Monday, September 10, 2007

Hagel worsens his party's woes

Senator Chuck Hagel has long exasperated most of his fellow Republicans; his antiwar pronouncements about Iraq have been generally viewed as political blasphemy, particularly his declaration last winter that the Bush decision to launch a troop surge "represents the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam." But they may well come to mourn his absence on the 2008 Nebraska ballot. His expected retirement - formally announced today - will put that Senate seat in play, and further burden the national GOP as it labors to avoid slipping even further into the minority.

In presidential election years, most public attention is focused on the contestants for the top job, but the composition of the House and Senate will be critically important when the new president starts work in 2009. It's hard to imagine, for instance, that a Democrat in the White House would be able to score big achievements without strong party majorities in both chambers. Which is why the Senate is a crucial '08 battleground.

And Hagel, by leaving, will make it tougher for the GOP to hang on to its fragile 49-51 minority.

Nebraska is a deeply red state in presidential elections, and it's hard to imagine that any Democratic hopeful can win there next year. But Nebraska's Republicans are also ticket-splitters, which helps explain the presence of the other senator, Democrat Ben Nelson, and the past successes of Democrat Bob Kerrey, who served both as governor and as a senator. And that same Bob Kerry (who has serious money and celebrity cache) is now thinking seriously about running for senator again, in 2008, now that Hagel is taking a pass.

There are other potentially strong candidates as well, including Mike Johanns, a former GOP governor who's now serving Bush as the U.S. secretary of agriculture, but the key point here is that the national Republicans will have to expend considerably more time and effort and money, just to defend its Nebraska seat, than they had originally planned. And the timing could not be worse, because they were already at pains to defend 22 of the 34 seats up for re-election next year.

Worse yet, virtually all of the vulnerable '08 seats are now held (or being vacated) by Republicans. Hagel is the third Republican to announce his departure, following Wayne Allard in Colorado (which has been trending blue) and, most recently, John Warner in Virginia (another major Democratic opportunity).

In addition, Republican incumbents are thought to be highly vulnerable in Maine (Susan Collins), Minnesota (Norm Coleman), New Hampshire (John Sununu), and Oregon (Gordon Smith). Smith is the only Republican senator on the west coast, and he's trying to hang on in a blue state. Sununu won a squeaker in 2002, but New Hampshire has been trending blue ever since. Collins, who voted to authorize war in Iraq, will face a Democratic congressman who voted no, in a state that supported John Kerry in 2004. And Coleman, who stayed loyal to Bush on Iraq, also hails from a pro-Kerry state.

Then there are the wild cards. Alaska GOP incumbent Ted Stevens and his New Mexico counterpart, Pete Domenici, are up for re-election next year, but both guys have had ethics problems (Stevens is under investigation in a federal corruption probe, and Domenici played a key role in the political purging of a U.S. attorney), and it would not be a shock if at least one of them announced the sudden desire to spend more time with the family rather than face the voters.

On the flip side of the ledger, the Democrats at present seem vulnerable only in Louisiana (where incumbent Mary Landrieu could be hurt by the exodus of thousands of Democratic voters, thanks to Katrina), and possibly South Dakota, where incumbent Tim Johnson, newly recovered from a brain operation, has yet to state his '08 plans (and he was a narrow winner anyway, back in 2002).

Moreover, as a reflection of the current national mood, Democrats are financially well positioned to play offense, in Hagel's Nebraska and across the map. Traditionally, they tend to have a lot less money than their GOP counterparts - but, at the moment, the reverse is true. At the end of June, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in Washington had $20.4 million in the bank; the National Republican Senatorial Committee, only $5.7 million. Barring a money surge, it won't be easy for the GOP to spread limited largesse across an expanded number of competitive states.

All told, Senate handicapper Stuart Rothenberg noted today, "a Democratic gain of five to seven seats (is) a serious possibility next year."

Some Hagel foes on the right are celebrating his retirement; as one blogger on scoffed the other day, "The unctuous lightweight from Nebraska...has decided to pack his crap and get off the battlefield. Toodle-oo, Chuck." But the fact is that, despite Hagel's Iraq heresies, he generally voted with his party 90 percent of time - on everything from taxes to Supreme Court nominees. If the Democrats wind up winning that seat, and widening their margin of control in the Senate, the Hagel-haters may come to rue their own mockery.


Speaking of mockery, Hagel once lambasted his own Senate colleagues for their discomfiture on Iraq. He famously told them, "If you wanted a safe job, go sell shoes."

Well, proverbially speaking, now that Hagel has decided to go sell shoes - by freeing himself up to say and act as he pleases, without needing to worry about the '08 voters back home - is he more likely to work closely with Democrats on the war, in opposition to Bush, for the duration of his lame-duck Senate stint? The same question applies to John Warner.