Sabato's Crystal Ball

The Election Without End

Senate Aftermath of 2008 Continues

Larry J. Sabato, Director, U.Va. Center for Politics December 4th, 2008



Decades ago, a merry band of pranksters took to the streets of a state’s capital city a few days after an election for governor. Riding in the van of a defeated candidate, the vehicle still much decorated with the slogans and banners of the electorally deceased nominee, the newly unemployed campaign workers took turns on the public address system, exhorting passersby to remember to vote. Startled looks were the norm among the pedestrians, with one anguished woman blurting out, “But it’s over!”

Granted, the 2008 election is not like 2000: it’s mainly over. But parts of it are not, and ballots are still being counted and recounted in various parts of the United States. One open-seat House race in Ohio is still a toss-up. In the Fifteenth district, Republican Steve Stivers is leading Democrat Mary Jo Kilroy by 594 votes, with about 28,000 provisional ballots yet to be counted or rejected. In California’s Fourth district, another seat without an incumbent running, Republican Tom McClintock has probably defeated Democrat Charlie Brown; at present, McClintock leads Brown by 1,666 votes. A third House contest in Virginia’s Fifth district is scheduled for a recount this month, with Democrat Thomas Perriello the apparent winner by 745 votes over Republican incumbent Virgil Goode. Two Louisiana House districts have run-off elections on Saturday, December 6. Democrats are now guaranteed to pick up at least 21 seats, maybe one or two more, so these leftovers don’t matter a whit in the running of the House. In total, Democrats have added at least fifty-four seats in just two years, and the party’s large majority means the Republicans are essentially on the House sidelines for at least the next two years.

The lingering Senate battles have been a different story, and they do matter since Democrats had hoped to reach the filibuster-proof majority of sixty seats. Here are the four that have dominated the headlines over the past month, and they tell the tale about Senate control:

THE SEVEN-FELONY WONDER–Alaska’s Senate Seat: For forty years no one could have imagined Senator Ted Stevens losing reelection, but then no one could have imagined the longest serving Republican member of the upper chamber being convicted on seven felony counts the week before election day. Uncle Ted’s corruption finally outweighed Uncle Ted’s pork in the minds of Alaska’s voters, though it is a measure of the electorate’s gratitude for, or addiction to, federal money that a felon could receive 46.6 percent of the vote. Democrat Mark Begich had to overcome not just Stevens’ long incumbency but also Alaska’s massive Republican tilt–plus a GOP landslide for President (60% for McCain) generated by the vice presidential candidacy of the state’s popular governor, Sarah Palin. Begich was quite happy to walk away with his 3,700-vote victory (47.8 percent). Here’s one incumbent who will have to work devilishly hard to get reelected six years hence.

The Crystal Ball’s October Projected Winner: Mark Begich.

THE REPUBLICAN FILIBUSTER ‘SAVE’–Georgia’s Senate Seat: As we predicted, Republicans were able to stop the bleeding and hold onto the Senate seat of Saxby Chambliss, who gained a second term after being forced into a December 2nd run-off with Democrat Jim Martin. Chambliss began the race as a heavy favorite against the little-known former state legislator and unsuccessful candidate for lieutenant governor. But a weak campaign by Chambliss, an impressive turnout by African-Americans in support of Barack Obama, and a Libertarian party candidate who drained a crucial 3.4 percent of the vote left Chambliss just shy of the 50%-plus-one majority needed for election. Chambliss was unable to take advantage of the coattail offered by John McCain, who carried the state with 52 percent, a clear majority though far off the pace for most GOP presidential candidates. With a much lower run-off turnout of about 2.1 million (versus nearly 4 million on November 4th), and African-American participation falling dramatically over the past month, Chambliss finally–and handily–reclaimed his seat with 57 percent of the vote. Republicans and many Independents in Georgia appeared wary of giving the Democrats too much power in the next Congress. This win guarantees that Democrats will not reach the supposedly filibuster-proof 60-seat Senate bloc for which they had hoped, even if the disputed Minnesota contest falls to them. Of course, Democrats will do just fine with 58 Senate seats–fully thirteen more seats than they held prior to the election of 2006. President Obama’s key priorities are very likely to attract the votes of several moderate Republican senators, if the votes are needed to shut off a filibuster in the early months of his term.

