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Exiles on Main Street
The year 2004 is likely to be a good one for Bush and the Republicans — and bad news for progressive causes

Rule of seven

OF ALL THE advantages enjoyed by the Republican Party in the 2004 campaign for the US Senate, perhaps none is bigger than this: five Democratic incumbents have chosen not to run for re-election, whereas only two Republicans are stepping aside.

Worse, all five Democrats are from states that are either solidly Republican or that lean that way. One of the retiring Republicans, Peter Fitzgerald, of Illinois, is almost certain to be replaced by a Democrat. But the other, Don Nickles, of Oklahoma, will probably be replaced by another member of the GOP.

What follows are thumbnail sketches of the seven retiring senators. The ratings by Americans for Democratic Action and the American Conservative Union are a general measure of where they fit on the liberal/conservative scale.

Zell Miller

Party: Democratic

State: Georgia

Age: 71

First elected: 2000

Votes with Democratic leadership: 40 percent of the time

Votes with President Bush: 92 percent of the time

Americans for Democratic Action: 30 percent

American Conservative Union: 60 percent

Outlook: Miller, the most conservative Democrat in the Senate, will not be missed. He’s endorsed Bush’s presidential campaign, and he’s engaged in some high-profile trashing of his party while flogging his book, A National Party No Longer: The Conscience of a Conservative Democrat. Nevertheless, Georgia is solidly Republican these days, so much so that in 2002 voters rejected Democratic senator Max Cleland, a war hero and a triple amputee, after he was accused of being soft on homeland security. Likely outcome: an easy Republican win. As Hotline editor Chuck Todd recently wrote on NationalJournal.com, "Yet another month has come and gone, and the Democrats can’t even find a second-tier candidate."

John Breaux

Party: Democratic

State: Louisiana

Age: 59

First elected: 1986

Votes with Democratic leadership: 55 percent of the time

Votes with President Bush: 88 percent of the time

Americans for Democratic Action: 65 percent

American Conservative Union: 42 percent

Outlook: Frustrated liberals often denounce Breaux and Miller in the same breath. But Breaux, unlike Miller, is a genuine centrist who is often the Democrats’ best bet for finding common ground in an increasingly partisan environment. Louisiana went for George W. Bush in 2000, and would seem to be ripe for a Republican takeover. But the state is much more Catholic and ethnic than the rest of the South; in 2002, Democratic senator Mary Landrieu narrowly won re-election. This could go either way, but the Democrats would appear to have a slight edge.

Ernest "Fritz" Hollings

Party: Democratic

State: South Carolina

Age: 82

First elected: 1966

Votes with Democratic leadership: 85 percent of the time

Votes with President Bush: 71 percent of the time

Americans for Democratic Action: 85 percent

American Conservative Union: 15 percent

Outlook: Pretty much hopeless for the Democrats. Hollings was first sent to the Senate in an era when the South — and South Carolina — was still solidly Democratic. Today the Palmetto State is just as solidly Republican. Still, the Hotline’s Todd reports that the Republicans are engaged in internecine warfare, which makes it at least theoretically possible that Hollings will be succeeded by a Democrat. But don’t count on it.

John Edwards

Party: Democratic

State: North Carolina

Age: 50

First elected: 1998

Votes with Democratic leadership: 84 percent of the time

Votes with President Bush: 76 percent of the time

Americans for Democratic Action: 70 percent

American Conservative Union: 30 percent

Outlook: Why would an inexperienced first-term senator walk away from his seat and mount a long-shot run for president? One possible explanation is that Edwards was lucky to win the first time, and knows he’s too liberal to win re-election. Former Clinton aide Erskine Bowles, who got creamed by Elizabeth Dole in 2002, is making another run for it, but he’s probably going to fall short again. Likely outcome: a Republican victory.

Bob Graham

Party: Democratic

State: Florida

Age: 67

First elected: 1986

Votes with Democratic leadership: 77 percent of the time

Votes with President Bush: 79 percent of the time

Americans for Democratic Action: 75 percent

American Conservative Union: 20 percent

Outlook: Graham decided to end his political career after his brief presidential campaign went absolutely nowhere. Republican congresswoman Katherine Harris, of 2000 recount fame, is thinking of running, but the White House — worried that she would be too much of a lightning rod — is pushing the candidacy of Housing and Urban Development secretary Mel Martinez. The recount fiasco would suggest that Florida is too close to call. But Governor Jeb Bush controls the electoral machinery, and George W. Bush is likely to be more popular than he was the first time around. Likely outcome: a narrow Republican win.

