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July 15th, 2008

PURE GOLD: WILL THE DEMOCRATS HOLD ON TO THEIR MAJORITY?

by Ed Gold

The good news for Democrats in November is that they stand to pick up a minimum of four seats in the Senate, giving them a clear majority.The bad news for the Democrats is that they will still be short of the 60 votes they need to end debate on bills the Republicans don’t like. The dilemma after the election facing Democrats, now in the majority, is what to do about Joe Lieberman, their vice-presidential candidate in 2000, who is currently connected at the hip to John McCain.

Many of my liberal friends who have been blasting Democrats for not passing legislation to end the war in Iraq, create a sane energy policy, or support Americans in economic distress ignore the fact that the Founding Fathers purposely made it difficult to pass laws in the Senate.

And many people do not realize that at this moment the Democrats do not have even a simple majority in the Senate. In fact, there are 49 Democrats, 49 Republicans and two Independents.

One Independent, Bernie Sanders of Vermont, consistently identifies with the liberal-left wing of the Democratic Party. The other Independent,of course, is Lieberman, who is with the Bushies on foreign policy and national security, and with the Democrats on most domestic legislation. Both Sanders and Lieberman voted with the Democrats to organize the Senate, which is why the Democrats currently control all the chairs in that body as well as the order of business.

Had Lieberman voted against Democratic control, the Senate would have been equally divided.The decider then would have been Dick Cheney, and we all know who would control the Senate then.

The numbers are encouraging for Democrats to make important gains, but not good enough to pass legislation over Republican opposition. Twelve Democratic seats are being contested, with the fight in Louisiana the only one in any real danger. But the Republicans have 23 seats on the line, and five of those are vacant because the occupants opted for the private sector, had health problems or wanted to spend more time with the family.

Democrats should win fairly handily in Virginia, New Hampshire, New Mexico and, in a closer race, in Colorado. There are upset possibilities in two unlikely states, Alaska and Mississippi. One looming disappointment could be in Minnesota where Al Franken, the comedian who had high hopes, is not getting as many laughs as he used to get on Saturday Night Live.

Virginia, which almost always goes Republican in Presidential races, looks like the best bet for Democrats in this year’s Senate races. Mark Warner, a popular ex-governor who considered running for president, decided on the Senate race instead. Aside from an attractive personality, Warner has made lots of money in the cellphone business. The seat is being vacated by John Warner, a collegial Republican who’s claim to fame includes a short marriage to Elizabeth Taylor. One quirky sign in the campaign says “Vote for Mark, not John,” and the polls indicate Virginians will. Warner is leading another ex-governor, Jim Gilmore, by more than 20 points.

Two Udalls, cousins from the well-known conservationist family and both now in Congress, should take seats in New Mexico and Colorado.

Tom Udall looks very strong to fill the New Mexico vacancy left by Pete Dominici, who has been an institution in the state but is retiring due to illness. Udall shows a lead of more than 20 points over his Republican rival, Rep. Steve Pearce. Cousin Mark in Colorado is in a tighter race, fighting for a vacant seat against Rep. Bob Schaffer. Colorado has been showing Democratic tendencies of late, electing a moderate Democrat to the Senate two years ago. Udall is holding a 10-point lead which might get tighter in the fall.

Then there is New Hampshire, where anti-war feeling has worked against incumbent John Sununu, a conspicuous Bush supporter on Iraq. Two years ago the Democrats took both state houses. And their candidate is a popular ex-governor, Jeanne Shaheen, who holds a ten-point lead in the polls.

Now, for some possible surprises:

Mississippi is a case in point. The veteran Trent Lott unexpectedly retired last year in what would have been a very safe Republican seat. Filling in is Roger Wicker, who now seeks to finish Lott’s term by reelection in November. He’ll face former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove who is being given a fair shot after the Democrats won a Congressional seat despite Republican attempts to create a fear campaign involving Barack Obama. The anti-Obama tactic may actually have helped Musgrove because Democratic registration has risen sharply, mainly in black communities. Wicker holds a negligible lead.

A very hot race is developing in Alaska where the Republican warhorse Ted Stevens is fighting to stay in power. The Democrats are running the mayor of Anchorage, Mark Begich, who has made a lot of friends in handling city finances. In contrast, Stevens is known for getting funds for a $300 million bridge that goes nowhere. He also has been a conspicuous pork-barreller and is currently under investigation by the IRS and FBI. Stevens has a very small lead, with ten percent of the voters undecided.

In two other states, moderate Republicans, a dying breed, seem to be holding onto seats in close races.

Actually, you can count moderates on one hand, with one finger missing. Aside from the two running for reelection, Susan Collins of Maine and Gordon Smith of Oregon, only Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Olympia Snowe of Maine qualify. Maybe half a finger for Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, who is retiring and hates the war but sticks with Bush domestically.

In the contest in Maine, Collins, who had pledged to step down after two terms but changed her mind, has a modest lead over Rep. Tom Allen, whose district represents half the state. In Oregon, Smith, who has sided with Democrats on a number of important bills, has a nine-point advantage over the state house Speaker Jeff Merkeley, who benefits in that state from his close association with the Obama campaign.

In Minnesota, big Democratic expectations have been subdued. Great hopes for Al Franken have been shaken with revelations of Franken’s tax problems. Republican Norm Coleman, the incumbent, has used some of Franken’s SNL scripts against him; they apparently don’t work in Minnesota as well as they do in New York. Two years ago, Democrats won overwhelmingly in fighting for an open Senate seat. Coleman has held a lead fluctuating between six and ten percent.

In the only Democratic seat in danger, incumbent Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana clings to a slight lead over State Treasurer John Kennedy, who switched from the Democratic Party. She has spent a lot of time reminding voters about the FEMA screwup during Katrina, and the overall ineptitude of the White House.

There remains one wild card out there, a very long shot in North Carolina where Liddy Dole, a Bush robot, seeks reelection. Dole suffered a loss of face in 2006 as she headed the Republican effort to hold onto the Senate. The Democrats are putting a lot of effort behind State Sen. Kay Hagan, hoping that an Obama win could benefit her. Dole has a double-digit lead, but who knows.

So the Democrats should gain a clear majority in the Senate and they will no longer need Lieberman to maintain control. Lieberman now holds the chair of the prestigious Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, as well as membership on the Armed Services and Small Business committees.

If he, as has been indicated, speaks at the Republican National Convention for McCain, that could well cost him his chairmanship. Of course, he might become a Republican, which would solve the problem for the Democrats.

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