg in New Jersey initially triggered GOP hopes, but recent polls have both Democrats ahead by at least 10 points.

Meanwhile, Republicans are circling the wagons. Far from making inroads onto Democratic turf, at least eight of their incumbents are in trouble.

In Alaska, Sen. Ted Stevens' chances for re-election were suspect even before his conviction this week on corruption charges.

Republican colleagues Saxby Chambliss in Georgia, Norm Coleman in Minnesota, Elizabeth Dole in North Carolina, Gordon Smith in Oregon, John Sununu in New Hampshire and Roger Wicker in Mississippi are all in either close or tossup races.

Polls also find that Democrats have a chance of knocking off Senate Republican boss Mitch McConnell, the minority leader, who's in a tight race in Kentucky.

Democrats also are likely to pick up Republican seats in open contests in Virginia, Colorado and New Mexico, where all three incumbents are retiring, and a Democratic landslide could even take out popular Republicans such as Maine's Susan Collins

"I don't think that there's any question that it's a tough election atmosphere for Republicans," said Sen. John Ensign of Nevada, the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, who attended the same forum as Schumer last week. "That's just as honest as I can put it."

SENATE RACES TO WATCH:

Alaska: Ted Stevens (R)(ASTERISK) vs. Mark Begich (D)

Colorado: Bob Schaffer (R) vs. Mark Udall (D)

Georgia: Saxby Chambliss (R)(ASTERISK) vs. Jim Martin (D)

Kentucky: Mitch McConnell (R)(ASTERISK) vs. Bruce Lunsford (D)

Louisiana: Mary Landrieu (D)(ASTERISK) vs. John Kennedy (R)

Maine: Susan Collins (R)(ASTERISK) vs. Tom Allen (D)

Minnesota: Norm Coleman (R)(ASTERISK) vs. Al Franken (D) vs. Dean Barkley (I)

Mississippi: Roger Wicker (R)(ASTERISK) vs. Ronnie Musgrove (D)

New Hampshire: John Sununu (R)(ASTERISK) vs. Jeanne Shaheen (D)

New Mexico: Steve Pearce (R) vs. Tom Udall (D)

North Carolina: Elizabeth Dole (R)(ASTERISK) vs. Kay Hagan (D)

Oregon: Gordon Smith (R)(ASTERISK) vs. Jeff Merkley (D)

Virginia: Jim Gilmore (R) vs. Mark Warner (D)

(ASTERISK) Denotes incumbent

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McClatchy Newspapers 2008

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