Although I found Barack Obama's candidacy last year energizing and donated to it, I haven't actively worked to elect a politician since 1992, when I volunteered for Bill Clinton's and Al Gore's campaign for the presidency and handed out fliers and signed up voters down at Boston Common. I was still in my 20s then, still somewhat idealistic, and had grown so tired of the twelve years of Republican misrule, covert war and scandal--which in retrospect appear mild compared to the disasters we've experienced in less than half that time, since 2000--that I was eager to do what I could to oust the elder Bush (HW) and get Clinton and Gore into office. I had many problems with Clinton's stances, which I found too right-leaning or shifty, as if his political compass was really a weathervane. I also had issues with Gore's past as a conservative Southern Democrat and his Puritanical crusades on pop culture (were those Gore daughters any worse for having listened to Prince? Seriously?). But I felt that both men would be far better for this country and for me than the Republican option of HW and Quayle. So I did my part, and was delighted when Clinton, in that infamous three-way race that involved the megalomaniac "reformer" H. Ross Perot, triumphed.
By 1996, I'd decided I wasn't going to waste another moment on Clinton's behalf; while I was going to vote for him (there was no way I would cast a vote for Bob Dole and Jack Kemp, both of whom would be out of touch with the Straussian neocons, Talevangelists and other kooks now guiding the rudder of the Republican Party), I found his triage-style of politics and pandering destructive to real progressivism, and I was angered that he'd failed to work with the Democratic Congress more during the short period (1992-1994) when they jointly led the country. That was truly a wasted moment. Instead, we got Gingrich's Contract Against America, and the Republicans have, to our national detriment, pretty much run the Congress ever since. (There was a brief period from May 2001 through January 2003 when the Democrats had control of the Senate because of Jim Jefford's defection.) The resulting damage from this has become increasingly clear over the last few years, as the Republican Congress has provided little to no governmental oversight and has rarely challenged the president, choosing instead to serve as the prosecutors of the Executive Branch's extreme agenda. The weak and shrinking Democratic caucuses in both houses haven't done much better, though in both cases, they have no power to initiate legislation or inquiries; in the Senate, they can block or hold up processes, while in the House, they are almost completely neutered by their lack of a majority.
After listening the other night to about two minutes of President Katrina's babble on the Iraq War, which is the same, inane crap he's been repeating since shortly after 9/11, I thought to myself, we are going to have to help the Congressional Democrats do the right thing in spite of themselves. In essence, we have no choice, since outside of Socialist-Independent Bernie Sanders of Vermont, there's little chance that the Greens or Democratic Socialists or even Libertarians would be elected to federal offices as a counter against the inept AND corrupt one-party rule of the GOP. So it'll have to be the Democrats, and, despite how we might feel about their overall timidity and fecklessness, they're the only option right now. I won't be manning or handing out fliers for any, but I may try some other options to support some of the more progressive candidates who're running.
And there's a very good chance that, with enough a grassroots push and despite the worst ministrations of the DLC, voters can push the Democrats over the top, at least in the Senate, so that they're in control for 2 years at a minimum, which would mean no more Pat Roberts covering for George W, no more outrageous CAFTA or bankruptcy or Medicare bills, no more ramming of the W agenda through without a pause, no more having to wait for John McCain, a Vietnam-era prisoner of war, to take two years to get upset enough to push through a bill ending the enabling of torture by top officials. Were the Democrats in control right now, it's very likely that scary crackpots like Janice Rogers Brown would never have gotten out of committee, and John Roberts probably wouldn't be heading SCOTUS. And W would have at least one major check in place, since it looks increasingly likely that the Supreme Court is going to shift even further rightward if Miers joins it (she's no David Souter or even Anthony Kennedy, let alone Sandra Day O'Connor), and given DeLay's handiwork in redistricting Texas, which means that the GOP will have an ongoing cushion in one of the most conservative states in the country. Unless the Democrats can defeat a few more GOPers in moderate to left-leaning states like New York (where's W's popularity is at an abysmal 29%), Connecticut, California, Pennsylvania, Michigan, etc. I wouldn't count on that.
