By Alexandra Starr
To hear New Jersey Senator Jon S. Corzine tell it, Democrats have a real shot at picking up a seat or two in the Senate, come November, 2004. Corzine, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), cites strong fund-raising among party stalwarts, who equate Bush's Presidency with the sound of fingernails scraping a chalkboard. And if Democrats can capitalize on the outrage epitomized by the party's fiery, early Presidential front-runner, Howard Dean, maybe, just maybe, they can even recapture the Senate next year. "This is a real challenge, but it's doable," insists Corzine, a former top Goldman Sachs executive.
A challenge, perhaps. But doable? That's unlikely. Despite Corzine's optimism, rarely in modern times have the Democrats faced a more daunting Senate election. Nineteen of the party's seats are up this cycle, vs. 15 for the GOP. More ominously, 10 of the Dem seats are in states that Bush carried in 2000, even as he lost the popular vote nationally.
To compound the difficulty, two tried-and-true Democratic incumbents are retiring in the Deep South, the region that most skews Republican. Put it all together, and just maintaining the status quo in the the upper chamber -- where the GOP already holds a 51-48 edge -- will be difficult. "Their situation is pretty ugly," says Charlie Cook, editor of the Cook Political Report, which closely tracks congressional campaigns. If Democrats are lucky, says Cook, "they'd take the one-seat loss and run with it like a thief."
The Senate Dems' predicament is most pronounced south of the Mason-Dixon line. North Carolina Senator John Edwards and Florida's Senator Bob Graham are both vying to be the Democrats' Presidential standard-bearer, and each has put his Senate reelection race on hold to stump in Iowa and New Hampshire. Three-term incumbent Graham's popularity in the Sunshine State probably assures him reelection next year if he fails to win the nomination and decides to seek a fourth term.
In the Tarheel State, however, Edwards is another story. He won a hotly contested Senate race in 1998, and many political pros think his Presidential ambitions could mean that his seat is up for grabs, regardless of whether he wins the nomination.
Coupled with the Aug. 4 retirement of Ernest F. "Fritz" Hollings (D-S.C.) and the earlier decision by Senator Zell Miller (D-Ga.) not to run, Edwards' and Graham's Presidential bids give the Republicans a chance to increase their Senate majority, especially if Bush handily wins reelection. "The South is a good battlefield for us, particularly in a Presidential year," says Dan Allen, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC).
The Democrats have gotten some good news. The DSCC has scored a big recruiting win in Alaska, where former Democratic Governor Tony Knowles could mount a strong challenge to Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski. And in Illinois, former GOP Governor Jim Edgar's decision to pass up a Senate bid keeps the Democrats in the hunt.
Meanwhile, White House consigliere Karl Rove has been struggling to replicate his impressive 2002 recruiting coups. Seasoned GOP pols, ranging from Health & Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson, a former Wisconsin governor, to Representative Jennifer B. Dunn of Washington, have rebuffed Rove's entreaties to mount Senate challenges.
Corzine also has been leveraging his Wall Street connections to fill Senate candidates' coffers. In the first six months of the year, the Dems amassed a $10.7 million war chest. That trails the NRSC's $14.1 million -- but it still puts Senate Democrats in a better position than their House colleagues, who have raised only a buck for every three dollars raised by Republicans.
"My background has given me a hearing [with contributors]," says the Garden State senator, "and the point is that business has not done well [under Bush] unless...you're in the oil or pharmaceutical industry." To keep the cash flowing, Corzine is hosting dinners with former Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin, a former Goldman colleague, and he's coordinating with Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), who's raising money for the DSCC as she crisscrosses the country promoting her autobiography.
Corzine hasn't let up on recruiting either, trying to lure candidates even in states where Democrats face long odds. He has approached Andrew Young, former U.S. ambassador to the U.N., about running for the Georgia seat being vacated by Miller. Corzine has already persuaded Missouri State Treasurer Nancy Farmer to challenge Senator Kit Bond in the Show Me State.
And U.S. Representative Joe Hoeffel (D-Pa.) has decided to take on GOP Senator Arlen Specter. The Democrats' strategy: an unrelenting focus on struggling economies in many states under the Bush Presidency. Says Corzine: "It would be very unwise not to stay on the issue of the economy and jobs."
While that message may resonate in some pockets of the country, retirements and Presidential ambitions originating in the South have Republicans whistling Dixie. The best Democrats can hope for, says Cook, is keeping their losses to a minimum next year -- and then hope for gains in 2006. For all his organizational and financial acumen, Corzine may have to wait a few more years for his scenario to play out.
Starr covers Congress for BusinessWeek in Washington
Edited by Douglas Harbrecht