Democrats would have you believe otherwise, but by most accounts they’re going to have a tough time regaining a majority in the Senate, even though Republicans have only a slim 51-48 edge.
Dems have several strikes against them. To begin with, they’re behind in money terms. What’s more, five Southern Democrats are retiring (in Florida, Louisiana, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia), while four Republican seats are coming up for grabs (Illinois, Oklahoma, Colorado and Alaska). The loss of sitting senators in the solid-red South is particularly hard on Democrats. That isn’t to say Democrats can’t win back Senate seats there, it just means the DNC won’t be willing to dedicate as much money to the area. This “terrain” disadvantage will definitely hurt.
It’s still early in the season, of course, but a few races are clearly shaping up as key.
The open Democratic-held seats:
All eyes will be on Florida this election—on the presidential race, and the voting machines of course, but also to see who will succeed Democratic Sen. Bob Graham, who is retiring after 18 years. For now, it’s still primary season on both sides. With neither party fielding a definite candidate, it’s too soon to make predictions.
Louisiana: In the race to take over Sen. John Breaux’s seat (which he has held for 18 years), things look good for the GOP candidate, Congressman David Vitter, though Democrats have yet to choose a candidate. A visit by Vice President Dick Cheney for Vitter is a sign that the race is a priority for the GOP and the White House. Vitter leads in the polls.
North Carolina: Here, Sen. John Edwards (one term) is vacating his seat (with an eye to the veep nomination?), and former Clinton White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles is attempting to regain the seat. North Carolinians know him well, as he and Elizabeth Dole engaged in a highly expensive campaign two years ago (which he lost). He faces Rep. Richard Burr. Burr’s key advantage is that he’s been campaigning since early last year; the Cooke Political Report(PDF) calls this one: “as close as any this cycle.”
South Carolina:Sen. Fritz Hollings is retiring after 38 years. Republicans argue that South Carolina is one of their likeliest catches in November (second only to Georgia), as South Carolina is extremely Republican. The field is still narrowing, but the presumptive Democratic candidate is State Education Superintendent Inez Tenenbaum. Tenenbaum is a strong candidate and has Democratic support firmly behind her (Republicans are still in tight competition for a frontrunner). Even so, the conservative leanings of the state are against her.
Georgia: Zell Miller, who, by party affiliation is a Democrat, but who by all other gauges is a Republican, is retiring after one term in office and will likely be followed by a Republican. Democrats have struggled to find a big-name candidate to field.
The open Republican seats:
Republicans may lose a seat in Illinois when Peter Fitzgerald retires after one term in office. All bets are on Democratic State Senator Barack Obama, the early favorite. Obama faces Republican Jack Ryan, a wealthy investor turned teacher. Obama’s
advantage comes in that Illinois is increasingly voting Democratic. Gore carried the state in 2000, and in 2002 Dems reelected Sen. Richard Durbin and elected a Democratic governor, Rod Blagojevich. Indeed, Ryan’s lack of experience in public life and conservative politics won’t serve him well in this race.
Last week Republican Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell announced that he would not run for reelection, leaving the race open for both sides. Democrats have settled on attorney general Ken Salazar; whom Sen. Ben Nighthorse-Campbell calls “a formidable candidate.” On the Republican side, candidate after candidate has decided not to run against him, leaving former Rep. Bob Schaffer as the likely GOP candidate.
Oklahoma: In the race for Don Nickles’ seat, Oklahoma has a reputation as conservative state, yet Democrats outnumber Republicans in voter registration. As the Cooke Report comments, “Democrats recruited a candidate in Rep. Brad Carson who has a very strong profile for the state”; he’s moderate and represents rural concerns. His competitor is former Oklahoma City Mayor Kirk Humphreys, and given that Oklahoma trends toward Republicans in national elections — Bush won handily in 2000 — Carson has a tough race ahead of him.
Alaska: GOP Senator Lisa Murkowski, appointed by her father in 2002 after he successfully won a gubernatorial race, is looking for reelection. No Democrats have won in Senate seat in Alaska since 1974, but Democrats are trying their darndest this year by fielding former Gov. Tony Knowles, a popular 2-term senator. One of Murkowski’s biggest battles is fighting charges of nepotism. The race may prove to be one of the most interesting this season.
Though nobody is vacating a seat there, South Dakota is also considered a toss-up state.
As Senate minority leader, Tom Daschle may be one of the strongest voices in the Democratic party, but that doesn’t mean that South Dakotans feel he speaks for them. As the Cooke Political report says, he is “looking at the toughest campaign he has had since winning this seat back in 1986” against John Thune, a former congressman. Thune lost his 2002 bid to unseat Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) by just 524 votes. Republicans argue that Daschle puts the needs of his party over the needs of the state. To complicate things for Daschle, a Native American newspaper publisher, Tim Giago, has decided to run as an independent. The concern for Daschle is that Giago will siphon Native American votes from Daschle. South Dakota is home to about 60,000 Native Americans, the vast majority of whom vote Democratic. A recent zogby poll shows Daschle holds a slight lead over Thune. Of 500 likely South Dakota voters, 48 percent said they supported Daschle, while 43 percent favored Thune. Nearly 8 percent were undecided and 1 percent said they didn’t support either candidate.
As one political science professor put it, this is “South Dakota’s senatorial answer to Ralph Nader.”
It doesn’t help Democrats that they have a financial disadvantage. The Democratic party has prioritized John Kerry’s campaign, leaving many of the Senate races strapped for cash. Indeed, of the 17 battleground states identified as key for Kerry to win — and where much of the money is being steered — very few coincide with the Senate races up for grabs.
Democrats also lag in the fund-raising race, trailing the Republicans in cash on hand by nearly $10 million at the end of March.
Kerry campaign officials say they don’t think he’ll campaign heavily in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Oklahoma, Alaska or South Dakota, effectively leaving Democratic senatorial contenders largely on their own. Most of those states are likely to support Bush’s re-election by handy margins.
As discovered in 2002, when Democrats went into the election confident and came out cowed, there’s no telling what will happen. As Ken Rudin writes for NPR:
“Going into 2002, the Democrats were thought to be the fortunate ones. They had to defend only 14 of the 34 Senate seats up for grabs. But it was the Republican Party that came away as the big winner, triumphing in the unlikely states of Minnesota (Coleman over Mondale), Georgia (Chambliss over Cleland) — to name two — and in fact retaking control against historical odds. It was the first time the minority party had captured control of the House or Senate in a midterm election when one of its own inhabited the White House.”