So we return to the Senate, which, if it changed hands, would provide at least means of addressing the spate of problems the W administration continues to create. One major constitutional check in the federal balance of powers would once again be in place. But the truth is, the Democrats will have to defend more seats than the Republicans. As 2004 showed, the Democrats frequently pick pathetic candidates. There was that strange-looking guy who was running against Tom Coburn, a certified nutcase (how many sane people do you know who sterilize other people AGAINST THEIR WILL and claim that "lesbianism" is rampant and call for the killing of doctors performing abortion? Oh, and defraud Medicaid?). Yes, W is very popular in Oklahoma, but that Democrat in Oklahoma just looked...off! In one of the debates I saw, he looked like he was hiding something, like he was terrified, while Coburn just looked...crazy. So guess whom the voters chose? Again, I realize that W was popular, especially in Oklahoma, and that his propaganda machine was working overtime, but I refuse to concede that had the Democrats found a better candidate, Coburn (at least) might have lost. When the Democrats actually field strong, appealing candidates, like Ken Salazar and Barack Obama, they can win. Sure, Illinois is more liberal than many states, but Obama had outpolled all the Republicans combined in the primaries, and even did well outside Chicago and its liberal suburbs before the general election, so great was his appeal. So had the Democrats found better candidates (Betty Castor? Inez Tenenbaum?), they could probably have won a few more seats and not lost so many, which basically was like writing a blank check ("capital") for W, though he's thankfully burnt it up before he could cash it.
So, factoring in that the Democrats have more seats to defend and that they field pathetic candidates far too often, they have gotten several lucky turns of late.
Democratic Incumbent Seats
South Dakota and West Virginia: Popular GOPers have decided not to run against Kent Conrad and Robert Byrd (respectively). Conrad is a moderate, but votes with the Democratic caucus more often than with the Republicans, and octogenarian Byrd, no matter what you think of his past, has served as the conscience of the Senate, frequently speaking out against the W administration's follies and faults in his inimitable, stentorian style. It's important that both be reelected, and very likely that they will. West Virginia also has a Democratic governor, just in case...well, you know.
Florida: Senator Bill Nelson appeared to be in trouble, but then Rep. Katherine Harris, the highly partisan electrix who did her part in engineering the 2000 coup, decided she wanted to move to the upper house, so now she is set to challenge Nelson, against the wishes of Republican and potential-felon marioneteer Karl Rove. Nelson is leading in head-to-head polls and Floridians are souring on W, so short of Dieboldian trickery, Nelson's chances look good so far. He's no Lawton Chiles or even Bob Graham, but he'll do.
Nebraska: the other Nelson, Ben, basically is about as conservative a Democrat as you can find in the Senate, yet he still votes with his party more than 50% of the time. Overall, his chances are shaky, and W remains popular in that state. But he won't have to run against former Sooners coach, now Rep. Tom Osborne, who is wildly popular, so he may have a chance, especially if energy prices remain high, the situation in Iraq drags on, and he runs against the man he closely defeated last time through. He really has a freaky, Republican-looking coiffure, I must add, cattily.
Other Democratic incumbent states: a number of other Democratic seats are very safe. Hillary Clinton should coast in New York, where she's registered approval ratings above 65% and faces ridiculous opponents (either Jeanine Pirro or Mr. Tricia Nixon Cox). In addition, W's popularity is at 29% and NY's Republican mayor, Mike Bloomberg, is running as if he's a Democrat (and leading handily). Jeff Bingaman has no challenger so far in New Mexico, though W barely won the state in 2004. Bingaman was supposed to be in trouble, but it turns out that he's quite popular. I can't recall ever seeing him utter a single word on TV (regular network TV, C-SPAN, "The Newshour with Jim Lehrer," any other program), so I think of him as the "Mute Senator." Does he speak when he campaigns? Debbie Stabenow, a freshperson from Michigan, is one of the most reliably liberal members of the Senate, but faces feeble opposition, and her state continues to trend Democratic, as does Washington State, where Maria Cantwellalso is up for reelection, having registered an upset defeat of Slade Gorton back in 1999. Both are assets to the Democrats. Stabenow also looks tough and doesn't appear to be someone to trifle with. Others who will have little problem include Daniel Akaka (Hawaii), Teddy Kennedy (Massachusetts), Herb Kohl (Wisconsin), Tom Carper (Delaware), Dianne Feinstein (California), and Joe Lieberman (Connecticut). Were Richard Blumenthal or some other Democrat to challenge Lieberman, I might go on leave to help her or him out. I still blame him in part for Al Gore's loss in 2000; had another Democrat been on the ticket, Gore might have won another state (Arkansas, Nevada, etc.) and the Florida debacle would have been moot.
