North Carolina Sen. Elizabeth Dole is trailing in her bid for re-election. (Photo: Susan Walsh / AP)
The possibility that Democrats will build a muscular, 60-seat Senate majority is looking increasing plausible, with new polls showing a powerful surge for the party's candidates in Minnesota, Kentucky and other states.
A poll out Friday shows Sen. Norm Coleman could now easily lose his Minnesota seat to comedian-turned-candidate Al Franken. A Colorado race that initially looked like a nail-biter has broken decisively for the Democrats. A top official in the McCain camp told us Sen. Elizabeth Dole is virtually certain to lose in conservative North Carolina.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has seen his race tighten dangerously close over the past week - and Democrats are considering moving more money into the state very soon. And there is even talk that Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss is beatable in conservative Georgia after backing the economic bailout package opposed by many voters.
"Before the economic crisis, we had a number of races moving our way," said Matthew Miller, communications director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. "But now we're seeing Republican numbers plummet." GOP officials largely agree.
Senate races don't grab national attention like the White House battle does. But if these trends hold, the Senate outcome could be almost as important to Washington governance as the presidential winner will be. It takes 60 votes to pass anything through the slow-moving Senate. So the closer the Democrats get to the number, the more power they will have next year to put their stamp on the country.
Democrats say their candidates are benefiting from the wipeout on Wall Street with a single message in every region of the country: "These are the Bush policies coming home to roost." Senator Charles E. Schumer of New York, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, told Politico: "Americans know that in economically difficult times, we need a change from George Bush's policies. And incumbents who have voted for six years with Bush, up and down the line, are having a difficult time trying to convince the electorate that they've changed their spots."
The trends reflect the growing fear of among top Republicans that their prospects could crater on Nov. 4, with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) running weakly at the top of the ticket, President Bush as unpopular as ever and the economic crisis serving as a last-minute propellant for the change message of Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.).
With Republicans fearing the loss of 17 to 21 House seats, January 2009 could bring Democrats a dominance over Washington that neither party has experienced since the Reagan years.
The current Senate lineup is 49 Democrats, 49 Republicans and two independents who caucus with Democrats.
Democrats need to pick up nine seats to hit 60 votes. Republicans have been bracing for big losses, but it wasn't until the past few days that they have started to privately sound the alarms that the bottom could fall out on Election Day.
GOP Senate candidates are getting pounded by the same waves of public discontent over the economy and Bush that could sink McCain, and it shows in polls from coast to coast.
Republicans fully expect to lose Virginia and New Mexico. They think there is a pretty strong chance that they also lose Colorado, Alaska, New Hampshire, Oregon and North Carolina.
This means everyone should keep their eyes on Minnesota, Kentucky, Mississippi and Georgia over the final month of this campaign to see if a wave is coming.
Several Republican strategists close to the White House said there is increasing fear among party leaders about a bloodbath. But they added that they hope to keep losses to as few as five or six seats, rather than the nine that Democrats would need to gain to reach the magic number of 60 seats.
These strategists hope the Minnesota poll out Saturday overstates Franken's strength, because it was taken at the height of turmoil over the bailout bill that Bush finally signed Friday.
"It reflects a lot of intense unhappiness that will fade as the market restores some equilibrium," a Republican official said.
But that same timing is very dangerous for Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.), because his state has mail voting with a heavy early vote, meaning he has less time to recover from angst about the Wall Street wipeout.
Republicans say they have become more optimistic in recent days about Sen. John Sununu (R-N.H.), who had been considered one of the party's most endangered incumbents.
Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) will certainly lose if he is convicted in a corruption trial now under way in Washington but will probably win if he is acquitted, the strategists said.
Top Republicans say they have no hope for Dole in North Carolina. "There's no point in even counting the votes," said a top McCain official.
Republicans said they hope to make up for one loss by persuading Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) to caucus with them. He has campaigned vigorously for McCain, and Democratic Party leaders have vowed to punish him.
One indication of the Republicans' mood: They're already looking past this grim election season.
"2010 looks pretty good for us to pick up three or four or five seats pretty easily," the McCain official said.