Senate Majority No Longer Republicans' Goal

With Democrats leading in polls, Senator Ensign's goal has changed.

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The battle cry of the Republican Party is "Two seats to capture the Senate." But Nevada Sen. John Ensign, who is leading the charge for the GOP, now concedes the party may not win the fight, particularly after two prospective candidates he had hoped to recruit—one in New Jersey, one in South Dakota— refused to sign up for the struggle. "Realistically, we have a very, very slim chance of getting back into the majority," says Ensign, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. "That's not even our goal anymore. Our [numeric] goal is to hold as close to where we are as possible." Democrats control the chamber by a narrow majority, 51 to 49.

Leading up to the November elections, analysts say the Senate contest in Louisiana—"It's going to be a bloodbath," Ensign promises—poses a good-news, bad-news scenario for Republicans. The good news: The incumbent Democrat, Mary Landrieu, twice has won her Senate seat by narrow margins, meaning she's a target. Plus, her base has shrunk demonstrably since Hurricane Katrina hit. And what's emerged of late is a state trending red. The bad news: Landrieu is not only the GOP's best hope to oust an incumbent but, at the moment, the only one.

Analysts studying the 35 U.S. Senate races on the ballot say Democrats began the campaign with two key advantages. Not only did they have far fewer lawmakers up for re-election, they didn't confront a retirement boom. Twenty-three seats now held by Republicans are up for election—compared with only a dozen in the hands of Democrats. Five of the Republican seats are open because of retirements, while not a single Democrat is eyeballing the exits. In three of the five states where Republicans are retiring—Colorado, New Mexico, and, especially, Virginia—observers see opportunities for Democrats to enlarge their majority.

So while it's early—"Politically, it's an eternity between now and November," as Ensign puts it—now forecasters envision an overall Democratic gain of three to six seats. Much less probable is a nine-seat pickup for Democrats that would give them a filibusterproof majority of 60. "It would be like winning Powerball twice in the same year," says Jennifer Duffy, who follows Senate races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

Landrieu will face three-term state Treasurer John Kennedy, a party switcher who left the Democrats and threw in his fortunes with the GOP last August. Observers note he ran unopposed leading up to his last election in October and advertised heavily on television before and after his win to hike his name ID.

Kennedy's message is blunt: "Washington is in the ditch," he says. "I don't know about other states, but it's not working for Louisiana and I don't think it's working for America."

He complains that federal lawmakers "spend money like it's West Virginia ditch water" and have failed to balance the budget; then, with a healthy dose of hyperbole, he adds that the United States is "borrowing money from China to make our Social Security payments." Kennedy lost a primary race in 2004 for the Senate seat won by Republican David Vitter. Now he's being taken seriously. "A superstar candidate," Ensign boasts. Stuart Rothenberg, editor of the Rothenberg Political Report, a nonpartisan newsletter, says this about Kennedy and his prospects: "He's a name, he's a proven vote-getter and he's won statewide. It's a competitive state—and you have an incumbent with close races. That guarantees a close race."

That leaves Landrieu's camp busy raising money—it reported $4.1 million on hand at the end of 2007, compared with Kennedy's $472,000—and bracing for Ensign's NRSC and its allies to pull out all the stops. The NRSC, meantime, lagged considerably behind the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee at the end of 2007. The Republican committee had $13.2 million in its war chest; the Democratic group had $30 million. Landrieu's campaign manager, Jay Howser, says he's ready for the fray. Talking about the opposition, he remarks: "They are going to throw the kitchen sink at us. But they've done that in the past: They did it in '96 and they did it in '02. She's no stranger to hard, tough races, and she knows how to win in those situations."