Ensign, Republicans, Struggle to Find Good Signs for 2008

090307 kornacki web Ensign, Republicans, Struggle to Find Good Signs for 2008Senator John Ensign, the Nevada Republican who is heading up his party’s effort to win back the Senate in 2008, doesn’t have a lot to work with—and it showed on Sunday. Mr. Ensign, whose party must defend 22 of the 34 seats on next year’s ballot, squared off with his Democratic counterpart, New York’s Chuck Schumer, on ABC’s This Week. For Republicans, the contrast was demoralizing.

Mr. Schumer, whose campaign committee is already dramatically out-raising Mr. Ensign’s, described incumbents solidly positioned for re-election, four supremely vulnerable G.O.P. incumbents from states that sided with John Kerry in 2004, and a handful of unexpected pick-up opportunities in “deeply red states,” while Mr. Ensign’s effort at projecting optimism rested on mentioning the displacement caused by Hurricane Katrina and the public’s supposed mass rejection of the Democratic Congress.

The Katrina admission, as the country solemnly acknowledges the two-year anniversary of the tragedy, probably qualifies as a gaffe. It is true that Republicans have a solid chance of unseating Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu in 2008, due largely to the loss of so many reliably Democratic voters caused by the Katrina diaspora. But no Republican leader is supposed to acknowledge this.

And yet, when asked by host George Stephanopoulos if the G.O.P. can defeat any of the 12 Democratic incumbents next year, Mr. Ensign replied that, “I think that definitely down in Louisiana we have a good shot at beating Mary Landrieu—a lot of changes going on down in Louisiana.” The “changes” could only allude to the state’s changed racial make-up, the effect of which has yet to be tested in a statewide election.

Mr. Ensign did not single out any other vulnerable Democrats—a contrast to Mr. Schumer, who talked up multiple pick-up opportunities for his party. He may have chosen not to talk about South Dakota’s Tim Johnson, only now re-emerging from his months-long rehabilitation after a December cerebral hemorrhage, is theoretically vulnerable, given his state’s partisan tendencies. (Although so far, the biggest-name Republicans in the state have declined to challenge him.)

But Mr. Ensign’s response illustrated a broader point: Outside of Ms. Landrieu and (potentially) Mr. Johnson, there really are no prime pick-up opportunities for Republicans next year. The closest they can probably find are in Iowa and New Jersey, where a pair of veteran Democrats (Tom Harkin and Frank Lautenberg, respectively) have not quite lit the world on fire in their previous campaigns, typically winning by high single-digit margins. But Mr. Harkin and Mr. Lautenberg have significant factors working in their favor. Mr. Lautenberg represents a blue state that last sent a Republican to the Senate in 1972 and that the national G.O.P., even when it makes some early noise, almost always decides the state is too expensive to contest. Mr. Harkin represents the quintessential purple state, but he has proven that he can win when the national tide is with his party (as in 1996) and against it (like in 1984 and 2002). And the signs now point to a strong Democratic year in 2008.

Contrast the caliber of those opportunities to what Mr. Schumer and the Democrats have before them. In New Hampshire, Maine, Minnesota, and Oregon, Republican incumbents face electorates that sided against President Bush in 2004. Seven years into the Bush presidency, the condition of the national Republican brand in these states is dire. Consider New Hampshire, where Republican John Sununu won a four-point victory over Democrat Jeanne Shaheen to claim his seat in 2002. Ms. Shaheen is now considering a rematch—and polls show her leading by more than 20 points.

And then there are the unexpected red-state opportunities Mr. Schumer alluded to on Sunday. One is in Nebraska, one of the most conservative states in the union. But Republican Chuck Hagel now seems certain to retire, and Democrat Bob Kerrey, the popular former Governor and two-term Senator, is poised to run for his seat. Kerrey, a Vietnam hero who has never lost an election in the state, would presumably face state Attorney General Jon Bruning, who had been planning to challenge Mr. Hagel in the G.O.P. primary (on the grounds that Mr. Hagel’s critiques of the Iraq war make him disloyal to the party). Mr. Kerrey, should he run, could well do so with Mr. Hagel’s endorsement—further inflating his appeal to the state’s normally Republican-leaning independent voters.

Then there are Colorado and Virginia, fast-growing states that twice voted for Mr. Bush but that have emerged as targets for the Democrats at the presidential election. In both states, Republican incumbents are retiring—and Democrats are poised to pounce. Virginia, in particular, could conceivably end up a cakewalk for Democrats if Mark Warner, who left the governorship with popularity approaching 80 percent two years ago, jumps in the race—something that news reports Sunday afternoon suggested was increasingly likely. And that’s not even mentioning Alaska, where a federal investigation of Senator Ted Stevens (and other prominent Republicans) could produce a rare opportunity for Democrats, or New Mexico, where Republican Pete Domenici’s role in the recent U.S. Attorney controversy has tarnished his once-sterling name, making his seat a distant (but not entirely implausible) pick-up target for Democrats.