The upper chamber of Congress should be up for grabs.
But in too many Senate races, Democrats have issues but not candidates.
Or they have national issues but not local ones.
Or they have candidates but not money.
Can they win anyway?
Politically speaking, Rod Grams is mired in what a leader of his party once called deep doo-doo. He is a very conservative senator trying to be re-elected in not-very-conservative Minnesota. Part of his political base--farmers--is furious at his party for the 1996 Freedom to Farm Act. His campaign organization is in disarray, his job approval rating is awful, and he's rather a shy fellow who's not too good at working a room. Who could possibly lose to this guy?
Only the Democrats.
To defeat even the weakest candidate, a political party needs ... a candidate. At this writing, the Democrats have seven candidates. And in the perverse arithmetic of politics, seven candidates do not comprise a candidate. They comprise a mess.
There they all were one recent Saturday at the Third Congressional District's Democratic convention in the cafeteria of Hopkins High School, somewhere in the suburban wasteland of Minnetonka. Six men and a woman, not one of them ever elected to anything grander than state senator, not one of them widely known around the state.
Not that they're an unimpressive bunch. State senator Jerry Janezich, an energetic onetime bartender from the Iron Range, speaks from a soapbox his campaign carries around for the purpose. Proclaiming himself an old-fashioned passionate Democrat, he tells the decidedly unpassionate suburbanites, "I am you," which seems to please them anyway. Michael Ciresi, the lawyer who led the big lawsuit against the tobacco companies, removes his suit coat and paces in front of the podium Phil Donahue-style while he assails Republican economics. David Lillehaug, a lawyer with close ties to Walter Mondale, calmly calls for "taking big money out of politics."
Not counting department store heir Mark Dayton, who appears to be running (yet again) as personal therapy following his most recent divorce, any one of them might beat Grams. But that one will not be chosen until a September 12 primary, 48 days before the general election. The winner will probably be broke, and the folks who supported the losers will probably be miffed.
For Democrats, there are happier tableaux. Shift the political gaze just about 1,000 miles west, and watch Brian Schweitzer talk to the Burros in Butte about the price of drugs and the plight of farmers.
No, Schweitzer is not discussing policy with beasts of burden. This is the lunch-time meeting of a local Democratic club, making it an easy audience for the party's U.S. Senate candidate. There was another Democrat on the primary ballot, but he wasn't even trying to win, making Schweitzer the de facto party nominee.
Schweitzer is eager and enthusiastic. He's so determined that he quit drinking alcohol and coffee for the duration of the campaign, and if he isn't spontaneous, he does a tolerably good imitation--a big plus in a world of prefabricated, blow-dried politicians. And he's a great combination for a Montana Democrat: not a lawyer or a professor emerging from the Missoula-Bozeman latte-lapping greenies, but a rancher, a scientist, and a businessman with a populist streak. This helps explain why a seat that once seemed safely Republican in the increasingly Republican Rocky Mountain West now looks competitive, even though Brian Schweitzer was more obscure than those Minnesotans until a few months ago.
But before indulging in Democratic euphoria, consider that the Montana race is competitive only because Conrad Burns is another unimposing incumbent. His job approval ratings are low. He recently referred to Middle-Easterners as "ragheads," not a wise move in a wheat-producing state, considering that a third of U.S. wheat exports go to Moslem countries. He's running for a third term despite an old pledge that he'd serve only two. And he seems never to have met a large corporation whose practices he deplored or whose contributions he declined.
In other words, Democrats are competitive where they are lucky, not a hopeful sign for a party struggling to reclaim control of the U.S. Senate, or just to reduce the current 55-45 Republican majority.
Nor are the bunglings of Burns the extent of Democratic good fortune in Montana. Schweitzer himself is that rarity--the fellow who's never run for office but turns out to be pretty good at it. Disparaging politicians is easy. Emulating them is hard. For proof, shift the political gaze some 1,900 miles east of Butte, and watch Jon Corzine debate in Trenton.
