WASHINGTON – “No Checks. No Balances. No Stopping Them.”
That’s the new Action Alert from the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee – and a sign that some Republicans are now openly conceding the White House, but scrambling to keep a firewall on Capitol Hill.
That Democrats will roar into the 111th Congress with a majority is now conventional wisdom in Washington. The question is how much of a majority – and will it reach the 60-vote threshold needed to break a filibuster?
In the last days of the 2008 race, those 60 votes are looming large in races from Maine to Oregon, and nowhere more apparently than in North Carolina, once viewed as a safe seat for Senate Republicans.
Democratic state Sen. Kay Hagan wasn’t the national party’s first choice to challenge Elizabeth Dole, a former GOP presidential candidate and two-time cabinet secretary.
A former “working mom” (banker), Ms. Hagan wasn’t even that well known in North Carolina, where she spent 10 years in the state Senate, including co-chairing the budget committee.
But Hagan is now taking Democrats within range of the 60 votes they need for a filibuster-proof US Senate.
“People are ready for a change,” she said in an interview between events on Day 1 of early voting in North Carolina last week.
“People are worried about jobs, the economy, and desperate for someone they can trust with the issues,” she says. “And Elizabeth Dole was only in the state 13 days in 2006.”
To emphasize the point, Hagan appears on the campaign trail with a pair of red slippers – a reference to the ruby slippers that Dorothy used to get back to Kansas in the movie “The Wizard of Oz.” (Senator Dole’s husband, former US Senate Republican leader and 1996 GOP presidential nominee Robert Dole, is from Kansas.)
To appear out of touch with your state is a misstep that has felled Senate giants in the past, most recently in the stunning upset in 2004 of Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle. But in the current political climate – with a national economic crisis that most voters blame on years of Republican control – it’s an even bigger political liability.
“What made Dole vulnerable in the first place was that she just hasn’t had a strong presence in North Carolina,” says David Rohde, a political scientist at Duke University in Durham, N.C. “She was regarded as an attractive person when she first ran, and that was enough to get her through the first time in a much more hospitable political environment than what we have now.
“But the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee had enormous resources to put into races, including this one, very early,” he adds. “They went on the attack and really shaped the perceptions of Dole in the state. That’s a lot easier to do if the senator doesn’t have a strong presence.”
By contrast, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, once viewed as one of the most vulnerable Republican senators this cycle, appears to have sheltered her campaign from national storms by her relatively independent voting record and closely maintained relations with constituents.
Until recently, political handicappers put Democrats just out of range of 60 seats. But the deepening mortgage and credit crisis is changing that calculus.
If current trends hold, Democrats are on track to win Senate seats in Virginia, Alaska, Colorado, New Hampshire, and New Mexico. Four other races – in North Carolina, Oregon, Mississippi, and Minnesota – are in statistical dead heats. And, in recent weeks, Democrats have mounted strong challenges in GOP strongholds in Kentucky and Georgia.
“Democrats are in range of winning seven to nine seats,” says Jennifer Duffy, who analyzes Senate races for the Cook Political Report in Washington.
“From the beginning, Democrats had a lot of cookie-cutter messages, such as the ‘Bush-Dole’ economy, but the message got a lot more powerful when the markets started to go south,” she adds.
In a bid to roll back that wave, Republicans are launching new ads on the dangers of unified government in Washington. In North Carolina, a 30-second ad warns that “These liberals want complete control of government in a time of crisis…. If she wins, they get a blank check.”
While polls in recent campaign cycles signaled that the public did value divided government, it’s not clear that will be a convincing argument in the current political climate.
“There’s probably some sentiment that we want our government checked, but we’ve had a long period of divided government since the 1960s,” says Julian Zelizer, a congressional historian at Princeton University in Princeton, N.J. “More urgent is the idea of change and responding to the economic crisis, which doesn’t lend itself to divided government. That leads to gridlock in the minds of the public.”
“I don’t hear Americans saying, make sure you have balanced government, although they might believe that,” says Sen. Charles Schumer (D) of New York, who chairs the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “They say, get something done to help me and stop the partisan gridlock.”
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