Senate Democrats Get Trio of Blue-Chippers, But No Guarantees

Inez Tenenbaum, Tony Knowles and Brad Carson are terrific candidates. I can’t say enough nice things about them. But they all have tough roads ahead. Any Democrat in their situations, no matter how appealing, would. [IMGCAP(1)]

The question yet to be answered is whether they can solve the one overriding problem that undid the Senate candidacies of former two-term Wyoming Democratic Gov. Mike Sullivan, former two-term Idaho Democratic Gov. John Evans and Kansas Democratic businesswoman Jill Docking (whose father served as governor and husband was lieutenant governor). They too were terrific candidates — and all lost because they were running for federal office in heavily Republican states.

Tenenbaum, who is serving her second term as state superintendent of public education, is the likely Democratic nominee in South Carolina. Knowles, a former two-term governor of Alaska, is certain to be the Democratic Senate nominee next year. And Carson, a two-term Congressman from Oklahoma’s 2nd district, is currently unopposed for the Democratic Senate nod there.

All are personable, poised, articulate and credentialed. All have demonstrated a certain level of appeal by winning office and successfully seeking re-election. All seem to have considerable fundraising potential. The problem is that Democrats Sullivan, Evans and Docking were poised, articulate and credentialed as well.

The last Democrat to win a statewide federal race in Alaska was Mike Gravel, who won re-election to the Senate in 1974. Since then, Republicans have won 30 straight federal elections, seven for president, nine for the U.S. Senate and 14 for the state’s at-large U.S. House seat.

In those 30 contests, the Democratic nominee has hit 45 percent of the vote just twice, in the 1980 Senate race and a 1990 House battle. In 22 of 30, the Democratic nominee failed to crack 40 percent. The last Democratic presidential nominee to draw as much as 45 percent of the vote was Lyndon Johnson, almost 40 years ago.

In Oklahoma, the situation is only slightly better for Democrats. The last Democratic presidential candidate to carry the state was Johnson in 1964. Since then, only Jimmy Carter topped the 45 percent mark, in 1976.

Democrats have won only three of the state’s past 13 Senate races. But it’s really worse than that, since one person, David Boren, won all three of them.

In comparison, South Carolina looks like a Democratic bastion, until you look closely. Southerner Carter carried the state in his 1976 presidential race, and at least one of the state’s two U.S. Senators has been a Democrat throughout the post-World War II period.

Of course, Republican nominees have carried the state in the past six presidential elections, and retiring Sen. Fritz Hollings, who was first elected to the chamber in 1966, won’t be on the ballot again next year. In addition, Republicans control both houses of the state Legislature and have a lock on four of the state’s six Congressional districts.

The problem for both Tenenbaum and Knowles is that they are going to have to address an entirely different set of issues in a federal race from the ones that they faced when they ran for state office. Those issues will force the Democrats left, undercutting their general election appeal.

In addition, while voters are willing to allow someone from the state’s minority party to run state government (or at least a part of one), they are not so open-minded about sending that same person to Washington, D.C.

Consider Wyoming and the fate that befell Sullivan. He was elected governor of Wyoming in 1986 with 54 percent, an impressive number since his opponent was the brother of Sen. Alan Simpson (R). Four years later, Sullivan won re-election with an overwhelming 65 percent of the vote. But when he ran for an open Senate seat just four years later (admittedly in a terrible Democratic year), he received barely more than 39 percent of the vote.

Wyoming voters were prepared to trust Sullivan in Cheyenne (where most Democrats are relatively moderate) but not in Washington, where pressure from “national” Democrats turns moderates into liberals.

Tenenbaum, Carson and Knowles all have a chance to win. Knowles may have the best shot, since voters seem focused on Gov. Frank Murkowski’s appointment of his daughter, Lisa Murkowski (R), to the state’s vacant Senate seat. But if the Senate contest turns to partisanship and ideology, as they often do, Knowles is in trouble.

Unlike the other two, Carson has already been elected in a federal race, a huge asset for him. But his district is very different than the rest of the state. He is widely regarded inside the Washington Beltway as relatively moderate and the kind of Democrat who could win statewide. But he too will need to find a theme that keeps his Republican opponent on the defensive and prevents the race from becoming a referendum on the national parties and President Bush.

Tenenbaum faces the toughest road. Her victories as state superintendent of education won’t mean much next year if her GOP opponent paints her as a liberal, the way now-Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) did to Democrat Alex Sanders in the state’s 2002 Senate race. She’ll have to figure out a way to avoid that tag.

I’ve always said that candidates matter. But so does the lay of the land. We’ll see whether any of the three Democrats can overcome the very substantial hurdles that face them.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

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