Corzine, the former chief executive officer of Goldman Sachs, was supposed to be the Great Rich Hope of New Jersey Democrats, using his personal fortune to save them from one of their own, former Governor Jim Florio, still anathema to New Jersey swing voters, thanks to his 1990 $2.8 billion tax increase. Poor New Jersey Democrats. Should they have known that a guy can earn hundreds of millions on Wall Street and still be a klutz?
Yes, come to think of it, they should have, even before Corzine muttered an insult to Italian Americans, not to mention before his imitation of a bearded man who could not utter an English sentence during the first debate against Florio.
Spending more than $30 million, most of it his own, Corzine did save Democrats from the Florio curse, but at the price of inflicting on them the Corzine curse. He's still a stiff on the stump, and he's a stiff who's handed his opponent an issue. Representative Robert Franks, who narrowly won the Republican primary, needn't fear being accused of hyperbole for proclaiming that Corzine bought the nomination. He wasted no time. "If he has such little regard for his own money, what regard will he have for yours, and your children's, and your parents'?" Franks said as soon as the returns were in. It is not inconceivable that Corzine can buy the general election, too, or that Franks will prove a weak candidate. But right now, this seat is not safely Democratic.
Issues, But Not Voters
In theory, Democratic prospects should be bright. It isn't just that 14 of their Senate seats are at stake versus 19 of the Republicans'; it's that the issues voters care about are Democratic issues, and the solutions most voters choose are Democratic solutions.
A Democratic strategist poring over the polling might be forgiven for swooning in ecstasy. Given a choice, more voters want Social Security safeguarded than a tax cut. More want to strangle their managed care agent than to build an antiballistic missile system. The elderly are aghast over the prices of their prescriptions, parents want smaller classes (though some also want vouchers; this one cuts both ways), soccer moms want tougher gun control, moms who can't afford to take their kids to soccer practice want a higher minimum wage, and almost everybody wants cleaner air and water.
So Democrats should be kicking butt, especially considering that this is the first re-election effort for the 10 Republican freshman elected in the GOP sweep of 1994. Like the Republicans elected in the Reagan sweep of 1980, some of those 1994 winners were weak candidates who found themselves in the right place at the right time. In 1986 Democrats took back the Senate, didn't they?
But U.S. Senate races are not won in theory. They are won or lost by actual candidates in actual states populated by actual voters who are not always motivated by broad questions of public policy.
The current Senate situation, in fact, provides at least tentative answers to those two most vexing political conundrums: Are personalities more important, or do voters choose on the basis of policies? And do national topics dominate, or is all politics truly local?
Yes, to both questions.
Where national issues unimportant, just about every Democratic challenger wouldn't be chartering buses to take low-income oldsters to Canada to buy drugs, and taking reporters and cameras to record how much cheaper those drugs are north of the border. Issues like health care and Social Security explain why Representative Debbie Stabenow is running slightly ahead of Senator Spencer Abraham in Michigan, why Governor Mel Carnahan has a chance to beat Senator John Ashcroft in Missouri, why Representative Ron Klink could beat Senator Rick Santorum in Pennsylvania, and why veteran Indiana Republican Richard Lugar just might have a fight on his hands against David Johnson.
But if national issues were decisive, Mike DeWine of Ohio would be vulnerable, too. He isn't. Neither is Bill Frist in Tennessee or John Kyl in Arizona.
Nor are national issues the only factors, even in elections for national office. Bill Bradley almost lost his Senate seat in 1990 because of Florio's tax increase. Last January, New Hampshire voters were asking the presidential candidates to help lower property taxes. And some issues are both national and local, providing different political strokes for different folks.
In Minnesota, for instance, Grams has a local as well as a national farm problem. Despite his loyalty to the Republican Senate leadership, he got outmaneuvered last year by the galaxy's last surviving liberal Republican, Vermont Senator James Jeffords, on a milk-pricing plan good for New England's dairy farmers, not so good for Minnesota's.