Peter Fitzgerald

Party: Republican

State: Illinois

Age: 43

First elected: 1998

Votes with Republican leadership: 77 percent of the time

Votes with President Bush: 95 percent of the time

Americans for Democratic Action: 20 percent

American Conservative Union: 85 percent

Outlook: One of the few bright spots for the Democrats. Fitzgerald’s victory was something of a fluke: he beat Democratic senator Carol Moseley Braun, who was embattled by charges of campaign-finance improprieties and of sucking up to the brutal Nigerian dictatorship. Neither allegation amounted to much, and Moseley Braun is now running for president, apparently as much to refurbish her reputation as for any other reason. Gore beat Bush in Illinois by 55 percent to 43 percent in 2000. As NationalJournal.com puts it: "National Democrats see this seat as a major pickup opportunity."

Don Nickles

Party: Republican

State: Oklahoma

Age: 55

First elected: 1980

Votes with Republican leadership: 99 percent of the time

Votes with President Bush: 98 percent of the time

Americans for Democratic Action: zero percent

American Conservative Union: 100 percent

Outlook: Oklahoma is a heavily Republican state, and this should be a slam-dunk for the GOP. But the Democrats have come up with a savvy candidate: Congressman Brad Carson, who has a moderate voting record (Americans for Democratic Action puts him at 65 percent) and the good sense, in liberal-loathing Oklahoma, to return a $2000 donation from Senator Hillary Clinton’s political-action committee. Likely outcome: an easy Republican win, but Carson could pull an upset.

Sources: Project Vote Smart (www.vote-smart.com); NationalJournal.com; and other news and reference guides.

— DK

THE SIERRA CLUB is holding a contest. In the latest issue of its electronic newsletter, "Raw: The Uncooked Facts of the Bush Assault on the Environment," the organization asks its members to pick the three most blatant examples of George W. Bush’s anti-green agenda.

The nominees make up an impressively wide-ranging catalogue. From going soft on mercury emissions to pushing for oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, from lying about air pollution at the former World Trade Center to shifting the cost of toxic-waste clean-up onto the backs of taxpayers, Bush’s environmental record is a grim one indeed.

"We consider President Bush to be the worst environmental president ever," says Margaret Conway, the Sierra Club’s political director. "He is doing more damage to the environment than any president we have seen. And this is the first term. It’s only going to get worse."

It’s only going to get worse.

Given that the 2004 election is more than 11 months away, Conway’s assessment might come across as unduly glum. And she hastens to add that her organization plans to work hard in "battleground" states, educating the public about the Bush administration’s environmental record. "We talk to our members and supporters every day, and they are energized," she says.

Yet there are reasons, good ones, for Conway’s pessimism. Fueled by three years’ worth of obscenely generous tax cuts for the rich, the economy appears to be lurching to life, perhaps temporarily, but just in time for the 2004 campaign.

The capture of Saddam Hussein signals at least the possibility that the situation in Iraq will improve — something to be fervently wished for, regardless of how much the White House lied about weapons of mass destruction and thumbed its nose at the international community.

And Howard Dean — who has come stunningly close to wrapping up the Democratic presidential nomination before the first primary vote is even cast — is widely seen as vulnerable because of his inexperience in foreign policy in an age of terrorism. That inexperience, coupled with his being painted as a stereotypical Northeast liberal by opponents ranging from Karl Rove to John Kerry, may not only ensure his own defeat, but set back Democratic hopes of regaining one or both branches of Congress as well.

Election math can change very quickly, of course. But based on current trends, it appears likely that Bush will actually win the presidential election. That the Republicans will bolster their numbers in the House and the Senate. And that those fighting for a host of progressive issues — civil liberties, abortion rights, gay-and-lesbian equality, and the environment — will find themselves on the defensive for at least another two years.

The nightmare scenario: that Bush will appoint one, two, or more justices to the Supreme Court in his second term. And that outnumbered Senate Democrats will find it increasingly difficult even to muster the 41 votes they need to filibuster some future Clarence Thomas or Antonin Scalia into oblivion.

How real is the threat? Consider that, during this past year, anti-choice activists finally achieved their long-sought goal of banning a rarely used late-term-abortion procedure known as intact dilation and extraction, or intact D&X — a procedure labeled by opponents as "partial-birth abortion." Recall that Bill Clinton, a staunch advocate of choice, repeatedly said he would sign such a ban as long as an exception were made for the health of the woman. Bush, on the other hand, signed the ban even though it contained no such provision.

On December 17, a federal appeals court upheld an Ohio state law banning intact D&X. Along with legal challenges to the new federal law that have already been filed, a showdown before the Supreme Court now seems a virtual certainty. It’s unclear how the current justices would rule. But it’s possible that by the time so-called partial-birth abortion goes before the court, Mr. Justice Scalia will have a new soul mate or two.

Evelyn Becker, a spokeswoman for NARAL Pro-Choice America, worries that the ban on intact D&X will be just the beginning of a long, vicious assault on abortion rights.

