An unusually important midterm election

The Providence Journal

November’s midterm congressional elections hold implications for the final chapter of the Bush administration, for the ideological makeup of the judicial branch of government and for such crucial policy issues as the war in Iraq.

A relative handful of Senate races is therefore attracting huge investments of political money and energy — by the White House, by political stars of both parties, and by national groups representing a host of interests, from federal tax cuts to environmental activism.

President Bush’s dismal popularity ratings and the deepening public unease with the war in Iraq have inspired some Democrats to hope for the kind of historic victory that the Republicans scored when they seized both houses of Congress in 1994.

But outside analysts are reluctant to predict such an outcome just yet. To take control of the Senate, the Democrats need to win six seats. That feat "almost requires you to run the table" of all the vulnerable Republican incumbents — and at the same time "not lose any of your own," said Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank.

"Six weeks ago you would have said the Democrats have a great edge and they’re building in a positive fashion," said Ornstein, who specializes in congressional affairs. Mr. Bush’s popularity ratings at that point were very low, linked to falling support for the war and conservative disillusionment with immigration policy and federal spending.

"Two weeks ago, the Republicans were breathing more of a sigh of relief," Ornstein said. Mr. Bush’s poll numbers were still terrible but rising, possibly in response to a Senate debate that highlighted Democratic divisions on the war.

"Today, nobody knows," Ornstein said. The sudden crisis in the Middle East is a textbook example of the type of event that can shift the political winds in unpredictable ways, he said.

While congressional elections _ particularly midterms _ tend to get less attention than presidential elections, they sometimes bring equally important shifts in the nation’s political direction. In 1958, for example, the Democrats added 13 mostly Northern seats to their narrow majority, carrying in such future leaders as Sen. Edmund Muskie of Maine. That set the stage for the Senate to take the lead on civil rights legislation and other major change in the 1960s, according to Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University.

The so-called "six-year itch" _ a two-term president’s final midterm _ shook the Senate again in 1986. The Democrats took eight seats and majority control of the Senate, a key factor in stalling President Ronald Reagan’s agenda for the remainder of his second term.

In 1994, President Bill Clinton’s first midterm election brought one of the great tidal waves of modern politics _ GOP gains of 52 seats in the House and 9 in the Senate that brought full Republican control of the Congress for the first time in 50 years. Except for a period of less than two years early in his first term, the GOP has held the White House and both houses since Bush took office. As he approaches the final election cycle of his administration, the biggest question to be settled this fall may be Bush’s ability to complete his transformation of the federal judiciary _ and perhaps the Supreme Court.

From Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Associate Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., to the dozens of judges he has placed in federal district and appeals courts, Bush has accomplished a substantial rightward shift in the courts that will probably endure well beyond his presidency.

But if age or ill health opens a seat now held by the Supreme Court’s liberal bloc, Bush might put a truly historic imprint on the judicial branch, said Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution in Washington. A Senate controlled by the Democrats could frustrate that ambition.

A Democratic takeover would make Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, an outspoken liberal from Vermont, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, with the power to bottle up any judicial nomination. Mann said Bush could be forced to negotiate with the Democrats to win confirmation of any nominee to the high court.

The next most visible change in a Democratic Senate might be an increase in the number and intensity of committee inquiries into all sorts of issues. There would be extensive national headlines, for example, "if the Foreign Relations Committee under Joe Biden were to hold a series of hearings on what went wrong in Iraq," Ornstein said, referring to the Delaware Democrat.

Similar changes would occur throughout the committee system. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, the Massachusetts liberal, would supplant Sen. Judd Gregg, a conservative from New Hampshire, as chairman of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.

On the policy front, a whole range of issues would be up for grabs under a Democratic-controlled Senate, but not necessarily with predictable results. Would an influx of antiwar liberals be able to press harder for troop withdrawal deadlines in Iraq? Or would moderates _ Robert Casey Jr. of Pennsylvania or Harold Ford Jr. of Tennessee _ help to consolidate the party around a more cautious approach?

On the domestic front, one likely result of a shift in partisan power would be the shrinking of Bush’s already limited agenda as a lame duck president. His tax-cutting program, for example, would be high on the list of casualties.

But even a smaller Democratic gain of two or three seats, which many analysts see as a likely minimum, could alter the chemistry of the Senate, including its judicial confirmation role.

"In the Senate, every seat matters," said political scientist Larry J. Sabato of the University of Virginia. Swing votes matter not only in the pursuit of a majority to pass legislation, he noted, but also in finding the 60 votes necessary to shut off filibusters.

In a narrowly divided Senate, the political leanings of a few individuals can count for a lot. This year’s rundown of the most competitive races spans the full ideological spectrum. Here are summaries of some competitive races:

In Pennsylvania, Republican Sen. Rick Santorum, one of the most assertive voices on his party’s right, has consistently placed in polls behind Democratic Treasurer Casey, a socially conservative Democrat in the mold of his father and namesake, a popular former governor. If Santorum loses, it could be less a sign of sweeping national change than a case of "a blue state simply asserting itself," because Santorum may be too conservative for his Democratic-leaning state, said Sabato.

Veteran Montana Republican Sen. Conrad Burns is a key target in the Democratic effort to portray the GOP as corrupt. Burns himself has not been charged with any wrongdoing but he has received extensive campaign contributions from the lobbying network of Jack Abramoff, who pleaded guilty earlier this year to influence-peddling charges.

Challenging Burns is state Sen. Jon Tester, a liberal by Montana standards who won a hotly contested primary last month. Tester is a farmer and a former butcher and public school music teacher.

Ohio Sen. Mike DeWine’s name has never been linked with impropriety, but scandal has run so deep elsewhere in Ohio’s Republican Party that Democrats hope it will work against the incumbent. Veteran Democratic Rep. Sherrod Brown is DeWine’s opponent in a swing state that Bush carried narrowly in 2004.

Missouri Republicans have prospered in recent times but the state remains one of the great bellwethers of American politics. Baker of Rutgers said the race between Republican Sen. Jim Talent and his Democratic challenger, state Auditor Claire McCaskell, is so close that a single issue or event could swing it. Baker said Talent’s support last week for Bush’s positions on a series of stem-cell research votes could be the issue that undoes him.

At the moment, no Democratic incumbent appears as vulnerable as those five Republicans, but Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell does face a difficult challenge from business executive Mike McGavick, who was once chief of staff to former Republican Sen. Slade Gorton.

The best prospect for a Republican pickup may be the seat in Minnesota that Democratic Sen. Mark Dayton is vacating.