So Grams is talking as little as possible about milk and as much as possible about snowmobiles and how unfair the Interior Department's recent decision was to ban them from most national parks. Compared to health care and Social Security, snowmobiles may seem a paltry concern for the U.S. Senate. But Grams, or someone working for him, must know that some people identify themselves according to their recreational preference and grow resentful at any effort to limit it.
In Montana, Burns has to explain why he sponsored a bill supported by W.R. Grace & Co., whose old vermiculite mine in Libby has been blamed for the illnesses and early deaths of workers and their families. The bill--backed by the Coalition for Asbestos Resolution, an industry trade group that contributed at least $29,000 to Burns's campaign--would limit the liability of companies in lawsuits from former employees such as those in Libby whose illnesses may have been caused by tremolite asbestos.
But Burns can also profit from local resentment against Clinton administration environmental policy. Polls indicate that most Montanans, like most Americans, favor the administration's plan to preserve roadless areas of the national forests. But part of the Democratic base in western Montana does not. Those rural voters who live in houses with yellow signs reading "This family supports the timber industry" used to be solid Democrats. These days they waver, and Burns plans to keep shouting about the Democratic Party's "War on the West" until election day.
So it should be no surprise that the more success Democrats have in keeping the voters thinking about health care, Social Security, schools, and the environment, the better they're doing. The more voters are thinking about more parochial matters, or about the Democratic contenders themselves, the worse they're doing.
"Having one well-known challenger to an incumbent Republican means the issues dominate," says Mark Siegel, the political consultant who was once executive director of the Democratic National Committee. "The little-known candidates can become the issue themselves, especially if there's a primary. Then we don't do as well."
The Circular Firing Squad
Simply contrast the situations in Michigan and Minnesota. Spencer Abraham of Michigan is a conservative Republican, but less predictably conservative than Rod Grams, less prone to extreme statements, and more effective in the Senate. But because Stabenow emerged as the unchallenged Democratic nominee months ago, she isn't the story. The issues and Abraham's record are. So Democratic prospects are slightly better in Michigan than they are in Minnesota, even though Abraham is a more imposing politician than Grams.
Making matters worse for Minnesota Democrats, the candidates are embroiled in one of those debates that political junkies love but swing voters can't stand. In the weeks leading up to the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party Convention in Rochester, the division was between "abiders" and "nonabiders." Janezich, Lillehaug, state senator Steve Kelley, and physician Steve Miles are abiders. If they don't win the convention endorsement, they'll quit. But Ciresi, Dayton, and businesswoman Rebecca Yanisch say they'll run in the primary regardless of the convention outcome, even though as campaigners they aren't as good as Lillehaug or Janezich.
The primary campaign, then, will debate the virtues of abiding. There might be a subject of less interest to the average voter, but it's hard to think of one off-hand.
Thanks to intraparty competition, Democrats may also be missing an opportunity in Washington State. Slade Gorton was one of those Republicans elected in 1980 and defeated in 1986, then elected again in 1988 and re-elected six years ago. He has gotten more conservative even as his state has become less so, but until September 19, the Democratic primary between Insurance Commissioner Deborah Senn and Maria Cantwell is likely to get more attention than Gorton.
Then, too, elections are often won by the bigger spenders. This is a fact that conservatives like to dismiss because they have access to more money, and liberals like to deny because to acknowledge it is also to acknowledge that voters are easily persuaded, if not deceived.
Some are. The modern campaign consultant has not exactly refuted Abe Lincoln, but has modified him: You can fool some of the people for a few weeks, which is enough. This year, the persuaders/deceivers are already out in force and perhaps out of control. What is already happening in Michigan and Montana, where independent advocacy groups left and right are airing TV ads, will no doubt happen elsewhere by the time the leaves turn.
