It might be called recess, but Senators from both parties are spending their week away from Washington furiously working to shore up their electoral prospects and auditioning closing arguments for the highly anticipated November elections.
The vulnerable Democratic majority, fresh from passing financial regulatory reform, planned this week to promote its continued legislative success at turning the economy around while painting the GOP as failing to offer leadership.
Senate Republicans, positioned for significant gains but hoping a volatile political climate doesn't turn against them, intend to add the "check and balance" argument to their messaging arsenal.
"Jobs, debt and terror are the issues," Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) said. "But in order for us to take the country in the direction we'd like to go, we have to have more Republican Senators so we can create more balance here in Washington. I think that appeals very much to the independent voter."
"The issue in the November elections," Alexander continued, "is going to be whether to elect more Republicans to put a check and balance on an overreaching Washington government."
Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) concedes that the political environment is challenging for Democrats, noting that the president's party is traditionally threatened in midterm elections. But Durbin rejected the premise that Republicans are poised for major gains, given that the GOP does not enjoy the advantage in approval ratings it did in 1994.
The RealClearPolitics average of generic ballot polls taken May 6 through May 24 found the two parties in a virtual tie, at roughly 42 percent.
Durbin described the recently cleared financial services overhaul as a major step in improving an economy that remains mired in an unemployment rate of nearly 10 percent. Democrats also are confident that the new health care reform law will eventually pay political dividends and believe voters will punish Republicans at the polls for failing to support those measures.
"Those who think this is going to be an easy win for Republicans are overlooking the obvious. Republicans have no message, no brand at this point. They're just not Democrats, and they hope that will win it for them," said Durbin, who as one of only two senior Democratic leaders not facing re-election is likely to carry much of the heavy campaign lifting for his caucus. "I don't think that's enough. I think the American people are looking for more."
After watching Sens. Bob Bennett (R-Utah) and Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) fall in primaries — Bennett in a vote of state GOP convention delegates that denied him access to the primary ballot and Specter in a contest with Rep. Joe Sestak — and with Sen. Blanche Lincoln forced into a dangerous June 8 runoff in her Arkansas Democratic primary, Members on both sides of the aisle are taking nothing for granted.
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) is up by 13 points in the latest poll of his race, but the third-term Senator hardly planned to relax during the Memorial Day recess, saying he would travel to "every nook and cranny of my wonderful state — getting out and listening to people."
Richard Burr, perhaps the only vulnerable incumbent Republican Senator seeking re-election, said he expected to log 1,200 miles this week on the road in North Carolina. This is nothing new for Burr, who makes it a regular practice to show his face in the Tar Heel State's 100 counties. But he acknowledged it was crucial to spend the recess connecting with his constituents.
Burr described his schedule this week as "work, work, work, work," and he said he would focus on discussing national security, job creation and — above all else — what he views as the negative impact spending and the federal deficit are having on economic growth.
"The fiscal crisis in Washington is severe," Burr said he intended to tell his constituents. "If we don't make the right decisions very quickly and begin to show the fiscal restraint that we need, we will go the direction of some of the areas of the world that have severe economic crises today, which might make 2008 look like a warm-up for what we end up with."
Another round of key primaries will be held a week from today. In addition to Lincoln's runoff with Arkansas Lt. Gov. Bill Halter (D), Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid — among this election cycle's most vulnerable Democrats — will finally get an opponent in Nevada. And Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who is potentially endangered, will learn her challenger.
Burr won't know whom he is running against until the conclusion of North Carolina's Democratic primary runoff, set for June 22.
"To me, those are all very important races. They all have their unique qualities," National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) said. "The one that may send the biggest shockwave through Washington, D.C., would be Arkansas, if Blanche Lincoln doesn't survive her own party primary."
While GOP leaders caution that the playing field could change over the next five months, Alexander said Republicans feel a gale-force wind at their back, and Cornyn said he does not expect the basic contours of the political landscape to change.
Democrats don't necessarily disagree. They believe their challenge is to remind voters that they chose to throw the Republicans out of office 17 months ago for failing to adequately address many of the exact same problems that plague the country today.
"I think overall, our job is to really communicate whose side we're on — whose side we're fighting for," Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) said.
When President Barack Obama took office, Stabenow noted, "we were almost losing 800,000 jobs a month. Now we've turned that around to gaining about 250,000 a month because of what we have done, not by accident."