Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Will Democrats Achieve A Filibuster Proof Senate Majority in ’08?

The focus of most political commentary in the U. S. just now  is on the presidential race.  But the Congressional races, especially the races for the U.S. Senate, are looking just as interesting.  Currently, the Democrats have a technical 1-vote majority in the Senate. It’s a technical majority because 2 senators, Sanders (I-VT) and Lieberman (I-CT) are Independants who caucus with the Dems–and Lieberman’s such a hawk, he might as well be a Republican.  So, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has been able to enforce party discipline on moderate Republicans and keep Democrats from getting the 60 votes needed to stop filibusters and to override presidential vetoes–thus, preventing Democrats from forcing an end to the war except by cutting off funding–something they are reluctant to do.

A 1 vote majority is fragile and Republicans would love to regain control over the Senate, just as Democrats hope to gain greater majorities that can accomplish more.  Here’s the rub.  Under the U.S. system, although EVERY member of the House of Representatives has to run for re-election every 2 years, senators serve 6 year terms–and only a third are up for reelection at any time.   Usually, this means that any large shifts in the Senate are difficult to accomplish: That is why Democrats retained control of the Senate in ’94 (“Year of the Republican!”) when the GOP not only took over the House for the first time in 50 years, but did so in a way so decisive as to make GOP bigwigs like Tom Delay dream of a “permanent Republican majority.”  The difficulties in major Senate shake-ups is also why in ’06, when all winds were blowing in the Democrats’ favor, they only managed to secure a 1 seat majority (and that was more than even most Democrats dared hope)!

But ’08 could be one of those rare years of Senate shake-ups.  While nothing is ever guaranteed (unless voting machines are rigged as the GOP tried in ’02, ’04, and ’06), the landscape is looking pretty bleak for Senate Republicans for several reasons–many of which are beyond their control.  If the Dems pick up a net gain of 9 Senate seats (10 in case Lieberman switches to Republican or caucuses with the GOP–as he already votes with them on Iraq!), they get a super-majority of 60.  That means, if all 60 Democratic members vote the same way, the GOP could not filibuster or block Senate legislation (not even appointee confirmations). Further, with 60 Senate votes (plus 2/3 of the House), they can even override vetoes by a Republican president.  A 9-10 seat pickup would be extremely difficult, but it is a real possibility for several reasons:

  • The biggest structural problem for the GOP is that in ’08 22 U.S. Senate seats up for reelection are currently held by Republicans, whereas the Democrats only have to defend 10 seats. 
  • Several GOP members are quite elderly and considering retirement.  So far, 3 Republican Senators have announced retirements: Wayne Allard (R-CO), Chuck Hagel (R-NE), and John Warner (R-VA).  Open seats are naturally more vulnerable than seats with incumbents.  Then there is the Larry Craig (R-ID) soap opera over alleged solicitation of gay sex in a public restroom. If he retires, Idaho’s Republican governor will appoint a Republican replacement, but he will have to campaign in ’08. Idaho is a very “Red” (i.e., GOP) state, but a strong Democratic contender could force the GOP to spend time and money defending a seat in Idaho that they need for more vulnerable seats elsewhere.  Other Republican Senators rumored to be considering retirement are: Ted Stevens (R-AK) who is under federal investigation for bribery; Thad Cocheran (R-MS); Elizabeth Dole (R-NC)–not as likely, in my opinion; Pete Domenici (R-NM).
  • A death is always tragic.  There are no exceptions, in my view.  But there is no question that the unexpected death of Sen. Thomas Craig (R-WY) of leukemia on 04 June ’07 gave a huge opening to Democrats.  Wyoming is a very conservative state (it’s VP Cheney’s home state!) and its governor appointed John Barrasso (R-WY) to serve until the next election cycle. So, BOTH Wyoming’s Republican held Senate seats are up for grabs in ’08.  You can bet the Dems will pull out all the stops to try to pick up at least one of them, though the GOP is helped because Wyoming law demands that each candidate specify which seat they are contesting.
  • Currently, anger over the Iraq war is at all time highs and the Republicans are getting the bulk of the blame for Iraq.
  • That anger is strongest in some of the areas where Republicans are weakest as the population is turning more Democratic–e.g., New England, where both Sen. John Sununu (R-NH) and Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) are in for the fights of their political lives.  Every time Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) twists their arms to keep voting for the Bush positions on the war, their chances of losing their seats to strong challengers increases.
  • As in ’06, GOP scandals are making seats that were previously considered “safe” suddenly vulnerable to strong challengers.  1. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) is under federal investigation for campaign irregularities. Alabama is a VERY conservative state, so unless Sessions is indicted, he may be able to weather the storm.  So far, the only Democrat to announce is State Sen. Vivian Figures (D) from the 33rd District (Mobile). Figures is an African-American woman in her first national race in a VERY Republican state (and one which is still very racist), so her chances aren’t good unless Sessions’ scandal story grows to the point of huge public disgust. 2. Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK), already rumored to be considering retirement is now under federal investigation for bribery! Several strong, well-liked Democrats are considering entering this race.  3. Sen. Larry Craig (R-ID), as mentioned above. 4. Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY), normally an extremely powerful incumbent, is suspected of involvement in several scandals related to KY’s Governor Ernie Fletcher (R-KY), a McConnell protege. His approval rating is below 50% for the first time since he won his Senate seat. 
  • Surprisingly, the GOP has not done well this year in recruiting strong challengers for Democratic held Senate seats, but Democratic recruitment for challenges to GOP seats is looking stronger every day.  There is still time left for the Republicans, but they cannot afford any delay.
  • And then there is the odd case of South Carolina, where the GOP seems determined to hurt itself.  South Carolina is an extremely conservative state and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) is very rightwing and a darling of the GOP base–who has mostly avoided scandals.  Yet, because Graham voted for Bush’s “comprehensive reform” plan for immigration, large sections of the Republican base are abandoning him.  He is facing not 1 but 3 challengers in the GOP primaries.  They won’t win, but they could force Graham to have to spend time and money getting re-nominated that he would need in a general election.  If the Dems recruit a strong, conservative Blue Dog Democrat as a challenger cut from the same mold as Rep. Heath Shuler (D-NC) or Sen. Bob Casey, Jr. (D-PA), they might have an outside chance at this seat–and, if they even make it a close race, they are still taking GOP money and energy to defend a seat that should have been safe.  The GOP cannot afford such distractions in ’08.