Tennessee: I believe a Republican will replace Dr. Charlatan-HCA a/k/a Dr. Insider Trading a/k/a Bill Frist in Tennessee, because as optimistic as I am, I can't see the people there electing a Black person to a statewide office, even a right-wing leaning one. Maybe they'll prove me wrong, but then the highly photogenic Harold Ford Jr. actually said he "loved" W (huh?), so would worry about his being sufficiently cooperative with other Democrats. An African-American Joe Lieberman--is that what the Democrats need at this point? On the other hand, he'd probably vote with the Democrats half the time at least, so if he won, it might not be so bad. I get the impression that he feels he should pander to Republicans, so if he wins, I'd count this as a 1/2 victory (historic as it would be in other ways).
Maryland: the Democrats face a conundrum. The Republicans have nominated a Black conservative, Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, in a state whose Black population is now close to 30% and liberal-leaning. The Democrats will have a primary pitting Ben Cardin, a liberal White running against the sex scandal-plagued former Congressman Kweisi Mfume. Now, I was long a fan of Mfume's, but at he should bow out and find another place to utilize his talents. White Democratic voters are going to go for Cardin, and will be less likely to vote for Mfume even in the primary based on the harassment and nepotism allegations during his time as NAACP head. Moreover, if Mfume loses, do NOT believe the Republicans won't use this to tarnish Cardin and appeal for votes for Steele. So someone has GOT TO convince Mfume to get out of it, and campaign for Cardin. Please, Mr. Mfume, put your ego aside and don't let the GOP get any further than they need to, because Steele, if he won, would be in there for six years, and as even the moderate Republicans have shown, they enable the right-wing by putting the party and above all the President above the interests of the country.
Minnesota: the Republicans have a good, conservative candidate in Mark Kennedy, but the state has trended Democratic-progressive over the last election cycle, and W is very unpopular there, so the strongest of the Democratic candidates (Patty Wetterling, Mark Ciresi, Amy Klobuchar) should be able to prevail. I can't see W's abysmal numbers in the state and outrageous energy prices this winter helping Kennedy, either.
New Jersey: If Jon Corzine, who is one of the most liberal Democrats in the Senate, wins the gubernatorial race, which has tightened because of the New Jersey Democrats' endless scandals and the relentless advertising of his robotic Republican opponent, Doug Forrester, the seat will become open, and he'd appoint his successor. Right now the leading candidate is Rep. Robert Menendez, formerly my Congressman. (I never voted for him, and instead always chose either the Green or Democratic Socialist candidates.) Though Menendez is well known to be thuggish in his politics and has a sex scandal on his hands, he would become New Jersey's first Latino Senator (he's Cuban-American), which would be a major plus in his winning the seat outright against moderate Republican Tom Kean Jr. If Corzine won and appointed Rep. Frank Pallone or some of the other New Jersey pols vying for the seat, they'd also have a good chance against Kean. Still, the toxicity out of Trenton may harm any Democrats in a state that has moved from being middle-of-the-road (as recently as the 1980s) to reliably Democratic.
Vermont: Bernie Sanders, the Socialist-Independent, lone Representative from one of the country's progressive state, faces only a token Republican challenge in this race, and the Democrats have chosen not to oppose him. So he will win, and vote regularly with the Democrats, except when they lean as a caucus to the right. As a House member he has been a powerhouse in passing bills, even with Republicans, so his legislative prowess will be of great assistance to the Democrats if they regain control. I'm most excited about his candidacy, and look forward to the day he's actually in his new position.
In terms of the Republican seats that are up, several of the candidates are in serious trouble.
Pennsylvania: Rick Santorum is now behind Bob Casey Jr., a moderate Democrat (who's also unfortunately anti-abortion) by 18 points. Antediluvian in his views (according to his recent book, he is against women going to college or being independent, etc.), hypocritical, nasty, and given to outright dissimulations, Santorum's departure would be a MAJOR boost. I once saw him openly mock John Kerry on the Senate floor on C-SPAN when he was feeling his oats several years ago and have never forgotten it. The Democrats should do their damnedest--without breaking the law--to get Santorum out of the Senate. As for Casey, I've not seen a word out of him, which appears to be his strategy.
