Most of the political attention has been on the presidential race, where Democrats have been cutting each other up over the past year for the privilege of standing up against George W. Bush and one fifth of a billion dollars his corporate benefactors are amassing. But equally important are the 34 US Senate seats up for grabs in November.
Up for election in November are 19 seats now held by Democrats and 15 seats held by Republicans. Complicating the picture for Democrats is that five of the seven senators who are retiring are at least nominally Democrats.
The Senate is now narrowly split, with 51 Republicans, 48 Democrats and one independent, Jim Jeffords, a former Republican from Vermont who sides with the Democrats on organization but who frequently votes with the GOP. While Democrats would like to regain the majority to prevent the right-wing takeover of the federal government, it is considered vital to progressive causes that they keep at least 45 seats so they can block right-wing bills and judicial appointments through filibusters. (It takes 60 votes to break a filibuster, and often three or four Democrats will vote with the Republicans.)
The good news for Democrats is that two of their retirees are among their least loyal senators -- Zell Miller of Georgia, who voted against his fellow Democrats 59% of the time on "party unity" votes in the 107th Congress in 2001-02, and John Breaux, who voted against the party 42.4% of the time. Democrats have better hopes of keeping the Louisiana seat Democratic than they do in Georgia, where Miller has been bad-mouthing the party.
But the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee notes that a great deal has been written about open seats in the South and the perceived GOP advantage in these races. But recent polls show that if the election were held in January, Democrats would finish with 51 seats, the Democratic campaigners claim. "With the exception of Georgia where we have yet to field a competitive candidate, polling shows that a Democrat leads in each of the other four Democratic open seat contests [North Carolina, South Carolina, Louisiana, Florida], and in some instances by substantial margins. We also lead in the southern Republican open seat of Oklahoma. Therefore, in five of six open Senate seats in the South, a Democrat is in the lead today."
Beyond the South, the DSCC sees several strong opportunities for Democratic pickups. Spokeswoman Cara Morris said a "horrible recruiting year for the GOP" left "virtually no comparable pickup opportunities for the Republicans. Nowhere do Democrats have stronger pickup opportunities than in Alaska and Illinois. With a lead in Alaska and with a Democrat strongly favored to win in Illinois, and with a lead in those five of six open seats in the South, Democrats are ahead or expected to win in seven of eight of these competitive contests."
The 21st Century Democrats, which supports progressive populist candidates in congressional and legislative races, is still reviewing candidates, but spokesman Keith Goodman said Illinois presents the best opportunity for progressives, with strong candidates such as Gery Chico, a lawyer and former Chicago Board of Education president; Barak Obama, a highly regarded progressive state senator; and State Comptroller Dan Hynes leading the potential primary list. Other progressive candidates who figure to be competitive in other states include Betty Castor in Florida and Nancy Farmer in Missouri. Bert Cohen, a state senator in New Hampshire, is a good progressive candidate but Judd Gregg is considered pretty stout.
Goodman said the Senate races are especially important because heavy-handed mid-decade redistricting has put Democrats further in the hole in their hopes for regaining control of the House, which the GOP controls 228 to 204, with one independent and two vacant seats.
The dailykos.com website, which watches politics from a progressive point of view, recently put together a pretty good preview of coming Senate races. (Quotes are from Kos and co-author Jerome Armstrong, except as noted.)
Among the top potential Democratic takeovers of seats currently held by the Republicans are:
1. Illinois, where Republican Sen. Peter Fitzgerald is retiring after one term in the increasingly Democratic state where Gore beat Bush by 55% to 43% in 2000. Democratic candidates include Gery Chico; Blair Hull, a businessman; Dan Hynes; Barak Obama; Maria Pappas, Cook County treasurer; Nancy Skinner, a radio talk-show host; and Joyce Washington, health care advocate. "A near sure-thing. The Democrats have a large field vying for the nomination. Any of them will be odds-on favorites to take the seat from the GOP. The seat was left open after GOP Sen. Fitzgerald saw his political demise and decided to spare himself the embarrassment of a near-certain loss. The GOP tried to draft popular former Gov. Jim Edgar but he declined. So the best they have been able to do is investment banker Jack Ryan, on the heels of disgraced governor George Ryan and disgraced Senate candidate Jim Ryan."
2. Alaska -- Tony Knowles was a popular two-term governor in heavily GOP Alaska. His Republican opponent, Lisa Murkowski, was given the seat by her father, Frank Murkowski, when he was elected governor. "The nepotism has rubbed people the wrong way, and she is pro-choice in an anti-abortion party. Furthermore, Frank M. has had to raise taxes, enraging the base and potentially rubbing off on his daughter." There is a ballot initiative to to change the Alaska constitution to require a special election be held to fill the unfinished term of any senator. Knowles holds the lead in early polling.
