Gloomy Days at the GOP

Two more Senate retirements.

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Political eyes are glued to the 2008 presidential election, with 17 candidates still in the mix, hundreds of millions of dollars raised so far, and a primary schedule that gets murkier by the week. The sleeper part of the election season, though, may well be farther down the ticket: the 2008 Senate election. And the outlook is bleak for an already embattled Republican Party.

Things took a turn for the worse for the gop last week when Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska announced he would not seek re-election, which could put the seat in play for Democrats, especially if a high-profile recruit like former Sen. Bob Kerrey decides to run. Joining Hagel in retiring will be Sens. Wayne Allard of Colorado and John Warner of Virginia, whose seat will be hotly contested by the state's popular former Democratic Gov. Mark Warner and others, most likely including Republican Rep. Tom Davis. "How much worse could Virginia get?" asks a top Senate aide, half-jokingly. "The guy who is running for the seat has the same last name as the guy who holds it."

After gaining six seats and losing none last November to take control of the Senate, Democrats have been trying to pass their domestic agenda, not to mention binding legislation that ends the war in Iraq. But they've fallen short on many of their promises, and congressional approval ratings are lower than the president's. The problem has largely been that their grip on the Senate has been tenuous since the start, with a working majority of 51 seats to the Republicans' 49. To overcome the Republican opposition, Democrats have needed—and often failed—to muster 60 votes. Winning enough seats in the '08 election to reach that margin is very much a long shot, but any additional seats they gain will make governing easier for the Democrats and rallying the opposition harder for the Republicans.

Democrats look to have ample opportunity to do just that. For starters, the election year math is decidedly in their favor; of the 34 seats up for re-election, 22 are held by Republicans. Of the remaining dozen Democratic-held seats, only a couple will be difficult to defend: Sens. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Tim Johnson of South Dakota could face stiff challenges. Add in a national mood that's been sour on President Bush for most of his second term, as well as the country's direction and the war in Iraq. Then, this summer, the gop fell under the taint of sex scandals involving Sens. David Vitter of Louisiana and Larry Craig of Idaho, who is to resign at the end of the month. Republicans are hoping that by next year those scandals have faded from the headlines and that Democrats face tough scrutiny over their tenure, especially on issues like earmarks and ethics, even though Republican aides concede that it "won't be to the degree we were plagued last fall."

War fatigue. Then there is a small cast of Republican incumbents facing stiff challenges, particularly because of the stain of Bush's war policies: John Sununu of New Hampshire, Norm Coleman of Minnesota, Susan Collins of Maine, and Gordon Smith of Oregon. Sununu, for example, trailed former New Hampshire Gov. Jeanne Shaheen by 22 percentage points in a July poll when Shaheen was still only a potential candidate. She announced her bid last Friday. Two veteran Republicans, Ted Stevens of Alaska and Pete Domenici of New Mexico, also face a slew of ethical questions related to a public corruption investigation and the firing of U.S. attorneys last December.

The news isn't good in the money chase, either. Senate Republicans trail Democrats, with less than one third the amount of cash on hand. All the retirements, scandals, and tough races have Republicans flat on their backs, but last year's circumstances may have been a once-in-a-generation occurrence. "Do they get two perfect storms in a row?" asks Jennifer Duffy, election watcher at the Cook Political Report, of the Democrats. "Let's wait and see."