Friday, March 7, 2008

Senate Democrats Hope for a Majority Not Seen in 30 Years: 60 Seats

Senate Democrats Hope for a Majority Not Seen in 30 Years: 60 Seats

By David M. Herszenhorn

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Washington - When Mark Begich, the popular 45-year-old mayor of Anchorage, came to town for a meeting of mayors in January, he was beckoned to the Capitol by the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid of Nevada. There was one agenda item: ousting Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska, the senior Republican in Congress.

For 45 minutes, Mr. Reid and Senator Charles E. Schumer of New York, the head of the Democrats' campaign efforts, pressed the mayor to run this year. Last week, they got him. Mr. Begich announced that he had formed a committee to start raising money. Effectively, the race is on.

For Democrats hoping the November elections set off a seismic shift in Washington, the dream scenario is not just capturing the White House, but also winning a filibuster-proof majority of 60 seats in the Senate - a luxury no president has enjoyed since Jimmy Carter 30 years ago.

As far-fetched as that might seem - Democrats now control the Senate by a razor-thin 51 to 49, thanks only to two independents who vote with them - some Democrats have started thinking aloud that such a scenario is within reach.

From the Northeast to the Southwest, the Democrats have such a strong hand in this year's Senate contests that they sense the possibility of victories in unlikely states like Oklahoma and Mississippi, and now even Alaska, which last elected a Democratic senator in 1974.

"It's a remote possibility, but it is within the realm of plausible," said Paul Starr, a public affairs professor at Princeton University and a liberal commentator.

Numbers help tell the story. Republicans have 23 seats to defend, including five left vacant by retiring incumbents, while the Democrats have just 12, with a competitive race expected only in Louisiana. Even there, the incumbent, Mary L. Landrieu, is still a heavy favorite.

The presidential race, too, seems to cut in the Democrats' favor. In many states, there has been record voter turnout in the primaries, but far more for the Democrats. About 28.5 million people have voted in Democratic primaries so far, compared with more than 17.3 million in Republican races, said Curtis Gans, director of the Center for the Study of the American Electorate at American University.

Senator Barack Obama of Illinois, in particular, has shown the capacity to ignite turnout among younger voters and blacks, and Democratic strategists believe he could have longer coattails than Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York in states like Minnesota and Oregon, where Democrats hope to gain seats held by Republicans.

On the Republican side, the need of Senator John McCain, the party's candidate, to run as a centrist may undermine his ability to help Congressional candidates.

Democrats are dominating the money race as well. Campaign finance data released in late February showed the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee with more than $30 million, compared with about $13 million for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

And though it is unlikely that Democrats will pick up nine seats this year, according to any reading of the political map it remains a possibility - as tantalizing a thought for Democrats as it is horrifying to Republicans.

Democrats have repeatedly sought to get 60 votes to advance legislation only to be blocked by Republicans. On Thursday, Senate Democratic leaders complained that Republicans had engaged in a record number of filibusters. Republicans accused Democrats of exaggerating the numbers and of inviting filibusters by pursuing legislation the Republicans said was partisan.

So far, no Democratic incumbents are so vulnerable that their re-election campaigns are rated as clearly up for grabs.

"I don't remember a time when I had a ratings chart that I am looking at now, where one party didn't have any races in 'toss-up' at all," said Jennifer E. Duffy, who analyzes Senate races for the Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan publication. "When have you had a cycle where a party has a one-seat majority and there is absolutely no talk of them losing that majority? It doesn't happen that way ever."

Analysts like Ms. Duffy predict that the Democrats will pick up four to six seats, with an open seat in Virginia virtually certain to flip in their favor and Republicans at risk of losing open seats in Colorado and New Mexico.

Four Republican incumbents are potentially vulnerable because voters in their states increasingly identify with Democrats. They are John E. Sununu of New Hampshire, Norm Coleman of Minnesota, Gordon H. Smith of Oregon and Susan Collins of Maine. To get to 60, the Democrats would need to win the three open seats and these four, protect their incumbents and still pick up two seats in traditionally Republican states like Mississippi and Oklahoma.

In Mississippi, Ronnie Musgrove, a well-known former governor, is the Democratic candidate for the seat vacated by Trent Lott, who retired in December and was replaced by Roger Wicker, a lesser-known United States representative.

