Wednesday, Oct. 22, 2008 | 2 a.m.
Propelled by voter anxiety over the economic downturn, Democrats are possibly poised to win a filibuster-proof majority of seats in the U.S. Senate, as outside groups pour money into Republican races to reverse the trend.
Some Republican senators thought to be safe for reelection are now fighting for their political lives in unexpectedly narrowed races.
Outside groups including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Freedom’s Watch have spent $30 million trying to prevent Republican losses.
Democrats, led by Nevada Sen. Harry Reid, now hold a 51-49 advantage in the chamber. That’s not enough to pursue the party’s agenda, however, because the minority party can block legislation through filibuster, a tactic that can be overcome only if the other side musters 60 votes.
Until recently, that number seemed beyond reach to Democrats.
“Republicans’ ability to hang on to some of their most endangered incumbents is diminishing,” wrote Jennifer Duffy of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “Today, the most likely outcome is a Democratic gain of seven seats, but given the political landscape, a nine-seat pickup is not out of the question.”
Speaking in a joint appearance Tuesday at the National Press Club, Sen. Charles Schumer, the New York Democrat who heads his party’s Senate campaign committee, and Nevada Sen. John Ensign, who heads his party’s efforts, were reluctant to predict a blowout.
“As for 60, it is possible,” Schumer said, “But given the red terrain we’re fighting in, it’s very difficult.”
“Is it possible?” Ensign said. “It’s possible.”
Schumer has had the advantage this year as voters tell pollsters they generally prefer Democrats, while Ensign had been unable to attract top-tier Republican challengers. And Republicans have 23 seats to defend, twice as many as Democrats.
The Cook report thinks the Virginia and New Mexico seats held by retiring Republican senators are moving toward the Democratic column, and seven other Republican-held seats are toss-ups — including those in Georgia and Mississippi that had been considered long shots for the party.
The Democratic campaign committee has amassed $117 million to further the campaigns, compared with $74 million on the Republican side.
But outside groups are narrowing the fundraising gap, running TV ads and conducting ground operations in battleground states that could decide the makeup of the Senate.
“They’ve inserted themselves into the campaign in an unprecedented fashion,” Schumer said.
“They know if we win, the stranglehold they’ve enjoyed in Washington for the last eight years will come to the end — huge breaks, sweetheart deals, lax regulation, complicit Republican Congress.”
Outside expenditures are common in campaigns. Ensign said Schumer’s complaints are outrageous because such efforts “hit both sides.”
“C’mon. Moveon.org — have you seen what they’re doing?” Ensign said. “Labor unions are pumping hundreds of millions of dollars into this race on the ground.”
Because some groups are not required to fully disclose their activity, tracking donations and expenditures is difficult. Freedom’s Watch and the chamber confirm they are spending more on Senate races than anywhere else this cycle.
Freedom’s Watch is backed by Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, and most of its $30 million has been spent on Senate races in six battleground states. It was launching TV ads Tuesday in Georgia and today in North Carolina.
Schumer’s committee tallied the groups’ advertising buys, and says the chamber has spent $16 million on Republicans in nine states and $300,000 on Democrats.
“This cycle truly is more important than ever because of some of the policy issues that will be first in the queue in the next Congress,” said J.P. Fielder, a chamber spokesman.
Duffy said for Schumer “to be appalled is a little silly.”
“There’s an expression: crocodile tears,” Duffy said. “Schumer doesn’t need their help.”