The Democrats are coming! The Democrats are coming!
With few seats to defend and a war chest that already dwarfs that of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and its chairman, Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), could be coming to a red state near you to disrupt what the GOP assumes should be some guaranteed victories come November.
The DSCC already considers the seats held by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.) to be in play, and is eyeing Republican-
held seats in Georgia, Kansas, Mississippi and Oklahoma as potential upsets. That’s in addition to the Democrats’ universally acknowledged pickup opportunities in Alaska, Colorado, Maine, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Oregon and Virginia.
“Our goal this entire cycle has been to put as many seats in play as possible,” DSCC spokesman Matthew Miller said. “With six months to go, we’re happy that strong Democratic candidates are running not just in blue states, but in some of the reddest states in the country.”
The relatively inexpensive media markets found in several of the
Republican-leaning states that are up for election this cycle make them particularly attractive targets for the DSCC. Statewide television airtime for 1,000 gross ratings points costs approximately $230,000 per week in Kansas, $320,000 per week in Oklahoma, $490,000 per week in Mississippi, $540,000 per week in Kentucky, $610,000 per week in North Carolina and $960,000 per week in Georgia.
Compare all of those figures to a major media market state like New Jersey, where statewide television costs about $2 million a week — and where Democrats are defending a Senate seat this cycle.
Additionally, the DSCC at present has just one vulnerable incumbent to defend, and with its $20.5 million, first-quarter 2008 cash advantage over the NRSC, could have plenty of extra money to spend in the summer and fall testing a message that attacks a GOP incumbent or backing a Democratic challenger.
Meanwhile, officials at the state Democratic parties in the four particularly red states out of the bunch the DSCC is monitoring — Georgia, Kansas, Mississippi and Oklahoma — emphasize that they either have the statewide organization in place to improve the competitiveness of their Senate candidates, or are working to do so in time to make a difference in the Nov. 4 elections.
The Republicans don’t sound too worried — at least not publicly.
NRSC officials aren’t impressed with the Democratic candidates running in the six red states in question, and they say the GOP incumbents running are prepared for tough races in any event. The NRSC said its fundraising has improved measurably this year over 2007 and expects its candidates to benefit on Election Day — at least in Republican-leaning
states — from the the issues and the political atmosphere generally.
“The DSCC and Chuck Schumer can spend all they want, but the truth is, this election will be about Democrats and issues like their failure to address gas prices and their continued attempts to hike taxes,” NRSC spokeswoman Mary-Sarah Kinner said. “If you look at the states Schumer is talking about targeting, the Republican candidate is ahead in all of the fundamental areas of a campaign — fundraising, record and their connection to voters on the issues that matter.”
In every election, the Democrats and Republicans posture about playing on the other’s turf and pulling off the unthinkable. It usually amounts to little.
But the DSCC had $37.8 million in the bank as of March 31 and has only Sen. Mary Landrieu (La.) to worry about among the 12 Democratic seats that are up for election this cycle. The NRSC, however, had just $17.3 million on hand to close the first quarter and finds itself with eight seats seriously threatened — three of them open seats — among 23 that are up.
The DSCC has long believed that McConnell and Dole could be vulnerable.
Some public polling has suggested the two Republicans could be in trouble against formidable opposition, and both Kentucky and North Carolina — despite voting heavily for President Bush in 2000 and 2004 — have popular Democratic governors. And though neither is a top-tier candidate, the DSCC is pleased with the likely Democratic nominees in each state — health care executive Bruce Lunsford in Kentucky and state Sen. Kay Hagan in North Carolina.
Even some Republicans are privately somewhat nervous about these two races, although the NRSC describes Lunsford and Hagan as weak and touts the strong campaigns being run by McConnell and Dole.
But it’s in Georgia, Kansas, Mississippi, Oklahoma and possibly other Republican states — where the GOP generally doesn’t expect to have any trouble — that the DSCC believes it might be able to sow the seeds of a filibuster-proof Senate majority.
The Democrats currently hold a 51-49 Senate majority. A pickup of nine seats would give the Democrats 60 seats and allow them to pass legislation in the Senate even in the midst of unanimous GOP opposition.
Although the NRSC disagrees, the DSCC believes it has candidates in place to compete in Georgia, Kansas, Mississippi and Oklahoma. The cheap media markets in Kansas, Mississippi and Oklahoma, in particular, create a financial incentive for the Democratic committee to spend money hunting for otherwise unlikely victories — whether to help a state Democratic Party register voters or add to its infrastructure, or to see whether a television spot succeeds in moving the race.
