Handicapping the '08 Battle for the Senate

Hart campaign ad i i

hide captionI often think about this flyer when reminiscing about how quickly political fortunes can change.

Hart campaign ad

I often think about this flyer when reminiscing about how quickly political fortunes can change.

Wayne Allard

hide captionRepublicans hold 21 of the 33 Senate seats at stake next year.

Tim Johnson

hide captionHis condition has been upgraded from critical to fair.

Raymond Shafer

hide captionA "favorite son" candidate for president? Maybe. But NOT a potential Nixon running mate.

John McCormack

hide captionForty-five years ago today, Majority Leader McCormack is elected speaker of the House.

I have in front of me a flyer from Democrat Gary Hart's 1974 campaign for the Senate from Colorado. On it is a picture of two Republicans, Richard Nixon and incumbent Sen. Peter Dominick. The photo, apparently taken in 1968, shows Dominick and presidential candidate Nixon raising their arms up high, big smiles on their faces. The caption reads, "They had their turn. Now it's our turn. Hart for Senate."

I often think about this flyer when reminiscing about how quickly political fortunes can change. That was certainly true for Dominick: He was a landslide winner in '68, when Republicans and Nixon were popular in the state. But Dominick was crushed by Hart in his 1974 bid for a third term, when the Watergate scandal was killing the GOP everywhere and Nixon resigned in disgrace.

Fast forward to the 2002 midterm elections. It was a good year for President George W. Bush and the Republicans. Fourteen months after terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the GOP picked up seats in the House. It was a historic aberration for the party controlling the White House. They also recaptured the Senate majority taken away from them when Vermont's Jim Jeffords bolted from the party in 2001.

The good times continued through Bush's re-election. But as the public soured on the war in Iraq, Republican fortunes fell as well; 2006 saw a loss of 30 seats in the House and six in the Senate, forfeiting GOP control in each chamber.

Now, the Senate Class of 2002 faces re-election next year, and the outlook doesn't look especially promising. With President Bush's numbers still sagging, and with a war that doesn't plan on going away any time soon – we're just hours away from a major Bush speech that apparently will call for more troops to be sent to Iraq – the prospects of the Republicans recapturing the Senate in 2008 are considered dim. Complicating their chances are the simple numbers: Of the 33 seats at stake next year, the GOP holds 21 of them.

And several Republican incumbents who won in 2002 may find the political terrain much different. Among the most vulnerable: Norm Coleman of Minnesota, John Sununu of New Hampshire and Wayne Allard of Colorado. And that's not mentioning the uncertainty about the plans of several senior Republicans.

One issue that hasn't gone away is the matter concerning the senior senator from South Dakota. The health of Sen. Tim Johnson (D), which for a while had been the talk of Washington, seems to be improving. While he remains in intensive care following brain surgery last month, his condition has been upgraded from critical to fair. And while his long-term prognosis for recovery remains unclear, the political urgency of the matter, given the fact that the Dems have a one-seat majority in the 110th Senate, may have lessened.

Here's a brief look at the 33 seats that are up in 2008. Needless to say, looking ahead to an election 22 months away is a bit risky. Just ask George Allen. But here goes.

ALABAMA – Jeff Sessions (R): Sessions should win a third term. Rep. Artur Davis (D), who had considered a challenge, now says he won't run.

ALASKA – Ted Stevens (R): Stevens, who will be 85 in 2008, says he plans to run again, but some remain skeptical. If he runs, he wins. If he doesn't, the GOP would still be favored; Democrats haven't won a Senate seat here in more than three decades.

ARKANSAS – Mark Pryor (D): Pryor has done nothing to damage his chances for a second term.

COLORADO – Wayne Allard (R): Rumors persist that Allard, who narrowly won six years ago, will retire. Either way, Rep. Mark Udall (D) is looking at the race. Colorado has had back-to-back big Democratic elections, in 2004 and 2006.

DELAWARE – Joe Biden (D): Assuming he doesn't win the Democratic presidential nomination – a fair assumption – Biden should be safe in his bid for a seventh term. Most observers see his son Beau, who was elected state attorney general last year, as a potential successor.

