A Republican Senate for some time

Posted: Nov 25, 2002 12:00 AM
WASHINGTON--In victory, magnanimity. So said Winston Churchill, and after this month's elections, Mitch Bainwol, executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, is so Churchillian that his overflowing magnanimity extends even to Sen. James Jeffords of Vermont. Jeffords' defection from the Republican Party in May 2001 gave the Democrats control of the Senate. ``He gets a supporting actor award, at the very least,'' Bainwol says, because Democratic control allowed the 2002 campaign to be about Democratic obstructionism rather than the economy. Bainwol was Sancho Panza to Tennessee Sen. Bill Frist's Don Quixote in what turned out to be a not-at-all quixotic attempt by Frist, the chairman of the NRSC, to re-establish Republican control of the Senate. Now Bainwol believes that the Democrats may be locked into minority status in the Senate for many years, during which the number of Republican seats is apt to reach the high 50s. If Suzanne Haik Terrell defeats Mary Landrieu, the Democratic incumbent, in Louisiana's Dec. 7 runoff, Republicans will have 52 seats. And Republican ascendancy will, Bainwol thinks, accelerate in 2004. Then Democrats will be defending 19 seats, Republicans only 15--and the political geography will heavily favor the Republicans. Nine of the Republicans seats are in Bush country. Seven are in states he carried by 15 or more points: Alabama, 15 points (Richard Shelby); Kentucky, 15 (Jim Bunning); Kansas, 21 (Sam Brownback); Oklahoma, 22 (Don Nickles); Alaska, 31 (a seat soon to be filled with a replacement for Frank Murkowski, who was elected Alaska's governor on Nov. 5); Utah, 40 (Robert Bennett); Idaho, 40 (Mike Crapo). And Republicans will be defending two other seats in states Bush carried by more than five points: Arizona, 6 (John McCain); Colorado, 8 (Ben Nighthorse Campbell). Furthermore, eight of the 19 seats Democrats will be defending are in Bush country: Arkansas, which Bush carried by 5 points (Blanche Lincoln); Louisiana, 8 (John Breaux); Georgia, 12 (Zell Miller); North Carolina, 13 (John Edwards); Indiana, 16 (Evan Bayh); South Carolina, 16 (Fritz Hollings); South Dakota, 22 (Tom Daschle); North Dakota, 28 (Byron Dorgan). If Hollings, who will be 82 on Election Day 2004, retires, this probably will mean Republicans will gain his seat. And they would be apt to gain another--how long can the anomaly of two Democratic senators from South Dakota continue?--if Daschle retires, either to run for president or (in Bainwol's phrase) ``to become Bob Strauss'' (the former Democratic Party leader who has had an extraordinarily lucrative career as a lawyer-lobbyist since leaving politics). Furthermore, if Hollings or Daschle or any other Democrat from a state in Bush country announces his retirement soon, that could trigger other such decisions by Democrats watching the prospect of majority status recede. Edwards can run simultaneously for president and senator, but he may have a better chance of winning the presidential nomination than of being re-elected in North Carolina. And he might lose both by trying to do both because moving left to appeal to the nominating electorate will make his re-election race even more difficult. This year's elections confirmed the Republicans' conception of their ideal Senate candidates: experienced public officials (e.g. Elizabeth Dole in North Carolina, Jim Talent in Missouri, Norm Coleman in Minnesota) who are so well-defined in the state's mind that they are insulated from Democrats' attempts to define them with negative advertising. Democrats may of necessity have a different ideal candidate. It is telling that the new chairman of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee probably will be New Jersey's freshman Jon Corzine, who spent $63 million of his own money getting elected two years ago. Corzine is the prototype of what the Democrats need--self-financing candidates. Both parties adore such candidates, but, says Bainwol, Democrats especially crave them because of the new campaign finance law for which Democrats were cheerleaders. That law bans ``soft money''--large unregulated contributions to the parties that can be spent for issue ads and other party-building measures. No one knows where the streams of soft money the NRSC and DSCC have raised ($59 million and $96 million respectively for 2002) will flow in 2004. Not all of it--not even most of it--will leave politics. It will re-enter through various groups independent of the national parties. However, the law increases the importance of ``hard dollars'' (regulated contributions to specific campaigns and political committees), and Republicans do better than Democrats at raising them. So the Democrats' selection of Senate candidates will be skewed to the pursuit of the rich. If Bainwol is prescient, he is going to have many occasions for magnanimity.