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Not so long ago, Democrats were bragging that they could win back the Senate this November -- and it didn't seem like bravado. The party had recruited a bumper crop of candidates who were leading in early polls. Republicans were mired in nasty primary contests. The economic recovery seemed to be stalled. And Senator John Kerry was riding high -- giving Dems a lift even in some traditionally Republican states.
Now, those boasts have been replaced by stony silence and white knuckles. The Republican primaries, instead of producing scarred survivors, have mostly created battle-tested warriors with general-election appeal. The economy, while not exactly sizzling, is clearly on the upswing. President George W. Bush, an effective campaigner, appears likely to sport strong coattails in close races from South Dakota to South Carolina -- as Kerry's weakened campaign does little to help Democratic contenders. And an energized GOP base will boost turnout in the Republican-leaning states where most of the key Senate races are being waged, including five in the South. "The Democrats have good candidates," says Stuart Rothenberg, editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report. "They are just in states that are bad for them."
This new reality means lower expectations for the out-of-power party. Just two senators short of a majority, Democrats are now playing defense. Nightmare scenario: a loss of up to four seats. That kind of a setback could dramatically change the Senate. A bigger GOP majority would break the logjam on Bush's long-stalled judicial appointees and force through reforms on product-liability lawsuits.
The Senate's tone would change, too. At least two of the top GOP prospects are former foot soldiers in Newt Gingrich's conservative House revolution -- and they would likely extend that style of smash-mouth partisanship to the more sedate Senate. Departures of centrist Democrats, such as retiring Louisiana Senator John Breaux, will leave the middle emptier than ever. "The polarization we sense this election year could be prolonged in the U.S. Senate, as it already is in the House," says politics professor Ferrell Guillory of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
While Bush's poll numbers have captured headlines and set off speculation about his possible coattails, the GOP's Senate hopes are really riding on the quality of its candidates. In Pennsylvania, Democratic hopes sagged when Republican incumbent Arlen Specter survived an aggressive primary challenge from Patrick D. Toomey. Archconservative Toomey would have had a tough time against centrist Democrat candidate Joseph M. Hoeffel, but the moderate Specter is running far ahead and just collected the endorsement of the AFL-CIO.HUGGING GEORGE
In Colorado, beer scion Pete Coors is widely considered a stronger candidate against popular Attorney General Ken Salazar than Bob Schaffer, Coors's rival in the GOP primary, would have been. In Florida, former Housing & Urban Development Secretary Mel Martinez scored a surprisingly easy win over 2000 Senate loser Bill McCollum, whom White House aides viewed as dull and unelectable. Martinez will take on Florida Commissioner of Education Betty Castor to fill the seat of retiring Democratic Senator Bob Graham.
Likewise, Oklahoma's firebrand populist Tom Coburn, an obstetrician and former congressman, is more dynamic than the man he defeated in the July 27 primary, former Oklahoma City Mayor Kirk Humphreys. But Coburn's outspoken style and penchant for hyperbole are making D.C. Republicans sweat a bit. He has advocated the death penalty for abortion providers; describes his match-up with Democratic Representative Brad Carson, a member of the Cherokee Nation, as a choice between "good and evil"; and now is embroiled in a controversy over possibly illegal billing to Medicaid. Says Kenneth S. Hicks, professor of political science at Rogers State University in Claremore, Okla.: "Coburn can come off as someone who has read too many Ayn Rand novels."
How worried are Democrats about Republican gains? Check out the latest from South Dakota, where Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, a leading Bush antagonist, has aired a TV commercial with a shot of the President hugging him. There's good reason for Daschle to belatedly embrace Bush: He knows that the President will carry South Dakota by a wide margin and perhaps carry Republican nominee John Thune to victory -- just as Ronald Reagan did when Republicans ousted another liberal South Dakotan, George McGovern, in 1980.
Voters' brightening perception of the economic recovery appears to be aiding some Republicans. In South Carolina, continuing textile woes are offset by the creation of 31,000 jobs since July, 2003. "It's a case where economic change is working for the Republicans," says John J. Pitney Jr., professor of political science at Claremont McKenna College. After trailing for months, GOP Representative Jim DeMint has pulled ahead of Democrat Inez Tenenbaum.
The Democrats' national ticket can do little to stanch GOP gains. With seven of the eight most hotly contested Senate races located in states Bush carried in 2000, it's no surprise that Democrats like Tenenbaum are increasingly distancing themselves from the standard-bearer. "You'd be hard-pressed to find a Democratic candidate [in the toss-up races] who would want to appear with Senator Kerry," says Earl Black, professor of political science at Rice University.
If the prevailing political climate is damaging to Senate Democrats, it is crushing for their House counterparts. Gerrymandering has left precious few Republican seats in play, and the GOP stands to net as many as seven new seats in Texas in '04 due to a particularly partisan redistricting map jammed through the legislature last year by the state's all-Republican leadership.
Faced with long odds, the Democrats' only hope for winning back the House is an out-of-the-blue Republican collapse. That was improbable even in May, when an Ipsos-Public Affairs poll showed voters favoring Dems to win control of Congress by 50% to 41%. Ipsos's latest poll, conducted Sept. 7-9, shows the sentiment shifting toward the Republicans for a lead of 47% to 45%.
The election is still weeks away, and the public mood could change. And as Oklahoma shows, Senate races are often subject to the vagaries of local -- not national -- factors. But for now, it appears that the Democrats' uphill climb to win control of Congress is getting steeper all the time. By Alexandra Starr in Washington