Tight Races for Senate Take Shape

By Jim Cullen

The race for leadership of the next US Senate might be even tighter than the presidential race as Democrats seek a net gain of at least one seat which, if John Kerry wins the White House, would put the Senate back in Democratic hands (with John Edwards casting the deciding vote. As long as the Democrats can hang onto Kerry's seat in a February special election.

The current Senate has 51 Republicans, 48 Democrats and one independent who caucuses with the Democrats. This year 14 Democratic and 20 Republican seats are contested. Progressive campaign watcher Jerome Armstrong of mydd.com, taking into account the current poll standing, funding, get-out-the-vote projections and unique circumstances, sees Democrats poised to take Republican seats in four states: Alaska, Colorado, Illinois and Oklahoma. On the other hand, Republicans appear poised to take two Democratic seats: South Carolina and Georgia. Florida is up in the air, with the nomination of Mel Martinez and Betty Castor yet to settle into an advantage one way or another. "Now, most of these races could easily change, and other races could start to enter the picture, especially South Dakota, North Carolina, Louisiana, Washington and Missouri," Armstrong writes.

Illinois is the top Senate seat for Democrats to take over, as Barack Obama (D) faces Alan Keyes (R) for the seat Peter Fitzgerald is giving up. "The prospects for a takeover in Illinois for the Democrats are a slam dunk," Armstrong wrote. After Jack Ryan dropped out of the race due to a sex scandal, several other potential candidates rebuffed the GOP, forcing party leaders to go to Maryland to find arch-conservative, Christian fundamentalist Keyes, who has proceeded to pick fights with Illinois news media, including the Chicago Tribune, which normally leans Republican. "It's hard to know what the GOP is thinking with this race," Armstrong said. "They've certainly washed their hands of having any hope to keep this seat. The only question that remains is how much the Republican House candidates in Illinois will have to distance themselves from Keyes." A Chicago Tribune/WGN poll released Aug. 22 showed Obama with a 41-point lead.

The races get a lot tighter after that, but the next best bet is Colorado, where current Attorney General Ken Salazar (D) faces beer magnate Pete Coors (R) for the seat Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R) is giving up. A SurveyUSA poll released in mid-August showed the race tied and it figures to go to the wire.

In Oklahoma, US Rep. Brad Carson (D) faces former US Rep. Tom Coburn (R), who defeated former Oklahoma City Mayor Kirk Humphreys, the early frontrunner in the race for the seat Republican Sen. Don Nickles is giving up. Coburn, who led Carson in post-primary polls, has framed the election as a "battle of good versus evil," evil in his mind being the idea that liberals such as Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) might be in leadership positions.

In Alaska, Tony Knowles (D) faces US Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R), daughter of the Alaska governor, Frank Murkowski, who appointed her to his Senate seat in 2002. Murkowski won a GOP primary with 58% of the vote but was dogged with the nepotism criticism. Knowles will need every break in a heavily Republican state, but he was a popular former governor.

In Missouri, State Treasurer Nancy Farmer (D) faces Sen. Kit Bond (R). Bond is seen as vulnerable, since he has never bested 53% in three Senate races, but neither has he been beaten. Democrats may have jettisoned some baggage with the primary defeat of unpopular Gov. Bob Holden and the presidential race, where Kerry has led Bush, will likely be a key to the Senate race. Also, state Auditor Claire McCaskill (D) is a much stronger candidate for governor than Holden. She faces Secretary of State Matt Blunt (R).

In Pennsylvania, US Rep. Joe Hoeffel (D) faces Sen. Arlen Specter (R), who has hovered near the 50% mark in polls while Hoeffel struggles to close the gap. Armstrong wrote that Americans Coming Together's effort to get out the Democratic vote in the presidential battleground state could push him over the top, if he manages to make it a close contest in the polls. And right wingers are lukewarm-to-openly-hostile toward Specter, who supports abortion rights.

In Kentucky, state Sen. Dan Mongiardo (D) faces US Sen. Jim Bunning (R), whose political standing is arguably weak, but Mongiardo, a physician, has to campaign without the national support since Kentucky is no longer considered a battleground state at the presidential level.

In Ohio, state Sen. Eric Fingerhut (D) faces US Sen. George Voinovich (R). Fingerhut, a former congressman, took a month to walk from Cincinatti to Columbus, but Armstrong noted he hasn't gotten any of the breaks he'd need to make this a top-tier race. "Though with ACT and Kerry turning out Democrats, he could be competitive regardless."

Another interesting race is New Hampshire, where Doris "Granny D" Haddock, who first came to public conscience with her walk across the nation for campaign finance reform, faces Sen. Judd Gregg (R). Haddock has raised little money, compared with Gregg, but if there is any quirkiness left in New Hampshire she might give him a contest.


The Senate seat Republicans are most likely to take over is Georgia's where US Rep. Denise Majette (D) faces US Rep. Johnny Isakson (R) for the seat Zell Miller is giving up. The DSCC lost a self-funder when Cliff Oxford, a high-tech magnate, was defeated by Majette, but Majette is a centrist African-American Democrat who defeated progressive populist Rep. Cynthia McKinney in 2002 and she could bring out the statewide black vote if McKinney, who is poised to win back her congressional seat, passes up the temptation to dump on Majette. Isakson won a three-way primary without a run-off and he's the conventional favorite for November.

In South Carolina, Inez Tenenbaum (D) faces US Rep. Jim DeMint (R) for the seat Fritz Hollings (D) is giving up. DeMint cruised to victory in a GOP primary and appears to be leading in polls but Tenenbaum, state superintendent of education, running as a critic of "free trade" against DeMint, who is a "free trade" supporter, figures to be competitive in a state that is otherwise heavily Republican. DeMint's proposal for a 23% federal sales tax also might cause working Carolinians to take a second look.

South Dakota Sen. Tom Daschle is the most vulnerable incumbent Democrat, drawing John Thune (R), a former congressman who narrowly lost to Tim Johnson in 2002. Daschle is popular and easily won re-election in 1998 (62-36) and 1992 (65-33) and South Dakotans would be foolish to oust the minority leader but Republicans have flooded the state with anti-Daschle ads and have the Democrat in their sights in a state that likely will go heavily for Bush.

In Florida, former Housing and Urban Development secretary Mel Martinez (R) faces Betty Castor (D), a former university president, former state education commissioner and former state senator, for the seat Bob Graham is giving up. Presidential politics will probably play a big role in the Senate race.

In Louisiana, five Democrats are expected to split the vote along with Republican US Rep. David Vitter, a Libertarian and an independent in the Nov. 2 election. US Rep. Chris John and State Treasurer John Kennedy are the leading Democrats in the race for the expected December runoff, which might determine the Senate majority.

In North Carolina, Erskine Bowles (D) appears to be in good position to win the seat Sen. John Edwards gave up to run for president (now vice president), against US Rep. Richard Burr (R). Bowles lost a 2002 Senate race to Elizabeth Dole.

In Washington, Sen. Patty Murray (D) is expected to face US Rep. George Nethercutt (R) after a Sept. 14 primary in which both face multiple challengers. The governor's race has a strong Republican candidate and the presidential race will bring out both parties but Murray has been strong in early polls.

In California, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) faces Bill Jones (R), former secretary of state who ran for governor in 2002. Polls show Boxer in good shape as of late July.

Armstrong noted that at least 10 Senate seats could change hands on election day in November. In addition to the likely Dec. 4 runoff election in Louisiana, if Kerry wins the presidency a Massachusetts special election would be held to fill his seat in February. See www.mydd.com for more details.

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