"We are very nervous," Becker says. "We are more worried than ever about the overturn of Roe v. Wade, and are doing everything in our power to safeguard a woman’s right to choose. It makes crystal clear that we cannot afford to risk a second George Bush term."

IF YOU SKIM OVER the surface, it’s not entirely clear why the coming campaign for control of Capitol Hill is shaping up to be such a disaster for progressive aspirations.

The margins in both branches are narrow. In the House, there are 229 Republicans and 205 Democrats. In the Senate, Republicans hold 51 seats and the Democrats 48. The sole independent, Jim Jeffords, of Vermont, is a liberal former Republican who usually votes with the Democrats.

Nor does early polling suggest a catastrophe for the Democrats. According to an Associated Press survey conducted a month ago, 44 percent of Americans would actually like to see the Democrats regain control of Congress, as opposed to 42 percent who want to see Congress remain in Republican hands. A variety of polls shows that those numbers have held more or less steady for many months.

But the narrow margins and the evenly divided poll results obscure some much bigger problems for the Democrats. This is especially true in the Senate.

Consider that of the 34 Senate seats at stake in the 2004 election, 19 are held by Democrats and 15 are held by Republicans. That means Democrats actually have to win four more seats than Republicans just to maintain their current numbers. Even worse, Bush won 10 of the 19 states that the Democrats will be defending, whereas Gore won only three of the 15 states where a Republican senator’s term is expiring.

Then, too, five incumbent Democrats are retiring, as opposed to just two incumbent Republicans. All five Democrats come from states that have shifted increasingly to the Republican side in recent years: John Edwards, of North Carolina; Ernest "Fritz" Hollings, of South Carolina; Bob Graham, of Florida; John Breaux, of Louisiana; and Zell Miller, of Georgia. Of the two retiring Republicans, Peter Fitzgerald, of Illinois, will likely be replaced by a Democrat; in the case of Don Nickles, of Oklahoma, it could go either way, but with the Republicans having a decided edge. (See "Rule of Seven," page 14.)

Jennifer Duffy, who follows Senate races for the Cook Political Report, says the most likely result is a slight gain for the Republicans. The "bad hand" that the Democrats have been dealt in terms of numbers and geography, she predicts, will make it nearly impossible for them to regain the majority.

On the other hand, Duffy believes there is virtually no chance that the Republicans can gain nine seats and thus hit 60 — the magic number for cutting off debate and ending filibusters. Not only are the Republicans vulnerable in Illinois and Oklahoma, she says, but they may also lose in Alaska, where Republican-senator-turned-governor Frank Murkowski riled up voters by naming his daughter to replace him in the Senate. Lisa Murkowski must face election this fall.

Yet even if Republicans pick up just a handful of seats, Duffy thinks it will become more difficult for the Democrats to use the filibuster to stop judicial appointments they don’t like. "There’s such a thing as a working majority," she explains. "Once you get to 55 or 56 seats, the other side starts to lose votes. It starts to get a little bit easier to get to that 60. You start to see the filibuster used less."

The House is another matter altogether. With 435 seats on the line every two years, and those more or less evenly divided between the two major parties, you might think huge shifts could occur depending on which way the political winds are blowing. In fact, though, gerrymandering by state officials of both parties has become so widespread that there is no more than a handful of seats up for grabs across the whole country.

Amy Walter, who is Jennifer Duffy’s House colleague at the Cook Political Report, says that as recently as 10 years ago there were about 100 seats in play in any given election. This year, she predicts, there will be just 30 seats that could be won by either party. If each party wins about the same number of those competitive races, then the result is the status quo.

"I can see at this point either side picking up a handful of seats," says Walter. "I guess I would say that it would be more likely that Republicans could expand on their majority than Democrats have the likelihood of taking the majority. At the same time, I could also see Democrats chipping away at that number."

Redistricting is another factor working against the Democrats in the House. Traditionally, states draw new House districts every 10 years, after the federal census. Last year, though, the Republican-controlled legislatures in both Texas and Colorado broke with that tradition and rammed through new maps in mid decade — apparently with the direct knowledge and support of leading national Republicans such as House majority leader Tom DeLay, of Texas, and Bush’s political guru, Karl Rove.

According to a piece by Sasha Abramsky in a recent issue of the Nation, the Republicans will likely pick up seven seats in Texas as a result of that state’s hotly contested redistricting battle, which, at its height, featured Democrats actually leaving the state in order to prevent a quorum, and Republicans trying to hunt them down.

The Colorado plan has been overturned by that state’s supreme court, but could be headed for appeal. And as Abramsky observes, with the Republicans controlling more state legislatures and governorships than the Democrats do, any further redistricting attempts could prove disastrous for the Democrats.

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Issue Date: January 2 - 8, 2004
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