I remember calling Sen. Bob Kasten (R-WI) in 1986 to congratulate him on his re-election. He said, “I’m almost sorry I’m coming back. You could not have a worse situation…Reagan still in office and the Democrats controlling the Senate. Nothing will get accomplished.” Kasten was right. Reagan’s last two years were spent on the defensive about Iran Contra and various other manufactured scandals. No significant legislation made it through Congress.
I mention it because there is at least an even chance that President Bush, if he is re-elected, could face a hostile Senate. He had that situation for a year and a half in the first two years of his term. During that time more than 100 measures passed by the Republican-controlled House were “deep sixed” by the Senate. The fact that Republicans control the Senate following the 2002 elections by such a narrow margin (effectively 51 to 49 since Independent Sen. Jim Jeffords caucuses with the Democrats) hasn’t made that situation a whole lot better, but some of President Bush’s big ticket items have made it through.
When five Southern Democrats announced their retirement, Republicans were thrilled. They were sure they could pick up a minimum of three of those seats. They believed that Illinois would be tough to hold and Alaska was very troublesome, but beyond that they had serious challengers in three states.
But then Sen. Don Nickles said he had enough after 24 years. He would have been a shoo-in had he run again. Now Democrats have an even shot in an open seat. Rep. Brad Carson, the only Democrat in the Oklahoma Congressional delegation, is running as a moderate even though his voting record strongly suggests he is a liberal. Republicans have a multi-candidate primary. Some say former Oklahoma Mayor Kirk Humphrey would have a very hard time with Carson. But having the support of the entire Republican establishment, he could emerge the winner. If there is a runoff, former Rep. Tom Coburn, who held the seat Carson now occupies, might have a chance. He would be able to get rural Democrat votes that no other candidate could get. But would the GOP establishment back him – knowing that he would be independent? Right now you would have to call this race a toss-up.
Then there is Colorado Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, who, a decade ago, switched parties, would have likely been re-elected, although it might have been a tough race. But Sen. Campbell had health problems and stunned Republicans by announcing that he would not run for re-election. Former Rep. Bob Schaffer was the only candidate left standing after one potential candidate after another said “thanks but no thanks.” Schaffer is the favorite of social issue conservatives. But the party establishment feared he could not defeat Attorney General Ken Salazar, an attractive Democrat with particular appeal in the growing Hispanic community. So they turned to Peter Coors, the CEO of the brewing company, who for years has been pictured in the Coors TV spots. Coors, who had been thinking of running for office at some point, said yes. Whether Coors, who has never run for office, can win the primary or the general is open to speculation. So this race would have to be rated as a toss-up. Some say it leans Democrat.
The Lt. Governor of Alaska told me he does not see how appointed-Sen. Lisa Murkowski can be elected. He said resentment against her father, Gov. Frank Murkowski for appointing his daughter to the open seat caused by his election to the Governorship, is so great that it can’t be overcome. She is running against two-term Governor Tony Knowles.
Alaska is perhaps the third strongest pro-life state in the nation, yet Sen. Murkowski is not pro-life. The pro-life community may support an independent candidate. If they do, it surely would end her candidacy.
Republicans are a bit more hopeful in Illinois where they nominated an attractive candidate, but the seat still leans Democrat.
As far as the South is concerned, right now Republicans have the edge in only two of the five states. In Georgia, it appeared as if the Democrats wouldn’t even field a serious candidate. Now, however, they have a found a millionaire who says the election is about creating jobs. Social issue conservatives are strong in Georgia but Rep. Johnny Isakson is not good on the pro-life issue, so if he is the nominee he may not be able to get the rural conservative vote. Still, the race leans Republican.
In North Carolina Rep. Richard Burr has run a very competent campaign, uniting both factions of the party. The President is still popular in the state so this state leans Republican.
In South Carolina there is a very divisive primary between former Governor David M. Beasley, Attorney General Charlie Condon and Rep. Jim DeMint. The issue is trade. South Carolina, although a Republican-trending state, has lost a huge number of jobs. Whoever wins the primary or runoff will have a hard time uniting the party. This seat leans Democrat.
In Florida the GOP has a cast of thousands running and the Democrats have a primary as well. This seat is 50-50 between Bush and Kerry. The Democrats have a clear advantage here.
Louisiana is the only Southern state never to have elected a Republican Senator. Even though the GOP has fielded its best candidate, Rep. David Vitter, the Democrats have a political clone of retiring-Sen. John Breaux. Rep. Chris John clearly has the edge – the more so because Vitter does not have a competent campaign staff. The state leans Democrat.
It is true that to take over the Senate the Democrats would have to win three of the five Southern seats and win all of the other seats where they have a shot: Illinois, Alaska, Colorado and Oklahoma. In addition, Democrats would have to fend off challenges by Rep. John Thune in South Dakota. The fact that Minority Leader Tom Daschle has a chance to be Majority Leader again probably gives him the edge over Thune who is an able candidate.
In California former Secretary of State Bill Jones is giving Sen. Barbara Boxer a run for her money. But the fact that Bush has little chance to carry California won’t help him…although Sen. George Murphy was elected in 1964 while Lyndon Johnson was winning in a landslide.
Likewise in Washington State, Rep. George R. Nethercutt’s run against Sen. Patty Murray is not helped by the fact that President Bush is not likely to carry the state.
The odds are slightly in the GOP’s favor to narrowly keep the Senate but this year the Democrats have been getting all the breaks.
And if Bush is re-elected and he gets a Democrat Senate, he may well wish he didn’t get a second term. He told Karl Rove he doesn’t want to have a lonely victory. He may well have that. He said he has big ideas for which he wants a mandate. If the election is razor thin he may not get it.
A Democrat Senate would block most measures passed by the House and would spend its time investigating Bush.
It would not be a fun four years for Bush who likes to see action.