Monday, November 17, 2008

Eyes on the Senate (but not how you think!)

With his (surprisingly re-energizing) maiden voyage to the Miami Book Fair now successfully concluded, the Key Grip turns his attentions to the unfolding drama in the United States Senate--in 2010.

First, the column you might have been forgiven for expecting, redux: The Alaska Senate race will now almost certainly go for Mr. Begich. The remaining votes to be counted in the state are from the most significantly pro-Begich areas, and not even Mr. Stevens' own party wants him to win a protracted after-battle in the courts. With respect to Minnesota, your intrepid columnist might be whistling past the raw count by anticipating a Franken victory, but my memories of logging on to the Florida Secretary of State's website and watching Mr. Gore's numbers creep closer and closer to Bush's in 2000 are just too vivid not to expect a +204 vote pickup for the Democrats in the Gopher state. My guess is that Franken defeats Coleman in both the recount and the courts, but that it will take several more weeks before that prediction is vindicated.

Georgia, in my opinion, will come down to both sides GOTV efforts, though the funnybusiness we've already seen there leaves me even less optimistic than Mr. Martin's deficit in the original contest would suggest, so I'll classify that one as "likely GOP" until convinced otherwise. As I've noted before, nobody who knows anything about these processes really gives a damn about whether the Democrats make it to 60 seats or not; my guess is that they make it to 59 including Lieberman (which, the way things are going, would suggest a final tally of 58, at least for now).

While I'm at it, a word or two about Hillary Clinton becoming Secretary of State: It's a move that makes some sense--for Brack Obama. He takes Clinton out of the Senate, where any difference of legislative opinion or agenda would be amplified by a Jennifer-v-Angelina style of feeding frenzy. Besides, such an appointment would get John Kerry off Obama's back about the same job, which just might be enough political embarrassment to get Mr. Kerry off the rest of our backs, too. As for Clinton playing nice, the last Democrat to occupy the White House certainly had a strong and independently minded woman for his Secretary of State, and the experience of that relationship might have shown the rest of us that competing internal agendas are significantly less embarrassing to a President on the foreign policy side of the ledger.

What Mrs. Clinton gains from the proposition is, as others have written far more eloquently than I, significantly less clear. If the Obama Administration is unpopular in 2012, it wouldn't actually matter because a sitting Secretary of State can't run against her own boss. By 2016, if Obama were unable to rescue his popularity, Clinton would find herself in exactly the same position most recently experienced by Senator McCain: that of convincing an exhausted American electorate that she is different enough from the incumbent to merit a third installment of rule by the same party. If, by contrast, Mr. Obama's popularity is high, Clinton will face the difficult task of either extricating herself from a popular government without seeming overly opportunistic, or campaigning for her boss' job while serving as the sitting Secretary of State--a job not well-suited to justifications for criss-crossing the state of Iowa, given that it's been rather a long time since we last needed a treaty there.

Clinton no doubt believes that a foreign policy appointment would round-out her resume, but the problems with that calculation may well outweigh its benefits: Most people think her neither an expert on, nor particularly interested in, foreign policy, and so--left to scratch their heads about why she would accept such a position, they inevitably come to the conclusion that she's trying to round-out her resume, and thus already running for President in 2016. And given that Mrs. Clinton has just finished a rather protracted round of self-inflicted bruising for her unwillingness to cede the spotlight to Obama, a pre-candidacy for his replacement just isn't the sort of recovery that Mrs. Clinton needs, just at the moment.

One other consideration merits at least a word or two, here: Hillary Rodham Clinton was born on October 27th of 1947, which would make her, on election day of 2016, sixty-nine years old. This would tie her (in years) for the title of oldest person ever to win the Presidency, should she manage to do so. Now, maybe the American public will have forgotten that the "torch has been passed" by the time that distant day rolls around--goodness knows they've done so before--but this time the job of winning back the reins from the young turks will be complicated by the fact that there are numerous other, younger faces in Clinton's own party, many of whom are perceived as significantly more capable at the messy job of reaching bipartisan consensus to actually govern. At all events, hold all your cards, folks: eight years is a long time.

