Serious Senate Races

By Charlie Cook

April 27, 2004

Heading into Pennsylvania's Republican primary Tuesday, campaign strategists on both sides are watching conservative Rep. Pat Toomey mount a strong challenge to moderate four-term incumbent Sen. Arlen Specter. The outcome could determine whether the GOP's tenuous 51-seat majority in the Senate is in serious danger, or whether Senate Republicans are going to finally catch a break.

Republican Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell's surprise decision to retire put his Colorado seat, which had been relatively safe for the GOP, into grave doubt. And Republicans are having festering problems in several other states, including Oklahoma and South Carolina, with Senate contests that had been expected to be fairly easy for them. As a result, the GOP's chances of keeping the Senate have dropped, from perhaps 90 percent earlier this year to about 60 percent now.

Pennsylvania

In Pennsylvania, the Democratic nominee, Rep. Joe Hoeffel, has the makings of a very strong candidate. But few observers think he would be able to raise enough money to compete effectively in a general election against Specter, who for a Republican draws unusually strong support from three key Democratic constituencies: organized labor, trial lawyers, and the Jewish community. If Specter loses to Toomey, though, all bets are off. Hoeffel would immediately become at least the nominal favorite in a state that leans Democratic.

That's why President Bush, and even Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., a pair of conservatives, are backing Specter. Although Specter often strays from the GOP party line, he is the Republicans' best shot for holding the Pennsylvania seat and for giving the entire party a much-needed boost.

Toomey backers argue that Santorum's election in 1994 and re-election in 2000 prove that a conservative Republican can win in the Keystone State. But Santorum was first elected statewide in a Republican tidal wave election and was re-elected over a weak Democrat who ran a miserable campaign. While Santorum has done a lot to secure his position, it's hard to see how he would have initially won statewide office if the playing field had been level.

The South Looking to the South, most Democrats realize that their quest to keep the seat that Georgia's Zell Miller will be vacating is probably hopeless. But the party is aggressively defending its other open seats -- in Florida, Louisiana, North Carolina, and South Carolina -- and has a very respectable chance of holding them.

In Florida, one candidate in each party is a standout in terms of potential strength in the general election. Democrats would be best off with former state Education Commissioner Betty Castor as their nominee. She is ahead in the polls and, having retooled her campaign, is finally picking up her fundraising. Castor's rivals for the Democratic nomination, Rep. Peter Deutsch and Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas, have raised more money than Castor, but neither appears to have a great deal of potential to increase his support outside of South Florida.

The bulk of the state's Democratic voters are along and north of the Interstate 4 corridor, which stretches across central Florida from Tampa/St. Petersburg to Orlando and on to Daytona Beach on the Atlantic Coast. That Democrat-rich territory is Castor's home base.

On the Republican side, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Mel Martinez would be the strongest GOP nominee, even though he began this race with higher name recognition inside the Beltway than in the Sunshine State. And many Republicans have a hard time getting past Martinez's tenure as president of the Florida Academy of Trial Lawyers. The leader in GOP primary polls is former Rep. Bill McCollum, who was a House manager of President Clinton's impeachment trial in 1998 and the party's 2000 Senate nominee. Many conservatives love McCollum, but he is likely to have a difficult time gaining support beyond his party base. Florida's primary is August 31.

In North Carolina, the situation is far more straightforward. Republican Rep. Richard Burr and Democrat Erskine Bowles, an investment banker who served as Clinton's White House chief of staff and was the Democratic Senate nominee in 2002, are in a neck-and-neck race. Bowles may have a tiny edge in the polls, but the conventional wisdom is that when Burr catches up in name recognition, he might gain a slim advantage. Their race is likely to go down to the wire.

In Louisiana, all candidates, regardless of party, compete against one another. If no one gets more than 50 percent of the vote, the top two meet in a runoff. GOP Rep. David Vitter starts off as the nominal favorite, ahead in the early polls, thanks in no small part to the fact that his congressional district sits squarely in the New Orleans metropolitan area, the state's largest media market. He has the support of the Republican Party and of the president. He has also raised more money than the other contenders, and he had the largest war chest at the end of the first quarter of 2004. (No one takes seriously the rumor that former Democrat-turned-Republican Gov. Buddy Roemer might jump into the race.)

Polls show Democratic state Treasurer John Kennedy in second place, while Rep. Chris John, the unofficial candidate of the Democratic Party establishment, is third. John is relatively unknown outside his southwest Louisiana congressional district, but he is Breaux's anointed successor.

Vitter faces two important challenges. First, being from New Orleans has some disadvantages. Although the Big Easy is the state's largest metropolitan area, only two people from that region have been elected to the Senate or the governorship since World War II -- David Treen, who was elected governor in 1979, and Mary Landrieu, who was elected to the Senate in 1996 and re-elected in 2002. New Orleans is big enough to earn the resentment of the rest of the state, but its voting strength is usually not great enough to overcome that jealousy. Vitter's second disadvantage is his party. Louisiana has never elected a Republican to the Senate. In fact, since Reconstruction, the state has always elected a conservative white Democrat if there was one in a Senate or gubernatorial runoff.

