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    Democrats Feel the Senate Is Within Reach

    By Ken Rudin
    Special to
    Friday, Sept. 24, 1999

    Question: Republican senators are already facing tough reelection battles in Washington, Missouri, Minnesota, Michigan and Pennsylvania. Shouldn't this fact, combined with a strong challenge in Delaware and vulnerable open seats in Rhode Island and Florida, give Democrats reason to believe they can regain the majority in the Senate in 2000?
    – Brian DiSarro, Ellington, Conn.

    Answer: It does. Democrats are confident they can topple GOP incumbents Slade Gorton (Wash.), John Ashcroft (Mo.), Rod Grams (Minn.), Spencer Abraham (Mich.) and Rick Santorum (Pa.). Delaware Gov. Tom Carper (D) further boosted their optimism this week, announcing that he is all but certain to take on 78-year-old Sen. Bill Roth. The popular Carper, 52, is barred by state law from seeking a third term next year, and the race may very well come down to the age issue. And the numbers in Rhode Island and Florida, where Republicans John Chafee and Connie Mack, respectively, are retiring, look encouraging for the Dems. Democrats need a net gain of five to take control; the GOP currently holds 19 of the 33 seats at stake.

    But Republicans say such optimism is premature. The leading Democratic hopeful in Washington, Insurance Commissioner Deborah Senn, is not exactly the most popular person in her party. The likely Democratic nominee in Missouri, Gov. Mel Carnahan, is taking a beating over abortion by his fellow Dems. And Minnesota and Pennsylvania may hold fractious Democratic primaries that could hurt the nominees in the fall.

    Plus, Republicans are confident they will knock off Chuck Robb in Virginia and pick up open seats in Nevada and New York. And they insist that the decision by New Jersey Gov. Christie Whitman to opt out of the Senate race there will not kill their chances.

    This will all be revised, of course, once the presidential race shapes up. Voters do make independent judgments. But right now, one would be hard-pressed to envision Al Gore triumphantly carrying in a majority-Dem Congress on his shoulders. Still, here's an early prediction: Democrats will end up with net gain of three seats – two if Rudy Giuliani can beat Hillary Rodham Steinbrenner in New York.

    Question: Now that Gov. Whitman has decided not to run for the Senate in New Jersey, who are the likely candidates and what are their chances? Do you think Steve Forbes, a Garden State resident, will abandon his presidential campaign and run for the Senate?
    – Earl W. Williams, Elm Springs, Ark.

    If Steve Forbes ran in N.J., he would follow in the footsteps of his dad Malcolm, the unsuccessful GOP gubernatorial nominee in 1957. (Collection of Ken Rudin)

    Answer: Whitman was seen as the Republicans' best hope to pick up a Senate seat in a state where the GOP has lost eight Senate races in a row. It took a while for the party faithful to recover from the shock, though many now insist the governor was never the lock the media made her out to be.

    The Republican field is still in flux, but thus far Rep. Bob Franks, a moderate from central New Jersey, and Essex County Executive Jim Treffinger, a conservative who has won twice in a heavily Democratic area, are in. Both are capable candidates, but they are hardly known statewide. Murray Sabrin, the 1997 Libertarian gubernatorial nominee, has been running for months, and right-wing radio talk show host Bob Grant has hinted about running as a third-party candidate. But both predicated their candidacies on conservative opposition to Whitman, and now she's no longer a factor. Other Republicans are said to be seriously contemplating running, but some, including former governor Tom Kean, may be nothing more than GOP wish-list candidates.

    As for Forbes switching to a Senate bid, it appears inconceivable. The same rumors surfaced in 1996, when he was urged to leave the GOP presidential field and run for the Senate seat being vacated by Bill Bradley (D). Forbes seems far better prepared for a White House run this time, though it would be fun to see him throw his wallet into the ring against Jon Corzine, the Democratic hopeful thought to be worth about $300 million. Other Dems in the race include former governor Jim Florio and ex-state party chairman Thomas Byrne.

    Question: Shifting the focus for a minute from the East Coast to the Midwest, have you heard anything about possible Republican challengers to Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.)? I realize that his financing poses a major obstacle to anyone, Democrat or Republican, to run against one of the most popular statewide politicians in Wisconsin. However, I find it hard to believe that as close as Mark Neumann came to beating Sen. Russ Feingold last year, the Republicans would pass up the chance to try and beat Kohl.
    – Matt Lenburg, Madison, Wis.

    Answer: There's a big difference between taking on Feingold, who took a risk and barred the use of outside money in his 1998 reelection contest, and Kohl, who spent nearly $8 million of his own money on his first Senate race in 1988 and $6 million more in his 1994 reelection bid. Many Republicans felt their best bet to topple Kohl was Gov. Tommy Thompson, who remains popular after more than 12 years in office. But even Thompson, who decided against running for the Senate, would have had a hard time winning. The Republican preparing to run is Robert Dodds, the Manitowoc County party vice chair, who has no chance.

    Question: What party would be in the majority if both the Republicans and Democrats had 50 Senate seats? Would Trent Lott or Tom Daschle be majority leader if the Democrats have a net gain of five seats in 2000?
    – Sven Erik Olsen, Minneapolis, Minn.

    With Taft's death in 1953, the GOP lost its numerical edge in the Senate but retained control. (Collection of Ken Rudin)

    Answer: The Constitution states that the vice president serves as the president of the Senate and can break votes in case of a tie. If the Senate is deadlocked at 50-50 after the 2000 elections, the party of the vice president will determine the majority party.

    The closest I can remember the Senate coming to such a point was right after the 1952 elections. The Eisenhower landslide handed both houses of Congress to the Republicans. But in the Senate, they held the narrowest of margins. The GOP had a net gain of just two seats – but it was enough to give them control, 48-47, with one independent (Oregonís Wayne Morse, who defected from the GOP in '52).

    Then, on July 31, 1953, Senate Majority Leader Robert A. Taft of Ohio died of cancer. The Democratic governor appointed a Democrat, Cleveland Mayor Thomas Burke, to succeed Taft, widely known as "Mr. Republican." Numerically at least, this should have given control of the Senate to the Dems – considering the Burke appointment gave them a 48 to 47 plurality. However, neither Burke nor the Senate Democrats argued that the change in the Ohio meant switching control away from the GOP. And even if they had pushed that argument, Independent Sen. Morse said he would vote with the Republicans to organize the Senate. (That would have knotted up the Senate in a 48-48 split, giving the tie-breaking vote to Republican Vice President Richard Nixon.)

    There's more to the tale. Less than one year later, on June 19, 1954, Wyoming Democrat Lester Hunt committed suicide, and the GOP governor named a Republican to succeed him. With that transition, the Republicans regained a Senate plurality. Then the Republicans picked up another seat in Nevada, after Democrat Pat McCarran died and the GOP governor named a Republican in his stead. That gave the GOP a 49-46 advantage, which they held going into the 1954 elections.

    But their control did not last long. Democrats picked up two seats that year, winning back the Senate by a 48-47 margin. And in February of 1955, Oregon's Morse officially became a Democrat, further solidifying their power. Republicans would not regain control until the 1980 elections.

    Got a question? Ask Ken Rudin:

    Ken Rudin, political editor at National Public Radio, is also the creator of's ScuttleButton contest.

    © Copyright 1999 Ken Rudin

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