An Eye on Three Candidates in the Senate Race

The passion invested by the Democratic faithful in taking back the White House has meant that not enough has been said about the imperative of taking back control of the place John Kerry might be leaving – the United States Senate.

If Kerry is the next occupant of the Oval Office, he will need legislative muscle to undo the disastrous policies of the Bush administration, which have damaged our economy, degraded our environment, added millions to the roll of America's uninsured and seriously undermined our national security. No executive order can reverse all that.

And if Bush makes his way to re-election, a Democratic Senate will be the only thing standing in the way of a second term all-out assault on America's working families, and the implementation of a radical right wing social agenda. Don't forget, the next president will probably end up appointing at least a couple of Supreme Court justices – and Bush has made it clear that he'd fill any vacancies with clones of Antonin Scalia. See ya later, Roe v. Wade; nice knowing ya civil liberties. Don't forget to turn your clocks back a hundred years.

The Democrats actually have a pretty good shot at turning Bill Frist into the Senate Minority Leader.

In looking at the Senate races Democrats can win, I focused on the three open seats currently held by retiring Republicans in Illinois, Colorado and Oklahoma. In each of these states the Democrats are putting forth a candidate – Barack Obama in Illinois, Ken Salazar in Colorado, and Brad Carson in Oklahoma – capable of bringing a new type of leadership to Washington.

Just for starters, Obama is black, Salazar is Hispanic, and Carson is a member of the Cherokee Nation – no small matter when you consider that despite making up over 25 percent of the U.S. population (accounting for more than 71 million Americans), there are currently no blacks, no Hispanics, and just one Native American in the Senate. The World's Most Exclusive Club, indeed.

But what separates and elevates these candidates goes far beyond race and ethnicity. It's their ability to focus on the Other America – the millions struggling to make ends meet – while retaining the ability to draw supporters from across the political spectrum.

As an added bonus, the three are running against some of the most troubling opponents to ever come down the political pike. Even if Obama, Salazar, and Carson weren't so appealing, their opponents – Alan Keyes in Illinois, Pete Coors in Colorado, and Tom Coburn in Oklahoma – are so repellent that their resounding defeat should be a priority for all sentient Americans. More on these bozos as we go along.

The nation saw firsthand the reasons for Obama's widespread appeal when he delivered his headline-making keynote speech at the Democratic convention: he is brilliant (a former president of the Harvard Law Review), charismatic, an eloquent speaker, and in possession of a life story that embodies the American dream. And thanks to his suddenly sky-high national profile, he'll arrive in Washington with the kind of clout most freshmen senators can only dream of – unless, of course, they're married to a former President of the United States.

More important, he has a passionate vision of what he wants to do with that clout: "George Bush," he told me, "clearly believes that the role of government is to protect the powerful from the powerless. We need to dramatically change our priorities."

Obama is currently way out in front of Keyes, the arch-conservative commentator-cum-carpetbagger who, since belatedly entering the race, has helped dig his own political grave with a series of outrageous comments, including equating Obama with slave owners, labeling Dick Cheney's lesbian daughter a "selfish hedonist," and claiming that, if he were around and living in Chicago, "Christ would not vote for Barack Obama."

Colorado's Salazar faces a tougher challenge: there are 193,000 more registered Republicans than Democrats in his state. Nevertheless, the popular two-time state Attorney General has been able to open a lead by combining a two-fisted attack on President Bush's mishandling of Iraq, domestic security, the economy, and the environment with a down-home, folksy style. His pick-up truck persona (complete with blue jeans and cowboy hat) has won him the support of a majority of the state's rural voters.

And when I heard him speak in Los Angeles last month, it was clear that his authenticity touched just as deep a chord with urban sophisticates. His commitment to closing the growing disparities between the opportunities available to the Two Americas is unmistakable.

He speaks movingly of how this division has affected his home state: "While the folks living in the densely populated counties along Colorado's Front Range have prospered over the last decade, those living in Colorado's fifty rural counties are struggling to survive. Their schools are not getting the attention they deserve, they are losing health care providers and access, they have been losing agricultural jobs, and no manufacturing jobs are locating there."

Salazar's opponent is Pete Coors, a political greenhorn. So far, this brewery heir's main contribution to the national dialogue has been his full-throated advocacy for lowering the drinking age from 21 to 18, arguing that such a move would encourage more sensible teenage drinking. Just the kind of altruistic leadership we need more of in Washington.

Given Oklahoma's unabashedly conservative bent – Bush carried the state by 22 percent in 2000, and currently leads Kerry by even more – it's nothing short of a miracle that Carson, a 37-year old, two-term Congressman, is running neck-and-neck with his Republican rival. A sixth-generation Oklahoman who turned down an opportunity to go to law school at Yale in favor of the University of Oklahoma, then devoted a third of his practice to providing free legal services to impoverished clients, Carson has attracted the small town support essential to pulling off a major upset in this decidedly red state.

"Too many working Americans," Carson told me, "are seeing their jobs shipped overseas without enough of our elected officials in Washington fighting on their behalf. We've got to stop pursuing policies that leave behind middle class families – such as stripping workers of overtime pay, the pay that often makes the difference between a family having groceries for the last week of the month or doing without."

And it doesn't hurt that Carson's opponent, former Rep. Tom Coburn, is a shoot-from-the-lip extremist who favors "the death penalty for abortionists," supports the right to buy and use a bazooka, has called state lawmakers "crapheads," disparaged Indian treaties as "primitive" agreements, and claimed – in the midst of the war on terror – that the "gay agenda" is "the greatest threat to our freedom that we face today." Nothing like having your priorities in order.

Most experts agree that, in the end, the balance of power in the Senate will turn on what happens in the presidential race – particularly on the effectiveness of the key messages being put out by the Democratic nominee. So I asked Sen. Jon Corzine, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, what Kerry should be emphasizing to help Democrats win their races.

"Kerry should hammer away at 'the middle class squeeze,'" he told me, "the crisis of economic security brought on by Bush's domestic policies. He needs to keep pointing out how the president has failed the American people when it comes to jobs, health care, education, and the environment. Millions of people are suffering – and it's because of Bush and the Republican Congress. That's a winning argument – for Kerry and for our Senate candidates."

And it could also turn out to be the recipe for an election night Democratic two-fer – taking back both the White House and the Senate.


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