Some analysts say that Republicans running statewide in Louisiana struggle under an almost-impenetrable glass ceiling. Look at the GOP's recent history: Then-Rep. Henson Moore received 47 percent of the vote but lost an open-seat Senate race to then-Rep. John Breaux in 1986; David Duke won just 44 percent against incumbent Democratic Sen. Bennett Johnston in 1990; Woody Jenkins won just under 50 percent in losing to then-state Treasurer Landrieu in the 1996 Senate race; and state Elections Commissioner Suzy Terrell received 48 percent against Landrieu in 2002.

While Vitter is as an aggressive, hard-charging, and intelligent candidate -- who can raise a great deal of money and run an excellent campaign -- he has no proven marketability outside the New Orleans metro area and the GOP base. And pollsters are quick to point out that he's currently drawing 15 percent of the African-American vote -- a level of support that he's unlikely to get on Election Day.

Kennedy begins with the name recognition that one might expect someone holding statewide office to have, and he is perhaps aided by sharing the last name of a legendary Democratic family. But few observers expect this Kennedy to hold on to his No. 2 position long enough to make the runoff. His financial and political support appear to be limited. Kennedy's best hope might be to get the backing of organized labor -- his record is somewhat more favorable to labor than is John's -- but union leaders seem inclined to go along with John as the party's unofficial choice. While this Louisiana race is likely to remain extremely competitive because of Vitter's campaign skills, John seems to have the inside track.

South Carolina is a state where it's usually safe to give Republicans the edge, even without knowing who the nominees will be. Retiring six-term Democratic Sen. Ernest (Fritz) Hollings has been the exception to that rule. The theory that, minus Hollings, Republicans have a decisive edge will be put to the test this year. The GOP is facing a divisive six-way primary, while Democrats consolidated early behind state Superintendent of Education Inez Tenenbaum. She has turned out to be a better candidate than her party deserves, given South Carolina's strong Republican and conservative voting patterns.

The fractious Republican primary features former Gov. David Beasley, Rep. Jim DeMint, former state Attorney General Charlie Condon, businessman Thomas Ravenel, Myrtle Beach Mayor Mark McBride, and businesswoman Orly Benny Davis. McBride and Davis are unlikely to be significant players. Condon has little money but seems to be running a remarkably good campaign. DeMint, the darling of the business community, is getting a good bit of money from the free-trade community for maintaining his opposition to protectionist legislation. Beasley has strong support among social conservatives and in the upcountry, but he does not enjoy the same backing along the coast. Ravenel is a newcomer to politics, although his father is a former U.S. representative now serving in the state Senate. Ravenel's advantages are his base in Charleston and his ability to fund his own campaign.

At the end of the day, it's tempting to say the odds favor Republicans a bit -- this is South Carolina, after all. But the difficulty they are encountering in trying to pick up Hollings's seat is noteworthy.

South Dakota

Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota is the only Democratic incumbent whose re-election bid is in the toss-up column. At first blush, the argument that if then-Rep. John Thune could not beat first-term Sen. Tim Johnson, who won by 524 votes in 2002, he can't possibly beat the most powerful Democrat in the state, is a good one, especially since Daschle brings home so much federal largesse.

On the other side of the ledger, though, many factors point to a South Dakota race as tight as the one two years ago. First, while Johnson was seen as a grown-up version of "the boy next door," Daschle has a much more partisan and ideological image. Second, Johnson's 2002 campaign was a better organization with a better message than Thune's. The same Democratic team is running Daschle's campaign, but its advantage may be diminished, because Thune has revamped his team by bringing in a very talented campaign manager and by learning from his mistakes. Third, this is a presidential election year, and Bush carried South Dakota by 22 points in 2000. Fourth, one of the strongest arguments in favor of re-electing Johnson was to preserve the Democrats' control of the Senate and thus keep Daschle in the post of Senate majority leader. Since the Democrats no longer control the Senate, that argument is moot. Finally, South Dakota Republicans will inevitably opt to attack Daschle's purchase of a $1.9 million home, largely paid for by his wife's lucrative lobbying practice, on Washington's pricey Foxhall Road -- although Thune's decision to register as a lobbyist after leaving the House somewhat undercuts that line of attack.

Daschle heads into this contest with obvious strengths. First, even as minority leader, he is well positioned to help his state. And party leaders very rarely lose re-election bids. Don Ritchie of the Senate Historian's Office had to look back to the early 1950s to find the last Senate leaders to go down. In 1950, GOP challenger Everett Dirksen defeated Democratic Majority Leader Scott Lucas of Illinois, 54 percent to 46 percent. In 1952, Republican Barry Goldwater beat Ernest McFarland of Arizona, 51 percent to 49 percent. Moreover, South Dakotans have known and consistently elected Daschle since 1978. Voters are unlikely to hear anything during this campaign that will significantly change their opinions of him.

Daschle has spent $6.4 million, and the average South Dakotan has seen about 140 Daschle ads over the last year. Yet Daschle's lead over Thune is less than 10 points. This race will be very close. It is ironic that one of the most powerful members of the Senate is the only elected incumbent now facing a really tough race.

