Will the Democrats, in the next election, regain control of the U.S. Senate?
For the third and (guaranteed) last time since Ronald Reagan's smashing 1980 landslide gave Republicans a Senate majority, that question is being posed.
In the 1982 and 1984 elections, the GOP retained Senate control. And if the Democrats cannot win the Senate in 1986, a year when they will be able to attack 22 Republican seats while having only 12 seats of their own to defend, then the matter will have been settled: absent either self-inflicted scandal or economic cataclysm, the Republicans will be assumed to have a natural majority in the Senate.
Without reasonable expectation of again controlling the Senate, many Democratic members whose terms expire in 1988 would almost certainly follow the 1986 example of colleagues Russell Long and Thomas Eagleton and retire.
But because 1986 is a nonpresidential election year, the Democrats do have a realistic chance of winning the Senate.
Democrats do better in elections these days when they run "local" rather than national campaigns, emphasizing textiles and trade in South Carolina, the plight of farmers in the Dakotas, something else in Rhode Island and Social Security everywhere.
With no presidential candidates to establish the rhetorical landscape, off-year Senate races are usually decided by the individual talents and energies of the candidates. Democrats, in part because they have been the pro-politics and pro-government party, have a deeper and richer farm system of candidates than the GOP. If Sen. George Mitchell (D-Maine), the chairman of his party's Senate campaign committee, and his colleagues can persuade five Democratic House members to personally risk everything by running for the Senate, then Republican Senate rule could end.
The five House members and the Republican incumbents they would oppose: Rep. Tom Daschle of South Dakota against Sen. James Abdnor; Rep. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota against Sen. Mark Andrews; Rep. Dan Glickman of Kansas against Sen. Bob Dole; Rep. Jim Jones of Oklahoma against Sen. Don Nickles; and Rep. Ron Wyden of Oregon against Sen. Bob Packwood.
In South Dakota, Daschle, a more articulate and aggressive campaigner, is favored over incumbent Abdnor.
In North Dakota, polls give Dorgan a 20- point lead over Andrews, who easily defeats all other challengers.
Off the record, Republicans frankly acknowledge Oklahoma's first-term Sen. Nickles is neither the intellectual nor political equal of Jones.
In Kansas, where voter pride in Dole's national prominence is offset by anger at administration policies, Glickman has run safely ahead of Ronald Reagan in his Republican district.
In squeaky-clean Oregon, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Bob Packwood -- with strong support from organized labor, the Jewish community, the insurance industry, and feminists, to name just a few -- has compiled a campaign war chest that could turn out to be a political liability. Wyden, an innovative legislator, could be expected to question whether Packwood in pursuit of interest- group endorsements had subcontracted his independence. One Democratic strategist sees the Republican's special-interest support being used "to Mondale-ize Packwood."
All five of these House members have run and won in the teeth of two Reagan landslides. They have successfully rebutted Republican criticism that they are big-spending, big-government, soft on defense and culturally permissive. For each, running would mean surrendering majority status and influence in the House for, at best, possible minority status and minimal influence in a legislative body where, as one respected Republican puts it, "the voluntary conventions of civility have been repealed."
Through judicious mention of the possibility of a fascinating federal appointment if a Senate campaign doesn't turn out right, the party in control of the White House can sometimes convince a reluctant dragon-slayer to run. That's just one more tool unavailable to the Democrats. But if they can get the House Five to run in 1986, the Democrats have a real chance to win the Senate.