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Senate Prospects Continue to Worsen for GOP

By Reid Wilson

In 1980, former California Governor Ronald Reagan beat incumbent President Jimmy Carter in a landslide so massive that eleven Democratic Senate seats went Republican along with the White House. Republicans knocked off a number of Senate lions, including Idaho's Frank Church, Indiana's Birch Bayh, South Dakota's George McGovern and Washington's Warren Magnuson.

Six years later, facing the second midterm election of an incumbent president, historically the worst election for the incumbent party, many of those freshmen Republicans didn't survive. Democrats, in 1986, won back nine seats and lost just one, recapturing the majority.

As more Republican Senators retire and more top-notch Democratic candidates emerge to contest GOP-held seats, many political observers say they see parallels between the 1986 elections and next year's battles. Like 1986, next year features races decided narrowly in Republicans' favor six years earlier. Like 1986, Republicans can't seem to catch a break.

Coming just a year after the September 11th terrorist attacks, 2002 was a banner year for the GOP. On the coattails of a hugely popular incumbent president, the party extended their majority in the House and took control of the Senate, defeating Senator Max Cleland, appointed Senator Jean Carnahan and former Vice President Walter Mondale, who stepped in to replace the late Senator Paul Wellstone, who died in a plane crash.

Six years later, President Bush's approval ratings will be half what they were in 2002 - if Republicans are lucky - and his coattails have become a drag on GOP candidates. Republicans will have 22 seats on the Senate ballot, while Democrats will be forced to defend just 12. And, given early retirements, lackluster recruiting and disappointing fundraising results, Republicans find themselves facing a Senate landscape worse than any either party has faced since 1986, or earlier.

The GOP's crisis comes just one election after having lost Congress to Democrats. "For Democrats, this is like winning PowerBall twice," said Jennifer Duffy, editor of the Cook Political Report and a Senate elections expert. "It's going to be a very challenging year" for Republicans, admitted a GOP consultant involved in one Senate race.

"Right now, [Democrats] are catching every break," Duffy said. Indeed, a quick look at the landscape shows a storyline the party could hardly have written any better for themselves: Incumbents in Colorado and Virginia have decided to retire, and Democrats have recruited their first choices - Rep. Mark Udall, in Colorado, and former Gov. Mark Warner, in Virginia.

Republicans even lost Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel, who announced recently that he would retire. While the GOP may not be able to avoid a primary between Attorney General Jon Bruning and Agriculture Secretary (and former Governor) Mike Johanns, former Democratic Senator Bob Kerrey, who gave up his seat in 2000, has been meeting with Washington Democrats about the possibility of a return bid.

In New Hampshire and Maine, Democrats have their top recruits, former Gov. Jeanne Shaheen and Rep. Tom Allen, respectively, taking on GOP incumbents weakened by the President and the state of their party in the Northeast, while incumbents in Minnesota and Oregon face what will likely be well-funded challengers come November.

The bleeding may not stop there. Thanks to ethics problems and continuing retirement rumors, Sens. Ted Stevens (R-AK) and Pete Domenici (R-NM) could create two more open seats for Republicans to defend, both of which would likely cause contentious primaries, while Democrats have been actively pursuing top nominees in case retirements come about.

Republicans have two legitimate pick-up opportunities, in Louisiana, where incumbent Democrat Mary Landrieu will face an electorate vastly different to the one she faced in 2002, thanks to Hurricane Katrina, and in South Dakota, where Sen. Tim Johnson won by just 524 votes in 2002. But Johnson, who suffered a life-threatening stroke last year and has only recently returned to work, seems committed to running again, and Republicans have not been able to field a strong contender, giving Johnson an easier race than he might otherwise expect.

Illustrating just how unlucky Republicans have it this year, news that Republicans convinced a top challenger to Landrieu, state Treasurer John Kennedy, to switch his affiliation from Democrat to Republican, was immediately drowned out and got little national attention: It happened just hours before news of Idaho Senator Larry Craig's arrest were published.

Barring a scandal, the ten other Democratic seats will likely not face serious challenges. They include incumbents like Montana's Max Baucus, Massachusetts' John Kerry, Michigan's Carl Levin, Illinois' Dick Durbin and West Virginia's Jay Rockefeller, all of whom won easy re-election in 2002.

The story of the Republicans' lack of opportunities in 2008 will be one of repeated recruiting failures. Baucus and Iowa's Tom Harkin should be vulnerable. The best Baucus will get will be a state Senator who lost a primary challenge to then-Sen. Conrad Burns last year. Harkin, who defeated three Republican members of Congress in his three re-election bids, has not drawn a challenge from moderate Rep. Tom Latham or conservative Rep. Steve King, and faces only a little-known businessman at the moment.

Perhaps hoping to put a positive spin on any part of 2008, Republicans maintain that Sen. Frank Lautenberg, a New Jersey Democrat, is vulnerable thanks to his age and narrow wins in previous elections. A Quinnipiac University poll in early July showed just 31% thought Lautenberg deserved to be re-elected, while 42% said he did not. Lautenberg held a narrow 40%-33% lead over a generic Republican candidate.

Still, Republicans will face a bitter primary between a moderate, in Anne Evans Estabrook, and conservative Assemblyman Joseph Pennacchio, and Lautenberg will have the millions necessary to run constant television ads in two of the most expensive media markets - New York and Philadelphia - in the country.

Shaheen's entry into the contest against Sununu has cast a pall over many Republican strategists around the country. "That seat's done. That's over," said one GOP strategist. A recent poll showed Shaheen leading incumbent John Sununu, 54%-38%. "She's over fifty [percent," the GOP strategist said, "which is the hardest thing of all. That means they have to pull people away from her.

Asked to identify the GOP's top targets, the strategist pointed eagerly to Landrieu's Louisiana seat. Still, he admitted, "there's a long ways to get to your number two."

Recruiting is a large portion of the battle, say many, but money is a concern as well. "If you look at the people that are raising money right now, the Democrats are ahead of the Republicans, and the Democrat-affiliated organizations are outraising the Republican-affiliated organizations," the Republican consultant said.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee had only $6.5 million in the bank on July 31, while their Democratic counterpart had more than $20.6 million, along with $4 million in debt.

Many on both sides are quick to remind that in politics, a day is a lifetime and fourteen months is an eternity. Still, the map looks pretty good for Democrats. "In some ways, we're looking at 75% of the picture, but that 75% doesn't look very good for Republicans," Duffy said.

As Democrats look at the possibility of a massive pick-up in 2008, though, they have to reign in their excitement. "It's way too early to dance in the end zone," one Democrat said. "You don't win anything in an off year."

But, said Duffy, the party is in excellent shape. "Things change, but fundamentally the math doesn't change," she said

Reid Wilson, an associate editor and writer for RealClearPolitics, formerly covered polls and polling for The Hotline, National Journal’s daily briefing on politics. Wilson’s work has appeared in National Journal, Hotline OnCall and the Arizona Capitol Times. He can be reached at reid@realclearpolitics.com

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