By Jonathan Weisman and Chris Cillizza
Washington Post Staff Writer and washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Sunday, September 2, 2007
A Senate electoral playing field that was already wide open for 2008 has become considerably more perilous for Republicans with the retirement of Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.) and the resignation of scandal-scarred Sen. Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho).
Republicans need a net gain of just one seat to take back control of the Senate, but they have 22 seats to defend, and campaign cash is conspicuously lacking. Warner's retirement raised to two the number of open Republican seats, and both of them -- in Virginia and Colorado -- are prime targets for Democrats.
With former Democratic senator Bob Kerrey possibly waiting in the wings, Republicans are anxiously watching to see whether Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) will retire. And two more Republican seats open for reelection -- in Wyoming and Idaho -- would be occupied by unelected appointees, John Barrasso and Craig's replacement.
"The state of the playing field looks very good, even in places where we didn't expect it to look good, even in deeply red states," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. "Things could change, but if you did a snapshot, we're going to have a good year."
"It's always darkest right before you get clobbered over the head with a pipe wrench. But then it actually does get darker," said a GOP pollster who insisted on anonymity in order to speak candidly.
To be sure, last week's events will not necessarily change the terrain that much, if the Republicans get a little lucky.
Former congressman Larry LaRocco, the Democrat campaigning hard for the Idaho senatorial seat, garnered just 40 percent of the vote last year against Republican James E. Risch in the race to be Idaho's lieutenant governor. Now, according to congressional Republican aides, Idaho Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter (R) is leaning toward naming Risch to succeed Craig. A Risch-LaRocco battle next year would be a rematch for a different prize. Democrats hope that the pall of Craig's resignation would sully all Republicans, but analysts are skeptical.
"We're not worried about that state," said Rebecca Fisher, spokeswoman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. "I don't think that expands anything for us."
Virginia would be a very different story -- if Schumer can coax former governor Mark R. Warner (D) into the race. Most analysts, even Republicans, believe that Warner would enter the contest as a strong favorite. The Republican field could turn fratricidal if Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, a moderate whose political base is in the suburbs of Washington, goes up against former governor James S. Gilmore III, a confrontational conservative.
The conservative Club for Growth, a free-spending political action committee unafraid to take sides in Republican primary fights, sent out a warning shot in a news release on Friday, declaring: "Virginia Republicans should take a long look at Davis' thirteen-year record as one of more economically liberal members of the Republican Conference."
But congressional aides close to Warner say the popular former governor is still deeply torn between a Senate bid and holding out for a possible vice presidential nomination, a Cabinet post in a Democratic administration or another run for governor. As recently as Thursday night, he had not tipped his hand to confidants. And without Warner, there is no obvious Democratic contender.
Beyond Idaho and Virginia, the playing field looks barren for Republicans, GOP campaign aides conceded. Fundraising at the NRSC has been weak, and Republicans appear to have only two real Democratic targets next year, Sens. Mary Landrieu (La.) and Tim Johnson (S.D.). Johnson's slow recovery from a brain hemorrhage has impeded Republicans from going on the attack.
The nonpartisan Cook Political Report on Wednesday rated the Colorado seat being vacated by Sen. Wayne Allard (R) as a tossup, but the state has been trending Democratic. Antiwar sentiments are turning some voters away from the GOP, imperiling the reelection prospects of Sens. Susan Collins (Maine), John E. Sununu (N.H.), Norm Coleman (Minn.) and Gordon Smith (Ore.).
The Craig scandal is only the latest issue to demoralize the Republican Party, and new wild cards keep springing up, such as an FBI raid on a home of Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and questions about the role that Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) may have played in the firing of U.S. Attorney David C. Iglesias in Albuquerque. Democratic surrogates in labor-backed groups such as Americans United for Change have even been attacking Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) in Kentucky.
The Cook Report considers those three seats and the Idaho seat "likely Republican," but if the GOP is forced to spend any money defending them, it would be siphoning funds from races where the money would be badly needed. As of June 30, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee had $20.4 million on hand, while the National Republican Senatorial Committee had $5.8 million in its bank account.
"If Republicans are investing significant money in Idaho, that means they are losing at least five seats in 2008," said Nathan L. Gonzales, political editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report. "If Idaho ends up the fire wall, they are in deep trouble."
Fisher conceded that fundraising has been difficult in the current political climate, but she said the race for cash is picking up. And she predicted that if Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) secures the Democratic presidential nomination, Republicans will come to the polls in droves.
Schumer called that "grasping at straws," noting that when similar predictions about Clinton were made in her Senate races in New York, they proved to be untrue.
Republican campaign operatives are privately fretting about a political environment that could remain deadly for their party.
"About the only safe Republican Senate seats in '08 are the ones that aren't on the ballot," a GOP operative with extensive experience in Senate races said. "I don't see even the rosiest scenario where we don't end up losing more seats."