Only a month ago, Bruce Lunsford looked like a bad bet to unseat the most powerful Republican on Capitol Hill. A businessman who twice failed to become Kentucky's governor, Democrat Lunsford seemed not much of a match for minority leader Mitch McConnell, who has spent 24 years in the Senate. McConnell's campaign has raised nearly $18 million, while Lunsford had to loan $5.5 million to his. But where polls as recently as mid-September were showing Lunsford running 13 or more points behind McConnell, several since then suggest the race is a dead heat, and the national Democratic Party has begun pouring TV money into a state it had all but written off. Lunsford traces the sharp turn in his fortunes to a single moment: "When they passed a bailout for Wall Street, it seems people all of a sudden got really focused."
Just as the financial crisis has lifted Barack Obama and Joe Biden, it is boosting the prospects of the party's House and Senate candidates across the map. "There are states where we never thought we had a chance that we now do--like Georgia," says Senator Charles Schumer, the New Yorker who heads the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Indeed, though Georgia incumbent Saxby Chambliss was sitting on an 18-point lead in September over former state representative Jim Martin, the latest polls have Martin pulling within 3 points of the incumbent. Four other GOP Senators--Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina, John Sununu of New Hampshire, Gordon Smith of Oregon and Norm Coleman of Minnesota--trail their Democratic challengers in the most recent polls. Mississippi's contest between Republican incumbent Roger Wicker and Democratic former governor Ronnie Musgrove is too close to call. And there are two other states--Virginia and New Mexico--where Democrats appear certain to win seats being vacated by retiring Republicans.
Even before the political landscape turned toxic, Republicans were struggling. They are defending nearly twice as many seats as are the Democrats and were hit by a wave of retirements. What makes the turnabout more striking is that the Democratic challengers aren't particularly strong candidates. Several are inexperienced; others are more liberal than their states. Many seemed almost struck dumb when, as gasoline prices soared this summer, Republicans hit on the suddenly popular idea of drilling for more oil. But the market meltdown has replaced $4-per-gal. gas as voters' top concern, and ever since Herbert Hoover, voters have looked to Democrats in economic hard times. "We're not catching a break," laments Nevada Senator John Ensign, Schumer's GOP counterpart who runs the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
That a loss of four seats is now considered the GOP's best-case scenario tells you how dramatically the party's fortunes have changed. But the real question is whether Democrats can pick up the nine seats they need to grab a 60-vote, filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. At this point, the answer still seems to be probably not. But such able handicappers as Jennifer Duffy of the Cook Political Report now think the Democrats could gain as many as eight seats, which would mean they would need no more than a single GOP vote or so to prevail on any given issue. That would also give them the cushion to do the one thing that many of them have been itching to do most: kick Joe Lieberman out of their caucus and strip him of his committee chairmanship for supporting John McCain.