The passion invested by the Democratic faithful in taking back the White House has meant that not enough has been said about the imperative of taking back control of the place John Kerry will hopefully be leaving -- the U.S. Senate.
If Kerry is the next occupant of the Oval Office, he will need legislative muscle to undo the disastrous policies of the Bush administration. And if -- close your ears, kids -- Bush is actually able to scare his way to reelection, a Democratic Senate will be the only thing standing in the way of a second-term all-out assault on America's working families and the implementation of a radical right-wing social agenda. Don't forget, the next president will probably end up appointing at least a couple of Supreme Court justices -- and Bush has made it clear that he'd fill any vacancies with clones of Antonin Scalia. See ya later, Roe vs. Wade; nice knowing ya, civil liberties. Don't forget to turn your clocks back a hundred years.
The good news is that Democrats have a good shot at turning Bill Frist into the Senate minority leader. In looking at the Senate races Democrats can win, I focused on the three open seats held by retiring Republicans in Illinois, Colorado and Oklahoma. In each of those states, the Democrats are putting forth a candidate -- Barack Obama in Illinois, Ken Salazar in Colorado and Brad Carson in Oklahoma -- capable of bringing a new type of leadership to Washington.
Just for starters, Obama is black, Salazar is Hispanic and Carson is a member of the Cherokee Nation -- no small matter when you consider that despite making up over 25 percent of the U.S. population (accounting for more than 71 million Americans), there are currently no blacks, no Hispanics and just one Native American in the Senate.
But what separates and elevates these candidates goes far beyond race and ethnicity. It's their ability to focus on the Other America -- the millions struggling to make ends meet -- while retaining the ability to draw supporters from across the political spectrum.
As a bonus, the three are running against some of the most troubling opponents to ever come down the political pike: Alan Keyes in Illinois, Pete Coors in Colorado and Tom Coburn in Oklahoma.
The nation saw firsthand the reasons for Obama's widespread appeal when he delivered his headline-making keynote speech at the Democratic Convention: he is brilliant (a former president of the Harvard Law Review), charismatic, eloquent and in possession of a life story that embodies the American dream.
"George Bush," Obama told me, "clearly believes that the role of government is to protect the powerful from the powerless. We need to dramatically change our priorities."
At the moment, Obama is way out in front of Keyes, the arch-conservative commentator who, since belatedly entering the race, has helped dig his own political grave with a series of outrageous comments. He has equated Obama with slave owners, labeled Dick Cheney's lesbian daughter a "selfish hedonist" and claimed that if the Lord's son were living in Chicago, "Christ would not vote for Barack Obama."
Colorado's Salazar faces a tougher challenge: There are 193,000 more registered Republicans than Democrats in his state. Nevertheless, the popular two-time state attorney general has been able to open a lead by combining a two-fisted attack on President Bush's mishandling of Iraq, domestic security, the economy and the environment with a down-home, folksy style. His pickup-truck persona has won him the support of a majority of the state's rural voters.
And when I heard him speak in Los Angeles last month, it was clear that his authenticity touched just as deep a chord with urban sophisticates. His commitment to closing the disparities between the opportunities available to the Two Americas is unmistakable.
He speaks movingly of how this division has affected his home state: "While the folks living in the densely populated counties along Colorado's Front Range have prospered over the last decade, those living in Colorado's 50 rural counties are struggling to survive. Their schools are not getting the attention they deserve, they are losing health care providers and access, they have been losing agricultural jobs, and no manufacturing jobs are locating there."
Salazar's opponent is Pete Coors, a political greenhorn. So far, this brewery heir's main contribution to the national dialogue has been his full-throated advocacy for lowering the drinking age from 21 to 18. Just the kind of altruistic leadership we need more of in Washington.
Given Oklahoma's unabashedly conservative bent -- Bush carried the state by 22 percent in 2000, and currently leads Kerry by even more -- it's nothing short of a miracle that Carson, a 37-year-old two-term U.S. representative, is running neck and neck with his Republican rival. A sixth-generation Oklahoman who turned down an opportunity to go to law school at Yale in favor of the University of Oklahoma, then devoted a third of his practice to providing free legal services to impoverished clients, Carson has attracted the small-town support essential to pulling off a major upset in this decidedly red state.
"Too many working Americans," Carson told me, "are seeing their jobs shipped overseas without enough of our elected officials in Washington fighting on their behalf."
And it doesn't hurt that Carson's opponent, former Rep. Tom Coburn, is a shoot-from-the-lip extremist who favors the death penalty for abortionists, supports the right to buy and use a bazooka, has called state lawmakers "crapheads," disparaged Indian treaties as "primitive" agreements and claimed -- in the midst of the war on terror -- that the "gay agenda" is "the greatest threat to our freedom that we face today."
Nothing like having your priorities in order.
Publication date: 09/30/04