Rhode Island: Lincoln Chafee is a very liberal Republican. In fact, he probably could have changed parties two years ago and done himself and the Democrats a favor, but he didn't, and now he's in trouble. He faces a primary challenge from a more conservative (but not right-wing) candidate, former Cranston mayor Stephen Laffey, who is trailing right now. Chafee probably will win, since his family is beloved even by Rhode Island Democrats (and his late father, John Chafee, was a moderate Republican and close associate of W's father). But if Laffey won, he would then have a hard time against either of the two Democrats running, Matt Brown and Sheldon Whitehouse, since Rhode Island is one of the most liberal states in the US. If he loses to Laffey, he deserves to go, since his politics are strongly at odds with W's, yet he's enabled far too much of the mess that's occurred, including voting against an independent panel to investigate the Hurricane Katrina fiasco. Why, Chafee, why? Against Brown, who now leads Whitehouse, Chafee has a decent chance.
Ohio: Mike DeWine, a political moderate (as Republicans go), has weak poll numbers. A massive financial scandal, involving allegations of outright theft of state workers' compensation funds, money laundering, and numerous ethical lapses, has convulsed his state party, which craftily engineered W's win in 2004. I'm not sure how disgusted most Ohio voters are, but Democrat and Iraq War veteran Paul Hackett ran in an ultraconservative district earlier this year against ghoul Jean Schmidt, and nearly pulled off an upset, so DeWine had better be nervous. Hackett has announced that he's going to run for the seat, as has Democratic Congressman Sherrod Brown. Hackett is gutsy, outspoken, lively, and doesn't play. He's also gone through the crucible of a high-profile campaign. Brown I know zero about, except that he's considered to be fairly progressive and can raise money. Either one, I think, can beat DeWine, which would be a major pickup for the Democrats, who once held both seats (John Glenn and Howard Metzenbaum, etc.).
Missouri: The Show Me State once regularly sent distinguished Democrats (Harry Truman, Stuart Symington, Tom Eagleton) to Washington as its Senators, and the people of my native state even had the good sense to elect a dead person (the late Mel Carnahan, whose wife Jean briefly took his seat) over extremist John Ashcroft in 2000. Unfortunately, Missourians bought the GOP's lies and not only helped to elect W and the lackluster torture-enabler Kit Bond in 2004, but chose as their governor Matt Blunt, the son of one of the GOP Congressional delegation's major operators, Roy Blunt, who is now Majority Whip and closely tied not only to Tom DeLay, but also to scandal-virus lobbyist Jack Abramoff. More than 50% of the voters are disgusted by both Blunt, who has turned out to be an ultraconservative, and the GOP there, which has its own problems with corruption. The very smart, pro-choice, moderate woman young Blunt defeated, Claire McCaskill, is going to run against Jim Talent, the 50-year-old conservative Senator who looks like he's 12. If W's popularity doesn't rise, Missouri might show Talent right out the door, which would be a major victory. Right now their poll numbers are equal, which I take to mean that Talent may be leading but is in trouble, since he should be ahead by a comfortable margin as an incumbent Republican there. I think the election depends on the situation in Iraq, energy prices, and how the vote turns out in northern Missouri. St. Louis, St. Louis County, Kansas City, its suburban areas, and the college towns will go for the Democrats. But the state now has a large ultraconservative evangelical base centered in and around Branson, the alternate country music and entertainment capital in the far South, which used to be basically an extension of Arkansas.
Montana: In my mind, this state only elects Republicans, until I realize I am wrongly confusing it with, oh, Wyoming (even Utah has at least one Democrat in Congress because of Salt Lake City). Sorry, Montana! The Big Sky State now has a very popular and effective Democratic governor, Brian Schweitzer, who's folksy and swift on his feet. Once he cleans up the waste the GOP left there, he should run for President. Montana also has a Democratic majority in its statehouse. And its Republican Senator, Conrad Burns, not only is close to W, but to Jack Abramoff, the lobbyist-virus who very well may drag down Tom DeLay and other Republicans once all the investigations into his actions have finished. His opponents sound very interesting: an organic farmer named Jon Tester, the Montana State Senate Majority Leader from very conservative eastern Montana (!), or moderate DLC star and wealthy lawyer John Morrison. Methinks Tester sounds like the better choice, so people of Montana, clean house, bring Burns home, and put the Tester in the Senate!
