• U.S.

Dreaming About The Senate

7 minute read
Douglas Waller/Washington

Barack Obama knows his background is about as unconventional as Illinois voters will probably ever see in a Senate candidate. He was born in Hawaii, the son of a Kenyan economist and a white mother from Kansas, and spent four years of his childhood in Indonesia. His last name rhymes with Osama. So he begins every campaign speech with the question on the audience’s mind: “How does a skinny guy with a funny name win an election?”

His self-effacing confidence and good looks charm the crowds, and the fans he has won have made the 42-year-old Chicago lawyer and three-term state senator the hottest property in this year’s Senate races. Obama may be on his way to replacing retiring Republican Senator Peter Fitzgerald.

That’s in part why Democrats are dreaming for the first time that they can snatch control of the Senate, narrowly held by Republicans. Obama’s first G.O.P. opponent, former Goldman Sachs partner Jack Ryan, had already been trailing by as much as 20 points in some polls when his campaign took a fatal blow last week: a judge unsealed four-year-old divorce records in which Ryan’s exwife–actress Jeri Ryan of television’s Boston Public–claimed that in 1998 he tried to talk her into having public sex with him in various clubs. Four days later, Ryan, who had denied the allegations in legal filings at the time, pulled out of the race. Illinois Republican leaders, who had pressured him to quit, scrambled to find a replacement.

Meanwhile, Obama, a Harvard Law graduate, has energized African-American voters without alienating suburban whites. “I am rooted in the African-American community, but I am not limited to it,” he tells audiences. He has also stuck to his liberal positions: he is outspoken in his opposition to the war in Iraq and touts his legislation to reduce the rate of wrongful executions and crack down on racial profiling.

Seven months ago, the Democrats’ quest for the Senate appeared hopeless, and Republicans, who cling to a slim 51-to-48 majority (with one independent), were confidently predicting they would widen that lead. Especially in the Republican-friendly South, Democrats were staring at a wipeout, with five of their Senators–Fritz Hollings of South Carolina, John Breaux of Louisiana, John Edwards of North Carolina, Zell Miller of Georgia and Bob Graham of Florida–all deciding to retire.

But Democrats have since recruited credible-enough candidates that the party now has a shot at holding on to three or four of the Southern seats–in South Carolina, North Carolina, Florida and Louisiana. And in the West, Democrats are hoping to nab the open seats left by the retirement of Republican Senators Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Colorado and Don Nickles of Oklahoma, and to take on the vulnerable Lisa Murkowski in Alaska. So suddenly the math has changed: Democrats can see their way to a net gain of two seats, which would give them a slim advantage in the Senate. “We’re at the cusp of a victory in November,” says Senator Jon Corzine, who chairs the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. G.O.P. leaders insist that the Democrats’ hope is a pipe dream. Most of the seats up for grabs are in G.O.P.-heavy states that Bush won handily in 2000. “They simply cannot blow away the reality,” says Senator George Allen, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

What makes Democrats sound so giddy? Bush’s sinking approval ratings and the poll numbers showing that voters, by 49% to 37% in a TIME poll in early June, say they plan to vote for a Democrat rather than a Republican in congressional elections. Democrats also see two favorable omens in the special-election victories for two House seats, one in South Dakota on June 1 and one four months ago in Kentucky.

If the Democrats pull off a coup, it won’t entirely be because of a change in the political climate. Corzine maneuvered early in three states–Colorado, Oklahoma and South Carolina–to winnow the field of Democratic candidates to the strongest in order to avoid costly primary battles. In Colorado, for example, he privately urged Democratic Congressman Mark Udall and multimillionaire software entrepreneur Rutt Bridges not to run so that the party’s better vote getter, attorney general Ken Salazar, a white-haired Hispanic whose family has lived in the state for generations, would have an easier time in the primary. Salazar still faces a nagging challenge from high school principal Mike Miles, but it’s nothing compared with the looming battle on the Republican side, pitting conservative former Congressman Bob Schaffer against beer magnate Peter Coors. The latest Republican poll in April showed Salazar well ahead of both Schaffer and Coors.

Democrats in Washington had been paying little attention to Alaska, a state some 3,000 miles from the nation’s capital that Bush carried by 31 points in 2000 and that hasn’t elected a Democratic Senator in 30 years. But after being elected Governor in 2002, G.O.P. Senator Frank Murkowski appointed his daughter Lisa, 45, a state legislator, to serve out the remaining two years of his Senate term. That sparked a political firestorm. Jerry Sousa, a guide in the tiny village of Talkeetna, summed up the view of many Alaskans: the daughter “seems like she’s nice, personable and is doing a great job as Senator. But the way she was appointed was fairly despicable.” Meanwhile, the Democrats’ candidate, former two-term Governor Tony Knowles, a lanky onetime oil roughneck, is the state’s most popular Democrat. He pushes jobs and more benefits for the state’s high concentration of veterans but distances himself from John Kerry’s opposition to drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which most Alaskans support. A poll in May by an Anchorage television station showed Knowles 5 points ahead of Murkowski.

South Carolina is one of the most Republican states in the Union. But G.O.P. Representative Jim DeMint had to fight his way through a six-candidate primary and then a runoff last Tuesday to win his party’s nomination for the Senate, while Democrats united early behind Inez Tenenbaum, the state education superintendent. A moderate who has won two statewide elections, Tenenbaum hopes to form a winning coalition of blacks and white-female swing voters. “We are reaching out across party lines and bringing people in,” Tenenbaum tells TIME.

Republicans will fight hard to change the odds everywhere Democrats think they have a chance. In states with bruising primaries, the G.O.P. has been holding successful fund raisers to pile up cash that will be dished out to whoever is the winner. Even Democratic stars like Obama will get roughed up. Before his candidacy imploded, Ryan last month had a young campaign worker with a videocam follow Obama (sometimes no more than a few feet away) in hopes of catching him saying something inconsistent with previous statements. After two weeks and a wave of publicity that made Ryan look bad, the cameraman disappeared. “This scorched-earth politics out there today is not getting things done,” says Obama. “So what I do is tell a story about what’s been lost in the American Dream and how we can recapture that dream.” Democrats will be happy if they can just recapture the Senate. –With reporting by Pat Dawson/Talkeetna, Rita Healy/Denver, Kristin Kloberdanz/Chicago and Constance E. Richards/Greenville, S.C.

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