So far, McCaskill and her Washington-based colleagues are navigating these shoals effectively. Recent polls show her with a narrow lead over Talent. She has even found a wedge issue to confound Republicans: stem cells. Talent wanted to criminalize a type of stem-cell research requiring embryonic cloning, a position he reversed in February. For weeks, the campaign has been about little else. And taking a page from the Republican playbook of 2004, when the GOP added a gay-marriage initiative to the ballot in Ohio to help maximize conservative turnout, Democrats have added a stem-cell initiative to the ballot in Missouri.
These red-state political moves aren’t just helping Democrats this cycle. They are serving as a road test for the potential platform of the party’s 2008 presidential nominee, whoever that turns out to be. Democratic victories in red states this year will be seized upon by party strategists as pointing the way forward for 2008. In that way, Schumer is helping the party define a kind of centrism that, if successful, could also help win the White House.
In Ohio, Schumer’s aggressive recruiting proved too successful. Iraq veteran Paul Hackett became the darling of liberal Democrats last year by nearly defeating a Republican in a special House election in an extremely pro-Bush Ohio district. He was then pushed into the Senate race by Schumer and Reid, whose first and second choices decided not to run. Schumer’s hard sell even included a call from his wife to Hackett’s wife to allay any spousal concerns. But months later, when the second-choice candidate, Sherrod Brown, changed his mind, Schumer changed his mind about Hackett. Hackett, in turn, quit the race, angrily firing away at Schumer as he left the stage. “Schumer, in particular,” he wrote in a newspaper column, “actively sought to undermine my insurgent campaign, in part by calling up my donors and telling them not to raise money for me, which is like a doctor cutting off oxygen to a patient. He also worked through others to get state and local politicians to publicly urge me to quit.” It worked.
Ohio is now the test case for how much harm corruption scandals have inflicted on the GOP. The Republican governor has pleaded no contest to misdemeanor charges for taking gifts. A byzantine scandal regarding a Bush donor who invested part of Ohio’s workers’ compensation fund into rare coins has tarred almost every Republican in the state. Meanwhile, conservatives are fuming at the already vulnerable Republican senator Mike DeWine for signing on to the so-called Gang of Fourteen deal, which prevented Republicans from banning the use of a filibuster to block judicial nominees. The Democratic strategy is simple: a relentless focus on corruption, punctuated more recently by almost Pat Buchanan–like attacks on Arab-owned firms that have anything to do with American security. Brown is a fairly liberal candidate for the state—think a more polished Dennis Kucinich—but the scandals, the Dubai issue, and declining support for Bush and the war have combined to give him a 50-50 chance at victory.
Montana has been a showcase for another skill that Schumer’s DSCC has elevated to an art this cycle—the ability to inject anti-GOP stories into the state press. “This is what the DSCC is good at,” says the Cook Report’s Duffy. “They are good at taking little things and beating them to death.”
In Montana, the story of lobbyist Jack Abramoff has been transformed from an obscure inside-Washington tale into a local Montana feeding frenzy. Republican senator Conrad Burns assisted Abramoff’s Indian clients, and, with some help from Singer at the DSCC, the Montana press has explored every cranny of Burns’s connection to the lobbyist. In 2000, Burns won with only 51 percent, pushed over the edge by Bush’s strong showing in the state. He’s a mediocre campaigner and has been slow to organize. In late March, rumors flew around Washington that he was quitting the race.
But he hasn’t dropped out. Like other GOP candidates, Burns has decided to run on state micro-issues rather than national ones. His latest TV ad isn’t about Iraq but the “scourge [that] is threatening Montana’s children: methamphetamine addiction.” As in Ohio, Democrats are drilling away at GOP scandals, but as in Missouri, they tread carefully around social issues and eschew Bush-bashing. After Santorum, Burns is the most likely Republican to go down this year.
In Rhode Island, Schumer failed to recruit his top candidate. He wanted pro-life congressman Jim Langevin, but a second pro-lifer proved to be too much for many Democrats to take, especially in liberal Rhode Island, and Langevin declined to run. The Republican incumbent is Lincoln Chafee, one of the last GOP moderates from New England left in Congress. Chafee famously refused to vote for Bush in 2004, writing in the name of the president’s father instead. That and other heresies have attracted a conservative primary opponent who is sure to send him into the general election bloodied and weakened. To his credit, Chafee has been unwilling to shift rightward in response. He even said he would consider backing Senator Russ Feingold’s resolution to censure Bush (though he later offered a tortuous clarification). Rhode Island is the bluest state in America with a Republican senator. Bush lost there in 2004 by 21 points, and it is looking increasingly doubtful that Chafee’s storied name (his dad was a senator) or fierce independence can save him in a year with such an anti-Republican undertow.