When the Iraq war again took center stage in the Senate two Mondays ago, the maneuverings of four Republican Senators were particularly fascinating.
John Sununu, Susan Collins, Norm Coleman and Gordon Smith all face re-election next year in states that voted for John Kerry in 2004. Needless to say, they are all high on the target list of national Democrats.
Only two of them – Maine’s Collins and Oregon’s Smith – ended up supporting the Levin-Reed amendment on Wednesday, which would have compelled President Bush to begin a rollback of U.S. forces within four months and to redefine the U.S. mission in Iraq. Mr. Sununu and Mr. Coleman, meanwhile, stuck with their Republican colleagues (and Joe Lieberman) in derailing the amendment with a filibuster threat – effectively killing the prospect of any course change in Iraq until at least this September.
Until and unless Republicans in Congress decide to join with Democrats in forcing Mr. Bush’s hand (since the President has made clear he won’t significantly change course on his own), the issue of Iraq threatens to dominate the ’08 political landscape even more than it did last year, when Democrats seized control of the House and Senate. The peril for Republicans at all levels of the ballot – and particularly in blue states – is obvious.
Here, then, is a look at the most endangered quartet of Republican Senators handled the politics of Iraq these past two weeks, and their early prospects for re-election:
John Sununu (New Hampshire)
Last weekend, just days before Mr. Sununu teamed up with his fellow Republicans to derail Levin-Reed, a poll was released with a double-dose of bad news for the first-term incumbent. While he holds double-digit leads against the three announced Democratic candidates, Mr. Sununu fails to break the 50 percent mark against all of them. What’s worse, he trails former Governor Jeanne Shaheen, who will decide this fall whether to enter the race, by a staggering 22 points. So not only are the numbers discouraging for Mr. Sununu; the disparity between Ms. Shaheen’s performance and the other Democrats only makes it more likely that (a) she will run; and (b) that she’ll enjoy a clear Democratic field and will be able to focus her attacks on Mr. Sununu from Day One.
This makes his unwillingness to break from the White House in a meaningful way on Iraq all the more notable.
He was one of seven Republicans last week to support another Iraq measure that was killed by a filibuster – Jim Webb’s proposal to mandate that troops receive as much time off as they spend in combat. He also pushed through a change to legislation that increased the reward for the capture of Osama bin Laden to $50 million, inserting language that would provide the money to anyone who kills bin Laden. But on the marquee vote of the past two weeks, the only one that would have tamped down the volume on Iraq heading into ’08, he stayed loyal to the White House and opposed Levin-Reed.
To survive in New Hampshire next year, Mr. Sununu cannot afford such tentative half-steps. Disgust with the war triggered a seismic realignment in the Granite State last year, finally bringing it into line with the Democratic tendencies of every other Northeast state. Both of the state’s Republican congressmen lost their seats because of the war last year. In opposing any measure that would hasten the end of the war, Mr. Sununu digs a deeper ’08 hole for himself.
The Senate is likely to reconsider Iraq in September. More of the same from Mr. Sununu could provide the perfect pretext for a Shaheen entry.
Susan Collins (Maine)
In political terms, Ms. Collins went two-for-two on the high-profile Iraq votes of the last two weeks, supporting both the Webb-authored “time-off” amendment and – rather late in the game – lining up behind the Levin-Reid plan. That brings her more in line with public opinion in Maine, which she has represented since 1996. But she’s hardly a safe bet for re-election next year.
One problem from her is that throughout her two terms, she’s largely toiled in the shadow of the state’s other Republican Senator, Olympia J. Snowe, who projects a savvy and sophistication missing from Collins’ public style. And Ms. Snowe, compared to Ms. Collins, has been out front on Iraq, both in her public statements and in how she timed her announced support for Levin-Reed. Indeed, as the amendment headed for a vote this past Wednesday, the photograph that made national papers – and, presumably, those in Maine – showed Ms. Snowe (and not Ms. Collins) huddling with some of the chief backers of Levin-Reed (Democrats Carl Levin, Jack Reed, John Kerry and Republican Gordon Smith). In other words, Mainers saw Ms. Snowe acting as a leader on Iraq, and Ms. Collins more as a follower – only reinforcing what was already her general reputation.
