Election 2008

Three 'Red State' Senate Races That Could Change America

Dems are riding a wave into Congress this election, and a few key victories in the South could make a huge difference for progressive causes.
If Barack Obama pulls off a widely-anticipated win on Tuesday, he'll take office with an enormous amount of political capital. As George W. Bush proclaimed in 2004, "elections matter." But while Obama will have a clear mandate for dismantling the policies of the Bush era, he'll also have to wrestle with a conservative movement that, while wounded, is far from dead.

Key to his ability to effect substantive change will be the composition of the Senate, where 60 votes are required to overcome filibusters on crucial pieces of legislation. If the Democrats hit that mark, it'll be a game-changer; the party's leadership would have no excuses for failing to enact a progressive agenda. That in itself would help the party's progressive base exercise real power for the first time in decades.

Democrats started this cycle with an advantage; 23 GOP seats are up for re-election versus 12 seats held by Dems. With George Bush's dismal approval ratings, the Democrats have long anticipated increasing their Senate majority -- now 51-49, including "independent Democrat" Joe Lieberman (CT) and Bernie Sanders (VT) -- by 5-6 seats. But with the financial meltdown weighing heavily on the Republican brand and a disciplined and impressive Obama organization on the ground, a 60-seat majority, while still a very long shot, is not beyond the realm of possibility.

In addition to several seats left open by Republican retirements -- and that of the recently-convicted Ted Stevens (AK) -- Democrats have real opportunities to pick up seats that seemed like stiff challenges a few short months ago, including those held by Norm Coleman (MN), Gordon Smith (OR) and John Sununu (NH).

But if the Obama campaign can fulfill its promise of turning out huge numbers of new voters -- young people, people of color, single women -- then it's possible that several seats that in a normal election would never be in play might also flip.

Three races in Southern "red" states are of particular interest: Jim Martin's run against Saxby Chambliss in Georgia; the battle between Mitch McConnell and Bruce Lunsford in Kentucky and Kay Hagan's challenge to Elizabeth Dole in North Carolina.

Kentucky

Among the most closely-watched races this Tuesday will be that pitting Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell against Bruce Lunsford, a former businessman and long-time player in Kentucky Democratic politics.Winning the seat that would be a sweet bit of revenge for the Democrats, after the GOP successfully targeted South Dakota Democrat Tom Daschle, then the party's leader, in 2004. Prior to that contest, Senate tradition dictated that the two major parties wouldn't challenge their opposition's leaders. When The Hill asked Charles Schumer (NY), leading the Democratic fight for the Senate, about targeting McConnell, he said, "The rules of etiquette were broken with Tom Daschle."

McConnell's pitch is that Lunsford, as a Senate newbie, wouldn't have the clout that McConnell, a 24-year veteran of the chamber as well as the GOP's leader, enjoys. "There are [even] plenty of Democrats who … understand this would be a horrible trade for the commonwealth, a massive step backward in clout and influence," McConnell told a crowd at a campaign stop this weekend. The Republican's argument got a last-minute boost when Bush's Department of Veterans' Affairs approved a $75 million project in Louisville on Friday -- a well-timed move for the campaign.

Lunsford, meanwhile, has hit McConnell hard on the economy -- a through-story for all three races. At a rally on Saturday, Lunsford said, "People want prosperity back…They want to know it's gonna be all right. They want some hope. They want to feel like their country has the potential to be what it's been in the past." Lunsford has criticized McConnell for his role in crafting the $700 billion Wall Street bailout passed by congress last month.

McConnell is known for his fundraising prowess; a 2006 investigative report by the Lexington Herald Leader found a "nexus between his actions and his donors' agendas. He pushes the government to help cigarette makers, Las Vegas casinos, the pharmaceutical industry, credit card lenders, coal mine owners and others." The report called McConnell's rise to the top of Congress "a testament to the power of money in modern politics." Marshall Whitman, a former aid to John McCain -- who battled McConnell over campaign finance reform -- said, "He's completely dogged in his pursuit of money. That's his great love, above everything else."

Both campaigns have launched extensive get-out-the-vote operations in the final days of the campaign. A host of political stars have come out for each candidate, including an appearance with Lunsford by Hillary Clinton on Sunday.

McCain is up in Kentucky by an average of 13 points, but Kentucky Democrats are emboldened after Democrat Steve Beshear won an 18-point blow-out in last year's gubernatorial race.

According to RealClearPolitics' average of state polls, McConnell, who as late as September enjoyed a lead as high as 17 points, is now up by just under 6 points on the eve of the election. SurveyUSA's latest poll has the incumbent up by 8, but a Research 2000 poll taken two days earlier showed Lunsford trailing by just 3 points, within the study's margin of error.

North Carolina

Given the importance of the Dole name in Republican politics, this race, pitting Elizabeth Dole against State Assemblywoman Kay Hagan, has a profound symbolic importance, as well as being a must-win seat if the Dems are to have a shot at hitting the magic number of 60. The seat's been in Republican hands for 35 years.

Dole, who oversaw the GOP's senate efforts in 2006, when her party lost control of the chamber, enjoyed a double-digit lead in the polls as late as July, but has seen the tide turn, and now trails Hagan by an average of almost 6 points.

Like McConnell, Dole's closing argument is based on her position in the Senate leadership and role on key committees. Like many GOP candidates in recent weeks, she's also warned that if Democrats get the supermajority they seek, they'll raise taxes, make it easier for labor unions to organize and allow appointment of judges who will "legislate from the bench."