3. Oklahoma -- "Oklahoma is an unlikely place to be seeking a pickup, and it leans [Republican]. But, it's an open seat and the Dems have a powerful candidate in Rep. Brad Carson. Fresh off its 2002 victory in the state's governor's race, state Dems are optimistic about their chances. The GOP is also running a strong candidate, Oklahoma City Mayor Kirk Humphreys, making this race one of the marquee contests of the Senate season." The Dems control both houses of the Oklahoma Legislature and a September poll for the DSCC gave Carson a narrow 45-42-13 lead over Humphreys.
4. Pennsylvania -- "If Arlen Specter survives the primary challenge of Rep. Pat Toomey, this will likely be an easy (R) hold. But if Toomey can rally the party faithful and stage a primary upset, then all bets are off. Club for Growth is banking Toomey's challenge to turnout the conservative vote in a big way. This might be the year. Democratic challenger, Rep. Joe Hoeffel, doesn't stand a chance against the moderate Specter. Hoeffel isn't the most dynamic candidate, but up against Toomey's hard-right agenda, he may have a fighting chance. Still, the staid Pennsylvania political establishment is banking on Specter vs Hoeffel." The state also is critical in the presidential race and Gore carried Pennsylvania in 2000.
5. Kansas -- "My sleeper upset pick in 2002 was the governor's race in Wyoming. For 2004, I'm considering Kansas. The state Dem party is suddenly flexing its muscle, taking advantage of a fractured state GOP to retake the governor's mansion in what should be a solid red state. However, a big caveat applies -- the Dems need a big name challenger. Rep. Dennis Moore would've been the strongest bet against Sen. Brownback, but bowed out early this year. Former Rep. and Clinton Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman is facing intense pressure to enter the race, and his earlier denials are giving way to hedged bets. Of course, Kansas hasn't elected a Democrat senator since 1930. Still, the race bears closer watching than many think."
6. Colorado -- Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell just wrapped up 37 days of daily radiation treatments for prostate cancer, and about his Democratic competition, the 70-year-old says, "I couldn't care less who the opponent is." Campbell added. "I was in sports a lot of years and fought 1,500 matches. After you fight that many, you don't give a damn who you fight." This will be either a walk in the park for the GOP or a race. And to have the latter, we'll need either Rep. Udall or Gary Hart to run. Hart has categorically ruled out a run, and Udall doesn't seem inclined to run (though he promised to give it some thought if the Colorado Supreme Court shot down the GOP's redistricting plan, which it did). The wildcard in this race is newcomer Mike Miles, who has been making the rounds at Dean gatherings....
7. Missouri -- "Every six years Democrats target Kit Bond (who hasn't scored more than 53% in his two Senate races), and every six years Bond crushes Democratic hopes. Democrats in Missouri are currently being dragged down by unpopular governor Bob Holden and an intra-party split. [State Treasurer Nancy] Farmer says she needs $7-10 million to challenge, and the DSCC has apparently offered to chip in. Still, we'll need a national Democratic tide to oust Bond, who is more stronger and more entrenched than ever before." The state also is expected to be hotly contested in the presidential race.
8. Kentucky -- "This one was winnable until Dem Gov. Paul Patton pulled a Clinton [he was involved in a sex scandal]. His fast track to the Senate was suddenly halted, and Dem chances to take out freshman GOP Sen. Jim Bunning have dimmed considerably. Optimistic Democrats still think they can make a race for it, but this one figures to be tough." But DSCC polling indicates Bunning is vulnerable and though Kentucky is often considered conservative, it is often an important swing state in the presidential campaign. State Sen. Daniel Mongiardo, an M.D. from Hazard, is the likely Dem candidate.
9. Alabama -- "Run Siegelman, run! While the more likely Democratic candidate is former Gov. James Folsom, former Gov. Don Siegelman still has a strong base of support eager to avenge his 2002 defeat. Folsom ran for Senate in 1980 and garnered an impressive 49% of the vote in that strong Republican year. Of course, that was a different time, with the GOP's gains in the South much less consolidated. While marginally competitive, Dick Shelby should cruise to reelection."
Others expected to cruise include George Voinovich in Ohio; Judd Gregg in New Hampshire; Chuck Grassley in Iowa; John McCain in Arizona; Mike Crapo in Idaho ("Hell will freeze over before the Democrats have a chance in Idaho"); and Utah.
