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Iranian Americans and the Senate: A Chamber in the Balance

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Source: NIAC

By Babak Talebi

America’s political future will depend heavily on the Senate elections in 2008 because a surprisingly large number of the upper chamber’s 35 races are considered competitive. Each election cycle, a third of US Senators face re-election, and just like the House races described earlier, rarely are incumbent Senators defeated. This year, for the first time in a few decades, as many as a dozen seats may change hands and in a few of these states, Iranian Americans can play a major if not decisive role.

Power of a Single U.S. Senator

The United States Senate is widely known as ‘the most deliberative legislative body in the world’. This reputation is well earned for several reasons: Senators are elected every six years, giving them a lot of time between having to face the electorate; Each state is represented by two Senators so every state has equal weight in the chamber; and the Senate rules are devised in such a way that one Senator alone can block a piece of legislation through such parliamentary maneuvers as a “hold” or a “filibuster“.

The U.S. Senate is also the most important legislative body for American foreign policy because it has the power to ratify treaties, confirm ambassadors and State Department appointees, and mainly due to the high esteem in which its Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees are held. For Iranian American voters, especially in states with competitive Senate races, 2008 provides an opportunity to have a direct impact on American foreign policy for several years if not decades to come.

One important aspect in this power arrangement is the 60-vote requirement to override a filibuster. The last time any party had a filibuster-proof majority was in 1979, and in this election cycle, with 23 Republican-held seats being contested, both parties will be watching this number very closely.

Competitive Races

Currently the Senate is made up of 49 Democrats, 49 Republicans, and 2 Independents who both caucus with the Democratic Party, giving them a slight majority. Two of those seats were won in the 2006 election cycle, each decided by less than a 1% margin of victory (Montana: 3562 votes, Virginia: 9,329 votes.) It is very possible that Iranian Americans will play a major, if not decisive, role in some of these very close 2008 Senate elections. Four of these races are reviewed below.

Virginia: 30-year incumbent Sen. John Warner (R) decided to retire this year opening up this seat to a serious contest between two powerful former Governors. Though Democrats will have a primary on Feb. 12 and Republicans will have a state convention to choose their nominees, it is expected that Mark Warner (D) and Jim Gilmore (R) will face off in the general election. In past years, Virginia had been considered a solid red state, however in 2006 Sen. Jim Webb (D) won the state with a margin of 9,329 votes out of 2.37 million. In 2008 this race is expected to be one of the most watched in the country. With an estimated 37,425 Iranians Americans living in Virginia, the potential to make an impact on this election is tremendous.

Minnesota: First term Senator Norm Coleman (R) will be facing one of four Democrats who will be chosen in a Feb 5 2008 caucus. Although he is currently polling ahead of his competitors, it is expected that this will be one of the closest Senate races in 2008 because last cycle, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D) won an open seat with a resounding 20.2% margin of victory while incumbent Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) won re-election with under 1% of the vote. In Minnesota, an estimate 6,500 Iranian Americans could play an important role in supporting the incumbent or the challenger in an election that will make a huge difference in the future make-up of the US Senate.

Louisiana: With one of the latest primary dates in the nation, September 18 2008, Louisiana will likely be one of only two states (South Dakota is the other one) where Republicans have a chance at picking up a Democratic seat. Two-term incumbent Mary Landrieu (D) faces a stiff challenge from Democrat-turned-Republican State Treasurer John Kennedy. Because hurricane Katrina displaced tens of thousands of reliable Democratic voters, it is expected that Landrieu will face her toughest election. With only 3,000 Iranian-Americans estimated to be living in the state, it is unlikely that they will have a huge impact on this race, but we have seen how close elections can be decided by very few votes in the past.

Oregon: Republican Incumbent Gordon Smith is expected to have a close race on his hands in this Democratic-leaning state. Smith has been a forceful advocate of increased sanctions on Iran and an original sponsor of S.970. His Democratic challengers, State House Speaker Jeff Merkley and Activist Steve Novick have both raised substantial amounts of money and face-off in a primary on May 20 2008. There are an estimated 10,000 Iranian Americans living in Oregon.

Beyond these four races, competitive races are expected in Maine, Kentucky, New Mexico, Alaska, and New Hampshire. A few states with relatively high concentration of Iranian American have the potential of hosting close races including Texas, New Jersey, and Colorado. The estimated number of Iranian Americans in each state can be found in NIAC’s IranCensus Report based on the 2000 census numbers.

(A full schedule of all presidential and congressional primary dates by state can be found here or here – pdf).

Babak Talebi is the Director of Community Relations at NIAC. This series has been produced with the generous support of PARSA Community Foundation.

Irancove @ January 18, 2008

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