The Crystal Ball October Projection: Run-off would be necessary in December.

The Crystal Ball December Projection: Saxby Chambliss victory.

THE CLASSIC SQUEAKER–Minnesota’s Senate Seat: Here’s another terrific classroom example for students that every vote matters. On election night in November, one term Republican U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman appeared to have bucked a powerful Democratic tide in his state, winning by a mere 745 votes over Democrat Al Franken. About 2.9 million ballots had been cast in the election, a difference of a few hundredths of a percentage point. Barack Obama had captured the state with a solid 54 percent, but Franken was unable to capitalize on that, both because of his own controversial past and because of the presence of a third candidate, Dean Barkley, who received about 15 percent of the statewide vote. Naturally, given the paper-thin margin of victory, a re-canvassing and recounting of the votes ensued. By early December, as the proportion of recounted ballots exceeded 93%, Coleman’s margin over Franken had dwindled to 303 votes, with about 6,000 ballots yet to be determined because of challenges from one or both sides. As Florida taught us in 2000, strange things can be found just under the surface in most elections. As late as December 2nd, 171 uncounted ballots were discovered in Ramsey County, which (once tallied) added 37 net votes to Franken. A few voters also went to great lengths to spoil their precious ballots in creative ways, such as double-voting for a legitimate candidate and a made-up write-in contender such as “Lizard People” (yes, someone actually did that in Minnesota), or crossing out their first choice and trying to make a second choice with confusing arrows and symbols.

Observers in Minnesota and elsewhere are unsure about the outcome, but most of nonpartisan sources seem to be putting a thumb lightly on the scale for Coleman at this point. The incumbent is still ahead, after all, and Franken would have to win a disproportionate share of the challenged ballots. However, court challenges could easily occur, especially about the thousands of absentee ballots rejected on various technicalities, which the Franken campaign believes would favor them if tallied.

More important, the U.S. Senate is the sole judge of its members. Will a large Democratic Senate majority actually seat Coleman even if he is ahead by a few votes, assuming there are enough disputed ballots so that a case can be made for Franken? In 1974, a precedent was set in a virtually tied New Hampshire Senate election. The election night count showed Republican Louis Wyman the winner by 355 votes. Then the first recount gave Democrat John Durkinthe victory by 10 votes. A hotly disputed second recount gave the nod again to Republican Wyman by 2 votes. The U.S. Senate took up the matter, and after eight months of argumentative hearings, it threw up its hands and declared the seat vacant. The Granite State set a new election for September 1975, which Durkin won handily in a turnout that actually exceeded that of November 1974. A poor economy and President Ford’s unpopularity contributed mightily to Durkin’s win. (Durkin was a one-term senator, ousted in the Reagan landslide of 1980.) By the way, the New Hampshire precedent may influence the Senate in another way. The dispute stirred deep partisan rancor that spilled over from time to time into other Senate business. Given Barack Obama’s emphasis on bipartisanship, the new president and his Senate allies may not favor such a development. This assumes Coleman’s tiny lead holds up, of course.

The Crystal Ball’s October Projection: Coleman by a fingernail. [We didn’t know how filed down the fingernail would be. On the other hand, it is remarkable that Coleman may have prevailed given the way the electoral cards were stacked against him.]

THE DISTURBING DYNASTY–Delaware’s Senate Seat: Very soon two Democratic governors, Rod Blagojevich of Illinois and David Paterson of New York, will be appointing Senate replacements for President-elect Barack Obama and Secretary of State-designate Hillary Clinton. These two deeply Blue states will get new Democrats much like Obama and Clinton, so nothing much could change until the voters have their say in 2010. (Obama’s original term expires in 2010, and in New York the electorate will fill the two years remaining in Clinton’s second term that began in 2006.)