Endangered Democratic seats include Georgia, where outgoing Sen. Zell Miller, the GOP's favorite Democrat, has poisoned the well in Georgia with his outspoken Republicrat ways. Democrats who have expressed interest in the race include DeKalb County (Atlanta) Magistrate Gary Leshaw, a former public interest lawyer; Decatur state Sen. Nadine Thomas, the first black woman to win election to the state Senate; and Norcross state Sen. Mary Squires. Battling for the GOP nomination are two congressmen, Johnny Isakson and Mac Collins. Isakson, who leads in the polls, is as an opponent to NAFTA/GATT while Collins is a free trader; "nevertheless much of their debate will be about trying to outflank each other on the right."
In North Carolina, where John Edwards is quitting the seat to run for president, the GOP will probably run five-term US Rep. Richard Burr. Erskine Bowles, who lost to Liddy Dole in 2002, will run again and narrowly led a Raleigh News & Observer poll in mid-November, 43-40-17 lead. "Given Bowles' advantages in name ID, the numbers aren't reassuring," Kos noted, but the DSCC noted that the Democratic governor is expected to be re-elected, there is no evidence of a Republican tide as Democrats have won 30 of 37 statewide contests since 1992, Democrats enjoy a 3% advantage in Party ID and they share control of the State House and control of the state Senate.
South Carolina, where Democrat Fritz Hollings is giving up, would seem like a lost cause -- "a state that is trending even more Republican, if that's possible." But Democrat Inez Tenenbaum, the largest vote getter in South Carolina history as state education superintendent, leads in early polling against all her potential GOP opponents (Attorney General Charlie Condon, Rep. Jim DeMint, or real estate developer Thomas Ravenel) and she faces no primary while the GOP candidates engage in an expensive and divisive four-way primary fight.
In Florida, Bob Graham's retirement makes this a toss-up race. Support on the Dem side appears to be coalescing around former Education Commissioner Betty Castor, although Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Panelas and Rep. Peter Deutsch also are expected to challenge. On the GOP side, GOP officials are trying to give HUD Secretary Mel Martinez a clear shot after US Rep. Kathleen Harris, much vilified by Democrats for her role in the 2000 vote count, stepped aside. In a early December poll by the Miami Herald, Harris led the GOP field 29% to Rep. Bill McCollum's 15%, as Martinez trailed at 11%. In a November Mason-Dixon poll, Castor beat Harris 42-37-21; beat McCollum 36-35-29; and beat Martinez 35-32-33. Democrats enjoy a 2% advantage in Party ID and have gained 131,000 votes since 2000, largely due to growth in the African American population.
In Louisiana, John Breaux's retirement throws this from a safe seat to a tossup. The Democratic frontrunner is US Rep. Chris Johns (Breaux's heir apparent) but others, including former attorney general Richard Ieyoub might make the race. The GOP will run David Vitter, and perhaps Bobby Jindal can attempt a political comeback after losing the governor's race to Democrat Kathleen Blanco. While generally a conservative state, Louisiana has elected Democrats in the last two election cycles.
In South Dakota, Sen. Tom Daschle expects a tough race, which is the norm in that state, but former Rep. John Thune is not going to sneak up on the Senate Democratic leader. Thune, who lost to Sen. Tim Johnson by 524 votes in 2002, opted for another Senate race instead of seeking the at-large congressional seat opened up by the manslaughter conviction of Rep. (and former governor) Bill Janklow. Still, Thune couldn't defeat Sen. Tim Johnson a close race in 2002 and the Minority Leader will have plenty of money and an experienced campaign staff.
In other races, the GOP so far has not been able to put up a credible candidate against Sen. Byron Dorgan in North Dakota.
In Washington, the GOP wants to oust Patty Murray. But US Rep. George Nethercutt, her main rival, made the Mother Of All Gaffes when he suggested that US casualties in Iraq weren't "the real story," implying that new school openings were more important than those killed in action.
In Nevada, Sen. Harry Reid, second in command below Daschle, has a history of squeaker elections. However, Republicans are on the defensive in the state after George W. Bush broke his promise not to dump nuclear waste near Las Vegas.
In California, the GOP wishes they could make a run at Barbara Boxer, one of the Senate's most liberal members, but they won't have much luck in an expensive state, unless they find an independently wealthy action figure.
In other races, in Wisconsin, Sen. Russ Feingold appears in good shape; Blanche Lincoln looks solid in Arkansas; Evan Bayh had a 70% approval rating in a July poll in Indiana; Ron Wyden will coast to re-election in Oregon; Rudy Giuliani is probably the only one who could cause Sen. Charles Schumer trouble in New York; Patrick Leahy should win in a walk in Vermont, as will Chris Dodd in Connecticut and in Hawaii, "Democrats will win in Utah and Idaho before Dan Inouye loses an election in Hawaii."
Next issue: House races.