 I think it almost certain that the Democrats will increase their Senate majority by a minimum of 5 seats, but to get the 10 necessary for filibuster and veto proof majority will be very difficult.  However, if the Republicans keep making it easier, who knows?  Here in Kentucky, we face the difficult task of trying to unseat Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY), the powerful Sen. Minority Leader. Normally, that would be impossible, but McConnell’s role as “obstructionist in chief” over the Iraq war has angered many and his behind the scenes roles in several scandals involving Gov. Fletcher (R-KY) has brought his approval rating to under 50% for the first time since his initial election and his campaign apparatus in the state has also been damaged.  So, with a strong challenger (I am hoping for Andrew Horne, a Louisville attorney and Iraq war veteran), we just might pull it off.


September 18, 2007 - Posted by | citizenship, democracy, U.S. politics


  1. Michael,

    The good news this year is that the GOP has an inordinate number of seats to defend or replace. John Warner’s retirment doesn’t make Mark Warner a shoe-in, but that’s a very good shot (Warner is a moderate Dem). The only way a Dem wins in Idaho is if that person is if he or she is moderate/conservative Dem.

    The likely hood of reaching a fillibuster proof majority is probably unlikely, but they should increase their lead.

    Although I’m a Democrat and would like to see an increase — I’m just as concerned about Democratic arrogance as I have been about GOP arrogance.

    But like I said, I would very much welcome a Democratic majority.

    Comment by Bob Cornwall | September 18, 2007

  2. Bob, I agree with everything you wrote. I think Mark Warner’s chances are very good. I expect Rep. Mark Udall to be the next senator from Colorado. I expect at least 3 other pick ups for the Dems, but after that things become very chancy.

    The thing with Idaho or Texas or South Carolina is that Democratic wins are unlikely, even with conservative Democratic candidates. But if the GOP is given enough competition that they have to spend money and energy on those kinds of races, it will take money and energy away from races where the Dems have a real shot at upsets.

    Democratic arrogance could be a real problem–but not immediately. I think Dems have been in the wilderness enough in recent years that it will take awhile before they become arrogant and forgetful of why they were/are elected. I’d love to see challenges from 3rd parties like the Greens be serious enough to keep them humble, too.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | September 18, 2007

  3. I hope you’re right about the wilderness having tamed the arrogance. I’m generally optimistic about the future — but I do worry about that one area of our lives.

    It is interesting that 3rd parties never seem to do well in the US. Part of that is the nature of the beast — not having proportional voting — something I’m not sure I’m keen on. In Britain parliamentary government has proven pretty stable (but while there is a 3rd party in parliament control is in the two major parties). Places like Italy and Israel are a disaster — when it comes to parliamentary electoral politics.

    Our system often sucks, but so far nothing better has emerged!

    Comment by Bob Cornwall | September 18, 2007

  4. Don’t get too giddy, “veto-proof” majority is 67 votes in the Senate, not 60. Neither will happen.

    Comment by david | September 18, 2007

  5. Bob, I don’t want to see our system replaced with a parliamentary one and I don’t want to see the proliferation of parties a la’ Israel or Italy. But proportional voting and instant run-offs would make our system more just. Then 3rd parties could play a constructive role. After all, nothing in our system even MENTIONS political parties.

    And I’m not sure that the old American addage that ours is the best system is true. I like many aspects of it, but there are advantages to, say, the British system: Shorter election cycles (and, therefore, higher voter turnout and longer periods of governance rather than campaigning); the ability for a government to resign or have a vote of no confidence, so there not long “lame duck” periods; weekly “prime minister’s questions” when the PM has to justify government policies before vigorous questioning, sometimes from hostile crowds (vs. our once a year visits by the Prez with cheers at every pause for breath!); the possibility of minority governments in coalition with 3rd parties–thus giving minor parties some real influence, etc.

    However, I like our checks and balances (when they are observed)–3 equal branches of government. A parliamentary system mixes the executive and legislative too much for me. But I see no reason why we cannot improve upon our Congressional system.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | September 19, 2007

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