The federal indictment of the GOP's longest-serving U.S. senator - on seven felony counts, stemming from his seven-year sweetheart association with an oil-services company - is not merely a severe embarrassment to the minority party on Capitol Hill, a party that had been ousted from power in '06 partly because certain ethics-challenged members had already stained the Republican brand. The bottom line is that Ted Stevens' legal predicament is a gift to the Democrats, who dream of gaining nine Senate seats on election day, thus dominating the chamber next January with a filibuster-proof tally of 60.
That's still a pipe dream. But it can't hurt for the Democrats to have the dean of the Senate GOP serving as a poster boy for sleaze. As the GOP-friendly Wall Street Journal editorial page said this morning, the Stevens indictment - that he repeatedly failed to report, on Senate financial disclosure forms, the sumptuous feathering of his own nest - will surely undercut the party's attempts to minimize its November losses. As the editorial noted with asperity, "Minority parties don't typically defeat a majority when more of their own members are being indicted for corruption."
So let's use this occasion to assess the state of play in the Senate races. To reach the magic 60 on election day, Democrats need to snatch nine seats that are currently held by Republicans. Only 11 seats appear to be competitive, however, and one of those is a vulnerable Democratic incumbent, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana. So, in baseball terms, this means the Democrats would have to retain the Landrieu seat and bat .900 on the others. It's hard to imagine that happening, at least in the absence of a pro-Obama tsunami that lifts all boats - and, contrary to the giddiest hopes of Obama's giddiest fans, it's hard to imagine that happening either.
But the odds look good that, even if John McCain wins the White House, Democrats will wind up with a solid Senate majority. A feasible five-seat pickup would give them 56, and (alphabetically) here's where they seem most poised to achieve that:
Alaska, currently represented by the aforementioned Ted Stevens, who has been bringing home the pork for so long that apparently he decided it was high time he cook some up for himself. Even before the indictment, he was deemed to be tainted; the FBI raided his house last year, and the same federal probe that nailed him yesterday had already reeled in other big fish. Now the voters of this normally Republican state will face the prospect of re-electing an accused criminal. Stevens is proclaiming his innocence, and vowing to stay in the race. Some powerful voices are urging him to go; the conservative National Review intoned yesterday that Stevens "has disgraced himself and his office...He should resign, and the sooner the better." If he does quit, however, the GOP would be stuck with lesser, little-known aspirants - while the Democrats field the popular mayor of Anchorage, Mark Begich, who raised more money than Stevens during the spring, and who currently leads Stevens in the polls. In a normal year, Alaska would never be in play, but we've entered the realm of the abnormal.
Colorado, where GOP senator Wayne Allard is retiring. This formerly reliable red state has been trending blue lately, electing a Democratic governor in an '06 landslide, and a Democratic senator in '04 (thanks to the ticket-splitters who went with President Bush at the top of the ballot). Democratic congressman Mark Udall, who is running for Allard's seat, leads his opponent, former Republican congressman Bob Schaffer, by double digits in the polls. Among other things, Schaffer has been dogged by his past ties to Jack Abramoff, the now-jailed GOP super-lobbyist, and he's likely to be battling an uptick in Democratic turnout, thanks to Obama's decision to target Colorado at the grassroots.
New Hampshire, where the Republican brand has taken heavy hits lately. In '06, two GOP congressmen were thrown out of office, thanks largely to voter disenchantment with Bush and the Iraq war. This year, freshman GOP senator John Sununu is battling those headwinds, and losing in the polls (sometimes by double digits) to his challenger, ex-Democratic Gov. Jean Shaheen. He beat her in the '02 race, but that was a strong Republican year, following on the heels of 9/11. Sununu might be helped by the presence of McCain at the top of the ticket - as the primaries of '00 and '08 have demonstrated, they like McCain in New Hampshire - but he still has to play a lot of defense, scrubbing away his party's taint. Yesterday, when confronted with campaign finance records showing that Ted Stevens over the years has donated $45,000 to Sununi's campaign kitty, the Sununu people quickly announced that they will cough up the 10 grand that Stevens has given this year, and donate that money to charity. (Down in North Carolina, Elizabeth Dole, who is also trying to get re-elected, announced as well that she will give her Stevens campaign money to charity.) While fighting for survival, who needs headaches like this? And Sununu, clearly wary of associating with other Republicans, has yet to even decide whether he plans to attend the GOP national convention.
New Mexico, where longtime GOP senator Pete Domenici is retiring. The Democrats have all the advantages this year. Their candidate, congressman Tom Udall (cousin of the guy running in Colorado) is well-funded and well-known, having once served as state attorney general; his opponent, Steve Pearce, is strong with the conservative base but not with swing voters. Pearce narrowly defeated a moderate congresswoman, Heather Wilson, in the party primary. The party's prospects in November would be stronger had Wilson win. Pearce has very little money, and the GOP's national Senate campaign arm doesn't have the bucks to come to his aid. Moreover, Pearce (like Schaffer in Colorado) appears likely to face an energized grassroots Democratic electorate, in this case because popular Gov. Bill Richardson will be working overtime to organize for Obama.
Virginia, which is the biggest slam-dunk for Democrats on the national map. This too is an open seat, vacated by one of the GOP old lions, John Warner. This state too has been trending blue (Democratic governors elected in '01 and '05; a Democratic senator elected in '06), and the Senate race this year is a mismatch - pitting a popular Democratic ex-governor Mark Warner (no relation to John, of course) against an unpopular Republican ex-governor, Jim Gilmore. Worse yet for Gilmore, it now turns out that he submitted false information on two financial disclosure forms (shades of Ted Stevens!), concealing his ties to a contractor that has allegedly conspired to defraud the federal government. The Gilmore campaign says this was a mere "clerical error," but Gilmore isn't going anywhere in this race anyway, except home.
There are a few other Democratic targets (such as Mississippi, and maybe Minnesota, where ex-funny man Al Franken is fumbling what would otherwise be a strong pickup possibility), but the 60-seat goal seems implausible. More realistic, perhaps, is this question:
If the Democrats wind up with seats in the mid to high 50s, and are therefore no longer dependent on McCain buddy Joe Lieberman for the maintenance of their razor-thin majority, will grassroots Democrats demand his ouster from the Senate caucus? But that's an issue for another day, after the smoke of the election has cleared.