And that reputation is particularly problematic now that Ms. Collins has drawn a top-shelf Democratic challenger, Congressman Tom Allen, who represents the more southern of the state’s two districts. Mr. Allen’s anti-war credentials are impeccable and he’s already amassed a $1.7 million war chest. The more the ’08 landscape is defined by Iraq, the better his opportunity will be to present himself as a more forceful and reliable alternative to Ms. Collins on the war – and on questions of leadership in general.
Ms. Collins, more than Mr. Sununu, seems to understand the politics of Iraq – but whether that will be enough to save her is a decidedly iffy proposition.
Norm Coleman (Minnesota)
Minnesota sided with John Kerry by just three points over Bush in 2004, but the toll the war has taken on the state’s Republicans only became clear last fall, when Democrat Amy Klobuchar beat an otherwise strong GOP nominee, then-Congressman Mark Kennedy, by 20 points for an open U.S. Senate seat.
Mr. Coleman, who seemed headed for defeat when he first ran in 2002 until Democratic Senator Paul Wellstone perished in a plane crash two weeks before the election, still has a ways to go to catch up with his home state’s electorate on the war. Like Mr. Sununu, he backed the lower-profile “time-off” amendment last week but sided against Levin-Reed and dismissed the Democrats’ all-night push for its enactment as “a political stunt.”
Mr. Coleman justified his opposition thusly: “While I believe we must seek an appropriate mission change in Iraq, we must not simply redeploy out of Iraq with the same failure of planning that we had going in, which is exactly what the Reed-Levin amendment I opposed today would have done.”
Mr. Coleman evidently shares the hope of many of his fellow Republicans that President Bush will, sooner rather than later, do they heavy-lifting that they refuse to do and to begin bringing troops home in significant numbers well before Election Day ’08. Short of that, though, Mr. Coleman probably needs to go further on his own – either to bring the rest of his party around, or to position himself (in the eyes of his anti-war constituents) as a maverick voice on the war within the GOP.
His political standing is precarious, but perhaps not as dire as that of Mr. Sununu or Ms. Collins. One reason is that he is a more confident and polished public performer, a more television-friendly presence than his colleagues from New Hampshire and Maine. More important, though, is that Democrats in Minnesota may well nominate as Mr. Coleman’s opponent Al Franken, whose past pronouncements and friendships with the “Hollywood” elite could make him a somewhat polarizing presence. At least in theory, that could help Mr. Coleman distract some of the public’s attention from Iraq, particularly if he takes more steps to distance himself from the war over the next few months.
Gordon Smith (Oregon)
Not as vulnerable as the others
Mr. Smith, since he took to the Senate floor last December and said the conduct of the war “may even be criminal,” has done about all he can to right himself with Oregon’s electorate. He voted for the “time off” and Levin-Reed amendments, and months ago was one of only two Republicans (Chuck Hagel was the other) to support the idea of a redeployment timetable. His split with the White House and GOP leaders on Iraq is complete and total, both in his rhetoric and in his floor votes.
Still, a SurveyUSA poll in June gave him only a 47-45 approval rating, shaky ground for an incumbent. And surely he doesn’t need to be reminded of the example of Lincoln Chafee, the Rhode Island Republican who was as isolated from the GOP on Iraq as Smith is now, but who nonetheless was swept out of office – merely because of his party label. For all of his bridge-building to his state’s anti-war masses, Mr. Smith remains potentially vulnerable.
What may save him, though, is that Democrats have failed to recruit a brand-name challenger into the race. The state’s popular former Governor, John Kitzhaber, and several sitting Congressmen – including Peter DeFazio and Earl Blumenauer – have, one by one, removed themselves from consideration. Chafee, by contrast, faced an opponent last year, Sheldon Whitehouse, who had previously won statewide office and who came from one of tight-knit Rhode Island’s five founding families. It seems doubtful that Mr. Smith’s ’08 foe will enjoy that kind of broad familiarity with the public.
Of the four blue state Republicans up in ’08, he is easily the best-positioned to return to Washington in January 2009.