It took every last ballot they could scrounge up in Virginia last week to lift Democrats, by the slimmest margin possible, to control of the Senate for the first time in four years.
Swelling their ranks in 2008, though, shouldn’t require nearly as much nervous perspiration and nail-biting.
The reason is rooted in math: In the ’08 round of Senate elections, Republicans will have 21 seats to defend, compared to the Democrats’ 12. That means nine more opportunities for Democrats to flip GOP seats – some in otherwise blue state – than for Republicans to gain ground. In other words, the Democrats should be playing offense.
Call it one of the underappreciated consequences of success in politics. The Republican-rich class of senators set to face the voters in ’08 is a product of the 2002 midterm cycle, when the GOP’s electoral savagery – best encapsulated in the loathsome Georgia television spot that likened Max Cleland to Osama bin Laden – keyed a history-defying drive in which they held all but one of their Senate seats and actually wrested three from the Democrats.
But the shelf-life for big classes dominated by one party doesn’t typically extend past year six. Recall the 44-state Reagan landslide of 1980, which unexpectedly vaulted the GOP to Senate control – while at the same time positioning eight Republican incumbents to be swept out of office in 1986, when Democrats won the chamber back.
Granted, it is too soon to say which party the national political environment will favor in ’08 – a presidential election year, after all. Nor do we yet know the caliber of the individual candidates each party will recruit in potentially key races.
Still, look closer at which senators are up in two years – and, just as important, where they are up – and the early political cartography is indeed favorable to the Senate’s new majority party. The American Prospect’s blog suggests there could be “56 or more” Senate Democrats when the next president takes office. That number feels highs – neither party has controlled more than 55 seats since 1994 – but the point is well taken.
The first thing to consider is who will retire.
Only three ’08 Senate Democrats seem like contenders for this category: John Forbes Kerry and Joe Biden – who, at least for now, are amusing themselves with a “Who Can Wage The More Absurd Presidential Campaign?” contest – and Frank Lautenberg, who will be 84 years old in two years.
None of those three are likely to hang it up, though. Kerry and Biden can both file for re-election in their home states months after being humbled in New Hampshire. And Lautenberg’s exit, sort of like Joe Paterno’s in football, is a perennial rumor, even if the man himself shows no signs of fatigue. No matter, Democrats would be heavily favored to retain all three seats, with or without the incumbents on the ballot.
Beyond that, just three ’08 Democratic incumbents have immediate reason to worry: Mary Landrieu, whose career was saved in 2002 by New Orleans residents who may have left the state for good; Tim Johnson, who came within inches of losing his seat from red state South Dakota in ’02; and Montana’s Max Baucus, a fifth-termer who must always be politically vigilant in a state that President Bush won by 20 points in 2004.
But it’s a different story for the GOP, which has a minimum of three very ripe ’08 retirement prospects – each in an eminently winnable state for the Democrats.
Like Virginia, where 79-year-old John Warner, as difficult as he is to read, is unlikely to stick around the Senate much longer, now that he’s been stripped of his Armed Services gavel. And Colorado, where two-term Republican Wayne Allard, re-elected with just 51 percent of the vote in 2002, would have to go back on a term limits pledge to run again in ’08. And New Mexico, home of septuagenarian Pete Domenici, who has at times tooled around the Capitol in a scooter in recent years.
Those three states each already have one Democratic senator (senator-elect, in Virginia’s case) and voted for the Democratic candidate in their most recent gubernatorial elections – prime pick-up targets for the party, in other words, if the GOP incumbents stand down.
And those are just the obvious GOP retirement prospects.
Ted Stevens of Alaska will be 85 in ’08, though at least there the Republicans would be nearly assured of holding the seat. But North Carolina – a state that once sent John Edwards to the Senate and that has been governed by Democrats for 14 consecutive years – could get interesting if Elizabeth Dole, now 70 and licking the wounds from her horrific just-completed tenure as the chairwoman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, opts to become the second former senator in her home. And what if 70-year-old Pat Roberts bags it in Kansas– where an exceedingly popular Democratic governor waits in the wings?
Then there are the Republicans who are certain to run again – facing potentially unpredictable blue state electorates. Norm Coleman in Minnesota, perhaps squaring off against Al Franken in what would be the most entertaining ’08 race, and New Hampshire’s John Sununu, who is praying his state’s rock star Democratic governor doesn’t catch Potomac Fever, are at the top of this watch list.
Of course, the Democrats’ success this year makes having a banner year in ’08 a virtual imperative for them. After all, their last two strong Senate years – 2000 and this year – involved the same class. So perhaps it’s not too early to note that in 2012, 24 of the 33 seats up will be Democratic.