In Oklahoma, environmental groups are raising money to support Andrew Rice, a young state senator hoping to use Senator James M. Inhofe's views on global warming - he has said that its effects are exaggerated - to galvanize voters and deny Mr. Inhofe a fourth term.

Among those sending Mr. Rice money was Adam Browning, the executive director of Vote Solar, an advocacy group in California.

"When you look at what's happening in Congress right now, the magic number is not 51, it's actually 60," Mr. Browning said. "There has been a bunch of very important legislation from an environmental perspective that Republicans have successfully filibustered."

In an interview, Mr. Rice said: "What I find among swing voters statewide is it's time for change. Inhofe has been in there too long. They really don't care whether I am a Democrat or a Republican."

Republicans say Mr. Inhofe, 73, is a sure thing.

In Alaska, Mr. Stevens, 84, is a legendary figure. But like some other Alaska Republicans, he has been caught up in a corruption investigation, which included a search of his home by F.B.I. agents last summer. Early polls show Mr. Begich with a lead, and his candidacy is likely to excite Democrats across the Northwest. On Monday, the mayor of Seattle, Greg Nickels, was M.C. at an event to introduce Mr. Begich to potential supporters there.

Publicly, Democrats are optimistic but trying to lower expectations.

"There is a tremendous wind at our backs," said Mr. Schumer of New York. "People want change; they associate the Democratic Party with change. We have a very good map."

Republicans acknowledge that they will probably lose the seat in Virginia, but they say they believe that all of the incumbents Democrats are taking aim at can hold on. Republicans say they have a better-than-even shot in Colorado, and a chance at upsets in Louisiana and South Dakota. Republican hopes of an upset in New Jersey were set back this week when their leading candidate dropped out after suffering a minor stroke.

Senator John Ensign of Nevada, the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said his party's prospects were better than last year when some potential donors would not even take his calls.

And Mr. Ensign said Democrats' hopes of winning 60 seats were far-fetched. "If they have the best night they could have," he said, "they would get like 55-56. The best night we could have, we get back in the majority."

Even if Democrats win a state like Alaska, Mr. Ensign said, "I still don't see any way they get to 60."

Last week, the Republican committee introduced a fund-raising drive called "Two Seats to Take Back the Senate."

Both sides agree that the most vulnerable incumbent is Mr. Sununu. Democrats have tightened their grip on New England in recent years, and Mr. Sununu has a formidable challenger, former Gov. Jeanne Shaheen.

In Virginia, former Gov. Mark Warner, a Democrat, is a heavy favorite and ahead in fund-raising against his likely Republican challenger, former Gov. James Gilmore.

Out West, the retirements of Senators Pete V. Domenici of New Mexico and Wayne Allard of Colorado have lifted Democrats' hopes.


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AP Poll: More Say They're Democrats
The Associated Press

Thursday 06 March 2008

Washington - More people say they are Democrats than said so before voting started in this year's presidential contests while the number of Republicans has remained flat, a survey showed Thursday.

The Associated Press-Ipsos poll had additional bad news for the GOP: The number of independents and moderates satisfied with President Bush and the country's direction has dipped to record or near-record lows.

John McCain, who has wrapped up the Republican presidential nomination, appeals to many independents. But the high levels of unhappiness among centrist voters, who can tip national campaigns, will present him with a challenge for the November election.

The poll showed 52 percent call themselves Democrats, up from 45 percent in an AP-Ipsos survey in mid-December. Thirty-five percent say they are Republicans, about the same as December's 37 percent.

Surveys in recent months have shown more people have favorable opinions of the Democratic Party than the GOP. There has also been far higher turnout in Democratic presidential primaries this year than in GOP contests, in part reflecting that Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama continue grappling for the nomination.

Just 22 percent in the AP-Ipsos poll said the country is moving in the right direction, about even with the 21 percent record low last June. Only 11 percent of independents and 23 percent of moderates said things were going well - the lowest ever in the poll for independents, and near bottom for moderates.

Thirty percent overall said they approve of the job Bush is doing, tying his worst showing last month.

That included positive marks from 22 percent of independents and 24 percent of moderates. Bush's worst were the 16 percent of independents who approved of him in November, and the 20 percent of moderates happy last month.

Twenty-four percent overall approve of Congress, about matching last month's all-time low of 22 percent.

The poll was conducted from March 3-5 and involved telephone interviews with 1,013 adults. It had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points, larger for subgroups.

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