Donald Lambro

WASHINGTON -- The political terrain looked bleaker for Republicans last week when New Mexico Sen. Pete Domenici announced he will retire at the end of next year.

Domenici's decision means there will be at least four open Republican Senate seats up for grabs that will give Democrats more opportunities to expand their thin 51 to 49 majority.

The senator, who has struggled with health problems in recent years, will join GOP Sens. John Warner of Virginia, Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Wayne Allard of Colorado on the sidelines. With several other Republican incumbents in jeopardy in Minnesota, Maine and Oregon, Democrats are looking at a possible net gain of anywhere from two to four seats next year.

The not unexpected departure of the 75-year-old Domenici, one of the party's old bulls (serving his sixth term), only added to the gloomy aura surrounding the GOP's formidable problems as it faced a trouble-plagued campaign year that could restore the Democrats to power in the White House and strengthen their hold on Congress.

In addition to the GOP retirements in the Senate, a growing number of Republicans have announced they are leaving the House, including Reps. Jim Ramstad of Minnesota, Ray LaHood and Dennis Hastert of Illinois, Deborah Pryce of Ohio, Chip Pickering of Mississippi and Rick Renzi of Arizona. At this stage of the game, the likelihood is that the Democrats will pick up some seats in the House.

All of this points to the Republican Party's deteriorating political health, and less than three months before the start of the 2008 election cycle, the GOP's brand is in serious decline.

One significant measurement of that decline can be seen in the contest for money.

In the fund-raising race for the presidency, the Democratic front-runners have been easily out-raising the Republicans by tens of millions of dollars this year. No GOP front-runner has raised as much as the two Democratic leaders, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

In Congress, the Democratic congressional and senatorial campaign committees have also been out-raising their Republican counterparts by substantial sums. The party's campaign hierarchy seems to be in disarray as well. Florida Sen. Mel Martinez, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, is a figurehead leader who, understandably, is far more focused on his chief responsibilities as Florida's senator than plotting the GOP's 2008 campaign message.

Over at the White House, with President Bush's campaign maestro, Karl Rove, out of the picture, there is a huge campaign-strategy vacuum in the GOP's high command. "No one is looking at the big picture over there," a party official told me.

Then there is growing angst among the GOP's conservative activists and policy strategists who see their party adrift on key domestic issues that they fear will work in the Democrats favor next year -- like health care.

As Bush prepared Friday to veto the Democrats' $35 billion expansion of the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), a group of policy analysts from the conservative Heritage Foundation were meeting with GOP officials on Capitol Hill, pleading with them to change tactics.

The SCHIP expansion would grow the number of middle-class kids who would be eligible for health insurance when millions of poorer kids still go uncovered. "Indeed, even as the Census Bureau was reporting that 5.7 million SCHIP-eligible children remain uninsured, liberal governors and their Capitol Hill allies were pressing to make SCHIP coverage available to children in middle-class homes, the vast majority of whom already are covered under their private plans," says Michael Franc, vice president of government relations at the Heritage Foundation.

But that argument was all but lost in the smoke and fire of last week's political battle, as Democrats flogged Republicans for turning their backs on sick children without insurance coverage. Sen. Clinton charged that Bush had launched "a sneak attack on America's children."

What Republicans needed was a clear, more appealing alternative to the plan they opposed. "You can't beat something with nothing," Heritage officials argued in the closed-door congressional meeting.

"Conservative lawmakers should rally around an alternative that enables the working poor to own their own coverage and not depend on the inferior coverage that comes with programs such as SCHIP," Franc said in a strategy critique circulated on Capitol Hill.

But Republicans apparently had not thought through the health-care fight they triggered in such strategically political terms. The Democrats did, and they appear to have the high ground in the debate, while Republicans are made to look anti-children.

"Democrats are going to pound Republicans on this in the campaign," a disgusted Heritage official told me. "Sometimes, I think (Republicans) deserve to lose." Successful legislative battles are the result of good policymaking and sophisticated political calculation. In the fight over SCHIP, the Republicans have neither.

Is it any wonder that Republicans ended last week feeling so gloomy about their prospects in the coming year?


Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.