Already the DSCC has been working in these states to set the table for the fall campaign.
In Kansas, the committee worked with the state Democratic Party to recruit former Rep. Jim Slattery to challenge Sen. Pat Roberts (R). In Oklahoma, the DSCC is planning to send out as many as 10 field staffers to aid state Sen. Andrew Rice’s bid to oust Sen. James Inhofe (R), according to state Democratic Party Chairman Ivan Holmes.
In Mississippi “we have been communicating with [the DSCC] and working with them to do a few things,” said Keelan Sanders, executive director of the state Democratic Party. “Hopefully that will continue leading up to November.”
To illustrate the heavy burden
the NRSC has this cycle, both
Republican-held seats are up in Mississippi because of former Sen. Trent Lott’s (R) decision to step down last year, barely one year into his sixth term. Sen. Thad Cochran (R) has little to worry about in November.
But newly appointed Sen. Roger Wicker (R), who was tapped from the House by Gov. Haley Barbour (R) to replace Lott, is running in a Nov. 4 special election to finish the remainder of Lott’s term and is being targeted by the DSCC. Former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove is running against Wicker, and Democrats are excited about his prospects, especially considering that the Democratic candidate might win Wicker’s old House seat — which is solid GOP territory — in a May 13 special election. Musgrove at this stage of the campaign also has far better statewide name recognition than Wicker.
The Republicans aren’t buying it, pointing out Wicker’s strong first-quarter fundraising performance — more than $3 million raised — and Musgrove’s less than $400,000 on hand. The NRSC also believes that Musgrove’s ethical skeletons will damage his candidacy, and the committee signaled its intent bring up the former governor’s past in the campaign to come.
In Kansas and Oklahoma, the DSCC is buoyed by the presence of sitting Democratic governors who easily won their second terms in 2006 and remain strong.
In Kansas, the Democratic Party has been successful over the past decade,
both at the Congressional and state levels: Besides Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, the state attorney general is also a Democrat. The Democrats won the GOP-leaning 3rd district in 1998 and the solidly Republican 2nd district in 2006.
The Kansas Democratic Party is hoping to build on the previous cycle and is prepared to field a formidable ground game to boost Slattery. While Democrats acknowledge that Roberts remains well-liked and won’t be easy to dislodge, they believe the tide could turn their way in the Jayhawk State if changing Washington, D.C., becomes the overriding message of this campaign and a big Democratic election ensues.
In Oklahoma, the state Democratic Party has worked over the past year to beef up its operations statewide. It now has organizations up and running in all 77 counties, and plans to field an army of volunteers this fall to assist its candidates up and down the ballot.
Although no evidence of this appears to exist as of yet, both the DSCC and state party officials contend that Inhofe has worn out his welcome with Oklahomans, courtesy of a series of blunt statements he has made over the past couple of years — including one where he questioned the existence of global warming.
The Republicans aren’t convinced.
The NRSC refers to Kansas’ Slattery as a “former Congressman turned lobbyist” who lived in Washington until recently, when he moved back to Kansas to run for Senate. The Republicans also note that Slattery lost his last run for public office — he ran for governor in 1994 — by 30 points.
Oklahoma’s Rice, according to the NRSC, is simply too liberal to win in the solidly conservative Sooner State. The NRSC also takes issue with the Democrats’ description of Inhofe as having rubbed his constituents the wrong way with his various opinions on contentious issues. Inhofe, the Republicans maintain, is popular at home and well-positioned to win a fourth term — even if Schumer decides to spend a considerable amount of the DSCC’s money there this fall.
With Atlanta as its major media market, Georgia isn’t necessarily the cheapest of states. But the DSCC is impressed with its leading Senate candidate, 2006 lieutenant governor nominee Jim Martin. He raised $250,000 in the first two weeks after he entered the contested Democratic Senate primary, and the DSCC argues that Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R) is not the strongest of incumbents.
The DSCC acknowledges that the Republicans’ stranglehold on Georgia and running in a presidential year create a pretty steep uphill climb for Martin. But Democrats still refer to this as “a real race.” If Martin loses the primary, it will probably be to DeKalb County CEO Vernon Jones (D), and a Jones victory could change the Democrats’ assessment of the contest.
Republicans are all but convinced that the DSCC won’t bother spending significant money in the Peach State, regardless of who emerges as the Democratic nominee. But if the DSCC does throw some money into Georgia, or into other red states, the NRSC says it will be ready.
“Combined with the excellent fundraising of our candidates on the ground, we’ll be prepared for everywhere we need to be in November,” Kinner said.