Illinois

Senate Republicans, meanwhile, have open seats to defend in Colorado, Illinois, and Oklahoma. And appointed freshman Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska is facing a very stiff challenge. Illinois will likely prove to be the most difficult state for the GOP to defend. The GOP's hopes of holding the seat being vacated by freshman Peter Fitzgerald rest on Jack Ryan, a wealthy former investment banker and inner-city teacher. Ryan, who is not related to indicted former Republican Gov. George Ryan, won his party's nomination by taking 36 percent of the vote in a nine-way primary. On the Democratic side, the nominee is state Sen. Barack Obama, whose father is from Kenya and whose mother is from Kansas. He won 53 percent in a seven-way primary.

On one level, this is a contest between elites. Ryan is a graduate of Dartmouth who holds law and business degrees from Harvard and who made a fortune at Goldman Sachs before turning to teaching. Obama graduated from Columbia University and was the first black editor of the Harvard Law Review. Both nominees have movie-star good looks and stellar resumes. But the two have some striking contrasts, not the least of which is that Ryan is conservative and Obama is not.

Given the state's strong and increasing Democratic tilt, nearly all observers give Obama the edge. Yet, nationwide, minority candidates in major statewide races have tended to do less well at the ballot box than final polls had predicted. That pattern of underperforming held true when Doug Wilder was elected governor of Virginia in 1989, when former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt failed to upset Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., in 1990 and 1996, when Ron Kirk failed to win Texas's open Senate seat in 2002, and when Indian-American Bobby Jindal lost Louisiana's gubernatorial race last year. So, Obama may need to have a strong -- although no one knows how strong -- lead in the polls to actually pull off a win.

Colorado

Campbell's surprise announcement in Colorado sent both parties scrambling. Democrats quickly rallied around state Attorney General Ken Salazar. Republicans have had a more difficult time, because Gov. Bill Owens and a host of other elected officials opted not to run. The party's leadership seemed to coalesce around former Rep. Bob Schaffer's candidacy -- until Coors Brewing Chairman Peter Coors jumped into the race. Owens actually retracted his endorsement of Schaffer and enthusiastically gave it to Coors.

The brewery heir is a household name in the state. And Pete Coors has ample personal resources if he chooses to fund his own campaign. But he is an untested candidate, and his inseparable connection to Coors Brewing could turn out to be either an asset or a liability. Schaffer has a challenge in trying to raise enough money to overcome Coors's name recognition and bank account. Schaffer is getting some conservative support, but he could have trouble keeping it.

Salazar is the strongest possible Democratic candidate. As one Republican after another decided not to run, Salazar seemed to be gaining an edge -- but he may have lost it when Coors joined the race. With the August 10 primary fast approaching, the GOP contest is still unsettled, but this fight will end up being very competitive in November.

Oklahoma

Like South Carolina, Oklahoma is another state that Republicans ought to be able to take for granted. Yet the Sooner State has a hot three-way GOP contest and a strong Democratic contender in Rep. Brad Carson. This race is pretty much an even-money contest.

After Sen. Don Nickles announced his retirement, Oklahoma's leading Republicans rushed to unify behind former Oklahoma City Mayor Kirk Humphreys, but state Corporation Commissioner Bob Anthony insisted on running. Then, former Rep. Tom Coburn jumped into the GOP mix last month. A recent Tulsa World survey gave Coburn the edge in the three-way primary fight.

How all of this affects Humphreys's ability to attract money and whether Coburn can raise enough to make this a real fight are huge questions. But Republicans concede that Carson, a Democrat who hails from the eastern part of the state, has a fairly conservative voting record, and is part Native American, makes this an unprecedented race and renders previous voting patterns nearly useless in predicting the outcome. This contest remains a problem for the GOP.

Alaska

If Murkowski's last name were anything else, she'd probably be a shoo-in to secure a full term in her own right. She has earned high marks in her short tenure in Washington. The beef against her is how she got the job. She was appointed in 2002 by her father after he left the Senate to take the governorship. Gov. Frank Murkowski employed an elaborate search process that in retrospect looks like something of a sham. Making matters worse for his daughter, Frank Murkowski, like many governors, has had to make some tough budgetary decisions, and his popularity today is probably at the lowest ebb of his career.

Sen. Murkowski faces a primary challenge from the right from former state Senate President Mike Miller, who resigned from Gov. Murkowski's administration to make the race. Sen. Murkowski is favored to win the primary, but then she must compete against former two-term Gov. Tony Knowles, who is a slam dunk to win the Democratic nomination.

Although attractive, personable, and articulate, Knowles won the governorship in 1994 with just 41 percent of the vote, after a third-party candidate split the right-of-center vote. He was re-elected in 1998 with 51 percent, after Republicans disavowed their scandal-plagued nominee at the last minute in favor of a write-in candidate. While the public polling indicates that Knowles has a narrow lead, those surveys were conducted by Democratic pollsters, either for the news media or for the party. Republicans have quibbled with the results, but they haven't offered data to refute them. Expect a very close race.

And expect control of the Senate to be something that Republicans cannot take for granted heading into Election Day.

Jennifer E. Duffy contributed to this report.


By Charlie Cook

April 27, 2004

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