In Delaware, though, the appointment has already been made, and it is–or ought to be–quite controversial. Outgoing Governor Ruth Ann Minner (D), who has been unpopular for much of her tenure, decided to ignore the wishes of much of her party’s electorate by appointing an unknown, Ted Kaufman, to Vice-President-elect Joe Biden’s Senate seat. Who is this unknown? Kaufman was Biden’s longtime Senate chief of staff, and he is a complete Biden loyalist. In choosing Kaufman, Minner passed over the popular favorite, Lt. Gov. John Carney, who had barely lost the Democratic gubernatorial nomination to succeed Minner in September.

The truth is that Kaufman was chosen because he was willing to do the bidding of Mr. Biden, to be a mere “seat warmer” for two years, and then step aside rather than run for reelection. And who, pray tell, is in line to inherit the seat in 2010? Why, Mr. Biden’s son, state Attorney General Beau Biden, who (to his great credit) is currently serving a tour of duty in Iraq and thus is unable to take the seat for the moment. Interestingly, Carney had also offered to step aside after two years to make way for Beau, but apparently the Bidens weren’t sure he would actually do that.

This is the old politics of bloodline, of anointment and appointment, rather than Barack Obama’s promised new politics–the “change we can believe in”. Joe Biden has held his seat continuously since 1973 with barely a serious challenge. After a few decades, some veteran senators of both parties come to believe that the seat they occupy truly belongs to them, and not the public. (See Stevens, Ted, above.) Like several of his vice presidential candidate predecessors such as Lyndon Johnson in 1960, Lloyd Bentsen in 1988, and Joe Lieberman in 2000, Biden ran simultaneously for VP and reelection to the Senate–a self-centered act that the dual candidates always try to justify by citing the Senate seniority the home state might forfeit otherwise.

If the current transparent ruse in Delaware succeeds, the Bidens will hardly be alone. America’s disturbingly dynastic politics has produced dozens of officeholders whose parents or other close relatives held the seat before them. However, this particular maneuver by the Bidens is as brazen as any seen since President-elect John F. Kennedy had Governor Foster Furcolo of Massachusetts appoint JFK’s old Harvard roommate, the anonymous Ben Smith, to Kennedy’s vacated Senate seat in 1960–solely so that JFK’s 28-year old brother Ted could turn the minimum constitutional age of 30 in time to reclaim the family’s heirloom in 1962, with Smith stepping aside as pre-planned.

The Kennedy example suggests that the voters frequently go along to get along; they play a submissive, shuffling role in ratifying ‘the fix’ devised by the powerful. Every now and then, though, the electorate rises up and decides to remind the political bosses that the people run things in a democracy. Biden the younger will have to be challenged by a heavyweight if this is to happen in 2010–either Carney in the Democratic primary or the sole Republican with any statewide clout, former Governor and current U.S. Rep. Michael Castle, in the general election. In the meantime, best to get ready for another episode of ‘Dynasty’.

The Crystal Ball’s Preliminary 2010 Outlook: Likely Democratic (either Biden or Carney), unless Rep. Castle (R) decides to run.

Is it 2010 yet? Come the new year, the Crystal Ball will begin its comprehensive coverage of the 2010 Senate battles, but let’s note for the record that we will have an unusually high number of Senate seats on the ballot. The 2010 cycle is the one designated to carry 34 regular seats (the other two election cycles in the six-year Senate universe have 33 seats on their rosters). In addition, the Delaware and New York seats will require special elections for the balance of the terms–two years in the Empire State and four years in Delaware. As noted earlier, Barack Obama’s Senate term would have expired in 2010, so the election in Illinois will be for a regular six-year term. Thus, there will be 36 Senate seats on the ballot (currently held by 19 Republicans and 17 Democrats), a number equivalent to the 36 Governorships elected in 2010. Further Senate vacancies before 2010, caused by appointments, deaths, or resignations, could push the total even higher. When added to the 435 House seats up for grabs, the roster of races for 2010 gives the Crystal Ball–and, we hope, you–much to be thankful for as we prepare for the next election cycle.