While everyone is aware of the presidential election that will occur next November, there is more to the 2004 elections than initially meets the eye. In addition to the impending conclusion of President Bush’s first term, the terms of 34 United States senators will also be expiring next year. Over the past year, the Senate, despite a Republican majority, has been an obstacle to the current administration’s policy regarding the composition of the judiciary. Although the Republicans have held a slight 51 seat advantage since last January, President Bush’s efforts to nominate ultra-conservative justices to the appellate courts have been stymied by Democratic filibusters, as Republicans are unable to accumulate the 60 votes required for a closure motion.
With 34 Senate seats up for grabs in 2004, Republicans have a chance to acquire the nine seats needed to stifle Democratic opposition. If the 60 votes are granted to Republican legislators, Democrats will have no weapon to halt the packing of the judiciary with conservative justices, thereby granting the current administration and conservative ideology the immense power to influence the interpretation of our laws for decades to come. In addition, with at least two Supreme Court justices hinting at retirement, it is highly probable that the highest court of the nation will be pushed even more toward the right. Will 2004 mark the year that Senate, the so-called “greatest deliberative body,” became a rubber stamp for the President’s judicial nominees? Will history record that date as the dawning of an unchecked ultra-conservative era in American politics? These questions, although largely overshadowed by the impending contest over the presidency, should be tremendously perturbing for all Americans.
As of this moment, things do not look good in the Senate for Democrats in 2004. Of the 34 terms set to expire, 19 of the seats are currently held by Democrats while 15 are held by Republicans. Not only do Democrats have more to lose, but an enormous number of Democrats are thought to be facing serious challenges. Of the seats thought to be truly in contention in November 2004, 12 of them currently belong to Democrats while only five belong to Republicans.
In addition, numerous seats now held by Democrats will almost certainly swing to the other side of the isle. The retirements of Fritz Hollings in South Carolina and Zell Miller in Georgia have opened up almost certain victories for strong Republican candidates in staunch Republican states. Presidential hopefuls John Edwards of North Carolina and Bob Graham of Florida have both hinted at not running for re-election, and neither state has a strong candidate to counter strong challenges being posed by popular Republicans. Also distressing Democrats is the political climate in areas where their seats are hotly-coveted. Of the 19 states where Democratic senators’ terms are up, 10 of the states went to Bush in 2000, while only two of the states where Republicans’ terms are expiring went for Gore. Also plaguing Democrats have been recruiting disappointments. The only kind news Democrats have heard is the retirement of Senator Fitzgerald of Illinois, where Democrats now expect to win the seat. Overall, however, the outlook is grim for Democrats in 2004.
But why is this important? Who cares if Republicans hold at least 60 seats in the Senate? The answer lies within the courts. A largely Republican Senate in the pocket of President Bush could dramatically alter the judiciary of the United States. As the current administration, through Attorney General Ashcroft and the Department of Justice, continues to tighten the noose on American civil liberties in the name of combating terrorism in measures such as the Patriot Act, it is incredibly worrisome that the broad reach of government could be routinely permitted, or even condoned, when challenged in a staunchly-conservative court of law.
Yes, the battle for the White House is incredibly significant, yet equally influential are the elections for those 17 truly-contested Senate seats. In addition to voting for the presidency in 2004, Americans in 34 states will cast their ballots to elect a United States senator. The result will not merely affect their lives for six years to come, but rather for decades will affect all Americans, for hanging in the balance is how our Constitution will be interpreted and what course the future of our great American Republic will pursue.
Jonathan Menitove is a freshman in Ezra Stiles College.