Nevada: John Ensign is conservative and has good poll numbers. He works well with Harry Reid, the Minority Leader, and there were suggestions that they had some kind of deal in which they wouldn't campaign against each other. Reid, however, is a battler, and has said he will strongly support the new Democratic candidate, Jack Carter, an investment banker and the son of President Jimmy Carter. Once upon a time Nevada had two Democratic Senators, but the state has grown and had grown increasingly conservative. W's popularity has recently plummeted there, Bill Clinton won the state at least once as did Al Gore in 2000, and if Carter has any platform to run on beyond being humanitarian Jimmy Carter's son and not a Republican, he might actually win. This would be a major victory for the Democrats.
Arizona: Jon Kyl is one of the most conservative Senators in that body. According to Progressive Punch (whose methodology admittedly is a bit problematic), only Richard Burr (NC), Larry Craig (WY), and that horror John Cornyn (TX) were less progressive. (Keep in mind that Cornyn is more conservative than both Senators from Mississippi, South Carolina, Alabama, Oklahoma....) I don't see him losing, but supposedly his poll numbers are awful and he has a worthy opponent in the multimillionaire Jim Pederson. Arizona has a very effective Democratic governor, Janet Napolitano, who probably could defeat Kyl if she challenged him, but it looks like she'll run again to continue her successes at the state level. Maybe she can work some mojo for Pederson, because defeating Kyl would be an extraordinary coup, in that one of the president's most reliable allies would be gone.
Other Republican incumbent seats:
Liberal Republican Olympia Snowe has the highest favorability ratings (over 70%) of any member of the Senate, and will be reelected handily in Maine. If the Democrats pick up 2-5 seats, she could prove to be a major ally along with her fellow Maine Senator, Susan Collins. George Allen, whose Fred Flinstone-ish utterances never cease to make me cringe, is going to romp in Virginia. Short of committing murder he won't be voted out, though if he were, Democrats should declare a national holiday. Extreme right-winger Craig Thomas will trounce his opposition (if there is any) in Wyoming. Other Republicans set to win include Trent Lott (Mississippi), Kay Bailey Hutchinson (Texas), Dick Lugar (Indiana), and Orrin Hatch (Utah). They'll leave only on retirement or on a stretcher, whichever comes first.
Say the Democrats hold all their seats except the one in Nebraska, which appears to be the most in danger. (I'm praying that that Harrison woman doesn't win in Florida. Please O Lord and Lady, God, gods, spare us that horror, please! And Mfume, please don't screw up the situation in Maryland!). That would mean they'd be down to 43 seats, plus the Sanders one, giving them 44. (Right now it's 44 + Jeffords = 45). If Santorum, DeWine and Burns lost, that would give them 48, still not enough for a majority, but closer to where they were just a few years ago. If Nelson hung on and the Democrats in Missouri and Arizona could pull off upsets, that would give the Democrats a razor-thin margin of 51, which would be enough to restore prerogatives destroyed by the Republicans (like the blue slip, etc.) and pass legislation (barring filibusters, against which right-wingers are supposedly constitutionally opposed, right?) without bringing in Dick Cheney. If Ford were to win miraculously in Tennessee, that would be 52 votes, though given how conservative Nelson is and Ford would be, it's effectively 50 plus 2 extras about half the time. Also, liberal Republicans Snowe, Collins, Chafee (if he hangs on) and possibly Spector would make it 56 votes in some cases (especially if Reid conferred regularly with them). The Democrats wouldn't have enough votes to prevent filibusters, but they'd be far more empowered to launch of turnaround of the current situation.
Also, given the seniority rules, several of the most liberal and progressive senators (Kennedy, Leahy, etc.) would chair committees, which would be a GOP nightmare. Ah, fellow voters, let's make this happen, not for purposes of revenge and Schadenfreude, but because our country's survival depends on it!
Update: In Monday's Washington Post, Charles Babington and Chris Cilizza cover much of the ground in my post in their article "For GOP, Election Anxiety Mounts." They specifically focus on the criticism some on the Right have lodged against Senator Elizabeth Dole, "The Phantom," who now heads up the GOP's senatorial election committee, but her supporters lay the blame more broadly on the country's malaise, the War in Iraq, and the scandals plaguing DeLay, Frist, Rove, the White House and state Republicans. The GOP is also at a disadvantage, for a change, in fundraising. Much hinges on this election and on what happens leading up to it, so I hope to post more as the months proceed.