Smoke On The Firewall For Senate Democrats?

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., on Aug. 13 in Los Angeles.

Boxer, at a rally in Los Angeles on Aug. 13. Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images North America hide caption

itoggle caption Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images North America

As one of the hottest summers on record begins easing into fall, the political heat has yet to subside. And that has Senate Democrats sweating states they once thought they had made in the shade.

Democrats knew they had trouble in states where their elected incumbents had resigned (Illinois, Delaware, Colorado), retired (Indiana, North Dakota) or lost the primary (Pennsylvania). They knew they had two more incumbents staggering under terrible poll numbers (Nevada, Arkansas).

But even if all eight of these seats were to be lost, and even if they were to capture no new seats from the GOP, the Democrats reasoned they could still hold the majority.

That "firewall theory" was based on the belief that the rest of the majority's current 59 seats would remain in the hands of Democrats or affiliated independents.

But now there's smoke sighted along the firewall as well. Recent polls in California, Washington and Wisconsin show three more Democratic veterans, all first elected in 1992, are tied, trailing or only slightly ahead of their Republican challengers.

The numbers are doubly surprising because this trio of triple-term veterans, Barbara Boxer in California, Patty Murray in Washington and Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, began the year in decent shape by all conventional measures of electoral strength. All had won re-election rather easily in 2004, Boxer with 58 percent of the vote and the other two with 55 percent. None has been hit with a scandal, campaign misstep or killer issue that would explain their struggle.

And let's remember, these states are among the bluest of the blue.  California has voted Democratic in each of the past five presidential elections, by steadily increasing margins. The presidential blue streak goes back even further in Washington and Wisconsin, covering all six elections since Ronald Reagan captured 49 states for the GOP in 1984. Moreover, beginning with the contests of 1992, there have been 18 Senate races in these three states and Democrats have won all 18. Half of those wins were racked up by Boxer, Murray and Feingold themselves.

But as we have seen in Alaska and elsewhere, 2010 is not a year to rely on conventional measures of electoral strength. All three of these incumbents are now enmeshed in the anti-government sentiments of this particular season, and all three face challengers who, for different reasons, are poised to exploit their particular vulnerabilities.

It was just such a combination of voter mood and match-up dynamics that lifted Boxer, Murray and Feingold from long-shot status to their first Senate victories in 1992. Then, as now, the country was impatient with a sluggish recovery from a recession, upset about federal deficit spending, weary of overseas commitments and angry at Congress. The country was looking for new faces and a different kind of politician.

None of the three began the 1992 cycle as any kind of front runner — even for their party's nomination. Murray was a former school board member and first-term state legislator who had stepped forward to challenge a Democratic senator accused of sexual misconduct. When the incumbent decided to retire, Murray still had to beat a better known Democrat in her primary. She did it running as "the mom in tennis shoes," appropriating the dismissive description of herself she had heard when visiting a Senate office.

Boxer was a Brooklyn native who had served five terms in the House from Northern California. She was running in a multi-candidate field, but she wound up with 44 percent of the primary vote when her rivals trained most of their fire on each other.

Similarly, Feingold was a state senator running behind two older, better financed and better known candidates in Wisconsin. But he ran guerrilla-style TV ads contrasting his poverty with his opponents' deep pockets, and the outsider appeal worked.

That November, Boxer and Murray became part of the "Year of the Woman" wave in the Senate while Feingold defeated a two-term Republican incumbent.

All benefited from a national trend that lifted eight new Democrats to the Senate that November (and made Bill Clinton president). But each also benefited from special circumstances that hobbled their respective opponents.

For Boxer, it was a late-breaking story about the Republican nominee's fondness for topless clubs. Murray benefited from her GOP rival's cavalier and even rude behavior toward her in a debate. And Feingold got a boost from the Republican incumbent's record of arrests for drinking and driving.

This year, the national pendulum is swinging back from its transit to the left in 2006 and 2008. President Obama is still struggling to bring the economy all the way back from the near-collapse of 2008. Iraq is a smaller war, but Afghanistan is a larger one. Congress has been an unlovely mess, and the bills the Senate did manage to pass have yet to win much favor with the public. The political marketplace is brimming with radical ideas from the right.

To go with these underlying issues, the firewall incumbents find themselves with unusually daunting opponents.

Boxer faces by far her best-funded challenger yet in Carly Fiorina, former chief executive of Hewlett-Packard, who has been through a bruising primary and still has the GOP united behind her. So long as that unity holds, she can reach out to independents and offer the fresh look of a first-time candidate in a state where unemployment is still over 12 percent and the Democratic base is restive.

Murray, the suburban populist of 1992 is now the senior senator touting her seat on Appropriations and the larders of federal bacon she has brought home. Her trophies have become targets for her opponent, conservative Republican Dino Rossi, who lost bids for the governorship in 2004 and 2008. Those were both good years for Democrats in the state. Rossi is looking to fare better this year.

Feingold's vulnerability is both the most surprising and the least. He remains a constant presence in the Badger State and a fierce defender of his highly individuated views. But he is still primarily a liberal Democrat, and Wisconsin may be turning to Republicans in both the governorship and the legislature this November.

The Wisconsin GOP did not get former governor Tommy Thompson to come out of retirement this year, but they did get a self-financing businessman named Ron Johnson, a first-time candidate who has the backing of one of the state's wealthiest families. He has the potential to unite voters from the Tea Party right to the independent middle in a year when many feel the state and nation have swung too far to the left.

No one should count Feingold out. He's been on high alert for months and maintains a first-rate campaign operation in the state. Neither should anyone assume that even a weakened Boxer will be punched out by Fiorina, who has plenty of problems of her own. In Washington state, Murray also has made a career of confounding those who underestimate her.

But the point here is not that these seats are lost, merely that they are in danger. Democrats who thought their big November headache was holding the House now have to wonder whether the alarm bells are ringing on the Senate side, too.

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