WASHINGTON — While it would take a Kerry victory of enormous proportions to cause the House of Representatives to restore Democratic control, the Senate is a far different matter. There are enough Senate seats at play that if Democrats get all the breaks, they could well end up controlling that body again. Some years one party or the other gets almost all of the breaks. That is why, although political analyst Stu Rothenberg says the Republicans still have a slight edge, it is simply impossible to say that Democratic control is out of the question. In fact, it is very much THE question.
Oklahoma, for example, is a strongly conservative state. Don Nickles has been in the Senate for 24 years and had he chosen to run for another term, he would have no major contest. Nickles, however, is retiring and the Republicans unexpectedly named former Congressman Tom Coburn as their nominee. Democrats have Congressman Brad Carson, who took Coburn’s place when Coburn voluntarily left the House after three terms. The first polls after the primary showed Coburn with a nine-point lead. Carson has a lot of money in the bank. He began to advertise immediately. Coburn could not afford to be on TV when he should have been. In addition, the Tulsa World has gone after Coburn with a vengeance, determined to defeat him. Meanwhile, the Daily Oklahoman, once a bastion of conservative thinking, without Pat McGuigan there to write solid editorials, has been critical of Coburn as well. The result is that the latest poll shows Carson in the lead by five points. The Coburn campaign also suffers from having more amateurs than professionals running it. The race can still be won, but in Carson you have a liberal Democrat who claims to be a moderate. He is running as a moderate and running away from the national ticket. This ought to be a state where the Republican candidate should be mopping up the floor with the Democratic candidate. Instead, Coburn is now the underdog. It remains to be seen if the Republican Party can turn this race around.
In Colorado, Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell almost certainly would have been re-elected had he run again. Unexpected health problems prompted his retirement. Democrats nominated Attorney General Ken Salazar. Republicans had a bitterly contested primary between Coors Beer executive Peter Coors and former Congressman Bob Schaffer. Coors won convincingly, and Schaffer has endorsed him, but Coors is running behind Salazar. Because the Campbell campaign staff is largely running the Coors campaign, there is no one who understands how to deal with Evangelical Christians. As a matter of fact, the Campbell people HATE the social issues. Therefore, Coors has not been able to take advantage of a growing social-issue constituency in the state. In addition, Salazar is not the dime-a-dozen liberal. He is conservative on some social issues, which somewhat neutralizes Coors. Coors thinks he can catch up to Salazar but Bush is not doing well in Colorado. The hope had been that Bush would win by a convincing margin thereby carrying Coors with him. First, Colorado is a notorious ticket-splitting state. Second, Bush may lose Colorado or carry it by a very slim margin. Can Coors still win? Sure. But it is by no means certain.
THE TWO SOUTHERN STATES where Republicans can offset likely losses are Georgia and South Carolina. So far Republican victories in those states seem solid. If Republicans could win in the other three Southern states where incumbents are retiring, then they almost certainly would retain control of the Senate. In North Carolina, Congressman Richard Burr is running consistently behind former Clinton Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles. There is a feeling that Burr is not reaching out to Helms-type conservatives — which even Elizabeth Dole did in 2002. Unless there are drastic changes, this race does not look doable for Burr.
In Louisiana has a peculiar system in which all candidates, regardless of party, run against each other. (One campaign saw two Republicans running against each other!) Congressman David Vitter is running a good race. He is way ahead of his rival, Congressman. Chris John. The question boils down to this: Can Vitter get more than 50% of the vote on November 2nd? If he fails to get an outright majority, he will then face a runoff three weeks after the general election. Republicans time and again have failed to get a majority when forced into a runoff. Louisiana is the only Southern state never to have elected a Republican Senator.
Florida Republicans selected former Bush cabinet official Mel Martinez for the Senate race. At first his main primary opponent, Rep. Bill McCullom, refused to endorse Martinez but now has come around and is on board. It is anyone’s guess who will vote — given the devastation from four hurricanes that Florida has suffered — or if voters will know where to vote since many polling places have been destroyed. Anyone who claims to be able to call this one is either brilliant beyond calculation or is exaggerating madly.
Alaska is a big problem for Republicans. Senator Lisa Murkowski was appointed by her father, who is Governor. He had been Senator when he went home and ran for Governor. He is incredibly unpopular and a lot of that has rubbed off on his daughter. She is running against former two-term Governor Tony Knowles. Murkowski had a tough primary from a former State Senate leader. The race is 50-50. Republicans could lose this Senate seat despite Bush’s being stronger in Alaska than perhaps anywhere else in the country.
REPUBLICANS HAVE BEEN running an aggressive campaign in South Dakota, where former Congressman John Thune is challenging Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle. This race will likely be won or lost by as few as several hundred votes.
Thune lost to Senator Tim Johnson in 2002 by 500-plus votes. Many South Dakotans charged that the race was stolen by rigging votes at Indian Reservations. Thune, with an eye on 2004, and Tom Daschle declined to pursue that issue.
Thune has run a competent campaign. The President is doing reasonably well in that state. Can Daschle be defeated? If the perception is that Bush will be re-elected on November 2nd, then yes, voters there might think it would be better to have one Republican Senator to deal with the Bush Administration. If the perception is that Kerry will be the next President, then Daschle could be re-elected as the swing voters would think it better to have a Democrat Leader to deal with a Democrat Administration.
Another “dark horse” race is taking place in Washington State between Senator Patty Murray and Congressman George Nethercutt. Nethercutt has been running a very aggressive campaign and some polls suggest Senator Murray’s lead is down to single digits. But this is Washington State. Slade Gorton was elected Senator then re-elected…then defeated…then elected again to the other Senate seat…then narrowly defeated again. Slade is a moderate Republican and Nethercutt is a strong conservative. It certainly is a long shot to think that a conservative can be elected in Washington State.
In Illinois, despite a valiant effort by Alan Keyes (who is being criticized as a carpetbagger), the state is just too liberal and Democratic for a last-minute campaign. The Keyes campaign does not have the money to overcome a huge lead by Barak Obama, rising ultra-liberal star in Democrat circles. This was a Republican seat, but Senator Peter Fitzgerald did not think he could be re-elected so he retired.
There are other races which may be in play before all is said and done. Wisconsin comes to mind. An unexpected primary victory by a good candidate could give Senator Feingold some problems but Wisconsin is a liberal state in which it is difficult to elect a conservative.
OF THE ELEVEN RACES in play Republicans must win four to stay even. Democrats must win eight if Kerry wins the Presidency, nine if Bush wins the Presidency, to take control. Can they do it? Look at 1980. There was a massive defeat of Democrats. In 1986 there was a shift back to a Democratic majority. In 1994, there was a major shift back to the Republicans. But in 2001, with so many Republicans having been defeated in 2000, a switch of one Senator brought the Democrats back in control. That was short-lived. The defeat of a couple of incumbents and victory in an open seat brought Republicans back by a one-vote majority.
So yes, the Democrats can do it. Kerry has the reputation of being a strong closer. If “undecideds” break for him, it is entirely possible that the Democrats could win the Senate. A sobering thought.