Republican Senators Deepen a Hole for 2008

021207 article wiseguys Republican Senators  Deepen a Hole for 2008For reasons of varying comprehensibility, nearly all of the U.S. Senate’s Republican minority voted on Monday to block consideration of a resolution voicing opposition to President Bush’s troop build-up in Iraq.

Some did so out of solidarity over a procedural dispute with their partisan colleagues in the Senate—despite the fact that the resolution was authored by John Warner, a Republican. Others also wanted to spare their President an embarrassing, if toothless, slap in the face.

But their loyalty comes at a cost. The anti-war resolution—which may yet see the light of day—would have afforded some of the Senate’s most vulnerable Republicans a chance to do some badly needed fence-mending with the folks back home.

It is too early to know exactly how and where control of the Senate will be determined in 2008, but it’s already plain to see that further failure in Iraq will cost the G.O.P. dearly.

There are the four incumbent Republican Senators who will face the voters in 2008 in Democratic-leaning states that sided with John Kerry in 2004—back when the prevailing sentiment about Iraq was merely frustration, not fury. All four initially supported the war. And all four have since evolved.

The most endangered of them is probably New Hampshire’s John E. Sununu, whose home state was once the last bastion of Republican dominance in the Northeast, providing the four electoral votes that put George W. Bush in the White House in 2000. Mr. Sununu squeaked into office in 2002 against popular three-term Governor Jeanne Shaheen on the strength of a national G.O.P. tide (and a dirty-tricks scandal that later went to court).

Then along came Iraq. In 2006, the state’s voters fired both G.O.P. congressmen, elected a Democratic legislature for the first time since the Civil War and re-elected their Democratic governor, John Lynch, in a landslide.

Now, several credible Democrats have already announced their intentions to challenge Mr. Sununu in 2008, and Ms. Shaheen may yet decide that she wants a rematch.

Then there’s Susan Collins, the moderate Republican from Maine, who has taken more definitive steps than Mr. Sununu to separate herself from George W. Bush’s war. Ms. Collins, first elected in 1996, was among the first to join with Mr. Warner and his resolution.

But despite her streak of Yankee independence, Maine’s voters have never taken to Mrs. Collins like they have to Olympia Snowe, the state’s other Republican Senator. Now, Representative Tom Allen, a Democrat with impeccable anti-war credentials, is raring to challenge her. Ms. Collins is surely haunted by the lesson of now-former Senator Lincoln Chafee’s doomed re-election campaign last year: Sometimes being right on the issues can’t save you from being aligned with the wrong party.

The third Kerry-state Republican up in ’08 is Minnesota’s Norm Coleman, and the shift in his war posturing has been marked. Just two years ago, the first-termer was pegged as a rising star in the Washington world, a favorite of President Bush and the runner-up (by one vote) for the chairmanship of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. As the chairman of a powerful Senate subcommittee, he has shown more interest in doing the administration’s bidding—he convened well-publicized hearings into the United Nations’ oil-for-food program—than in exercising oversight of the war.

Meanwhile, Minnesota has moved closer to being a blue state than a swing state, electing Democrat Amy Klobuchar to the Senate by a margin of better than 20 points last year. Now Mr. Coleman, whose Democratic challenger may well be humorist Al Franken, is a loud and proud backer of Mr. Warner’s anti-surge resolution. But for an Iraq-minded electorate, his conversion may well prove to be too little, too late.

The member of the quartet most likely to survive is Gordon Smith, a dignified Republican from Oregon who was first elected in 1996. Mr. Smith’s personal popularity strengthens his ’08 position somewhat, and his biggest asset is the soul-searching monologue he delivered on the Senate floor in December, when, with evident anguish, he said of the prosecution of the war: “That is absurd. It may even be criminal. I cannot support that anymore.”

But what should alarm Republicans is that this group merely represents the most obvious Senate targets for Democrats. Retirements—Wayne Allard in Colorado has already announced his, and Pete Domenici in New Mexico and Mr. Warner in Virginia may do the same—will create new targets for an anti-Iraq message.

And, as the most recent Senate and House elections affirmed, a strong national electoral tide can dislodge incumbents who were thought to be invulnerable. The longer the war drags on, the more likely it is that the 2008 election will look a lot like the one before it.