Senate Outlook

Democrats Need to Rise Again in the South

Posted November 7, 2003 at 10:57am

One year out from Election 2004, Senate Republicans appear poised to retain the majority they won in 2002, with a GOP one-seat pickup seems to be the most likely outcome, a detailed analysis of the 34 Senate contests shows.

The election to this point has been defined by the four Southern Democratic Senators who have decided to forgo re-election bids. A fifth, Sen. John Breaux (La.), is expected to make a decision on a fourth term by the end of the year.

The South has grown increasingly inhospitable to Democrats — especially in federal races — and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee must hold the majority of those seats to make inroads on the current Republican majority.

To its credit, the DSCC has made the best of a bad situation by recruiting strong candidates to fill the holes left by the retiring Members. But open seats are always more vulnerable to party takeover than challenger races.

On the other hand, the National Republican Senatorial Committee has met with little success on the recruiting front — failing to attract strong candidates in one-time targets such as Arkansas, Nevada and North Dakota — but has benefited from the Democratic retirements.

While on a micro-level a Democratic Senate in 2004 seems an unlikely prospect, it is far too early to predict with 100 percent accuracy whether the national dynamics in play on Election Day will favor Democrats or Republicans. Given the small margin in the Senate, a favorable partisan climate could easily deliver three to five seats to either party.

Perhaps the largest shoe still to drop is the identity of the Democratic presidential nominee and his or her eventual impact on down-ballot races.

Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean is the frontrunner for the nomination, and while some Democrats express concern that his opposition to the war in Iraq could submarine the party’s chances in the South, others believe the grassroots excitement Dean has ginned up will help turnout across the country.

The former governor’s recent comment that he wanted to be a “candidate for guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks” drew considerable controversy and led him to apologize. It does signal Dean’s intent to compete in the South, however.

The national political climate remains a mixed bag for both parties. President Bush continues to take on some water for the ongoing casualties in Iraq, even as the economy shows signs of an election-year recovery.

As a result, Democrats running for the presidential nomination have pivoted from focusing their rhetoric almost exclusively on the state of the economy to the administration’s handling of the war.

Democrats remain optimistic that the issue environment will remain unsettled in 2004, leading voters to adopt a “throw the bums out” mentality with Republicans in control of the presidency, Senate and House.

The last time one party controlled both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue was from 1992 to 1994. The 1994 elections saw Republicans take control of both the House and Senate.

In the event neither party benefits from a significant wind at its back, the fulcrum on which the cycle will tilt is Democrats’ ability to hold their Southern open seats.

Sens. Bob Graham (Fla.), Zell Miller (Ga.), John Edwards (N.C.) and Fritz Hollings (S.C.) will all retire in 2004.

In both South Carolina and North Carolina, Democrats recruited their first-choice candidates into the race — state Superintendent of Education Inez Tenenbaum and former White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles, respectively — and have so far kept the primary fields clear for them.

But in each state they face an electorate that has been trending toward the GOP in recent years.

Without Graham, the Democratic field in Florida currently features three candidates, with former state Education Commissioner Betty Castor appearing to have the early edge over Rep. Peter Deutsch and Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas.

The party has the opposite problem in Georgia, where only little-known state Sen. Mary Squires (D) is pursuing the nomination.

A litany of top-tier Democratic candidates, including Georgia Secretary of State Cathy Cox and Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor, passed on the race early on, and former Rep. Andrew Young appeared to be on the verge of announcing before backing away in September. Michelle Nunn, the daughter of former Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn (D), also pondered the race before deciding against it.

The other two open seats are in Illinois and Oklahoma, where Republican Sens. Peter Fitzgerald (Ill.) and Don Nickles (Okla.) have decided against seeking re-election; no other Republicans are currently on the retirement watch list.

Democrats are favored to win in Illinois given the state’s Democratic lean, although both parties face crowded, hard-to-predict primary contests.

In Oklahoma, Democrats were again able to draw in their best candidate, Rep. Brad Carson, and convinced state Attorney General Drew Edmondson (D) to take a pass on the race.

But the demographics of the state favor Republicans (Bush took 60 percent there in 2000), and GOPers have been able to clear their field for former Oklahoma City Mayor Kirk Humphreys.

The six open seats are two less than in the 2002 cycle, when Republicans held all six of their seats where an incumbent was leaving. Only in Minnesota, where Sen. Norm Coleman (R) won a race thrown into chaos by the death of Sen. Paul Wellstone (D) just 10 days before the election, did an open seat change hands.

Republicans’ ability to hold their own seats — five of which were located in the South — was seen as the key to their retaking the Senate last year.

Democrats must now recreate their opponents’ Southern success in open seats to take back the Senate, but they are not likely to have much margin of error, as few incumbents of either party appear to be in any imminent danger.

Only Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) is rated as a tossup in a Roll Call analysis of the 28 incumbents currently seeking re-election.

Murkowski was appointed to her post last December by her father, Gov. Frank Murkowski (R), who had served in the Senate for more than two decades before being elected governor in 2002.

After releasing a list of more than 20 potential successors and publicly pondering his choice for weeks, Frank Murkowski selected his daughter, who at the time was a state Representative.

Coupled with the nepotism issue, Democrats were able to land their biggest recruit of the cycle in Alaska: former two-term Gov. Tony Knowles.

Knowles was elected in 1994 by just more than 500 votes and won re-election in 1998 after the Republican Party disowned its nominee.

Polling has shown the race to be a nip-and-tuck affair, and both parties believe it will be one of the premier races for the remainder of the cycle.

Aside from Murkowski, few Republican Senators appear in real trouble at this juncture.

Democrats are high on Missouri state Treasurer Nancy Farmer, but she seems to be gaining little traction against three-term Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.).

In Colorado and Kentucky, Democrats have yet to recruit a first-tier candidate against either Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.) or Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.). Rep. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) is reportedly still considering the race, while Kentucky state Sen. Daniel Mongiardo (D) appears likely to run in the Bluegrass State.

Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) is also on Democratic target lists, as he faces an ideological primary challenge from Rep. Pat Toomey (R) and then a likely race against Rep. Joe Hoeffel (D) next November. Specter continues to run strong, and it would seem as though much of Democrats’ hopes depend on Toomey either beating the incumbent or severely damaging him.

If there are few potential weak spots among Republican incumbents, there are almost none on the Democratic side of the aisle.

At this point, only Minority Leader Tom Daschle (S.D.) appears at all vulnerable, and that is only if former Rep. John Thune (R) decides to enter the race.

Thune, who lost a 2002 challenge to Sen. Tim Johnson (D) by just 524 votes, has been heavily recruited to run but has said he is not likely to make a decision until the first of the year.

In the meantime, Daschle has been running scores of ads touting his work for the state and raising money at a record clip. Through September he had more than $3 million in the bank.

Republicans also see opportunity in Washington state, where Sen. Patty Murray (D) is running for a third term. After Rep. Jennifer Dunn (R) turned down the race, Rep. George Nethercutt (R) jumped in but has not impressed as a candidate to this point.

In Wisconsin, Republicans have three candidates running (including two wealthy self-funders), but Sen. Russ Feingold (D) has shown few signs of real weakness.