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Senate Democrats Hope for a Majority

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THE PROGRESSIVE REVIEW - March 10, 2008
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Senate Democrats Hope for a Majority 
Not Seen in 30 Years: 60 Seats 
By David M. Herszenhorn
The New York Times

Washington - When Mark Begich, the popular 45-year-old 
mayor of Anchorage, came to town for a meeting of mayors 
in January, he was beckoned to the Capitol by the Senate 
majority leader, Harry Reid of Nevada. There was one 
agenda item: ousting Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska, the 
senior Republican in Congress. 

For 45 minutes, Mr. Reid and Senator Charles E. Schumer 
of New York, the head of the Democrats' campaign efforts, 
pressed the mayor to run this year. Last week, they got 
him. Mr. Begich announced that he had formed a committee 
to start raising money. Effectively, the race is on. 

For Democrats hoping the November elections set off a 
seismic shift in Washington, the dream scenario is not 
just capturing the White House, but also winning a 
filibuster-proof majority of 60 seats in the Senate - 
a luxury no president has enjoyed since Jimmy Carter 
30 years ago. 

As far-fetched as that might seem - Democrats now control 
the Senate by a razor-thin 51 to 49, thanks only to two 
independents who vote with them - some Democrats have 
started thinking aloud that such a scenario is within 
reach. 

From the Northeast to the Southwest, the Democrats have 
such a strong hand in this year's Senate contests that 
they sense the possibility of victories in unlikely 
states like Oklahoma and Mississippi, and now even 
Alaska, which last elected a Democratic senator in 1974. 

"It's a remote possibility, but it is within the realm of 
plausible," said Paul Starr, a public affairs professor 
at Princeton University and a liberal commentator. 

Numbers help tell the story. Republicans have 23 seats to 
defend, including five left vacant by retiring incumbents, 
while the Democrats have just 12, with a competitive race 
expected only in Louisiana. Even there, the incumbent, 
Mary L. Landrieu, is still a heavy favorite. 

The presidential race, too, seems to cut in the Democrats' 
favor. In many states, there has been record voter turnout 
in the primaries, but far more for the Democrats. About 
28.5 million people have voted in Democratic primaries so 
far, compared with more than 17.3 million in Republican 
races, said Curtis Gans, director of the Center for the 
Study of the American Electorate at American University. 

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Senator Barack Obama of Illinois, in particular, has shown 
the capacity to ignite turnout among younger voters and 
blacks, and Democratic strategists believe he could have 
longer coattails than Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of 
New York in states like Minnesota and Oregon, where 
Democrats hope to gain seats held by Republicans. 

On the Republican side, the need of Senator John McCain, 
the party's candidate, to run as a centrist may undermine 
his ability to help Congressional candidates. 

Democrats are dominating the money race as well. Campaign 
finance data released in late February showed the 
Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee with more than 
$30 million, compared with about $13 million for the 
National Republican Senatorial Committee. 

And though it is unlikely that Democrats will pick up nine 
seats this year, according to any reading of the political 
map it remains a possibility - as tantalizing a thought 
for Democrats as it is horrifying to Republicans. 

Democrats have repeatedly sought to get 60 votes to advance 
legislation only to be blocked by Republicans. On Thursday, 
Senate Democratic leaders complained that Republicans had 
engaged in a record number of filibusters. Republicans 
accused Democrats of exaggerating the numbers and of 
inviting filibusters by pursuing legislation the Republicans
said was partisan. 

So far, no Democratic incumbents are so vulnerable that 
their re-election campaigns are rated as clearly up for 
grabs. 

"I don't remember a time when I had a ratings chart that I 
am looking at now, where one party didn't have any races 
in 'toss-up' at all," said Jennifer E. Duffy, who analyzes 
Senate races for the Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan 
publication. "When have you had a cycle where a party has 
a one-seat majority and there is absolutely no talk of them 
losing that majority? It doesn't happen that way ever." 

