Image: Sen. Elizabeth Dole
Chris Hondros  /  Getty Images file
Sen. Elizabeth Dole, R-N.C., is one of several Senate Republicans at risk of losing their seats on Nov. 4, adding to Democratic hopes that they will have 60 seats in the Senate. Dole's opponent is working closely with Barack Obama's campaign in the state.
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
msnbc.com
updated 10/8/2008 5:26:55 PM ET 2008-10-08T21:26:55

Over a year ago, in August 2007, I went out on a limb and wrote that “it now looks possible that in next year’s elections the Democrats just might attain the 60 seats they need to foil Republican filibusters.”

That possibility seemed far-fetched then. Today it seems feasible.

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., the head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, told reporters at a Capitol Hill briefing Wednesday that the prospect of his party getting 60 seats “are better than they were two weeks ago; they keep getting better, but you don’t know until you get much closer” to Election Day.

The Democrats now hold 51 seats, if one includes Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Joe Lieberman, both independents.

Republicans haven't gotten good news recently in their efforts to defend the 23 Republican-held seats that are on the ballot next month.

Polling shows Democrats ahead in Colorado, New Mexico, Virginia and New Hampshire.

The Alaska race appears to be a tie — although much hinges on the jury verdict in Sen. Ted Stevens's trial in Washington, D.C., on charges of failing to disclose gifts. His Democratic foe is Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich.

Schumer contended that Democratic challengers are leading in Oregon and North Carolina, although public polls are somewhat equivocal.

Obama targeting North Carolina
In North Carolina, Sen. Elizabeth Dole is struggling to fend off Democrat Kay Hagan.

Sen. Barack Obama’s presidential campaign has targeted the state’s 15 electoral votes. “In North Carolina, we’re working very closely together (with the Obama campaign). Obama has a great field operation in North Carolina,” Schumer said.

“North Carolina has same-day voter registration, which is a big advantage — so the enthusiastic voter who hadn’t registered six months ago can actually vote.”

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In Minnesota, former comedian Al Franken is in a tight race with Republican incumbent Sen. Norm Coleman.

The Mississippi seat held by Sen. Roger Wicker, who was appointed to replace Trent Lott, is also in jeopardy for the GOP. Wicker faces a well-funded challenge by former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove. The last Democrat to win a Senate election in Mississippi was the segregationist James Eastland in 1972.

Now, according to Schumer, the Georgia Senate seat held by Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss is also coming within Democrats’ grasp. Chambliss is battling Democrat Jim Martin.

Is GOP Leader McConnell at risk?
Democrats even think they can topple Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky, a state that hasn’t elected a Democrat to the Senate in 16 years. Democrat Bruce Lunsford is trying to unseat McConnell.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee's first ad in the Kentucky race began airing Wednesday.

McConnell’s vote for the financial sector bailout bill, which the Senate passed last week, may make him vulnerable to attack. Although Schumer noted that he himself supported the bailout, he did not rule out the Senate campaign committee using the vote to attack GOP incumbents such as McConnell.

One Republican official said it's way too early to call the Nov. 4 elections for the Democrats.

“Polls show that most of the competitive Senate races are currently in dead heats — that’s encouraging news for us going into Election Day since we have much stronger candidates,” said Rebecca Fisher, a spokeswoman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “Democrats should have learned from past experiences that it’s dangerous to predict victory this far out.”

Why 60 is the Holy Grail
Sixty seats is the Holy Grail because that’s the number of senators needed to curtail debate and bring a matter to a final vote.

Video: Palin on McCain's economic plan With 60 Democratic senators next year, the Republican minority would be unable to stop any legislation that the Democratic leadership was intent on passing.

And unless the Republicans got help from conservative-centrist Democratic senators, such as Ben Nelson of Nebraska, they would be powerless to block any presidential nomination, if the president happens to be a Democrat.

If Obama is in the White House next year, he could nominate to serve on federal courts liberal “judicial activists” viewed by Republicans as dangerous. There would be little that Republicans could do to keep such nominees from getting lifetime appointments.

There are now 11 vacancies on the federal appeals courts and 33 on the federal district (trial) courts. And Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, who turns 89 next spring, may well retire next year.

Seeing a silver lining in an ever-darkening cloud for the GOP, former Republican Senate aide Manuel Miranda said, “A filibuster-proof Senate may result in the biggest revitalization of the conservative movement and usher in a new generation of Republican Party operatives.”

Miranda heads an advocacy group that helped rally support for President Bush’s Supreme Court nominees Samuel Alito and John Roberts.

A 60-seat Senate majority “may also lead to some of the most divisive partisanship since the mid-1800s,” Miranda predicted. 

Struggle over Bush nominees
He recalled that when Democrats were in the minority from 2001 to 2005, they used the filibuster to block votes on several of Bush’s right-leaning judicial nominees, including Janice Rogers Brown and Miguel Estrada.

A bipartisan group of 14 senators, including Sen. John McCain, the Republican presidential nominee, but not Obama, ultimately struck a deal whereby Brown and two other Bush nominees were confirmed.

The 14 senators pledged to not resort to filibusters of judicial nominees unless there were “extraordinary circumstances,” a term left undefined.

“The (Obama) judicial nominees that will rally Republicans will be those who had something to do with the Democrat obstructions of 2002-2005," Miranda said. "Chief among these is Cass Sunstein, who fueled the opposition to Miguel Estrada and many others.”

Sunstein is an Obama ally, a prolific author and a professor of law at Harvard Law School.

“Among plausible Obama Supreme Court nominees, the worst nightmare for conservatives is 2nd Circuit Judge Sonia Sotomayor,” said Curt Levey, the executive director of The Committee for Justice.

Is it the apocalypse for conservatives?
But Levey expressed skepticism about what appeared to be a conservative apocalyptic vision of a judiciary picked by Obama.

“Once the nominees are sent up to the Senate, I'm not sure 60 Democrats is any sort of magic number,” Levey said. “One, Republican senators have no history of filibustering Democratic judicial nominees. Two, Democratic gains in the Senate in November will mean an increased number of red and purple state Democrats, who will have to be wary of the political consequences back home if they support the confirmation of wild-eyed judicial activists to the federal bench.”

“In the end, nothing, including a Republican majority in the Senate, will stop a President Obama from pushing the federal courts in the direction of liberal judicial activism,” he said. “But holding down the number of Democratic gains in the Senate will mean that the courts' lurch to the left will be less extreme.”

Schumer played down the electoral significance of the judicial nominees issue. “Judicial nominations affect the base of each party and don’t affect swing voters in the election. Obviously we would want a more mainstream Supreme Court,” he said.

Schumer voted against the Roberts and Alito nominations and later expressed remorse that Senate Democrats had not used a filibuster to block a vote on Alito. He also led the successful effort to block a vote on Estrada.

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