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Is the GOP Targeting the Correct 'Senator 'L'?'

By John A. Tures
Associate Professor of Political Science
LaGrange College

September 11, 2008 No matter how you look at it, 2008 won't be remembered as a banner year for Senate Republicans.  They are bound to lose seats; the only question is whether they'll keep the Democrats from a filibuster-proof majority.

In open seats, the Udalls (Tom and Mark) aim to pick up a pair of seats from retiring Republicans.  Mark Warner is likely to replace Senator John Warner.  And any politico knows that incumbents John Sununu Jr., Norm Coleman and Gordon Smith will have to fight hard in order to keep their seats.  Ted Stevens will have to hustle just to avoid a guilty verdict.  Even others like James Inhofe, Elizabeth Dole, Susan Collins, Saxby Chambliss and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell can't afford to breathe easily.

So who can the Republicans target to keep from sliding 41 seats?  Most Democrats (Kerry, Biden, Harkin, Baucus, Durbin, Levin, Rockefeller, Reed, etc.) seem safer than almost any Republican incumbent.   Tim Johnson seems to have a nearly 2:1 lead in South Dakota.  And freshman Senator Mark Pryor did not draw a strong challenger.

The conventional wisdom was Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu would make the best victim.  After all, she narrowly won her first two contests.  And the Bayou State has trended GOP in the last two presidential elections.  To get a strong candidate, Republicans coaxed State Treasurer John N. Kennedy into switching parties and challenging Landrieu.  It seemed like a good idea, given his ability to win statewide office at the cabinet level.

But so far, the wisdom of such a move has not paid off for Republicans.  Kennedy continues to lag behind in the polls.  Earlier this year, I was scolded by the Williamson Republic and "bayoubuzz.com" blogs for reporting polling data that showed the Democratic candidate with a large lead, when the pollsters later backtracked on the size of the Landrieu lead.  One posting even speculated that I was with the Landrieu campaign. 

Well, I don't get a dime more if Senator Landrieu wins or loses.  And on August 17, 2008, Rasmussen released their data showing Landrieu with a 56%-39% lead in Louisiana.  At some point, we're going to have to conclude that it isn't just the pollsters' fault.  Picking a Democrat who ran to the left in 2004 (on the Kerry slate), finished third among three US Senate candidates that year, then made a bigger ideological conversion than Mitt Romney just isn't firing up those red state Republicans.  Gee, I wonder why.

On the other hand, there's a better "Senator L" to put on the watch list.  Up in New Jersey, Senator Frank Lautenberg is in trouble.  He's never won a race handily, having narrow victories in 1982, 1988, and 1994.  He retired in 2000, only to return two years later in a controversial move when courts allowed his name to be inserted by Democrats well after the filing deadline, when Senator Torricelli's ethical problems surfaced.  That year, he defeated a neophyte by a mere 10 points.  He's just emerged from a bruising primary with Congressman Rob Andrews.  And he was born during the Calvin Coolidge administration, so any anti-McCain age attacks will blowback onto this New Jersey octogenarian.

At the same time, Republicans have a great candidate in former Congressman Dick Zimmer.  Folks from New Jersey probably have buyer's remorse for picking disgraced Senator Torricelli over Zimmer (hammered for being a Newt Gingrich ally).  Zimmer is a political moderate (a career American Conservative Union score of 68 fits the description) while Lautenberg is a zealot, having a career rating of 95% liberal, and 100% left-wing for the past two years.

Most importantly, a Quinnipiac poll (released August 12) has Zimmer within striking distance of Lautenberg (41%-48%).  That’s less than half the lead Lautenberg had a month ago from a Republican poll (from Strategic Vision).  If I were the Republicans and wanted to make sure that a US Senate filibuster will even be available in 2009, I'd put my money on Zimmer rather than Kennedy.


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