As two Republican Senators announced their retirement, Democrats eye their empty seats.
If the Republicans had any notion they might hold onto the 49 Senate seats they currently control – or even, in their wildest dreams, recapture control of the 100-seat chamber – those thoughts have vanished.
The retirement announcements of Sens. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and John Warner of Virginia put two safe Republican seats in play, and with strong Democrats waiting in the wings, they could wind up in the "D" column. There's more than a year to go before the November 2008 elections, but political prognosticators are already predicting several Democratic pickups in the Senate.
"I can see [the Democrats] getting to 55, and if it's a stretch, 56," says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia who tracks every race.
Democrats are eager to pad their majority in the Senate, as the current 51-to-49 edge leaves them vulnerable to the whims or misfortunes of individual members. Sen. Joe Lieberman, a pro-Iraq war Independent from Connecticut who caucuses with the Democrats, remains a flight risk to the GOP. And Sen. Tim Johnson (D) of South Dakota, who has just returned to the Capitol after a lengthy illness, says he's back to stay and will run for reelection. But Democrats would rather not have their majority dependent on his ability to continue.
Control of the Senate, always a plum, skyrockets in importance when a Supreme Court vacancy occurs and Senate confirmation enters the picture. Depending on who is next to leave, majority support for the nationwide right to abortion, as enshrined in Roe v. Wade, could hang in the balance.