While the contest for the White House dominates national and international media coverage, it is important to remember that there are also 35 Senate seats and all 435 Congressional posts being contested this year. As significant as the battle for the White House is, control of Congress can be a critical factor in the success or failure of the next president.
Democrats began the year with a mere 50-49 edge in the Senate. To secure the 51 votes they needed to control the body they had to rely on the support of renegade independent Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, (who traded his vote in exchange for Chairmanship of the Homeland Security Committee). Democrats have hopes of expanding their majority this year, initially expecting that they might add three to four seats. Their optimism was based on the fact that of the 35 seats being contested, 23 were held by Republicans (including four seats held by Republicans who are retiring this year), and only 12 by Democrats up for reelection, presenting Republicans with twice as many seats to defend. Add to this the unpopularity of the Bush Administration, and the growing mood of the electorate seeking change, and the optimism of the Democrats appeared to be well-founded.
Now, with the election only one week away, the Democrats’ estimates of gains have increased, with some analysts predicting that the party may take as many as seven to ten seats from a struggling GOP.
Several factors account for this change of fortunes. First and foremost, of course, is the dramatic economic meltdown and, with it, increasing unpopularity of the Bush Administration and the Republican Party. It may be recalled that the last time this group of Senators ran for office in 2002, they were greatly aided by the efforts of George W. Bush. At that time, the President, fresh from a victory in the Senate (winning his Iraq war resolution) confidently criss-crossed the country to campaign for 17 Senators, giving some a much needed last minute push in their senatorial bids.
This year, not only is Bush nowhere to be found on the campaign trail, but many Republicans are running away from any identification with him. In fact, Bush has been so unpopular, and in some states the Republican brand so weak, that one Senator petitioned to remove the "Republican" party identification after his name on the ballot.
Another factor helping the Democrats this year is the massive voter registration drive they began during their competitive presidential primary contest and which the Obama campaign has expanded. With millions of young, African American and Hispanic voters being added to the rolls, several states that once had Republican majorities now lean Democratic. This is especially true in some Southern states where African Americans voters can account for as much as 35% or 40% of the overall electorate. Here, it is useful to recall how a similar increase in voter registration, organized by the Jesse Jackson for President Campaign in 1984, resulted in the victories of six Democratic Senators in 1986, overturning the gains the Republicans had won in the Reagan electoral sweep of 1980.
With all this as a backdrop, it is important to understand what is at stake in the size of a potential Democratic victory this year.
I noted that the Democrats now have the 51 seats they need to control the Senate. With control comes the right to organize the body: name chairs to all the Senate Committees and hold a majority of seats on all of those committees; control of the Senate’s budget, which enables the majority to have more staff than the minority party; and the ability to set the agenda for hearings, votes on legislation, and approval of the President appointments.
The Democratic hold now is fragile, with their 51st seat being held by Lieberman. Should he decide at any time to support the Republican side, it would create a 50-50 split. In this case, by the rules of the Senate, Vice President Cheney (who, under the Constitution has but two functions: to preside over the Senate and to cast a vote only in the event of a tie), would shift control to the Republicans. So, winning these extra seats is critical to the Democratic hopes in 2008.
Of course, what Democrats hope for this year is a pickup of 10 seats – which would give them a net total of 60 seats (without Joseph Lieberman). Here’s why that matters.
According to Senate rules, a simple majority of 51 votes is enough to control the body and pass most legislation. But before a vote can be taken, debate must be ended; and Senate rules require a super majority of 60 votes to end debate. As a result, of this high threshold, many bills fail to come to a vote at all, while others end up dramatically modified to accommodate the minority’s wishes before they can be brought to a vote.
Should Democrats reach 60 seats, their ability to block a Republican President’s agenda, or support a Democratic President, would be greatly enhanced. Hence, the prospect of keeping all of the seats they currently hold and adding 10 is what the Democrats hope for this year. How likely is this prospect?
This year, 38 Democratic, one independent and 26 Republican Senate seats are not up for reelection. Of the 35 who are running, all 12 of the Democrats are currently considered safe bets to win. In addition, four of the seats currently held by Republicans now appear likely to be won by Democrats. This would give the Democrats at least 54 seats. Of the remaining Republican-held seats, at least 12 appear to be safe for the GOP, which would give them at least 38 seats in the next Congress. The remaining seven Republican-held seats are now too close to call. So, a super majority of 60 seat majority for the Democrats is possible, but only if they win six of those seven toss-up races.