The Balance in the Senate

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In 2004 George W. Bush carried 31 states, which elect 62 U.S. senators. Yet there will be only 49 Republicans in the Senate that takes office January 3. Why the shortfall? The answer, I think, is unforced errors. Let me make a list of them here.

Arkansas. Republican Tim Hutchinson, elected in 1996, divorced his wife of many years and married a former staffer. Not a good career move in a Bible Belt state. He lost to Democrat Mark Pryor in 2002. A still-married-to-his-first-wife Hutchinson probably would have won; Pryor might well have chosen not to challenge him.

Colorado. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, elected as a Democrat in 1992 and re-elected as a Republican in 1998, dropped out of his re-election race in 2004 after some newspaper stories about alleged misdeeds were published. Absent those stories, and the substance behind them, he would have been re-elected easily. Instead, Democrat Ken Salazar won a narrow victory.

Florida. Democrat Bill Nelson went into the 2006 cycle with less-than-sky-high job ratings in a state George W. Bush carried 52 to 47 percent in 2004. Gov. Jeb Bush probably could have beaten him but maintained his longstanding insistence that he didn't want to run. Instead, Rep. Katherine Harris insisted on running despite copious polling showing she couldn't win. No serious challenger appeared in the Republican primary. The polling proved right in November.

Louisiana. Republican candidate Suzanne Haik Terrell ran a pretty strong race against one-term Democratic incumbent Mary Landrieu. But Landrieu won the December 2002 runoff. It's my conviction that Landrieu was helped by the fact that the Republicans had already won a Senate majority in November, so voters weren't presented with a situation in which a Landrieu victory meant a Democratic majority. After the 2002 election, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Louisiana's December runoff did not comport with the federal law requiring congressional elections to be held on the same day. If that decision had been in effect in 2002, the Landrieu-Terrell runoff would have come in November, and Landrieu might have lost.

Michigan. Republican Spencer Abraham went into the 2000 election with a lot of money and reasonably good poll numbers. But he didn't use the advantages of incumbency sufficiently well to hold the seat and lost by 49 to 48 percent to Democrat Debbie Stabenow. Had Abraham campaigned more assiduously during his six-year term, he might have won. Stabenow won re-election easily in the anti-Republican climate of 2006, which might have done in a second-term Abraham.

Missouri. Republican John Ashcroft went into the 2000 election much as Abraham did in Michigan. He had the additional problem of having to deal with the death of his Democratic opponent, Mel Carnahan, in an October plane crash. He came up just short. Again, more campaigning earlier in the cycle might have enabled Ashcroft to win. Whether he could have held the seat in 2006 is unclear: Republican Jim Talent, elected in 2002 to serve out the unexpired portion of the term, lost in 2006.

Montana. Conrad Burns, who promised in his first campaign to seek only two terms, broke that promise and was re-elected by only a narrow margin in 2000. And in 2005 he was revealed to be the No. 1 recipient of contributions from Jack Abramoff's clients. Nevertheless, he insisted on running for a third term. He lost by 1 percentage point. Republican Rep.-at-large Dennis Rehberg, with no Abramoff baggage, would almost certainly have won.

Nebraska. You always make some mistakes in a campaign, and Republican Attorney General Don Stenberg surely made some in his 2000 campaign for Bob Kerrey's open seat in Nebraska. Without those (assumed) mistakes, Democrat Ben Nelson might not have won 51 to 49 percent in a state George W. Bush was carrying 62 to 33 percent. If Stenberg had been elected, he probably would have had no trouble winning re-election in 2006.

Nevada. Something similar could be said about Republican John Ensign's 1998 campaign against Harry Reid; Reid won 47.88 to 47.78 percent, a margin of 428 votes. Ensign was elected to Nevada's other Senate seat when it became available in 2000; it's not clear that another Republican would have won in a state Bush carried 50 to 46 percent that year. After 2000, Reid and Ensign entered into a mutual nonaggression pact, fortified by the fact that they are both strongly supported by Las Vegas casino interests, who are happy to have one senator in each party. Reid was re-elected easily in 2004 and Ensign was re-elected easily in 2006.

Virginia. Is there any need to list the reasons George Allen booted this race in 2006?

Washington. Republican incumbent Slade Gorton lost to Democrat Maria Cantwell in 2000 by 2,229 votes. Any mistake could have accounted for the difference. Of course it's not clear that Gorton could have won again in 2006.

By my count, that's 11 seats the Republicans lost because of what might reasonably be called unforced errors; you might want to pare that number down by two or three. In any case, if Republicans had not made those errors, they'd have something like 55 to 59 senators instead of the 49 they'll have next year. A big difference in the balance in the Senate, no?

But you might ask: Haven't the Democrats also lost some Senate seats by unforced errors? Not many.

Alaska. On the there-must-have-been-some-errors, you could say that Democrat Tony Knowles's 49-to-46 percent loss to Republican Lisa Murkowski in 2004 belongs on this list. But that's a 3 percent margin, and Murkowski had to deal with unforced errors of her own, i.e., the fact that she was appointed by her father, Gov. Frank Murkowski, to the seat he resigned when he was elected governor.

Colorado.Similarly, Democrat Tom Strickland lost to incumbent Republican Wayne Allard in 2002 after leading in many polls during the campaign. But this was a 51-to-46 percent loss, a pretty conclusive margin in a state then solidly Republican.

Florida. A better case can be made for putting on the list Democrat Betty Castor's 49-to-48 percent loss to Republican Mel Martinez in 2004.

Georgia.Democrats are still mourning the loss of one-term incumbent Max Cleland in 2002 to Republican Saxby Chambliss. But Cleland had only won the seat by 49 to 48 percent in 1996 (against a proven statewide loser: another Republican unforced error) and Chambliss won by a thumping 53 to 46 percent.

Kentucky.Democrat Daniel Mongiardo lost to Republican incumbent Jim Bunning in 2004 by only 51 to 49 percent. This probably puts this race on the must-have-been-some-errors principle.

Minnesota. Republican Norm Coleman won this seat 50 to 47 percent in 2002 after the death of Sen. Paul Wellstone in an October plane crash. Substitute nominee Walter Mondale fell behind after there was strong negative reaction to the Wellstone memorial service turned campaign rally. An unforced error by Democrats, I suppose. There's no telling who would have won the race had Wellstone not died. Both sides claimed, plausibly, to be slightly ahead in their internal polling. Absent the memorial service, would Mondale have won? Quite possibly, but that's not for sure either.

New Hampshire. Democrat Jeanne Shaheen lost 51 to 47 percent to Republican John Sununu in 2002. That's a big enough margin to keep this race off the list of unforced errors. Shaheen, who had good poll ratings as governor, probably was the strongest candidate Democrats could have put up.

South Dakota. Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle lost his seat in 2004 to Republican John Thune by 51 to 49 percent. But did Daschle make unforced errors? Not that I could tell, unless you take his decision to become the Senate Democratic leader despite representing such a Republican state as an unforced error. His Democratic colleague Tim Johnson, content to run on his work as an appropriator, beat Thune by an even narrower margin in 2002.

Tennessee. Harold Ford's interruption of Bob Corker's press conference in Memphis evidently hurt him and may have made the difference in Corker's victory this year. So let's put this in the unforced-error column. But Ford otherwise ran an excellent race and was always in contention in this Republican state–a considerable achievement.

So how many unforced errors have cost the Democrats Senate seats? I'd count Florida, Kentucky, and Tennessee; you could make a case for adding Minnesota. Balancing those against the Republicans' unforced errors, you'd still have a Senate with 51 to 56 Republican senators, a very different balance from what we'll have next year.