Senator Bayh's Domino Effect
Democrats could wind up with only 52 Senate seats.
By JOHN FUND
Political handicappers Larry Sabato and Nate Silver both projected recently that if the November election were held today, Democrats would wind up with only 52 Senate seats, a net loss of seven. Evan Bayh's sudden retirement yesterday is prompting most observers to give Republicans an edge to capture his vacant seat, which would mean a net loss of eight Democratic seats.
Such a setback isn't unprecedented. In "wave" elections, one party tends to win all of the close races -- in 2008 Democrats captured eight seats from Republicans by running the table on competitive Senate seats.
The political picture for Democrats could improve between now and November -- or it could deteriorate. What if former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson, who leads incumbent Senator Russ Feingold in at least some polls, decides to run? Similarly, former New York Governor George Pataki could enter the Senate race, hoping to take advantage of a divisive Democratic primary between appointed Senator Kristen Gillibrand and former Congressman Harold Ford. Finally, Democratic Senator Patty Murray could face a last-minute challenge from Dino Rossi, the well-known Republican who came within an eyelash of being sworn in as governor a few years ago.
Should Democrats fall to only 50 or 51 seats in the Senate, they would be at the mercy of Connecticut's Joe Lieberman on many key procedural votes. Mr. Lieberman has already signaled his willingness to consider running as a Republican in 2012. He could always threaten to jump the political fence early if it meant giving the GOP Senate control.
Even without further deterioration in their political prospects, Democrats could end up holding only a slim majority or exercising control only by virtue of Vice President Joe Biden's tie-breaking vote. You could forget about much of the Obama legislative program unless input from moderate and even conservative Republicans is incorporated into legislation. This may not be the "change" that President Obama believes in, but it would be the only kind that could happen.
The new political landscape also has big implications for the Supreme Court. The odds of one or even two vacancies occurring this summer before the current oversized Democratic Senate majority shrinks have just gone up in the wake of Scott Brown's victory in Massachusetts and Mr. Bayh's retirement. Justice John Paul Stevens turns 90 this April, and has already signaled his retirement by hiring only one law clerk for the Supreme Court term that begins next October. A retired justice is allowed a single clerk; a sitting Justice normally has four clerks.
Mr. Stevens may not be the only retirement. Ruth Bader Ginsburg is 76 years old and has struggled with poor health. She may calculate that the odds of being replaced by a like-minded liberal -- perhaps Solicitor General Elena Kagan or 7th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Diane Wood -- would be significantly better if she timed her departure to take advantage of the Democrat-dominated Senate that gave Sonia Sotomayor easy confirmation last year. If she waits, the prospect of a bitter confirmation battle in a closely divided Senate might sway President Obama to make a more pragmatic appointment.
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