Congress Conquest

The past few weeks have been kind to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC).

Two prominent Republicans have decided not to run for retiring Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell's seat (R-Colo.), while Democrats have coalesced around state Attorney General Ken Salazar. Former Gov. Tony Knowles (D-Alaska) continues to poll well against Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska). And Democrat Nancy Farmer shows signs of increasing strength against Republican Sen. Kit Bond in Missouri, according to Farmer's internal polling.

"Without question, the Senate map is continuing to move in our direction," the DSCC's Cara Morris told me.

Jennifer Duffy, who follows Senate campaigns for the non-partisan Cook Political Report, agreed. "It looks better [for the Democrats] than it did six weeks ago," she told me. Democrats' chances of taking back the Senate have "entered the realm of possibility."

What's changed? For one thing, Colorado. Had Campbell run for reelection, as was expected, he would have been the clear favorite. "Having Colorado in play gives
[Democrats] enough seats in play to offset what losses they might have in the South," Duffy said. Republicans currently hold 51 seats, compared to a combination of 48 Democrats and
the Independent Jim Jeffords of Vermont (who caucuses and often votes with the Democrats).

Last week, Rep. Bob Beauprez (R-Colo.) joined a growing list of lawmakers who have rejected White House political adviser Karl Rove's attempts to persuade them to run. Rove had already been rebuffed by Gov. Mike Huckabee (Ark.), former Gov. Jim Edgar (Ill.), and Reps. Jennifer Dunn (Wash.) and Jim Gibbons (Nev.). This puts some Democratic incumbents formerly considered vulnerable, such as Blanche Lincoln (Ark.) and Harry Reid (Nev.), in strong positions to win reelection.

Democrats, on the other hand, have had more success recruiting candidates. As DSCC Chairman Jon Corzine (D-N.J.) told Roll Call Monday: "The most important element of winning elections is making sure you have good candidates. On that scale we are in pretty
exceptional shape." The unity shown in rallying around Salazar in Colorado helps, too, in avoiding a bloody and costly primary.

The Democrats are also hoping to pick up the seats of two retiring Republicans, Peter Fitzgerald of Illinois and Don Nickles of Oklahoma, who each come from states with recently elected Democratic governors. Murkowski faces a tough race in Alaska both because she's running against a popular state figure, Knowles, and because her father, Gov. Frank Murkowski, appointed her to the seat.

And prospects have even improved for Democrats in the South, the party's Achilles heel this November. All five retiring senators hail from the region.

"The perception is that because Democrats have five open seats in the South, they'll lose five seats in the South," Duffy said. She disagrees with the quick conclusion: "Will it be hard? Yes. Will they have to fight for whatever they get? Yes. Is it hopeless? No."

Florida and Georgia present tough challenges for Democrats, but three of the five states could well stay Democratic this fall.

In North Carolina, where Sen. John Edwards announced his retirement to seek the White House, Democrat Erskine Bowles will take on Rep. Richard Burr. Bowles, who lost to Elizabeth Dole in 2002, enjoys high name recognition and has shown he is willing to spend his own money to win.

In Louisiana, Sen. John Breaux is leaving but is "deeply committed to doing everything he can to keep this seat," according to Duffy. Breaux, who is backing Rep. Chris John (D), has substantial political muscle in the state. He used it to help propel Sen. Mary Landrieu to her two victories and, most recently, to elect Kathleen Blanco governor last fall.

And in South Carolina, where Ernest Hollings is stepping down after seven terms, Inez Tenenbaum is the only Democrat running. She's taken positions that might not sit well with some liberals -- favoring the war against Iraq, for example -- but fit in with the state's conservative voters. Republicans have an "ugly primary" there, too, Duffy said.

All of this is leaving Democrats -- and donors -- feeling more confident about their chances this fall, Morris said. Last week, 10 senators received more than a million dollars in fundraising commitments in just two hours of phone calls. And with the Senate out of
session this week, DSCC Chairman Jon Corzine (D-N.J.) is visiting 10 cities to raise cash and other senators are holding events.

Morris predicted that this quarter would be the best in the 2004 cycle in terms of fundraising for the DSCC. She also said the DSCC has seen a "large increase" in online fundraising. According to Roll Call, however, the DSCC will need the help. The newspaper reported that the DSCC had $2.5 million in cash-on-hand in February, while the National Republican Senatorial Committee enjoyed almost $10 million in cash-on-hand in January. It doesn't help that Democrat Blair Hull, who is likely to lose today's Illinois primary, is a self-financed candidate who could have eased the party's financial burden.

Still, said Duffy, the party's improving election prospects could give Democrats a "real boost" financially. But, as she said, it can't just be Corzine. "A lot of Democratic senators have to pitch in to help raise money." Ladies and gentlemen of the Senate, it's time to step up to the plate.

Mary Lynn F. Jones is online editor of The Hill. Her column on Hill politics runs each week in the online edition of The American Prospect.