Staving Off a ‘Lonely Victory’

Senate Republicans Seek to Solidify Majority Control Through 2004, 2006 Elections

Posted September 4, 2003 at 2:48pm

Despite short-term problems of a lagging job market and unsettled overseas entanglements, some GOP strategists are growing increasingly confident that they can establish a long-term stranglehold on majority status, even in the narrowly divided Senate.

President Bush has made clear to his top advisers that he doesn’t want a “lonely victory” next year, but rather a re-election that brings with it a strengthened Republican majority in Congress. With the House solidly in GOP hands already, that puts the focus on the 51-49 Senate, where the party’s leading analysts believe this election cycle and the next offer Republicans a major chance to cement their majority status for years to come.

While Democrats scoff at the notion of a large shift in the chamber and some GOP strategists sound a cautionary tone, others say Bush’s popularity and the political geography in Senate races ahead give Republicans their best chance in years to push their numbers high into the 50s. But the always elusive goal of a filibuster-proof, 60-seat majority is probably out of reach, unless a severe case of political depression prompts widespread retirements within the aging Democratic Caucus.

Trying not to sound too confident, Republicans have come up with different phrases for what they hope to accomplish. “There’s a chance here for a durable majority,” Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie said in a recent interview with Roll Call.

After the 2002 elections, Mitch Bainwol, then the outgoing executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, called the upcoming election cycles the opportunity to establish an “enduring structural majority.” And Republican pollster David Winston refers to the “right-of-center country,” putting in place the dynamics for prolonged control of the Senate.

The hopes for such an enduring majority in the Senate begin in the South, where the Democrats face the distinctly difficult challenge of defending six seats in 2004, with two of them already being open with the retirements of Sens. Zell Miller (Ga.) and Fritz Hollings (S.C.). Democrats are still awaiting word from Sen. John Breaux (La.) about his re-election status as well as from a pair of presidential contenders, Sens. John Edwards (N.C.) and Bob Graham (Fla.), as to whether they will run for re-election next year if their White House bids falter. No strong challenge has emerged yet to Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.).

Each of those states went for Bush in 2000, and a couple would appear to have strong Republican challengers ready to vie for the seats. Outside of the South, challenges to Democrats who faced tough races in 1998 appear to be minimal so far, although Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) still may face a top-flight challenger in former Rep. John Thune (R).

The Republicans, to this point, need to play aggressive defense in just two states: Illinois, where Sen. Peter Fitzgerald (R) is retiring, and Alaska, where Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) is running for the first time after being appointed to the seat by her father and predecessor, Gov. Frank Murkowski (R). And the GOP awaits a re-election/retirement announcement from Sen. Don Nickles (Okla.), whose seat would lean Republican but could become a toss-up if moderate Rep. Brad Carson (D) were to enter the race and be well-financed.

Changing the Calculus

If the Republicans are truly going to march to a strong Senate majority, therefore, it must begin with substantial gains in the South next year. A sampling of GOP strategists showed that at this point they can see a net gain of three seats, possibly four. After last year’s midterms, Bainwol gave a series of presentations to GOP strategists, media types and Senators about the GOP’s chances for domination, suggesting at one point a “perfect alignment” election in 2004 could yield as many as five GOP seats: “You can find five — four in the South, plus South Dakota.”

Democratic strategists privately concede to the possibility of losing two seats, as a worst-case scenario. They insist GOP recruiting problems make bold talk of Republican dominance nothing more than similar over-hyping of expectations.

“It’s nothing but self-flagellation,” said Brad Woodhouse, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “Talk of Republican dominance in the Senate is way premature given the water this administration and Republican Congress is taking on for their record on the economy.”

The goal for Senate Republicans in 2004 is to push their majority high enough that Democrats up for re-election in 2006 believe it’s highly unlikely they would be getting back into the majority anytime soon. As one Republican adviser put it, “If people believe in a permanent or near-permanent [Republican] majority, it totally changes the calculus.”

A three- or four-seat pickup in 2004, pushing Senate GOP Conference membership into the mid-50s, might lead some Democrats to believe it would take them at least two successive cycles of gains to get back into the majority — January 2009 at the earliest.

That could prompt some senior Democrats to head for retirement rather than re-election in 2006. As of now, Democrats have six Senators who will be older than 70 and will have served at least 12 years in the chamber as of Election Day 2006: Hawaii’s Daniel Akaka (80 in November ’06), West Virginia’s Robert Byrd (89), Massachusetts’ Edward Kennedy (74), California’s Dianne Feinstein (73), Wisconsin’s Herb Kohl (71) and Maryland’s Paul Sarbanes (73). In addition, the chamber’s Democratic-leaning Independent, Sen. Jim Jeffords (Vt.), will be 72 in 2006, at the end of his third term.