Analysts like Ms. Duffy predict that the Democrats will 
pick up four to six seats, with an open seat in Virginia 
virtually certain to flip in their favor and Republicans 
at risk of losing open seats in Colorado and New Mexico. 

Four Republican incumbents are potentially vulnerable 
because voters in their states increasingly identify with 
Democrats. They are John E. Sununu of New Hampshire, Norm 
Coleman of Minnesota, Gordon H. Smith of Oregon and Susan 
Collins of Maine. To get to 60, the Democrats would need 
to win the three open seats and these four, protect their 
incumbents and still pick up two seats in traditionally 
Republican states like Mississippi and Oklahoma. 

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In Mississippi, Ronnie Musgrove, a well-known former 
governor, is the Democratic candidate for the seat vacated 
by Trent Lott, who retired in December and was replaced by 
Roger Wicker, a lesser-known United States representative. 

In Oklahoma, environmental groups are raising money to 
support Andrew Rice, a young state senator hoping to use 
Senator James M. Inhofe's views on global warming - he has 
said that its effects are exaggerated - to galvanize voters 
and deny Mr. Inhofe a fourth term. 

Among those sending Mr. Rice money was Adam Browning, the 
executive director of Vote Solar, an advocacy group in 
California. 

"When you look at what's happening in Congress right now, 
the magic number is not 51, it's actually 60," Mr. Browning 
said. "There has been a bunch of very important legislation 
from an environmental perspective that Republicans have 
successfully filibustered." 

In an interview, Mr. Rice said: "What I find among swing 
voters statewide is it's time for change. Inhofe has been 
in there too long. They really don't care whether I am a 
Democrat or a Republican." 

Republicans say Mr. Inhofe, 73, is a sure thing. 

In Alaska, Mr. Stevens, 84, is a legendary figure. But like 
some other Alaska Republicans, he has been caught up in a 
corruption investigation, which included a search of his 
home by F.B.I. agents last summer. Early polls show Mr. 
Begich with a lead, and his candidacy is likely to excite 
Democrats across the Northwest. On Monday, the mayor of 
Seattle, Greg Nickels, was M.C. at an event to introduce 
Mr. Begich to potential supporters there. 

Publicly, Democrats are optimistic but trying to lower 
expectations. 

"There is a tremendous wind at our backs," said Mr. Schumer 
of New York. "People want change; they associate the 
Democratic Party with change. We have a very good map." 

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Republicans acknowledge that they will probably lose the 
seat in Virginia, but they say they believe that all of 
the incumbents Democrats are taking aim at can hold on. 
Republicans say they have a better-than-even shot in 
Colorado, and a chance at upsets in Louisiana and South 
Dakota. Republican hopes of an upset in New Jersey were 
set back this week when their leading candidate dropped 
out after suffering a minor stroke. 

Senator John Ensign of Nevada, the chairman of the National 
Republican Senatorial Committee, said his party's prospects 
were better than last year when some potential donors would 
not even take his calls. 

And Mr. Ensign said Democrats' hopes of winning 60 seats 
were far-fetched. "If they have the best night they could 
have," he said, "they would get like 55-56. The best night 
we could have, we get back in the majority." 

Even if Democrats win a state like Alaska, Mr. Ensign said, 
"I still don't see any way they get to 60." 

Last week, the Republican committee introduced a fund-
raising drive called "Two Seats to Take Back the Senate." 

Both sides agree that the most vulnerable incumbent is 
Mr. Sununu. Democrats have tightened their grip on New 
England in recent years, and Mr. Sununu has a formidable 
challenger, former Gov. Jeanne Shaheen.

In Virginia, former Gov. Mark Warner, a Democrat, is a 
heavy favorite and ahead in fund-raising against his 
likely Republican challenger, former Gov. James Gilmore. 

Out West, the retirements of Senators Pete V. Domenici 
of New Mexico and Wayne Allard of Colorado have lifted 
Democrats' hopes. 

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