GEORGIA – Saxby Chambliss (R): No reason to think Chambliss won't win re-election.

IDAHO – Larry Craig (R): Heavily favored for another term.

ILLINOIS – Dick Durbin (D): Unlikely to face a serious challenge.

IOWA – Tom Harkin (D): One thing seems likely — Harkin, seeking a fifth term, will face a member of the House, as he did in all four previous campaigns.

KANSAS – Pat Roberts (R): Safe, assuming he runs again. The last time a Democrat won a Senate seat here? 1932.

KENTUCKY – Mitch McConnell (R): McConnell was preparing to take over as Senate majority leader this year, but don't expect him to do so any time soon: The GOP may be several cycles away from recapturing a Senate majority. The unpopularity of Gov. Ernie Fletcher (R), who may not run again in 2007, is unlikely to rub off on McConnell, but he could have a competitive race.

LOUISIANA – Mary Landrieu (D): Population losses in the state following Hurricane Katrina could make Landrieu vulnerable. The state, which elected its first GOP senator in 2004, may be becoming even more Republican.

MAINE – Susan Collins (R): Rep. Tom Allen (D) seriously considering a challenge.

MASSACHUSETTS – John Kerry (D): He came pretty close to winning the presidency in 2004 and could try again, but his chances of a repeat nomination seem to be completely dismissed by the chattering classes. Still, if he runs for a fifth Senate term, he wins. If he doesn't, there is no shortage of Democrats ready to succeed him.

MICHIGAN – Carl Levin (D): The new chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Levin is a likely re-election winner.

MINNESOTA – Norm Coleman (R): One of the most vulnerable Republicans up for re-election. The ease by which Democrat Amy Klobuchar won the open Minnesota Senate race last year has gotten the GOP nervous. But can Al Franken win statewide?

MISSISSIPPI – Thad Cochran (R): Safe, if he runs again.

MONTANA – Max Baucus (D): A perennial GOP target who nonetheless always seems to win handily, Baucus may be in better shape than usual, as Montana is trending more Democratic.

NEBRASKA – Chuck Hagel (R): A maverick who has broken with the White House on Iraq, Hagel is rumored to be (a) planning a presidential campaign, (b) ready to retire, or (c) both. But he wins if he runs again.

NEW HAMPSHIRE – John Sununu (R): Another nervous Republican, especially given the big year the Dems had in '06, when they ousted both GOP House members and swept the state legislature. Had Sununu been on the ballot last year, he might not have survived. Former Gov. Jeanne Shaheen, the Democratic nominee against Sununu in 2002, may run again.

NEW JERSEY – Frank Lautenberg (D): If the Republicans had a decent candidate, he could be in some degree of trouble. But they don't, so he isn't.

NEW MEXICO – Pete Domenici (R): Likely to win a seventh term if he runs again.

NORTH CAROLINA – Elizabeth Dole (R): She got a dismal review for her stint as GOP Senate campaign chair, but I'm not sure what that means in North Carolina. Still, a potential race to watch.

OKLAHOMA – Jim Inhofe (R): Should win another term.

OREGON – Gordon Smith (R): His public discontent with the war in Iraq has been linked by some to what could be a tough re-election campaign. But Smith may have said out loud what many Republicans are feeling privately.

RHODE ISLAND – Jack Reed (D): Safe.

SOUTH CAROLINA – Lindsey Graham (R): There may be some disenchantment from conservative Republicans, but Graham should win a second term.

SOUTH DAKOTA – Tim Johnson (D): First things first: Let's hope for a full recovery. If he is unable to seek re-election, Rep. Stephanie Herseth would be the likely Democratic replacement. With or without Johnson in the race, Gov. Mike Rounds is the expected GOP nominee. In 2002, Johnson squeaked by John Thune (R), now the state's junior senator, by just 524 votes.

TENNESSEE – Lamar Alexander (R): An unusually quiet first term for this former two-time presidential hopeful. He was upset in his bid for GOP Senate Whip by Trent Lott. Some think that ex-Rep. Harold Ford Jr., the unsuccessful 2006 Democratic Senate nominee, may run again.

