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White House Not Only Thing at Stake in November
Regardless of presidential outcomes, Democrats likely to make big gains in Congress
Timothy Savage (yamanin)     Email Article  Print Article 
Published 2008-07-08 16:05 (KST)   
While most public and media attention has naturally focused on the presidential race, the other elected branch of the US government -- the Congress -- will also face voters in November. And while polls show that the race between Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain remains tight, the good news in the congressional races is all on the Democratic side of the aisle.

Since losing control of both houses of Congress in the 2006 elections, things have only gotten worse for Republicans. In the past year, Democrats have one three seats in special elections in formerly safe Republican districts in Illinois, Mississippi, and Louisiana. In Illinois, Democrats took over the seat formerly held by the last Republican Speaker of the House, Dennis Hastert, while in Mississippi they won the seat held by Roger Wicker, who had won the special election to replace retiring Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott.

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With those wins, the Democrats now hold a 236-199 edge in the House, and seem poised to gain more.

The situation looks even more dire for Republicans in the Senate. Currently, the Senate is evenly split at 49 seats apiece, with the Democrats enjoying a slim majority thanks to two independents who caucus with them -- Bernie Sanders, a Socialist from Vermont, and Joe Lieberman, who won re-election as an independent after losing the Democratic primary due to his support for the Iraq War (and who is now actively campaigning on behalf of John McCain).

Since senators serve six-year terms, one-third of all seats come up for election every two years. Of the 33 seats normally up in this election cycle, 21 are currently held by Republicans. Additionally, two other elections are being held to fill partial terms of seats also currently held by Republicans; in Mississippi, where the aforementioned Roger Wicker will try to retain the seat he won in the special election to replace the scandal-ridden Lott, and in Wyoming, where John Barraso will attempt to win on his own right after being appointed to fill the vacancy caused by the death of Craig Thomas.

With the Republicans thus forced to defend 23 seats while the Democrats only need to protect 12, the GOP already would appear to have a tough row to hoe. But with five Republicans retiring, while all incumbent Democrats run for re-election, the Republicans will lose some of the benefits of incumbency they could normally count on.

Of the 12 Democrats running for re-election, 11 (Mark Pryor, Arkansas; Joe Biden, Delaware; Dick Durbin, Illinois; Tom Harkin, Iowa; John Kerry, Massachusetts; Carl Levin, Michigan; Max Baucus, Montana; Frank Lautenberg, New Jersey; Tim Johnson, South Dakota, and Jay Rockefeller, West Virginia) appear shoo-ins for re-election. The sole vulnerable incumbent Democrat is Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, who has been increasing her lead over state treasurer John Kennedy in recent polls.

On the Republican side, only 12 of the 23 contested seats appear to be safe bets -- Alabama, Idaho, Kansas, Mississipi (Thad Cochran), Nebraska, Tennessee, South Carolina, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Texas, and both Wyoming seats. Five other Republican incumbents are currently leading in the polls: Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, Susan Collins of Maine, Gordon Smith of Oregon, and Norm Coleman of Minnesota, who appears to be gaining ground on Democratic challenger Al Franken, a former writer for the late night comedy show "Saturday Night Live."

The Democrats appear primed to pick up four seats in traditionally Republican states that have been trending increasingly Democratic in recent elections. In Virginia, former Governor Mark Warner's commanding lead in the polls to replace retiring five-term incumbent John Warner (no relation) led him to officially withdraw his name from consideration as Obama's running mate. In New Hampshire, John Sununu, son of the former White House Chief of Staff under George H.W. Bush, faces a tough challenge from former Governor Jeanne Shaheen. And in Colorado and New Mexico, Mark Udall, the son of former Arizona Senator Mo Udall, and his cousin Tom, whose father Stewart served as Secretary of the Interior, hold strong leads in their bids to replace retiring senators Wayne Allard and Pete Dominici, respectively.

The GOP also faces the possibility of losing seats in two normally bedrock Republican states. In Mississippi, former Governor Ronnie Musgrove is running neck-and-neck with Wicker to take over Lott's old seat. In Alaska, 40-year veteran Ted Stevens, the most senior Republican in the Senate, is facing the real possibility of defeat amid FBI investigation into his relationship with oil executives who have pleaded guilty to bribing Alaskan politicians, including his son.

The presidential matchup may also work to the Democrats' advantage in Senate races. Obama's presence on the ticket should assure a large turnout among black voters, while conversely McCain's unpopularity among evangelical Christian could suppress turnout among a key Republican constituency. While the effect won't likely be large enough to hand those states to Obama, it could make a difference in at least five Southern Senate contests: Louisiana, Virginia, Mississippi, Kentucky, and Georgia.

In a best case scenario for the Republican party, they'll lose only four seats in the Senate; in the worst case, they could lose as many as 11. Should the Democrats end up with 60 seats in the Senate, they would have enough under Senate rules to prevent a filibuster, thus taking away Republican power to block action on legislation or presidential appointments.

Whoever becomes president is thus likely to be faced with a solidly Democratic Congress in both chambers. In McCain's case, that would prevent him from fulfilling his promises to conservative voters to make President Bush's tax cuts permanent and to appoint conservative judges. He might also face some constraints on his continuance of the Iraq War, or its expansion into Iran. Should Obama win, he'll have a two-year window before the next Congressional election to try to get the more ambitious planks in his platform enacted into law.

Either way, it looks like the "Contract With America" that the Republicans used to gain control of Congress in 1994 has officially expired. Whether the Democrats have the vision and the political courage to use their newfound dominance to put the country back on the right track remains to be seen.

©2008 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Timothy Savage

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