Hagan's overarching strategy is to tie Dole to Bush. With unprecedented pessimism among the electorate, she's also tried to turn Dole's experience into a negative; at a campaign stop this weekend she said, "I think politicians like Elizabeth Dole are ineffective because they are so tied into the special interests and the lobbyists."

It's a race that in many ways is a microcosm of America's larger political and cultural divides, with Dole attacking Hagan on social issues, and Hagan pushing hard on the economy. Dole created a firestorm of controversy by running an ad accusing Hagan, a Sunday-school teacher, of being in bed with "Godless Americans" -- an ad that drew a fiery response from Hagan, who accused Dole of violating the 9th Commandment by "bearing false witness" against a "fellow Christian."

Hagan, meanwhile, has thumped Dole repeatedly for the banking mess, arguing that she was ineffective while serving on the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs.

If Hagan pulls out a victory on Tuesday, she'll have demographics as well as the moribund Republican brand to thank. Once a solidly conservative state, an influx of high-tech workers to North Carolina's Research Triangle area and an increase in Hispanic voters that are breaking heavily towards Democrats nationwide is turning North Carolina into a distinctly purple state; polls show a dead-heat between Obama and McCain in the Tar Heel State.

Georgia

If revenge is a dish best served cold, Max Cleland must be licking his chops as he ponders the potential defeat of Saxby Chambliss, the Republican who unseated him in 2002 with what's considered one of the nastiest campaigns in recent history. In a fundraising email on behalf of Saxby's challenger, former state Assemblyman Jim Martin, Cleland -- a decorated veteran who lost three limbs serving his country -- wrote, "In 2002, Saxby Chambliss won his Senate seat in the final days by putting my picture next to Osama bin Laden and lying about me. It was despicable, but it worked."

With many Democrats sensing an opportunity for a sort of electoral justice to be served against Chambliss, and both parties seeing the race as crucial to the composition of the Senate, money is pouring in from out of state; according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, over $3 million has been put into the race by individuals and organizations outside the Peach state.

Chambliss and Martin, former fraternity brothers at the University of Georgia, are locked in one of the bitterest races in the country; both camps' negative ads have become a subject of media attention. In a debate less than two weeks before the election, Martin tried to distance himself from an ad run by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee attacking Chambliss for his flat tax proposal, which polls well among Georgia conservatives, while lashing out at Chambliss for running an ad suggesting that Martin was responsible for the deaths of two children who were returned to abusive homes in 2003, when he headed the state's Department of Human Resources. (After the story first broke five years ago, Martin resigned from the post under media pressure.) In the debate, Martin said, "This is a personal attack on me that's inaccurate," and called on Chambliss to take the ad off the airwaves. Chambliss shot back: "You and I know what the facts are. You got fired. You had the opportunity to provide leadership, and you didn't do it."

Georgia, which has voted for Republicans in the last three presidential contests, is in play this year but considered a long shot for the Obama campaign, with McCain hanging onto a lead of approximately 5 points. Chambliss, who remains popular in the state and had a lead as high as 29 points in a Strategic Vision poll taken in in late June, is clinging to an average lead in of just 2.7 percent in recent polls.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about this race is that under Georgia law, a candidate must win more than 50 percent of the vote to take office. That makes Libertarian candidate Allen Buckley, who took 2 percent of the vote in his 2004 senate race, a potential spoiler for Chambliss, who has topped the 50 percent mark in only one poll since the end of September. If neither Chambliss nor Martin get a majority, then they'll square off in a run-off vote to determine the winner in early December. It's a likely outcome; if it were to occur, the lead-up to the second vote would be the primary focus of both major parties. As a blogger on the Georgia Unfiltered website noted:
Imagine, for a second, what might happen if the Democrats' filibuster-proof U.S. Senate hinges on Jim Martin winning a December run-off. I suspect that money would begin pouring in from across the nation and you'd see high-profile surrogates such as Max Cleland, Virginia Senator Jim Webb and other moderate-to-conservative Democrats hitting the campaign trail in Georgia.
The Stakes Couldn't be Higher

Sixty seats would require a perfect electoral storm. Sheldon Whitehouse, the junior Democratic Senator from Rhode Island, last week cautioned against putting too much emphasis on hitting the number. “If the White House political team can’t figure out a way to get two Republican senators to vote with us between Air Force One, tea at the White House, U.S. attorneys and judges and dams and roads and ambassadors and all that other stuff, somebody should take them out to the woodshed,” he said. “Sixty is less a magic number than a zone."

Most pollsters project a 6-7 seat pick-up, which would leave the Dems with 57-58 seats in the Senate.

Whitehouse is right, but the significance of a party that controls the White House and hits 60 Senate seats can't be overstated. It's not just key pieces of legislation that will ultimately be at stake -- measures like the Employee Free Choice Act, a law that would help protect workers' right to join a union if they so desire, health care reform or a much-needed bailout for working families caught in a profoundly painful economy. An Obama administration will face daunting challenged both at home and abroad, and it would be forced to tackle them with some very conservative members of his own Senate caucus -- legislators like Nebraska's Ben Nelson, Montana's Max Baucus and, of course, Joe Lieberman.

But if Obama rides a wave that sweeps Republicans out of even red state redoubts like Georgia or Kentucky, the storyline will be that Americans have finally rejected the failures of conservative governance, and his political capital will make it incredibly difficult to obstruct his agenda.
Joshua Holland is an AlterNet staff writer.
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