Two years, by contrast, is not.

And while it's typically the case that the party in power loses seats, a quick survey of the races that will be contested in the Senate in 2010 reveals the early makings of what could be yet another long and improbably rocky election night for the Republicans: Of all the Democratic senators who are up for reelection in 2010, only two--Byron Dorgan in North Dakota and Blanche Lincoln in Arkansas--represent states that voted for McCain in the election just concluded, and the Republican Party was unable even to find a candidate to run for Senate from the state of Arkansas this time, leaving Mark Pryor to win unopposed. Dorgan could be perceived as a (lone?) pickup opportunity for the Republicans, but for the small problem that North Dakotans like him--a lot--and by the time the question is put to them, they will have had two years of an Obama Administration's commitment to alternative energy like ethanol, through which to gauge just how committed to the culture wars they still really want to be. The Democrats from states that voted Obama, meanwhile, are nearly all completely safe, barring a totally unforeseen meltdown in Mr. Obama's popularity. Only Ken Salazar in Colorado and Barbara Boxer in California will face truly contested races, and that's assuming that either one finds him- or herself opposite a formidable Republican opponent.

The Republicans, by contrast, will face uphill battles to hold in a variety of races, chief among them in New Hampshire, where Judd Gregg must be looking around this morning and wondering what happened to his cushy victory in 2004. Indeed there was a time--not all that long ago, really--when New Hampshire was considered a relatively safe Republican state (owing to a quirky New England geography which managed to pile most of the Granite state's population into affluent Boston suburbs), but not anymore. Both houses of the state legislature are now controlled by comfortable Democratic majorities, and a Republican hasn't won a statewide race for office there since Mr. Gregg himself.

Arlan Specter has been for a long time now a (mostly) popular Republican Senator in an increasingly blue state, but the Democratic party in Pennsylvania is a well-oiled machine that knows how to win Senate races, and if Governor Ed Rendell were to run against Mr. Specter, the seat would be a very, very difficult one for Mr. Specter to hold. John McCain himself, whose most likely opponent in 2010 is the runaway-popular Governor there, Janet Napolitano, will have to work fast to burnish his independent image if he hopes to cling to what little Washington influence he has left. Mel Martinez of Florida will need a lot more than just a formula consisting of one part anti-Castro saber rattling, two parts security-mom fear mongering, and three parts good fortune to face a weak and ineffectual candidate who could never quite convince even some Democrats that her tenure policies at the University of South Florida hadn't amounted to a goal of harboring terrorists. Martinez, like the others, will face much stiffer opposition this time around, and the Cuban-American vote (as I just saw, first-hand) is far from reliably Republican these days. The state has several competent Democrats to offer, chief among them Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, and if Mr. Obama is anything like as popular in south Florida in two years as he is right now, the Martinez campaign will have to sweat every single vote to carry the day, and indeed probably won't.

Ditto George Voinovich in Ohio, a Republican in a state that seems, even a precious few days after the election, a lot less like a battleground than it has in previous cycles. If the electoral fortunes of the two parties don't change significantly on a national scale in the intervening months, Voinovich will face a challenge from a top-tier Ohio Democrat and, I think, probably lose.

And these, you understand, are just the first flight of potential Democratic pickups. There are numerous other Republican Senators--John Thune (SD), Richard Burr (NC), Jim Bunning (KY), David Vitter (LA), Lisa Murkowski (AK), Kit Bond (MO), Johnny Isakson (GA), Sam Brownback (KS), and Chuck Grassly (IA), could all conceivably lose their seats--owing to a variety of anemic popularity at home, the potential for a strong opponent, and a track-record of previous victories on a platform that suddenly seems dated and petty even to some Republicans. Grassly is popular but Tom Vilsack is even more so and would surely remind Iowa voters of how hungry they were for change this time around, while Sam Brownback should take nothing for granted in a rock-ribbed Republican state with a spectacularly popular Democratic Governor and recent short-lister for Vice President.

