Senator Lindsey Graham, who has devoted himself to thwarting every push to alter the scale and scope of the U.S. military mission in Iraq, summed up the predicament.
“The Republicans own this war,” Mr. Graham told The New York Times on Wednesday after Senate Republicans killed the last piece of course-change legislation that had any chance of passing. “If it goes bad, the nation loses and the Republican Party loses disproportionately.”
Of course, the G.O.P.’s ownership of the war predates this week. It’s the primary reason the party lost control of Congress last fall, why President Bush is relieved when his approval rating cracks the 30 percent mark, why the Democratic presidential candidates—including Hillary Clinton—lead their potential G.O.P. foes in polls, and why by a nearly 20-point margin voters tell pollsters they’re inclined to back Democratic Congressional candidates next year.
Republicans have owned this war for some time now. The only question this summer was whether they’d divest themselves of it in advance of the ’08 elections, to prevent a wipe-out that might lock them out of power for a decade. When Congress broke for its August recess, the answer seemed a truism. Wavering Republicans Senators were popping up on a daily basis—surely after a month at home, where they’d hear from angry constituents and absorb more sobering news about the grim realities in Iraq, they’d return to Washington and pull the plug.
But they didn’t. And now it is virtually certain that there will be at least 100,000 troops on the ground in Iraq—perhaps many more—at the height of next fall’s campaign. President Bush won’t be on the ballot, but his war will define the political landscape, making it difficult—if not impossible—for Republicans to distance themselves from it and from him.
Perhaps nowhere are Republicans poised to feel the pain more “disproportionately” than in next year’s Senate races. The party now boats 49 votes, or 50 if you count Connecticut’s Joe Lieberman. But Republicans have to defend 22 of the 34 seats on the ballot next year, putting them on the defensive from the beginning. Competing against that math is tough for either party any year. But the twin liabilities of President Bush and a raging Iraq war will dramatically shift the playing field in the Democrats’ favor. The early damage is already done. Because of lowered expectations, Republicans have had trouble raising money and recruiting string candidates, while Democrats have excelled at both. Realistically, the G.O.P. is only eyeing one potential pick-up next year: in Louisiana, where Democrat Mary Landrieu must contend with the changed demographics caused by Hurricane Katrina. (Tim Johnson in red-state South Dakota seems safe, thanks to the warm public attitudes produced by his recovery from a cerebral hemorrhage and the lack of a marquee G.O.P. challenger.)
Meanwhile, Democrats, with the wind at their back, could pick off Republican seats in an unusually high number of states.
Here are the potential scenarios for Democratic victories in eight of them:
Former Governor Jeanne Shaheen, who lost to Mr. Sununu by four points in 2002, finally entered the race last week. She will enjoy a clear Democratic primary field, and polls already have her leading the incumbent—48 to 43 percent in the newest survey. Anger over Iraq produced a political sea change in New Hampshire in 2006. It’s looking like 2008 won’t be much different. Sununu is the most endangered incumbent in the nation.
Because Virginia is considered G.O.P. turf, observers may have some hesitation in stating the following: This race is already over. Mark Warner, the mega-popular former Governor, entered the race last week. An independent poll already has him besting the two probably G.O.P. candidates by obscene margins – 60 to 32 percent over former Governor Jim Gilmore and 62 to 27 percent over Congressman Tom Davis. Here, an analogy can be drawn to 1988, when Charles Robb, like Mr. Warner a personally popular Democrat three years removed from a highly successful term as Governor, sought an open Senate seat and won by 42 points. (And Mr. Robb, unlike Mr. Warner, did not benefit from a favorable national climate for his party.) Mr. Robb’s popularity plummeted after he took office due to personal scandals, but his ’88 campaign was a cakewalk – like Mr. Warner’s will be in 2008.
A poll several weeks ago gave U.S. Rep. Mark Udall a 45 to 40 percent lead over the presumed G.O.P. nominee, former three-term U.S. Rep. Bob Schaffer. Coloradans voted twice for President Bush, but Iraq-induced disgust with the G.O.P. brand was evident in 2006 with lopsided Democratic wins in the gubernatorial race and for an open (then-G.O.P.-held) House seat. Mr. Schaffer lost the Republican primary for U.S. Senate in 2004 and his emergence ’08 emergence typifies the Republicans’ struggles nationally to field A-list candidates. By no means should this race be a blow-out, but Colorado is a prime example of a state where the Iraq-Bush factor figures to tip the scales in the Democrats’ favor.
