In November, thirty-five seats in the U.S. Senate will be up for re-election. Of those, twenty-three are currently held by Republicans. One of them belongs to Ted Stevens of Alaska—he of Indictment fame—and, though Stevens is fighting to keep his incumbency (the moxie!), his seat is highly vulnerable. Other seats are up in states whose political leanings are tending, increasingly, toward the left. New Hampshire’s John Sununu, Minnesota’s Norm Coleman, Oklahoma’s Jim Inhofe, Oregon’s Gordon Smith, and Maine’s Susan Collins are vulnerable, as well.
The Democrats are getting excited.
Chuck Schumer, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, recently released a video, noting that Republicans filibustered more than ninety times during this Congressional session—the most in history—and that the upcoming election could provide a shakeup that would produce a significant Democratic majority in the Senate:
One could draw several conclusions from this (after the central conclusion, of course, that Chuck Schumer likes melodrama). Chief among them: the Democrats’ winning of a sixty-seat majority in the Senate—which would, per the rules governing that body’s floor debate, make their position filibuster-proof—has officially been upgraded from Pipedream to Longshot. But, you know, attainable Longshot. “While both sides tend to use hyperbole in their fundraising pitches,” The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza notes, “it’s clear that Democrats are now talking much more openly about the possibility of 60 seats.”
It’s unlikely. Very. But should the Dems find the holy grail in November, the nine-seat (or eleven-seat ?) pickup would mean, essentially, that—assuming relative party unity—they could tackle a legislative agenda with little interference from the other side. Which would be, of course—both news-wise and otherwise—huge. (The Dems haven’t been filibuster-proof since they won sixty-one seats in the ninety-fifth Congress in 1977. And the Republicans haven’t been since the cloture rule was first instituted. In 1917.)
While there’s always a bit of buzz about the Cha(n)ce for Sixty in the months leading up to Senate elections—indeed, it’s something of a tradition among political junkies to engage in the political calculus that determines whether sixty is attainable—the fact that the DSCC is actively, and publicly, working for the magic number is a story in itself. As is the fact that, at this point, Democrats and Republicans alike are expecting that the Dems will increase their Senate majority—significantly—from its current, and frail, fifty-one. Which would affect whomever wins the presidency on November 4—along with everyone else in the country. An increased Dem majority would be, of course, great news for a President Obama…and very bad news for a President McCain, who would, in all likelihood, see much of his agenda thwarted (see: “Clinton, President William J,” et al).
And regardless of who comes to occupy the Oval Office, a significant Democratic majority in the upper house would nudge the overall course of American governance toward the left. As the Spectator’s W. James Antle put it back in March,
The more Democratic the next Congress, the more liberal the next president will be in the first two years. This rule is likely to hold no matter if it is Obama, Clinton, or McCain putting their hand on the Bible on Jan. 20, 2009.
In other words, basically: bigness all around. The Search for Sixty is big. The fact that Dems are engaging in it is big. And any increase in the Dems’ majority would be big.
So it’s remarkable how little we’re hearing about the Senate races right now outside of the rarefied world of political junkie-dom. A search for coverage of the current Search for Sixty yielded few results. There was a (very good) piece in The New York Times, in March. The Search got a brief shout-out in a July WaPo story about Senator Stevens’s indictment. There’s been scattered coverage on blogs. (Chris Cillizza has been following the story closely—but, then again, he’s also a demigod among political junkies.) But the Search for Sixty story—and, more importantly, the general Senate Races story that underpins it—haven’t thus far gotten, overall and in the mainstream, the coverage they deserve.
Which isn’t to say that they demand ongoing, page-one treatment at this point; they don’t. And for the press to engage in speculation about up-in-the-air Senate races would be merely to extend the veepstakes mentality from the executive to the legislative branch. Which, you know—no, thank you.
It is to say, though, that voters would benefit from being given the fuller picture of what’s at stake in November—since the presidential race, though it may be the focal point, is by no means the full image. Particularly this week, when veepstakes nonsense has dominated the dialogue—reporters are currently camped out in front of Joe Biden’s house (the affable senator delivered bagels to his wayward entourage yesterday morning); Tim Kaine wasted several minutes on CNN this morning, finding as many creative ways as possible to say “no comment”; indeed, “no civilian could or would believe how much resources news organizations are wasting trying to break the veep stories,” Mark Halperin declared yesterday—a little perspective would be, put mildly, refreshing.