TEXAS – John Cornyn (R): One of these days, Texas is going to return to its old, Democratic roots. But not yet.

VIRGINIA – John Warner (R): The purpling of Virginia — as indicated by two consecutive Democratic victories for governor, and by the election of Sen. Jim Webb in 2006 — might give Warner pause about seeking a sixth term next year. He also turns 80 next month. But he says he plans to run. If he doesn't, look for Rep. Thomas Davis (R) to make a go at it, though he would be challenged by conservatives in a GOP primary.

WEST VIRGINIA – Jay Rockefeller (D): Safe.

WYOMING – Mike Enzi (R): Safe.

Now, on to the questions:

Q: Only one new Republican, Bob Corker of Tennessee, was elected to the Senate last year. How does that compare with previous great Democratic years, such as 1974 or 1964? — Erika Cameron, Atlanta, Ga.

A: Let's look at the Democratic years 1974 (the Watergate midterm), 1964 (the Lyndon Johnson landslide), 1958 (the Eisenhower recession), and 1948 (the Truman comeback). And let's throw in 1986, the year the Democrats regained control of the Senate after a six-year absence. Here are the net changes in the Senate, and which, if any, new Republicans were elected.

1986 – Dems + 8
New senators elected: 13
New Republicans elected: 2 - John McCain (AZ), Kit Bond (MO)

1974 – Dems + 3
New senators elected: 11
New Republicans elected: 3 - Paul Laxalt (NV), Louis Wyman (NH)*, Jake Garn (UT)
*Wyman was certified by NH as the winner but was never seated by the Democratic-controlled Senate; he eventually lost a special "do over" election in '75.

1964 – Dems +2
New senators elected: 7
New Republicans elected: 2 - Paul Fannin (AZ), George Murphy (CA)

1958 – Dems +17 (including one elected in Maine in September and two in Alaska in late November)
New senators elected: 17
New Republicans elected: 3 - Kenneth Keating (NY), Hugh Scott (PA), Winston Prouty (VT)

1948 – Dems + 9
New senators elected: 18
New Republicans elected: 4 - Andrew Schoeppel (KS), Margaret Chase Smith (ME), Robert Hendrickson (NJ), Karl Mundt (SD)

One footnote: It's interesting to note that in big Democratic routs such as '74 or '64, there were comparatively few corresponding gains in the Senate. Compare that to 2000, when George W. Bush won the presidency; that year, the Democrats picked up a net gain of four Senate seats. And in the Nixon and Reagan landslide years of 1972 and 1984, Democrats nonetheless netted two Senate seats each time.

Q: Gerald Ford's pardon of Richard Nixon is from "July 20, 1969 to August 8, 1974." Why July, 1969? That was three years before Watergate! – DeeDee Arnelle, Columbia, Md.

A: The official document says Jan. 20, not July 20. But I have seen references on the Web to July 20, and so I went digging; I figured it was a typo or something that got repeated. (Conspiracy theorists might immediately notice that July 20, 1969, was just two days after Sen. Edward Kennedy's accident at Chappaquiddick. Was the pardon to exonerate Nixon's involvement in that, too???)

So I listened to Ford's speech, and what do you know, he did say July 20! But everyone I've spoken to says it was an apparent mistake on Ford's part, that he meant to say Jan. 20, the day Nixon was sworn in as president, and not July 20, and that ultimately, "the text of the proclamation takes precedence" over Ford's actual words. Wow.

Thus, the pardon includes "all offenses against the United States" Nixon "has committed or may have committed or taken part in" during the entire period of his presidency. In many instances, I see that the official record reads "from July (January) 20, 1969 to Aug. 8, 1974."

In fact, there was a lot of mail over the past two weeks following Ford's death. Many, like Tim Fleet of Rollingstone, Minn., were dismayed when they heard on NPR (corrected in later versions of the broadcast) and elsewhere that Ford was the nation's "only un-elected president." That, of course, is not true; Ford was the only president not to have been elected president or vice president. As Tim points out, several presidents, such as Andrew Johnson, Millard Fillmore, Chester Arthur and John Tyler, were never elected to the post, but they were elected vice president.

