Unlike Bill Bennett, I'm not a gambler. But if I were, I'd bet that Democrats aren't going to take back in the Senate in 2004.

This prediction may sound pessimistic (and a little odd, coming from a liberal magazine). But Democrats should be realistic about their chances. And the truth is, knowing that there's little prospect of taking back either half of Congress in 2004 could actually be a blessing in disguise for the party: It could allow Democrats to be themselves during the next 18 months, freeing them to build a sustainable ideological vision for the party rather than triangulating furiously in the hope of picking up just one or two more seats. It could also portend good things for the eventual Democratic presidential nominee, given the electorate's recent tendency to favor divided government. With Congress locked in Republican hands, Democrats might be able to make the argument that sending George W. Bush back to the White House would give far-right conservatives heady momentum -- and unchecked power -- to enact their agenda.

Of the 34 Senate seats up for election next year, Democrats hold 19. That means they have more seats to defend than Republicans. According to the University of Virginia's Larry Sabato, who called the 2002 Senate races correctly 94 percent of the time, 15 of the 34 seats are either solidly in the Democratic or Republican camps. Four Democratic and six Republican seats are likely to stay within their respective party, meaning something big would have to happen for those candidates to lose. The Senate seat in Georgia, where voters lean Republican, is now held by Sen. Zell Miller (D-Ga.), which would give the GOP one additional seat. Meanwhile, Nevada, North Dakota and South Dakota are in the leaning-Democratic column; Sens. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) and Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), respectively, hold those seats. So Sabato sees these as neither a gain nor a loss for Democrats.

Of the five seats listed in the toss-up category, two are held by Republicans -- Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Sen. Peter Fitzgerald (R-Ill.), who has already announced he's resigning -- and three by Democrats. The Alaska race may wind up being a closer election than Republicans are comfortable with, but you can be sure that Gov. Frank Murkowski (R-Alaska), Lisa's father, will do everything possible to make sure his daughter holds onto his former seat. Illinois is a bit trickier to predict now that former Gov. Jim Edgar (R) has declined to run. The three Democratic toss-up seats include those held by Sens. John Edwards (D-N.C.), Bob Graham (D-Fla.) -- who may not run for the Senate, depending on his quixotic presidential bid -- and Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.), who may retire. Sabato seems to have given up on Hollings; he rates the South Carolinian's seat either a toss-up or one that leans Republican. Keep in mind, too, that Bush won Alaska, North Carolina and South Carolina with at least 56 percent of the vote in 2000. (He lost Illinois badly, and I'm not even going to mention Florida again.)

Let's assume for the moment, then, that all of the races seen as solid, likely or leaning stay where Sabato expects them to. Assume that Alaska remains in the GOP column (not a far-fetched assumption); I'm not going to predict the Illinois race yet. Assume Graham doesn't run for re-election, Hollings bows out and Edwards' seat continues its long tradition of switching parties in elections. That's a total gain of at least three seats for Republicans. The current 51-to-49 GOP majority -- I'm lumping Sen. Jim Jeffords (I-Vt.) in with the Democrats here -- becomes a 55-to-45 one if Illinois stays in the GOP column, or a 54-to-46 one if Illinois goes Democratic.

This is a very realistic scenario for Democrats. What does that mean? It means Republicans are going to be a lot closer to having the 60 votes they need to shut off a Democratic filibuster. It means Daschle is going to have to do a better job of strong-arming Democrats, such as Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), who don't have a problem straying from the party line. It means the conservative wing of the GOP, embodied by Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), will have even more influence in the chamber. And it means that the power of individual, moderate senators -- such as Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) and Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio) -- to affect the outcome of legislation will be reduced.

If any year were going to be one that favored Democrats, it should have been 2002. Why? Republicans held 20 of the 34 seats up for election. Also, the party not in control of the White House often picks up seats in midterm elections, a factor that should have favored Democrats. And Dems had momentum after unexpectedly taking control of the Senate in 2001 when Sen. Jim Jeffords (I-Vt.) defected from the GOP. But, instead of boosting the Democratic majority, 2002 turned out to be a banner year for Republicans. Of the 10 Senate rookies, eight are Republicans. (That's not including Lisa Murkowski, who's filling out the last two years of her dad's term.) The last time a new president picked up seats in both the House and Senate in a midterm election was 1934, according to Rakesh Gopalan and Matt Smyth of UVa's Center for Politics.

And to add to the bad news, there is almost no chance that Democrats will take control of the House in 2004. Sabato -- who called 99.6 percent of the 2002 House races correctly -- notes that there are 48 "marginal" districts, meaning that the incumbents in those places won in 2002 with less than 55 percent of the vote. Democrats hold 25 of those seats while Republicans have 21, so the GOP starts with an obvious edge. And Sabato notes that with 229 Republicans and 206 Democrats now in the House, Democrats would have to not only hold onto all of their current seats but also pick up 12 GOP seats to gain the majority. That's about as likely to happen as the Washington Wizards winning next year's NBA championship.

All of which means that it's more important than ever for Democrats to win back the White House -- as it may be their best hope of stopping the Republican agenda in Washington.

Mary Lynn F. Jones is a Prospect senior editor.