According to calculations by the Annenberg Public Policy Center, by April, independent pressure groups had planned on spending at least $114 million in issue ads, almost as much as the entire amount spent in 1995 and 1996. In Michigan, Abraham is the target of anti-immigration commercials by a group called the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) which as of mid-May had spent $700,000 accusing him of a "giveaway of American jobs" and running newspaper ads actually asserting that his immigration bill would "make it easier for terrorists like Osama bin Laden to export their way of terror to any street in America."
Enter the high-tech industry, prompted by Majority Leader Trent Lott's hint that its favorite immigration bill would otherwise never arrive on the Senate floor, with money to finance advertising praising Abraham and attacking Stabenow for not denouncing the FAIR ads.
In Montana the Citizens for Better Medicare, largely financed by the pharmaceutical industry, has run advertisements claiming--falsely--that Schweitzer favors "Canadian-style health care." And somebody--no one claims responsibility--financed an anti-Schweitzer "push poll" by Voter/Consumer Research of Houston, the firm hired by George W. Bush's campaign to make derogatory calls about Senator John McCain during the South Carolina primary. One of the questions was about whether the voter knew that Schweitzer once worked in Libya, "a known terrorist state," where, in fact, he had once been legally employed by an American agricultural firm.
Money Still Talks
How this will all work out is impossible to predict. But only a fool would doubt that Republican candidates, Republican campaign committees, and unaffiliated forces backing Republicans will spend more money than their Democratic counterparts. By far the biggest spender in the Annenberg study--with $25 million slated for issue ads--was the same Citizens for Better Medicare active in Montana. In close races, these barrages of television commercials could be pivotal.
So absent some now unforeseeable nationwide groundswell, the Democrats will not take back the Senate this year. Even Senator Robert Torricelli, the New Jersey Democrat who heads the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, a job in which excessive optimism is required, said "everything has to break right" for the Democrats to win the majority. Everything never breaks right.
First of all, Democrats could lose some of the seats they now hold. Only one Democratic incumbent, Charles Robb of Virginia, is in trouble. But he is in a great deal of trouble. And then there are the "Ns." Thanks to some bizarre serendipity, four Democratic senators from states beginning with the letter "N"--New York, New Jersey, Nebraska, and Nevada--decided not to run for re-election this year, rendering all four insecure for the world's oldest political party.
Democrats have realistic chances to beat incumbent Republicans only in swing states, and even then--with but one exception--only where they can make a reasonable case that the Republican is an extremist, a buffoon, or both.
The exception is Delaware, where a combination of issues and the age and longevity of Senator William Roth--he'll be 79 by election day, and seeking his sixth term--gives 53-year-old Governor Thomas Carper a decent chance of success.
In the open seats, Democratic chances are better in traditionally Republican Nebraska and in increasingly Republican Florida than in the usually competitive Nevada. In both Florida and Nebraska, Democrats do get some help from the issues--Social Security in both states, the disastrous "Freedom to Farm" law in Nebraska--but in both states, the real Democratic advantage is that they have come up with a single good candidate while the Republicans squabbled in primaries.
To replace Bob Kerrey in Nebraska, the Democratic candidate is the popular former Governor Ben Nelson. He lost to Chuck Hagel in 1996, but that was a bad year for Democrats, especially for a governor who was breaking a pledge to serve a full term. This time, Nelson's opponent is more likely to be Attorney General Don Stenberg, who also lost to Hagel in 1996 in the primary, and who will have that Republican farm act hanging all over him.
The candidate in Florida, where Republican Connie Mack is retiring, is state Insurance Commissioner Bill Nelson, a popular official campaigning for the general election while Congressman Bill McCollum and state Education Commissioner Tom Gallagher battle each other for the right to oppose him.
But with Richard Bryan's decision not to seek re-election, Nevada might be a lost cause for the Democrats. Their candidate is Ed Bernstein, a Las Vegas lawyer who has represented, among other clients, casinos and brothels. The Republican candidate is former Representative John Ensign, who lost to Democrat Harry Reid by only 428 votes in 1998, and who has now adroitly moved toward the center. Considering Ensign's past record--he once proclaimed that almost everything the federal government did was unconstitutional--the sincerity of this maneuver may be questioned, but sincerity is politically unrelated to effectiveness.