And both Owen Sholes and Val Cox write, perhaps tongue in cheek, that it's not true Ford was the "only un-elected president." What about George W. Bush, they ask.

Others wrote about Ford's legacy. Jack Smith of Charlotte, N.C. , listened to Vice President Cheney's eulogy and "found it curious that everything he said about how Ford handled the political upheaval of the time could be directly applied to this [Bush] administration. And I think the next president could use Ford's line about the long dark nightmare is over."

Stephen Dennis of Kansas City, Mo., wonders what would have happened had Ford defeated Jimmy Carter in the 1976 election: "Would his administration (which included such men as Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld) have been more effective than the Carter administration in dealing with the Iran hostage crisis?"

Betty Ford, Bev Braun and Braun's husband

And then we got this delightful note from Beverly Braun, who for two decades was the deputy director of the House Radio-TV Gallery at the Capitol. Before that, she was the communications director for the Minnesota Bicentennial Commission and a founder of the GOP Feminist Caucus. Her idea of a "Betty's Husband for President" button got the attention of the First Lady. That's Bev wearing the button in this great photo she sent us; she says Mrs. Ford thanked her for "inventing" the button. Accompanying them is Bev's husband, Skip Loescher, then with WCCO-TV in Minneapolis, who later worked with CNN Newsource. Bev and Skip now live in retirement in Annapolis, Md.

 

And there was also a lot of mail commenting on my exhaustive list of politicos who died in 2006 (see Jan. 3 column). Regarding my obit of former Pennsylvania Gov. Ray Shafer, Stephen Hess, of the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., said that I erred in picking up the report that The New York Times included in its obituary, that Shafer had been offered the VP spot by Richard Nixon in '68. Hess, a former Eisenhower speechwriter who worked in the Nixon administration, writes, "I deeply doubt this ever happened, and I was relatively close to that scene."

 

Regarding the death of former Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D-TX), Bruce Gendron was a staff member on the Senate Finance Committee at the time of the famous Bentsen-Quayle VP debate in 1988: "I watched the mythic 'You're no Jack Kennedy' line on the TV in the senator's office. The word going around that night was that at his rehearsal for the debate, they had an idea that Quayle would compare himself to Kennedy. When Bentsen heard that comparison at the practice debate, he replied on the fly, 'You're about as much like Jack Kennedy as George Bush is like Ronald Reagan.' All involved agreed that he should tone it down a little."

 

Ross Taylor of Potsdam, N.Y., notes that "to go by that list alone, political people seem to be a relatively long-lived group. The group that you listed lived an average of 79.3 years."

 

And finally, John Hiestand of Hillsboro, Ohio, had two former congressmen that I missed: Ronald Cameron (D-CA), who served from 1963-66, died on Feb. 1, 2006; and Speedy Long (D-LA), who served from 1965-72, died on Oct. 5, 2006.

 

IF IT'S WEDNESDAY, IT'S "POLITICAL JUNKIE" ON THE AIR: Remember, not only can you read "Political Junkie" each week, but you can hear it, too. Tune in to NPR's Talk of the Nation, a call-in program, every Wednesday at 2:40 p.m. ET, for 20 minutes on politics. Check local listings to see if your local NPR station carries TOTN. If not, you can always hear the program on the Web at npr.org. This week's show: the 110th Congress convenes, and previewing President Bush's speech on Iraq.

 

Podcast: OK, so Ohio State showed us there is no such thing as a sure thing. Except, however, our weekly political podcast, "It's All Politics," hosted by NPR's Ron Elving and me, which can be downloaded from our Web site. New edition of the podcast goes up every Thursday afternoon.

 

Don't Forget: If you are sending in a question to be used in this column, please don't forget to include your city and state.

 

This Day in Political History: House Majority Leader John McCormack (D-MA) is elected speaker of the House, succeeding the late Sam Rayburn of Texas (Jan. 10, 1962).

 

Got a question? Ask Ken Rudin: politicaljunkie@npr.org

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