Features

The solid South? GOP eyes open Senate seats to boost majority

National

Issue: "Soldiers in harm’s way," Nov. 15, 2003

Some weeks, nothing seems to go right. It's as true for political parties as it is for individuals: The Democrats, already faced with the prospect of losing two Southern governorships, were dealt another blow on the eve of the election when Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.) announced that he would not seek a fourth term in the Senate next year.

"I have had a full and joyful and, I hope, productive life," said the 66-year-old former governor who never lost an election in a career spanning more than three decades. "I intend to have other chapters."

For Sen. Graham's party, the next chapter is unlikely to have a happy ending. Four Southern Democrats-John Edwards of North Carolina, Ernest Hollings of South Carolina, Zell Miller of Georgia, and Sen. Graham-are leaving the Senate next year. Because all four states have tilted increasingly to the right in recent elections, Republicans see a huge opportunity to expand their two-vote majority in the upper chamber.

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A GOP sweep in the South next year would give Republicans a commanding, 10-vote margin, even if the party fails to pick up a single new seat elsewhere in the nation. The implications are enormous: With only a two-vote cushion, Republicans have been unable to break the 13 Democratic filibusters initiated so far this year. They've come close-notching as high as 59 votes-but never the 60 needed to break a filibuster. With 55 Republicans in the Senate, however, the GOP would need to find just five moderate Democrats willing to release the president's judicial nominees.

If there is any good news for the Democrats in Mr. Graham's retirement, it's that Florida is hardly a traditional Southern state, despite its geography. Snowbirds from the North and Latinos from the south flock to Florida, giving it a far more liberal and cosmopolitan flavor than any of its neighbors. Republicans control the state House and Senate as well as the governor's mansion, but both of Florida's U.S. Senators are Democrats. In other words, though the GOP may be slightly better positioned to win Mr. Graham's seat, the outcome is far from certain.

Republicans are hoping a bitter primary battle will split the Democrats-something that happens often in a big state with multiple geographical powerbases. Among the Democrats actively seeking the nomination are former Education Commissioner Betty Castor, U.S. Reps. Alcee Hastings and Peter Deutsch, and Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas.

On the Republican side, the contenders include former Rep. Bill McCollum, state House Speaker Johnnie Byrd, state Sen. Dan Webster, and Washington, D.C., legal activist Larry Klayman.

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