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Political analysis and other daily rants on the state of the nation

Sunday | May 11, 2003

Senate Race Outlook 2004 (RonK)

It's early, but Fitzgerald's exit and Edgar's demurral in Illinois has given rise to some loose chatter, so here goes ...

First, the standard caveats:
Stuff happens. In an average year, the fickle finger of fate flicks a player off the senatorial playing board. We're a year and a half away from Election Day 2004.

Any race at any time can turn on a figurative stroke of lightning, or a literal stroke, or a scandal, or a stumble.

Patty Murray might not be in the Senate at all except that her favored opponent, in mid-debate, unaccountably started channeling Roger Miller -- "dang me, dang me, oughta take a rope and hang me, high from the highest tree, woman would ya weep for me" -- and there was no saving him. She's now the solid favorite for a third term.
There are tides in the affairs of men ... and riptides on Election Day. Collective sentiment is every bit as predictable as the weather.

The incumbent has the high ground, but a good challenge -- candidate, campaign, cash and chemistry -- can usually move a "safe" race into the "competitive" column. The odds, the stakes, and competing priorities don't always make it worth mounting the good challenge. (Stumbles may go unpunished as a result.)

The lay of the land:
GOP will have a big money and media edge, and can be looser with their bets. Democrats usually find better candidates, by dint of public service commitment.

Dem's have an energized base. GOP base thinks Bush has God-like leadership powers ... but their dreams of Empire are colored by deep disturbing doubts about the Sun King's domestic agenda.

Most voters decide early who's good for the economy, and don't change their minds thru the campaign. As regards how the economy's doing, voter sentiment is a paradoxical trailing indicator ... they keep responding "worse and worse" well after it's started getting better and better. By most indicators it's not getting better yet, there's more bad news in the pipeline, and "better" will probably be a "jobless recovery", i.e., a kitchen table recession. Put these together, and Bush faces a narrowing -- or negative -- window of opportunity. Dreary household sentiment may create a climate for change.

How about War? What, another one? That won't fly ... and fear of fear itself gets older than old itself after a while. Unlike 2002, I don't see a seat the GOP can put the squeeze on for failing to support the Commander in Chief in time of War. (Maybe Rove does.)

If Bush is flying high next November, he may still have negative coattails as swing voters mark their ballots "W" for War Leader and "D" for Domestic Policy. If the Wurlitzer goes badly out of tune -- "It's the Cacaphony, Stupid!" -- Bush could have very negative coattails. Republican or third-party challengers, if any, won't affect Senate races.

Bush still has the White House advantage of control over the legislative agenda and the news cycle, and can wield it as a club or as a scalpel. (Dr. Frist's hand, however, seems a tad unsteady on the assist. "You cut out Grassley's WHAT?")

Trouble at home: statehouse budgets are uncommonly tight, and tempers are short. Statewide campaigns may have to work through unusual levels of intra-party conlict. In most cases, the state's dominant party will be most severely affected.

For the GOP:
Safe Re-elects -- Shelby (AL), Grassley (IA), Gregg (NH), Voinovich (OH), Bennett (UT), and Crapo (ID). [Repeat as fast as you can: "Crapo Crapo Crapo Crapo ...".] I also make Brownback (KS) safe, but Larry Sabato thinks Kansas could be contested. [It's worth a thought -- Dem resurgence, economic and budget problems, bible-belter fatigue.]

Vulnerable Re-elects -- Campbell (CO), Bunning (KY), Bond (MO) provide undistinguished representation for distinguished swing states. [Most observers call Campbell "safe", and they may be right ... but Colorado deserves better than Allard and Campbell. Gary Hart, what are you doing next fall?]

Vulnerable Open Seats -- Fitzgerald (IL) and Miller (GA). Ralph Reed cleaned up in Georgia last year, but he wears out his welcomes in a hurry, buyer's remorse may set in, and there are some unsettled intraparty squabbles. [Update: Dave Wiegel reminds me that Reed has already given notice ... but the afterburn remains.]

Special Situations -- Murkowski (AK) could face a hard primary charge from the right, and the winner may face a viable Democrat in the general election. Specter (PA) also faces a primary challenge from the right, and could hit the home stretch with a rump full of platform splinters.

Vulnerable if Open -- McCain (AZ), Nickles (OK).

At worst, Republicans lose 11 seats -- KS, CO, KY, MO, IL, GA, AK, PA, AZ, OK, plus Chaffee (RI). (Not that they would).

For the Dem's:
Safe Re-elects -- Boxer (CA), Dodd (CT), Inouye (HI) [or Shinseki if Inouye retires], Bayh (IN), Breaux (LA), Mikulski (MD), Schumer (NY), Dorgan (ND), Wyden (OR), Daschle (SD), Leahy (VT), Murray (WA), Feingold (WI). GOP will be tempted to target some of these, and they should ... especially the Dakotas (which Daschle and Dorgan carry -- despite handsome Bush margins -- by virtue of fiscal sanity and real roots), and the big expensive states like CA and NY. All-out effort -- big money and best candidates -- could promote a couple others to "contested", but no sign of those taking shape yet.

Vulnerable Re-elects -- Lincoln (AR), Reid (NV), Hollings (SC). SC is gone if Hollings retires, at risk if he runs, but his foghorn populism is a good match for the state even as it tilts Republican.

Special Situations -- Graham (FL) and Edwards (NC) seats are vulnerable if open, that is, if either incumbent passes on the Senate race to pursue the presidency. [Some observers see Edwards as vulnerable for re-election as well.]

At worst, Democrats lose AR, NV, SC, plus FL or NC (choose one). Throw in a surprise or two in the "safe" races -- that makes 6 seats.

In summary:
My only outright sentimental pick is Campbell to lose ... Colorado oughta have somebody in the Senate who takes more of an interest in the stuff the Senate does. I've even spotted Rove a couple of seats for pure diabolical genius.

There's plenty of play left on the table for both sides, and Robert Novak is blowing smoke. Update: The American Prospect's Mary Lynn F. Jones begs to differ.

RonK, Seattle

Posted May 11, 2003 01:35 AM | Comments (89)


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