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'Perfect storm' could give Dems 'magic 60' in Senate

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  • Senate Democrats could get a filibuster-proof majority after November election
  • Winning a "magic 60" could prevent GOP from blocking legislation
  • Of the 35 Senate seats on the line this year, 23 are held by Republicans
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By Emily Sherman
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- In the face of an economy in crisis and a deeply unpopular president, some analysts believe the situation is ripe to give Democrats a shot at a 60-seat filibuster-proof majority in the Senate in November.

Analysts say the November election could give Democrats a filibuster-proof majority.

Analysts say the November election could give Democrats a filibuster-proof majority.

It's "the perfect storm," said Stuart Rothenberg, editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report. "You've got Republican voters angry at Republicans, many Americans just petrified about the future...wanting change. And right now change appears to be coming in the form of Democrats."

Not so fast, say Republicans. And even Democrats admit it's too early to say whether they can pick up the necessary seats.

According to Rebecca Fisher, a spokeswoman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, Republicans are confident that they will, at the very least, keep their current seats.

Of the 35 Senate seats on the line this year, 23 are held by Republicans. Five Republican senators are retiring: Pete Domenici of New Mexico, Wayne Allard of Colorado, John Warner of Virginia, Larry Craig of Idaho and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska.

Democrats control the Senate. Although it's split evenly with 49 Democrats and 49 Republicans, two independents -- Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut -- caucus with the Democrats. Check out the races to watch »

Winning a filibuster-proof majority of 60 Senate seats, commonly called the "magic 60," would virtually prevent Republicans from blocking legislation on the Senate floor.

The last time either party had this ability was in the 95th Congress of 1977-1979, when Democrats held 61 seats during President Jimmy Carter's administration. Carter faced concerns similar to those today -- economic instability, inflation and a 7.5 percent unemployment rate.

Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, said Democrats have a good shot at reaching a 60-seat majority in November, a possibility he all but ruled out earlier this year.

"The fundamentals of this election year could not be more Democratic," Sabato said. "You've got a terrible economy, a deeply unpopular president and an unpopular war. You put those elements together and it's going to produce a Democratic victory. ... The only question is, what size?"

Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, who runs campaign operations for Senate Democrats, said Democrats are "significantly ahead" in five Senate races for seats held by Republicans. He cited polls that show Democrats leading in:

• Virginia, where former Democratic Gov. Mark Warner is up by double-digit margins in a bid to replace the retiring John Warner;

• New Mexico, where Democratic Rep. Tom Udall is trying to replace the retiring Domenici;

• Colorado, where Rep. Mark Udall is trying to take the seat of the retiring Allard;

• New Hampshire, where former Democratic Gov. Jeanne Shaheen is trying to oust Republican Sen. John Sununu; and

• Alaska, where Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich is trying to oust Republican Sen. Ted Stevens, who is on trial in Washington on corruption charges.

Schumer said Democrats have a slight advantage in two other races for seats held by the GOP: North Carolina, where Sen. Elizabeth Dole is being challenged by Democratic state Sen. Kay Hagen; and Oregon, where Sen. Gordon Smith is being challenged by Democrat Jeff Merkley.

Five other races for GOP-held seats -- in Mississippi, Maine, Georgia, Kentucky and Minnesota -- are "neck and neck," Schumer said.

A recent CNN/Opinion Research Corp. survey found that Americans blame Republicans by a 2 to 1 ratio over Democrats for the financial meltdown.

Forty-seven percent of those questioned found Republicans more responsible for the problems facing the financial institutions; 24 percent said Democrats were more responsible.

Although Democrats say it's too early to predict whether they will get 60 Senate seats, they acknowledge that the focus on the economy has given them a bounce across the map.

"The economy was already the No. 1 issue in voter's minds," said Matthew Miller, communications director for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. "What the crisis did was focus attention like a laser on the fact that Republican economic policies have crippled the economy."

Fisher, the GOP committee spokeswoman, said "Democrats should have learned from past experiences that it's dangerous to predict victory this far out."

"Polls show that most of the competitive Senate races are currently in dead heats. That's encouraging news for us going into Election Day since we have much stronger candidates," she said.

Fisher said the GOP is "very confident that we are going to defend our incumbents and [have] a good shot at getting a majority of our open seats."

Pointing to low congressional approval ratings, Fisher said it's still uncertain which party will bear the brunt of the economic crisis.

"I think that people are generally unhappy with what's going on in Congress and [it's] not specifically aimed at one party," Fisher said.

A CNN/Opinion Research Corp. survey released Wednesday found 76 percent of the registered voters questioned disapprove of the way Congress is handling its job; only 23 percent said they approve.

Both the Democratic and Republican parties get fairly low approval ratings for their job performance in Congress. Only 34 percent of those surveyed said they approve of the way Democratic leaders are handling their jobs, while 64 percent disapprove; only 27 percent approve of Republican leaders' job handling while 71 percent disapprove.

Rothenberg says Republicans will likely bear the brunt of the economic crisis despite the bleak assessment of Congress as a whole.

"Maybe Americans will say it isn't Republicans' fault," Rothenberg said. "It's possible that Republican prospects could improve over the next month, but if they don't, this year will be as bad as 2006 for the Republicans and worse in Senate races."

In 2006, Republicans lost six seats in the Senate and 30 seats in the House, shifting the majority to the Democratic Party.

Rothenberg and Sabato agree that Virginia, New Mexico, Colorado and New Hampshire are all but a lock for Democrats.


"Minnesota, Mississippi, and Kentucky are the three states most likely to determine whether Democrats get to 60," Rothenberg said, adding the unexpectedly tight race in North Carolina could turn out detrimental for Republicans as well.

Both parties are feeling charged from the highly contested race for the White House between Sen. Barack Obama and McCain. But Democrats and Republicans agree the outcome of the Senate elections could come down to how many people come out to vote.

CNN's Ted Barrett contributed to this report.

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