As for New York, so much has been written about it, and so much more will be, that there is no need to add anything to the simple political fact that either Rick Lazio or Hillary Rodham Clinton could win, making it another possible Republican pickup.
Majority Begins with "M"
Happily for the Democrats, the "Ns" are balanced by the "Ms": Bizarre serendipity works both ways this year, and the states where Republican incumbents are vulnerable are Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, and Montana; some folks add Maine, where moderate Republican Olympia Snowe is being challenged by Mark Lawrence.
The conventional wisdom is that Lawrence is really enhancing his name recognition to take on the more vulnerable Senator Susan Collins in 2002. In fact, the conventional wisdom is that this year in general is prelude to 2002, when the Senate terms of 20 Republicans and only 13 Democrats will expire.
From the Democratic perspective, this may be wishful thinking. Few of those 20 Republican seats are in states where Democrats have much chance. Collins may be beatable, and so is Bob Smith of New Hampshire. Jesse Helms will probably retire, and that seat could go either way. And perhaps Oregonians will choose a Democrat over Gordon Smith. But do Democrats really think they can beat Wayne Allard in Colorado or Tim Hutchinson in Arkansas?
If so, it is time they faced their basic Senate problem, which is likely to be around until the political wheel takes another turn or two. As long as each state gets two senators, it's hard for a party to win a majority if it is anathema in several states and secure in almost none.
There is hardly a safe Democratic state anymore. Massachusetts, Maryland, Hawaii, and West Virginia come closest, and two of them have a Republican governor. Democrats hold both Senate seats in both Dakotas, but only the incumbent senators are safe; those are not really Democratic states. Democrats hold both seats in California, New York, and New Jersey, but they can be confident this year only of Dianne Feinstein's re-election, and to tell the truth, they're a little worried about that.
"She won by so little against such a weak candidate last time, and the Republicans will spend so much money this time, that you can't take it for granted," says one party strategist. Last time Feinstein squeaked past Michael Huffington, history's biggest political spender until Jon Corzine. This time her opponent is the more moderate Representative Tom Campbell, who will have less of his own money but plenty of Silicon Valley's.
In contrast, Republicans dominate 12 states in the South, the Great Plains, and the Rockies. Unless one of their candidates gets embroiled in scandal or makes an extraordinary gaffe, that gives them 24 senators to start with. All they have to do is win half the contested races in any year to hold the majority.
States come in two political varieties these days--Republican or competitive--and they come that way even where most voters agree with Democrats on health care, schools, Social Security, and the environment. Some folks just don't like Democrats.
Nowhere is this enigma more visible than in the Rocky Mountain West. Not long ago, most political observers predicted a more Democratic "New West," as backpackers and snowshoers replaced traditional westerners tied to the resource extraction industries.
Well, those newcomers are there, and they are at least mildly green. But they're also very, very white. Many moved to the Rockies, often from California, precisely to get away from the kind of social problems--crime, gangs, slums, weak public schools, even "whole language" reading lessons--they associate with Democrats. A few came to get away from the kind of people--black, brown, gay, or just off-beat--they associate with Democrats. They may like to ski and hike, but most vote Republican, even for Republicans who talk about giving away their favorite forest trails to the miners and developers.
It will be a long time before Democrats are competitive again in Wyoming, Utah, Idaho, Alaska, and maybe even Colorado, just as they are no longer safe in Nevada and New Mexico. There may not be many folks out there, but each state gets two senators, just like New York, New Jersey, and California.
The poor Democrats. They can't win where they can't win, so they have to win almost everyplace they can win. What they may need before they run the legislative branch of government again is a unicameral, population-based legislature. Democrats might win control of a parliament. The Senate is going to be tough. ¤