Norm Coleman is a first-term Republican incumbent and Minnesota, like so many other states, shifted its allegiances dramatically toward the Democrats in 2006. Polls already have Mr. Coleman’s two would-be Democratic foes, Al Franken and attorney Mike Ciresi, running nearly even with him—Mr. Franken trails by five points and Mr. Ciresi by four, with Mr. Coleman registering under 50 percent against both of them. Polls give both Mr. Franken and Mr. Ciresi unusually high unfavorable ratings, although Mr. Franken has improved his standing in recent months and opinion toward the relatively unknown Mr. Ciresi probably hasn’t hardened. Minnesota has the ingredients for a Democratic pick-up, provided the party’s candidate succeeds in making the election a referendum on Mr. Coleman and the national G.O.P.
Oregon is one of four states that voted for John Kerry in 2004 where a Republican Senator is running for re-election next year, and it will probably be the toughest nut for Democrats to crack. This is partly because the Republican incumbent, Gordon Smith, backed away from the Iraq war last December—and has backed up his rhetoric with headline-grabbing votes that have put him at odds with his national party, thus burnishing his image with his home state’s independent voters. It also helps Mr. Smith that Democrats failed to attract a big name challenger and have settled on Jeff Merkley, the state House Speaker, and that a third party candidate—John Frohnmayer, who was fired as the head of the National Endowment for the Arts by the first President Bush in 1992—is running on a pro-impeachment platform that may peel off Democratic votes. Still, Oregon is a blue state that is angry with the war and disillusioned with the national Republican Party. That’s the same recipe that did in another vocally anti-war Republican, Rhode Island’s Lincoln Chafee, last year.
There has been frustratingly little independent polling here. The most recent numbers may be from back in the spring, when Republican Senator Susan Collins enjoyed a 25-point lead over U.S. Rep. Tom Allen, who was just then announcing his bid. But polls around the same time pegged President Bush’s approval rating in Maine at just 20 percent, a figure that surely hasn’t changed much since then. It’s important to note, as well, that Ms. Collins does not cast the same imposing shadow in Maine that her fellow Republican Senator, Olympia Snowe, does. Ms. Collins previously finished a dismal third in a run for Governor, narrowly won her seat in 1996, and won a solid (but not smashing) victory in 2002, fueled in part by favorable national trends for the G.O.P. There’s every reason to expect the Collins-Allen numbers will close dramatically as the campaign heats up.
This is not a competitive race simply because of Iraq—but Iraq could put the Democrats over the top. Former Senator Bob Kerrey, one of the most electable Democrats in Nebraska history, seems poised to run, and he’d be a credible candidate in any year. Republicans are primed for a gruesome primary between state Attorney General Jon Bruning and Mike Johanns, the former Governor who stepped down as President Bush’s Agriculture Secretary this week. Mr. Johanns is probably the stronger fall candidate, but it’s not certain he’ll make it that far. Nebraska’s Republican leanings could make the race close, particularly if the G.O.P. succeeds in painting Mr. Kerrey, who’s spent the last six years in New York, as a carpet-bagger. But Nebraskans have a history of electing Democrats to the Senate—in addition to Mr. Kerrey, they’ve voted for both Ben Nelson and James Exon in the last two decades. If Mr. Kerrey finds himself in a close race, Iraq fatigue could give him the decisive edge.
Like Nebraska, Iraq and President Bush are not why this is a potential Democratic target. But it must be mentioned because Senator Ted Stevens’ home was raided by the F.B.I. and I.R.S. earlier this year, and a massive corruption scandal is threatening to swallow up numerous Alaska Republicans—including the Senator’s politician-son, Ben. Besides former Governor Tony Knowles, the Democrats don’t have any big guns in Alaska, but as Republicans in New Jersey proved in 2002, it doesn’t take a big name to take down a scandal-scarred U.S. Senator. If the scandal metastasizes, the question here may be whether Mr. Stevens, like New Jersey’s Robert Torricelli, will fall on his sword before the election and save a seat for his party.
These are just the most obvious Democratic targets for next year. Kentucky, where Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s popularity has dipped below 50 percent and where 55 percent of voters disapprove of the war, is worth keeping an eye on (albeit a skeptical one). It may also be too soon to declare North Carolina’s Elizabeth Dole and New Mexico’s Pete Domenici completely safe.
Given the turf they have to defend, 2008 was never supposed to be a good year for Senate Republicans. But this week they took one giant step towards a complete meltdown.
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