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Senate Dominoes

Even though Senate Democrats had been waiting with bated breath until Sen. Jon Corzine, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, announced he won't seek the governorship of New Jersey if there is a special election this fall, the Senate landscape looks fairly stable. In fact, arguably, the odds have changed in only three Senate races in as many months. And even in that trio of contests, the shifts have been fairly subtle and, in some cases, quite debatable.

The open seat in Oklahoma, where Don Nickles is retiring, is likely to remain in the "toss-up" column, but many observers think that the Republicans' chances of holding on to the seat got better with former Rep. Tom Coburn's impressive victory, 61 percent to 25 percent, over former Oklahoma City Mayor Kirk Humphreys in the GOP primary. Although Humphreys was certainly closer than Coburn to the state's ideological 50-yard line and had the support of the party's establishment, Coburn is better positioned to exploit the growing tendency of the state's small-town and rural voters to vote Republican.

Coburn also has a better chance of cutting into Democratic Rep. Brad Carson's congressional district base by attracting rural Democrats from the eastern third of the state. What's more, Coburn doesn't carry the baggage of having been the mayor of Oklahoma City, a history that would have hurt Humphreys in November in rival Tulsa. Carson was much more likely to attract rural and small-town voters in both parties in a race against Humphreys, who would have been the "big-city" candidate.

The flip side is that Coburn has a record of votes and public statements that are pretty far out in right field. This would probably be fatal to a Senate candidacy in most states, but it might not be in Oklahoma. While this race very much remains too close to call, it's gone from leaning ever so slightly in Carson's favor to ever so slightly in favor of his Republican rival.

South Carolina also remains in the toss-up category, but Republican Rep. Jim DeMint seems to have things coming together for him. Democratic nominee Inez Tenenbaum, the state superintendent of education, seems to be a more aggressive and more accomplished campaigner than the reserved DeMint, but the GOP has united behind DeMint, largely out of loyalty to a fellow Republican. South Carolina is a state where partisanship goes a long way. So, even though this contest remains very competitive, it's hard not to think that DeMint holds a bit of an edge.

In neighboring North Carolina, though, things seem to be looking a little brighter for Democrats. The Democratic nominee, investment banker and Clinton White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles, holds a 7-to-8-point lead over Republican Rep. Richard Burr. The buzz in Republican circles, which has spilled over into press coverage in North Carolina and in Washington, D.C., is that Burr is trying to run his own campaign but perhaps is not the right guy to be doing so.

Burr is only one-for-two in competitive races, having lost a challenge to Democratic Rep. Steve Neal in 1992. After Neal retired two years later, Burr won the seat easily in the 1994 Newt Gingrich-led tidal wave. In fairness, Burr has not been on television long enough or with enough intensity to significantly improve his poll numbers, but the chatter about his steering his own campaign has gotten loud enough that he will have to address it -- or perhaps start listening to people who run campaigns for a living.

Anyone trying to divine national trends in these three Senate races had better hold off. Meanwhile, five other Senate races -- for the Democratic open seats in Florida and Louisiana, the Republican open seat in Colorado, the seat that Minority Leader Tom Daschle is trying to hold in South Dakota, and the Alaska seat of appointed Republican Lisa Murkow-ski -- are exceedingly close. And a couple of other races could easily become more competitive by Election Day.

In recent election cycles, the parties didn't end up splitting the toss-up races down the middle. In 2000, tight races broke overwhelmingly in favor of Democrats, with the party scoring an unexpected three-seat net gain. Two years later, Republicans pulled off a three-seat gain even though the number of really close races had seemed to be fairly evenly divided.

In the end, Senate dominoes tend to fall in one direction and to give little advance warning of which way that will be.
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