Not to mention, Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), 63 in 2006, will have completed 24 years in the chamber.

Three or four retirements from this group of Democrats could present Republicans with their first chance in decades of legitimate pick-ups in those seats.

By contrast, Republicans will have just four over-70 veterans up for re-election in 2006, with three of them, Sens. Orrin Hatch (Utah), Conrad Burns (Mont.) and Craig Thomas (Wyo.), hailing from fairly safe GOP states regardless if the incumbent is running.

In addition, at least three Senate Democrats are likely bets to face stiff challenges in their first re-election effort in ’06: Sens. Mark Dayton (Minn.), Maria Cantwell (Wash.) and Bill Nelson (Fla.).

“All the elements are in place for a durable majority,” Winston, the GOP pollster, said.

Fighting History

But the Republican effort at Senate domination defies almost 80 years of GOP marginalization in the chamber. Their recent high-water mark of 55 seats — an amount they held from January 1997 until the summer of 2000 — is the largest number of Republican-controlled seats since the 1920s. In the past 30 years, only in the post-Watergate era of Democratic domination from 1975 through 1980 has either party held a 60-seat majority. The recent high point for either party was 57 seats, the number Democrats held in early 1993 after Bill Clinton’s first White House win.

Some GOP strategists predict it will be difficult to push any higher than 54 or 55 seats.

One strategist involved with the 2002 campaign called that cycle the “straight flush” for Republicans, and noted that, despite how great things appeared to go for the Senate GOP, they picked up just two seats.

To get to 57 or 58 seats by 2007 would require two more straight flushes, the strategist said. “I’m just somewhat dubious of us being able to do that cycle after cycle after cycle. I really believe the electorate is still way too divided to get there in the next two to four years.”

Also, heading into 2006, Republicans are the ones already confronting a retirement problem. Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) does not expect to run for re-election, and the man Frist replaced as leader, Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), is also likely to retire. Both of those states are Republican leaning, but the right Democrat could turn it into a toss-up, and some Democrats, such as Rep. Harold Ford Jr. (Tenn.), are already angling for those Senate races.

Another factor will be financing. While Republicans hold the current edge in the hard-money-only world of campaign financing, in 2006 Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) will be up for re-election. In her first race in 2000, Democrats say, she raised almost $20 million for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, a figure she could likely match three years from now.

Such a huge chunk of political change would level the field in several key battleground states in 2006.

And even if veteran Democrats such as Kennedy, Sarbanes and Akaka were to step aside that year, long-term demographics in those states would put Republicans at a huge disadvantage in Senate races. Despite voting for GOP governors in the past four races, Massachusetts hasn’t elected a Republican Senator since the mid-1970s. And the shocking ascension of Republicans into the governor’s mansions in Hawaii and Maryland in 2002 do not guarantee either state is about to elect a Republican to the Senate — something the Old Line State hasn’t done since 1980 and Hawaii hasn’t done since 1970.

Tough Test in 2008

Even more troubling for long-term GOP domination of the Senate is the 2008 election cycle, when, as of now, 21 Republican seats will be up for grabs compared to just 12 Democratic seats. And a half-dozen of those Republican veterans will be more than 70 years old on Election Day 2008, making them potential retirees.

But some Republicans, such as Winston, believe that nationally there has been an important shift in voters’ mindsets. Winston disputes Democratic claims that the 2002 elections were essentially a 50-50 split that Republicans won in the Senate by fewer than 50,000 votes nationwide.

Looking at all 435 House races, Winston (a Roll Call contributing writer) found that the raw voting percentages for every person who cast a ballot were 51 percent Republican, 46 percent Democratic. The previous three election cycles had been tied for all 435 House races, or a 1-point edge for Republicans. In his own survey data, Winston found that independents went 48 percent to 41 percent for Republican candidates, the largest disparity since the 1994 GOP landslide.

There is already a built-in edge in terms of base voters for Republicans, with almost 35 percent of voters identifying themselves as conservative and less than 20 percent calling themselves liberal, according to Winston.

Independent voters are focusing most intently on the party that provides solutions to problems, not the party that complains about problems, according to Winston. If Republicans can portray themselves as the problem-solving party and the Democrats as obstructionists, Winston sees a GOP domination in the years ahead, even in the Senate.

“This country’s on a right-of-center path,” he said. “It’s going to take something of significant impact for that to change.”