Any candidate for Senate in Kentucky should be safe, as Mitch McConnell just proved, except that Mr. Bunning was so infirmed by age and incoherence that he would only agree to debate his most recent opponent if he could do so via closed-circuit and know the questions ahead of time. Burr represents a blue-trending state, Bond will face a highly energized state Democratic party with many recent victories under its belt, Thune is yesterday's news in a state exasperated with culture wars, Vitter and Murkowski will face ugly primary challenges, and Isakson may have to run against a man who's run twice for Senate in three weeks and gotten better at it both times.

If the Obama Administration is run with anything like the aplomb and discipline that marked the campaign--and if the Republicans continue to in-fight for much longer about who will lead their charge to reinvent themselves, rather than getting down to the business of how to do so--my expectation is that the Democrats could pick up at least four, and as many as seven, additional seats in the Senate (and almost certainly consolidate their hold on the House). And if that were to happen, the Republican party wouldn't necessarily be dead, but the Lee Atwater culture-war playbook almost certainly would be. And that, friends and neighbors, is a change we can believe in, even if nothing else changes for the better in the meantime. And smart money says that it will, anyway.

Dave O'Gorman
("The Key Grip")
Gainesville, Florida


A. Gordon said...

On Alaska, as you say, Begich will most likely remain on top and become the D's #58 (I still have hope for Leiberman, if he wants even a chance of winning in 2010, he can't consciously caucus w/ the Republicans), Murkowski's seat may be vulnerable in 2010, but I fear, not from a D, but rather from a certain Republican Governor challenger. And wouldn't it be ironic that the person Palin defeated for Governor in 2006 is the husband of the woman whom she'd be looking to supplant in 2010?

On Arkansas, rumor is that Lincoln won't run in 2010 and Mike Ross (D, AR-4) will run. My wife worked for him for 5 years in DC finishing as his communications director before moving with yours truly out to CO. He's a Blue Dog and land-wise, has over half the state. The fact that AR, as a state, has only one Republican member of congress will probably also play a role. It's funny how Presidential politics are VERY different from state-level in how people will vote who represents them.

On to Colorado. Rumors have been flying here about former Broncos John Elway and John Lynch (both of whom campaigned for McCain as recently as October) running for either Governor and/or Salazar's seats. While these are only rumors, it doesn't hurt to know who your potential opponents might be. Elway's divorced but is probably still VERY popular w/ 5 Superbowl trips and 2 wins during his tenure here. Lynch, however is very smart and a MUCH better public speaker.

Don't forget that there are other ways to 60 with Obama's appointments, and Lugar's saying "he's not interested" may actually fall into the category of "you're not supposed to say you are interested, when you actually are." Though, even if they don't get to 60, I seriously doubt McConnell has any clout left to scare the entire Republican Senatorial caucus into voting all the same way unless the bill in question is blatantly partisan and liberal.

Dave O'Gorman said...

The greatest thing about all of this is that the sixty number really only means anything to people who will over-spin it if it happens. The Democrats don't worry about getting to 60, they're thinking about getting a group together on each issue that includes a Republican or two. Besides, a lot of moderate Republicans will want to vote against the filibuster *and* against the bill, as a way of saying that they were against gridlock but not for whatever the item of the day happens to be.

isuyankee said...

I will now say the least popular thing I've ever said here. Thanks God the Democrats choose pragmatism over politics and let Lieberman keep his chairmanship. The left wing is already up in arms, but Obama is sending the right message...the nation's problems are bigger than politics. The hatred in the left-wing blogosphere for Lieberman resembles too closely the stuff that Rove and Limbaugh peddles. It is the reason I can never fully buy in to the left wing agenda. They can be as intolerant of other viewpoints as the other side is.

Dave O'Gorman said...

I like what ISUYANKEE said about Lieberman's chairmanship -- I like the idea because Obama asked that he be allowed to keep it, and we wouldn't want to weaken Obama over something petty -- but I also worry about the "game theory" aspect of all of this, too. If Lieberman gets away with campaigning against a Democrat (and with saying that the loss of his chairmanship is "unacceptable"), then what hope is there for party discipline, down the line? Obviously, once Obama said that Lieberman should be forgiven, there was only one right answer for the Democrats, but I for one am inclined to worry about where all of this leads... especially since we're talking about Democrats, after all.