The Republicans' Big Senate Fear

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(L. to R.): Jay L. Clendenin / Aurora for TIME; Brendan Smialowski / Getty; Brendan Smialowski / Getty

(L. to R.): U.S. Senator Chuck Hagel (R-NE); U.S. Senator John Warner (R-VA), U.S. Senator Pete Domenici (R-NM)

It started out as such a faint hope for New York Senator Charles Schumer that he hardly dared voice it. But as more and more Republicans retire or become engulfed by scandal, it has become irresistibly imaginable: the idea that Democrats might gain a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate after the 2008 elections. "It's a very remote chance and every star would have to align correctly," Schumer, who heads the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, told TIME. "But it's way too early to make predictions."

It may not be too early, however, for Republicans to be fearing the worst. As early as July Senator Minority Leader Mitch McConnell grimly acknowledged: "When you look at our numbers, holding our own is the best we can hope for." And that was before five long-serving Senators recently announced their retirements, many of them in purple states such as Virginia and Colorado that may be difficult for the G.O.P. to defend.

In a more conventional election year, the G.O.P. might actually be making a push to regain a slim majority. The Senate is currently split 49-49 with two Independents — Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Vermont's Bernie Sanders — who caucus with the Democrats. But this cycle there are a range of factors working against them.

Overall, the G.O.P. has 22 seats up in 2008, while the Democrats must defend just 12. Out of the 17 G.O.P. incumbents, four Senators hail from states that John Kerry won in 2004 — Maine, New Hampshire, Minnesota and Oregon. Adding to Republican woes, they trail Senate Democrats by more than $15 million in campaign funds. "There's no question that the money is a concern," said Senator John Ensign, a Nevada Republican who heads the National Republican Senatorial Committee. "Republican Senators need to realize that we're in a different political environment out there than before and that money is much harder to raise and that means they have to get off their lazy rear ends."

Even typically reliable strongholds like Idaho and Alaska could potentially be vulnerable next year. In Idaho, McConnell has made it clear he'd prefer embattled Senator Larry Craig — who pled guilty to disorderly conduct after Minneapolis airport police accused him of attempting to solicit gay sex in an airport bathroom — to resign immediately. That would leave a vacancy for Idaho Governor Butch Otter, a Republican, to appoint someone to serve out the last 15 months of Craig's term and preserve the party's incumbent advantage.

Though Craig's reversal of his earlier promise to step down if he could not have his guilty plea reversed may frustrate the Republican leadership, the G.O.P. is still likely to retain an overwhelmingly red state like Idaho. Alaska, where seven-term Senator Ted Stevens is battling a federal corruption probe, could prove more challenging. Stevens is under investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation for taking bribes from Bill Allen, the former CEO of VECO, an oil field services company. Allen and another former VECO employee have pled guilty to bribing state legislators and are cooperating with the investigation into Stevens, who has maintained his innocence.

Ensign said he's giving Stevens the time he's asked for to prove it. "If it's resolved as quickly as possible Senator Stevens will have no problem getting reelected," Ensign said in an interview. All this is not to say the Democrats have a good chance of picking up nine seats. The tail wind from the 2006 elections would have to gust into 2008. "For Democrats to get to 60 they'd have to go 8-0 in every plausible race and then find one more from one of the scandal-ridden states and defend Senator [Mary] Landrieu in Louisiana," said Charlie Cook, editor of the non-partisan Cook Political Report, which tracks congressional races. "That's an incredibly tall order."

These unexpectedly vulnerable seats could place an added strain on already limited G.O.P. resources. As of August 31, the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which defends and recruits G.O.P. candidates, had raised $20.5 million so far this year and had $7.1 million cash on hand, compared to the $36.7 million raised by Schumer and the $20.6 million still left in Democratic coffers. Democrats have even latched on to the 60-seat dream as a fundraising tool. Senator Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat, told supporters in a recent fundraising letter "the party is poised to gain the 60 seats necessary to stop Republican filibusters and bring our families and neighbors home from this war."

As Cook points out, Louisiana could destroy the Dems' faint hopes. Landrieu is facing the toughest race of her career, one in which Cook says she only has a 50% chance of winning. Unlike her previous opponents, the G.O.P. has recruited a real threat this time: State Treasurer John Kennedy, who switched parties in August in order to run against her, though he has yet to officially announce his candidacy. Katrina left the state trending G.O.P. after displacing hundreds of thousands of African American voters.

Two other states where the G.O.P. has had success in recruiting promising candidates are Virginia, where Representative Tom Davis and former Governor Jim Gilmore have both expressed interest in John Warner's seat, and Nebraska, where former Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns has thrown his hat in the ring to succeed Chuck Hagel. Johanns is also one of the only candidates that President Bush might be able to help this cycle. "The President is well received in Nebraska; I would be honored to have him here," Johanns said. On the other hand, even strong Republican candidates may not be enough if former Nebraska Senator Bob Kerrey decides to return to the political stage in his home state, while the Republican nominee for the Virginia Senate seat will have an uphill battle running against Democrat Mark Warner, a very popular former governor. "Virginia is going to the hardest state to hold," Ensign admits. "The most expensive and the hardest. But it is still a Red State, so we're going to play there."

Overall, Cook predicts a Democratic pickup of up to five seats with Virginia, Colorado, New Hampshire, New Mexico and Maine at the top of his list. New Mexico, he said, becomes a Democratic shoe-in if presidential hopeful New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson decides after the early primaries to shift gears and run for the Senate seat being vacated by outgoing Senator Pete Domenici. Things start to get dicey in Minnesota, where the strongest Dem candidate appears to be comedian Al Franken.

Democrats on Capitol Hill are doing their best to lay the groundwork for a few upsets. In order to try and push legislation past the G.O.P.'s frequent filibusters, they have laid on the pressure, particularly on the four Republican incumbents from states trending Blue. The four — Maine's Susan Collins, New Hampshire's John Sununu, Gordon Smith of Oregon and Norm Coleman of Minnesota — are constantly on the spot, whether it's because of near-weekly votes on President Bush's strategy in Iraq or popular legislation to expand stem cell research and children's health care. The strategy has forced some defections, such as Collins and Coleman on Iraq and Sununu on children's health care. "Sununu voted for [a bill to expand state children's health care plans] after he voted against it multiple times," said Sununu's Democratic opponent, former New Hampshire Governor Jeanne Shaheen, who plans on tying Sununu to Bush as much as possible. "On the war, he's essentially voted with President Bush seven times now." There are some signs the strategy is working: Sununu is trailing Shaheen in most New Hampshire polls.