By Charles Babington and Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, October 22, 2006
Democrats in the past two weeks have significantly improved their chances of taking control of the Senate, according to polls and independent analysts, with the battle now focused intensely on three states in the Midwest and upper South: Missouri, Tennessee and Virginia.
Democratic challengers are in strong positions against GOP incumbents in four states -- Pennsylvania, Montana, Ohio and Rhode Island -- a trend that leaves the party looking for just two more seats to reclaim the majority. The main targets are states where Republicans in recent years have dominated but this year find themselves in hotly competitive races.
Except for a brief period in 2001 and 2002, Republicans have held power in the Senate continuously since the 1994 elections and now hold 55 of 100 seats. Only last year, Senate Democratic Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) said it would take "a miracle" for his party to win control. But the same issues that are leading many pollsters and strategists to predict a Democratic takeover of the House -- including the unpopularity of President Bush and the Iraq war -- have made a turnover in the Senate more plausible.
Democrats are gleeful about the prospect of reversing years-long political trends against them in such places as Montana and Ohio, as well as Southern states such as Tennessee and Virginia. But recent history highlights how difficult it is for Democrats to compete in places where Republicans usually win at the presidential and congressional levels. Two years ago, as Bush was winning reelection, Democrats lost Senate seats in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana and South Dakota.
Analysts say, however, that this year's political environment is much more toxic for the GOP.
"The Democrats are going to gain somewhere between four and seven seats," said Stuart Rothenberg, author of an independent newsletter that tracks campaigns nationwide. Of the battlegrounds of Tennessee, Virginia and Missouri, he said, "They need two of the three, and they have a pretty good chance" of winning them.
In four other states, Republican incumbents -- Conrad Burns (Mont.), Lincoln D. Chafee (R.I.), Mike DeWine (Ohio) and Rick Santorum (Pa.) -- are all running behind in the latest public polls. Assuming that Democrats hold New Jersey, where Sen. Robert Menendez (D) hopes the state's traditional Democratic tilt will carry him past hard-charging Tom Kean Jr. (R), they would need to grab two more Republican-held seats to gain a 51 to 49 edge. (An evenly split Senate would remain under GOP control because Vice President Cheney would break the tie).
In Virginia, Sen. George Allen (R) was cruising toward reelection until he referred to a Democratic worker of Indian descent as "macaca" at a campaign event, clumsily handled revelations of his Jewish heritage and seemingly lost his once-easy touch with Old Dominion voters. Democratic nominee James Webb is not a natural campaigner, Capitol Hill Democratic operatives acknowledge, but he has surged within striking distance of Allen in polls.
With two weeks to go, supporters hope Allen makes no more gaffes and can coax state voters to return to their habit of backing Republicans in federal elections.
"I think Allen has moved into a small but statistically valid lead," said Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), a close student of campaigns. "Allen needs to get his [conservative] base voters out, and he needs to not take another hit." A Virginia ballot initiative to ban same-sex marriage may bring social conservatives to the polls, Davis said, but it will do little for moderate Republicans who also are crucial to Allen's success.
In the race for an open seat in Tennessee, Republicans believe Bob Corker, the former mayor of Chattanooga, has turned his campaign around after replacing his campaign manager and is now more focused and aggressive. Democrats concede that Corker has cut into the lead of Rep. Harold E. Ford Jr. (D) but are counting on Ford's campaign skills to carry him through the final weeks.
Eight-term Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), who lost a 1994 Senate bid and whose father was a Tennessee governor, said he has never seen anything to match the enthusiasm surrounding Ford, an African American from Memphis. A sold-out Oct. 19 prayer breakfast in Nashville that featured Ford "was the most exciting and successful political event I've ever been to in Tennessee," Cooper said.
Strategists see Missouri as perhaps the purest test of whether Republicans can overcome a strong Democratic headwind this year because there are few state-related factors or scandals affecting the contest. Neither Sen. James M. Talent (R) nor the challenger, state auditor Claire McCaskill (D), has been able to gain a clear advantage, and strategists on both sides anticipate a photo finish.
If Talent loses, "it will be because of the environment," one senior GOP strategist said. "If Corker loses [in Tennessee], you can point to some big strategic mistakes."
Until recently, almost no one on Capitol Hill was talking seriously of a possible Democratic Senate takeover, for several reasons. Open seats generally are easier for the opposition party to win, but this year, just one Republican incumbent, Majority Leader Bill Frist (Tenn.), is retiring. Geography is even more challenging. Democrats must win several races in Red America, where through most of Bush's presidency, Republicans have deepened their hold on elective offices, most notably in the South. This year, only two of the seven most vulnerable Republican Senate seats are in states carried by Sen. John F. Kerry in 2004: Rhode Island and Pennsylvania. The others -- Ohio, Montana, Missouri, Tennessee and Virginia -- were Bush states in 2000 and 2004.
"I don't think it was ever a map for taking back the majority," said one Democratic strategist, who declined to be identified in order to provide candid information about the campaigns. "But the very fact of it is, we get closer to winning the majority every single week."
Republicans depend in particular on the South for their Senate majority. They now hold 18 of the 22 Senate seats in the former Confederate states, a 14-seat advantage in that region alone. Republicans remain entrenched in the Deep South, but their advantages in upper South states are less strong, says Merle Black, a political science professor at Emory University and the co-author with his brother Earl Black of a series of books about Southern politics.
"What we see across the Deep South is a lot of Republican strength," he said. "Those upper South states are where Democrats can campaign effectively against Republicans. I wouldn't make them favorites, but if trends break in their favor, they could win both of those seats."
Santorum, seeking a third term, and Burns, trying for a fourth, have been in trouble for months. Chafee, who is such a maverick Republican that he did not support Bush for reelection in 2004, survived a difficult primary, but only with late help from the Republican National Committee and the National Republican Senatorial Committee. He now trails former state attorney general Sheldon Whitehouse (D) in a state that is overwhelmingly Democratic and strongly anti-Bush. His biggest hope lies in the unusually large number of undecided voters in a state where the Chafee name is well-regarded, said Jennifer Duffy, who tracks Senate races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
DeWine always expected a tough reelection race because of the sour national mood and scandals in Ohio that have left Gov. Bob Taft (R) with an approval rating barely in double digits and Rep. Robert W. Ney (R) on his way to prison for his involvement in the scandal involving lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Ohio voters appear ready to take out their anger on the party that has controlled state politics since the early 1990s.
But DeWine's race has turned from a toss-up to one favoring his rival, Rep. Sherrod Brown, in a matter of weeks. Recent polls show Brown leading by seven to 14 percentage points. Republicans blame the Mark Foley scandal.
"The Foley thing had a more corrosive effect there than in other places," said one pessimistic GOP strategist. "Voters were softened to scandal."