Dems Will Gain Seats This Fall -- But How Many?

Lost amid the media frenzy over Barack Obama's tour abroad is recognition that this week has arguably been the most successful of the cycle for Senate Democratic candidates.

On Monday, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee posted its strongest quarter of the election cycle, raising $20.9 million with $46.2 million on hand -- nearly double the $24.6 million available to the National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee. "With just over 100 days to go until Election Day," wrote DSCC chairman Charles Schumer, "we are exactly where we need to be to run strong winning campaigns and expand our majority."

It's not just the congressional committees. Democratic candidates themselves appear financially well-positioned heading into the fall. From April through June, Minnesota candidate Al Franken raised $2.26 million compared to Sen. Norm Coleman's $2.35 million. Former Mississippi Governor Ronnie Musgrove raised $814,000 to conservative interim Senator Roger Wicker's $822,000. In North Carolina, Democratic nominee Kay Hagan has $1.54 million to Elizabeth Dole's $1.69 million. And in Maine, Democratic Congressman Tom Allen has $1 million to incumbent Susan Collins $1.06 million. The big leads are evident too. In Virginia, Warner has $3 million and Gilmore has less than $500,000. In Oregon, Merkley has $1.42 million and Smith has $1.35 million. In New Mexico, Tom Udall has $2.1 million and Pearce has $1.2 million. In Kentucky, Lunsford has $3.1 million and McConnell has $2.95 million. In Colorado, Mark Udall has $2.04 million to Schaffer's $1.4 million. In Alaska Begich has $1 million to Stevens' $745,000.

The conservative Washington Times felt compelled to publish a dreary editorial bemoaning the state of the congressional Republicans, while even sober analysts are predicting a shift of between five to seven seats into Democratic hands.

"Things are rolling for the Democrats," said Jennifer Duffy of the Cook Political Report. "I don't laugh anymore at eight or nine. A few races have to fall into play but they are close. They have Virginia gone, New Mexico is also gone, and six races are toss ups, including Minnesota, which [despite recent good news for Coleman] will still be a close race."

Indeed, it may no longer be so much of a pipe dream for the Democrats to gain the much-vaunted 60 vote majority needed to bypass GOP filibustering on the Senate floor. It is a long shot, of course, entailing many unforeseen circumstances, including the caucus keeping Sen. Joseph Lieberman among its ranks. And yet, the wheels are clearly rolling.

Take two examples: Alaska and Mississippi, states that have long been hostile turf to Democrats. One year ago, Alaska Republican Ted Stevens was a popular, pork barrel providing, firebrand conservative whose occupancy of his seat had made him a Senate institution. An ongoing FBI investigation into his suspicious relationship with Bill Allen, the founder of an Alaska-based oil services company, however, has spurned criticism of lax ethics and possible corruption.

The FBI detailed last year that Allen provided more than $400,000 in payments to public officials from the state in exchange for propitious energy legislation. It is unclear whether or not Stevens directly received any money in this exchange, but Allen's employees were paid to make major renovations to the Senator' house in 2000. The scandal has brought a discomforting element to the state's traditionally united GOP. Republican Governor Sarah Palin has distanced herself from Stevens, as have a number of key national figures, including John McCain (though the two have a history of butting heads - primarily over earmarks). As a result, Stevens now finds himself in danger of being booted from office by Democratic Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich, who has tied or surpassed Stevens in several recent polls.

If Alaska is a Red State that Democrats are hoping to turn blue, Mississippi is deep crimson. When former Senator Trent Lott resigned in 2007 to become a lobbyist, his seat was temporarily appointed to former Rep. Roger Wicker. A special election will take place this fall to permanently fill Lott's seat for the remainder of his six-year term and signs suggest that Wicker, despite being in office for some months, could easily lose his post.

His opponent, Ronnie Musgrove, former Democratic Governor of the state, gained popularity by helping to ensure that Mississippi became the first state to have an internet-accessible computer in every classroom, and brought in over $14 billion in new investments to the state. He is also one of the more moderate Democrats running for Senate, having earned a reputation as a staunch fiscal conservative.

Another advantage may be name recognition. Mississippi's Senate race is a special election, meaning that neither candidate's party will be included on the ballot. Since voting along party lines is not an option, voters are left to chose based on surnames only. Musgrove served as Lieutenant Governor for four years, then as Governor for another four, positions that provided statewide recognition. Wicker has been in the Senate for less than a year and before that served in the House of Representatives.

Even if the Democrats win seats in both Alaska and Mississippi, the chances of achieving 60-vote majority remains slim. Nevertheless experts and even Republicans themselves are of the conviction that the GOP brand is toxic. As the Politico reported on Tuesday, "Republican Senate leaders -- terrified by the prospect of losing five or more seats in November -- have freed their members to vote however they need to vote to get reelected, even if that means bucking the president or the party's leadership."

Nathan Gonzales, political editor of the Rothenberg Political Report, told the Huffington Post: "the decline of the Republican brand rests heavily on President Bush. He is one of the biggest unanswered questions of the election cycle, whether or not John McCain can successfully distance himself from President Bush is still a question." Bottom line, according to Gonzales, "Democrats will gain seats, we just don't know how many."