With voter anger rising over endless war and a plummeting economy, Republicans could lose as many as 11 seats in the U.S. Senate and as many as 30 seats in the House this fall.
John Mark Gilhousen, Progressive Democrats of America’s Oregon coordinator, says the labor movement and peace and justice organizations like PDA are “solidly united” in working to defeat incumbent Republican Sen. Gordon Smith and elect in his place Democrat Jeff Merkley, speaker of the Oregon State House.
“I believe we stand at a crossroad,” Gilhousen said in a phone interview. “The damage done in the last seven years has wreaked such havoc that we must address the issues now — the environment, energy policy, the lack of health care, the decline of the middle class. We are fighting on these issues locally but they also demand a strong progressive president and a supportive Congress.”
There are 35 Senate seats at stake, 23 now held by Republicans and 12 by Democrats. Five incumbent Republicans are retiring: Wayne Allard (Colorado), Larry Craig (Idaho), Chuck Hagel (Nebraska), Pete Domenici (New Mexico) and John Warner (Virginia).
A number of states are considered key battlegrounds for ending the Republican grip on the Senate that has blocked so much progressive legislation, from ending the war to worker rights.
Alaska’s Republican Sen. Ted Stevens has just been indicted on influence-peddling stemming from his longstanding crony ties to Big Oil. His Democratic opponent is Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich.
Al Franken is running hard to oust Republican Norm Coleman in Minnesota. The race between former Mississippi Democratic Gov. Ronnie Musgrove and Republican Roger Wicker for the Senate seat vacated by Trent Lott is considered a toss-up. In Maine, Democratic Rep. Tom Allen is challenging Republican incumbent Susan Collins. In neighboring New Hampshire, former Democratic Gov. Jeanne Shaheen could oust GOP Sen. John Sununu. In New Mexico, Democrat Tom Udall is ahead in the polls in the race to fill Domenici’s seat. His cousin Mark Udall is in a tight race for Allard’s seat in Colorado. In Virginia, former Democratic Gov. Mark Warner looks likely to replace Republican John Warner. In Nebraska, Democrat Scott Kleeb is making a strong bid to take Hagel’s seat. In North Carolina, Democrat Kay Hagan is giving incumbent Republican Elizabeth Dole a run for her money. And in Texas, Republican John Cornyn is facing a strong challenge from Democratic former state legislator and Afghanistan veteran Rick Noriega.
Gilhousen pointed out that Oregon has a reputation for progressive Republicans like Sen. Mark Hatfield, an opponent of the Vietnam war. “Gordon Smith is trying to pass himself off in that mold. He poses as a moderate and then goes back to Washington and votes 90 percent of the time for the Bush agenda.”
Smith voted to authorize the Iraq war. He even voted against a bill to provide body armor for the troops. The AFL-CIO slams him for voting for a “thinly disguised amendment to repeal the minimum wage.” Smith also voted to sustain a GOP filibuster that killed Senate passage of the Employee Free Choice Act.
By contrast, Merkley has a consistent pro-labor, pro-environment record, Gilhousen continued. “I’m expecting a squeeker in the election,” he said. “Smith has an enormous war chest, mostly money from insurance companies, big pharma and the oil companies.”
Yet Merkley, who grew up in a small Oregon sawmill town, is a strong challenger. “Jeff just completed a 100-city tour bringing a strong progressive message to both big cities and small towns,” Gilhousen said. “I’ve supported Jeff from day one because he can break through the rural-urban divide in Oregon.”
In Virginia, PDA’s state coordinator Howard Jennings says Democrat Mark Warner is “the hands-down favorite” against Republican former Gov. John Gilmore, who “left Virginia with a $6 billion deficit.”
Warner, who inherited that deficit when he became governor, had “a very effective, bipartisan approach,” Jennings said. During his tenure, for example, Virginia became recognized as “the best state for a child to be born in, in terms of educational opportunities.”
Progressive Democrats are also working hard to elect Gerry Connolly to replace retiring Republican Tom Davis to represent Fairfax County in the U.S. House of Representatives. “With a very strong voter registration and get-out-the-vote effort, we fully expect to pick up that seat,” he said. PDA is also working to elect Bill Day in Virginia’s 1st CD, Andrea Miller in the 4th CD and Sam Rasul in the 6th CD, districts currently held by Republicans.
“It’s an uphill race for us but the strategic importance is that our candidates will create a lot of excitement and increase the Democratic turnout for both Barack Obama and Warner,” Jennings continued. It was the strategy that gave Democrat Jim Webb victory in Virginia’s Senate race in 2006, he said. “It ran contrary to the Democrats’ strategy of running candidates only in ‘contestable’ districts. It was a terrible strategy because you got much lower voter turnout and no voices challenging the Republicans in much of the state.” PDA’s strategy dovetails with Obama’s “50 state strategy” of ceding nothing to the Republicans without a fight, he said.