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Power Struggle

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North Carolina Sen. John Edwards's strong second-place finish in Wisconsin means the contest for the Democratic presidential nomination is not quite over. But now that Democrats have captured a Republican-held congressional seat in the special election in Kentucky's 6th Congressional District, attention may soon begin to turn, albeit briefly, to the fight for control of Congress.

The Republicans hold a bare, 51-to-49 edge in the Senate and would lose the House if just 12 districts swung out of their control, but the Democrats would need extraordinarily good luck to break the GOP grip on either chamber this November.

While the Republicans' margin in the Senate is narrow, that chamber's Democrats have had a run of misfortune, suffering five retirements, all in states that President Bush carried in 2000. Republicans have to defend just two open seats--one in a state Bush won and the other in a state that Vice President Gore carried easily. Each side has one Senate incumbent in real danger and several others in races that could grow competitive.

While the margin in the House is also narrow, the number of truly competitive districts there is so small that the Democrats have an exceedingly steep hill to climb. Today, we see 36 districts as competitive. Nineteen of those are now held by Democrats, and 15 by Republicans. The remaining two will pit Texas incumbents against one another in November. To win control of Congress, Democrats would have to win 30 of the 36--by, for example, holding all 18 of their own seats and winning 11 of the remaining 18. And that's a very tall order for any party in anything short of a "tsunami election"--one in which a tidal wave sweeps one party's candidates into office up and down the ticket.

Of the five open Democratic Senate seats, that of retiring Sen. Zell Miller, D-Ga., is considered a goner, barring the emergence of some miracle candidate for the Democrats. Georgia Republicans will have a spirited primary. But the state's Democrats have produced a relatively unknown, underfunded crop of candidates with little apparent potential for making the race even remotely competitive, no matter whom the GOP nominates.

The three other Democratic open seats in the traditional South -- in Louisiana, North Carolina, and South Carolina -- are roughly even-money, give or take a bit. In Louisiana, where Sen. John Breaux is retiring, two Democrats and one Republican are vying to compete in the November 2 free-for-all primary for the two slots in the December 4 runoff election (unless someone receives 50 percent in the primary). U.S. Rep. Chris John and state Treasurer John Kennedy are fighting for what many consider to be the Democratic slot in the runoff, while Republican Rep. David Vitter appears likely to have a free ride for the so-called Republican slot in the runoff. Kennedy starts off with the highest name recognition by virtue of his statewide office, but he might not be able to compete financially with Vitter, who will have the Republican establishment's support, and with John, who has the blessings of Breaux and, unofficially, the Democratic Party's establishment.

In North Carolina, GOP Rep. Richard Burr and Clinton White House Chief of Staff Erksine Bowles, the Democrats' 2002 Senate nominee, are evenly matched in their race to succeed Edwards. In South Carolina, where Democratic Sen. Ernest Hollings is stepping down after 38 years, Democrats settled on state Superintendent of Education Inez Tenenbaum. Her Republican rivals are battling it out in a six-way primary. GOP Rep. Jim DeMint and former Gov. David Beasley are considered the front-runners for the GOP nomination.

Meanwhile, Florida's open Senate seat is an even-money proposition today. Both parties have competitive primaries. The identities of the nominees will determine whether one party heads into November with an advantage.

The lone vulnerable Democratic incumbent is Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota. In January, Republican former Rep. John Thune announced that he will challenge Daschle. Thune lost his state's 2002 Senate contest by 524 votes. He was considered the only Republican who could give Daschle a very competitive race.

Among the Republican-held seats, the open seat in Illinois that Sen. Peter Fitzgerald will be vacating is most in danger. However, each side is holding a very crowded primary on March 16. It is impossible to know what the general election will look like.

The open seat in Oklahoma now held by Republican Sen. Don Nickles will also be hotly contested. Democrats recruited a strong candidate in Rep. Brad Carson, a moderate who represents a marginally Republican district. The Republican establishment has coalesced around former Oklahoma City Mayor Kirk Humphreys, but he faces primary opposition.

In Alaska, appointed Sen. Lisa Murkowski will meet an extremely powerful challenger, former Democratic Gov. Tony Knowles. Although Murkowski is a strong candidate in her own right, she is saddled with the baggage of having been appointed by her governor-father, whose popularity has slid because of the state's fiscal problems.

In the House, perhaps a dozen districts now count as very competitive. For Democrats, redistricting by the Republican-controlled Texas Legislature put five incumbents in peril: Max Sandlin (TX-01), Nick Lampson (TX-02), Chet Edwards (TX-17), Martin Frost (TX-32), and Charles Stenholm (TX-19). Insiders see Sandlin as the most vulnerable. Frost and Stenholm will each face a Republican incumbent in a heavily Republican district. Frost is pitted against Pete Sessions, and Stenholm against freshman Randy Neugebauer. Elsewhere, two Democratic incumbents who narrowly won re-election in 2002 -- Dennis Moore in KS-03 and Jim Matheson in UT-02 -- are vulnerable but seem to be in better shape than their colleagues in Texas. In Kansas, for example, the GOP primary for Moore's seat is shaping up to be very contentious.

The other tough districts for Democrats to hold are Kentucky's 4th, where Rep. Ken Lucas is retiring, and Louisiana's 7th, where Rep. Chris John is leaving to run for the Senate. Although Bush won both districts, Kentucky's 4th District looks much more difficult for Democrats to retain.

Republicans have just three seats that now seem in peril: Arizona's 1st District, held by freshman Rick Renzi; Georgia's 12th District, held by Max Burns, and the open seat in South Dakota from which Bill Janklow recently resigned. By the numbers, GA-12 is the most Democratic-leaning (Gore took 54 percent of the vote), but AZ-01 is a classic swing district, and Democrats there have united behind former Flagstaff Mayor Paul Babbitt. In 2002, Democrats nominated flawed candidates in both the Georgia and Arizona districts.

In South Dakota, a special election to replace Janklow will be held on June 1. A recent Mason-Dixon poll gave 2002 Democratic nominee Stephanie Herseth a lead of 58 percent to 29 percent over GOP state Sen. Larry Diedrich. Yet Bush took 60 percent of the vote in the state in 2000. And Republicans have time to chip away at Herseth's lead.

Republicans also have potential trouble spots in newly open seats, such as the suburban 8th District of Washington, where Rep. Jennifer Dunn unexpectedly announced her retirement, and Louisiana's 3rd District, where Rep. Billy Tauzin is leaving. Although Dunn easily held her district for 10 years, Gore narrowly won it. Republicans are coalescing around King County Sheriff Dave Reichert. Democrat Alex Alben, a high-tech businessman, had $228,000 in the bank at the end of December for his planned race against Dunn. Heidi Behrens-Benedict, the three-time Democratic nominee for this seat, is running again.

Although it's not clear when Tauzin will vacate his seat, his departure opens up a competitive district that Bill Clinton won handily in 1992 and 1996 but that Bush carried in 2000 with 52 percent. Former state Rep. Charlie Melancon, ex-president of the American Sugar Cane Association, is the strongest Democratic candidate at this point. Former state House Speaker and GOP gubernatorial candidate Hunt Downer is considering a bid.

Despite the slimness of the Republican majorities on Capitol Hill, the Democrats are unlikely to reclaim either chamber, because so few House seats are truly competitive and because the Democrats must defend so many open Senate seats in unfriendly territory.

-- Associate Editors Jennifer E. Duffy and Amy Walter contributed to this report.

 
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