Rosy Dem outlook gets even rosier

Seven months after the 2008 election cycle began in Senate Democrats’ favor, the events of the cycle’s first quarter have recast the landscape even further to their advantage as they look to hold or expand their majority.

The national environment appears nearly static, with President Bush’s approval rating consistently low and Democrats retaining an advantage in generic polling. But several emerging dynamics early in the cycle, and especially in recent weeks, indicate an improving picture on the Democratic side, conducive to more possible takeovers and safer incumbents.

Senate Republicans have been hampered by potential ethics issues, a pair of GOP-held open seats, a blossoming and potentially bloody primary fight in Nebraska, slow recruiting caused by various factors and now an immigration bill that has stuck a wedge in the party’s base and threatens to cripple an already ailing fundraising operation.

To be sure, few of the events by themselves currently represent sizeable shifts. But the conglomerate of them suggests a stronger hand for Democrats, who entered the cycle with a slight 51-49 majority and with 21 possible takeovers compared to only 12 seats to defend.

These early dynamics should not be overanalyzed as a sign of things to come, and many of the states where they’re happening are difficult for Democrats to play in, but they do favor the majority, according to Jennifer Duffy of the Cook Political Report.

Conversely, the GOP does have several things going in its favor — most notably, several recent polls showing the Democratic-controlled Congress with approval numbers as low as 23 percent.

“It’s going to be hard for the environment for Republicans to be as bad as it was last time,” Duffy said. “A lot of these are worst-case scenarios. … We don’t know yet.”

While expressing optimism about the cycle, some Republicans are lamenting the continuing difficulties for their party’s electoral efforts.

“We have more seats to defend, a very difficult environment and what can only be defined as a lot of bad luck,” GOP consultant Chris Wilson said. “At the end of the day, however, when it comes to issues, our candidates are right and the Democrat[ic] candidates are wrong.”

One of the latest developments came when Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning entered his state’s Republican Senate primary early this month, potentially challenging Sen. Chuck HagelCharles (Chuck) Timothy HagelAlmost 100 former officials, members of Congress urge Senate action on election security GOP Senate candidate said Republicans have 'dual loyalties' to Israel White House aide moves to lobbying firm MORE (R) and commencing a war of words that could swell into a bruising primary.

Bruning called Hagel a “carpetbagger” and assailed the Iraq war critic for being out of step with his party. Hagel shot back quickly and accused Bruning of insulting Nebraskans’ intelligence and misrepresenting Hagel’s record.

On top of that, buzz is continually growing that former Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.) might try to return to the Senate, which would give Democrats a top candidate in an otherwise difficult state.

Also this month, the death of Sen. Craig Thomas (R-Wyo.) added a 22nd seat for Republicans to defend and made for a second open seat currently in GOP hands. Democrats have no open seats.

Democrat Gary Trauner’s near-miss against Rep. Barbara Cubin (R-Wyo.) for the state’s at-large House seat has some Democrats hopeful, but many of those Democrats also acknowledge it will be an extremely tough slog in a very red state.
The other GOP open seat came in January, when Sen. Wayne Allard (R-Colo.) decided to retire.

Duffy said Trauner shouldn’t be written off as a potential candidate but that Wyoming, minus a bid by popular Gov. Dave Freudenthal (D), will be very difficult. And Freudenthal has not shown much interest in Washington.

“That seat in Colorado is [Republicans’] biggest problem; there is no question about that,” Duffy said.

The West in general has been rough terrain for Republicans. The troubles stretch to usually safe New Mexico Sen. Pete Domenici (R), who has seen his approval rating dip to near the 50 percent mark in the three months since it was revealed that he called now-fired U.S. Attorney David Iglesias before last fall’s election.

Iglesias said he felt pressured to file charges in a case he was working on; Domenici denies applying any. The Senate Ethics Committee is looking into the event.

Duffy and Republicans say Domenici is no longer laden with the U.S. attorney controversy, which has mushroomed since his involvement was uncovered.

But Domenici’s approval rating has slipped from 68 percent shortly after the 2006 election to 52 percent in late May, according to SurveyUSA. Domenici’s office has disputed the validity of the numbers.

Ethics problems also could be sneaking up on Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), whose ties to a convicted executive are raising questions. Stevens recently was told to preserve documents relating to a federal investigation, and he has hired lawyers. It’s
not yet clear if he is a target.

The Democratic bench in Alaska is thin, but similar to Wyoming, it’s an afterthought with a scandal-free incumbent.

The Senate Democrats’ campaign committee isn’t claiming any victories just yet, though.

“I will leave that to pundits to weigh in on whether [the field] is expanding or not,” a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Matthew Miller, said. “But our goal certainly hasn’t changed — to play in as many seats as possible while holding on to every one of our incumbents.”

Among the things in Republicans’ favor, Democrats have thus far been waiting in vain for the newly dethroned GOP caucus to begin hemorrhaging its older members to retirement. With 17 months to go until the 2008 election, only one GOP senator has retired.

Republicans point to the fact that Democrats have yet to land top candidates in New Hampshire and Oregon, two of their top targeted states. And they maintain that opponent-less Sen. Mary LandrieuMary Loretta LandrieuA decade of making a difference: Senate Caucus on Foster Youth Congress needs to work to combat the poverty, abuse and neglect issues that children face Dems wrestle over how to vote on ‘Green New Deal’ MORE (D-La.) is one of the most vulnerable incumbents of the cycle.

“Political analysts and pundits have failed to recognize that even though Republicans have 22 seats to defend, all it will take is two seats to change control of Congress,” a spokeswoman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), Rebecca Fisher, said. “We think the Democrat-led Senate’s embarrassingly low approval rating makes the climate ripe for change.”

Whatever the future holds, the NRSC’s current problems are compounded by a slow start to recruiting and poor fundraising.
It remains without top candidates in its top target states, including South Dakota and Louisiana, and has raised half the money of its Democratic counterpart.

It could be further hurt by the backlash over an illegal immigration reform bill that split the GOP caucus and has the potential to turn off donors by offering illegal immigrants a path to citizenship.

Much of the trouble recruiting in South Dakota can be attributed to the sudden illness of Sen. Tim JohnsonTimothy (Tim) Peter JohnsonTrump faces tough path to Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac overhaul Several hurt when truck runs into minimum wage protesters in Michigan Senate GOP rejects Trump’s call to go big on gun legislation MORE (D-S.D.), who suffered a brain hemorrhage six months ago and has yet to return to the Senate.

Things have been largely on hold for Republicans in the meantime, though several have begun expressing interest recently. Signs point to Johnson being able to run again.

One GOP operative with knowledge of the state said Johnson’s illness has compounded an already tough choice for prospective candidates, given the environment.

Even with a great environment and a future senator — John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneRepublicans give Barr vote of confidence Trump creates new headaches for GOP with top intelligence pick GOP casts Sanders as 2020 boogeyman MORE — as a candidate in 2002, Republicans fell short of beating Johnson.

“I don’t know how you go about mounting an aggressive campaign against someone who is seen as weak or not able to defend themselves,” the GOP source said.