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Shell Game

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Analyzing the battle for the Senate has become a conflict between the objective and the subjective. From an objective point of view, the Senate is a math problem. The Republicans have a 51-seat majority. That means that to take control, the Democrats need to pick up two seats if President Bush wins re-election (and thus keeps the power to break Senate ties in the hands of a Republican vice president), or just one seat if Democratic Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts is elected.

Of course, a Kerry victory would create a vacancy in the Senate. However, the heavily Democratic Massachusetts Legislature is working on a bill to require a special election. The goal is to remove GOP Gov. Mitt Romney's power to appoint Kerry's replacement. Thus, if Kerry wins the White House, his successor in the Senate is likely to be a fellow Democrat, leaving Senate arithmetic unchanged.

So, let's start with the assumption that Republicans go into the final months of the campaign with 48 seats that they can count on seeing in their column once the votes are tallied. That total includes the 36 Republican-held seats that are not up this cycle, plus the eight safely Republican seats among the 15 GOP seats that are up this cycle. Also included are three more seats (in Kentucky, Missouri, and Pennsylvania) that are likely -- but not certain -- to remain in the GOP column, plus the open Democratic seat in Georgia that is virtually certain to go to the Republican nominee.

For their part, Democrats begin with 44 seats. Those include the 30 Democratic seats not on the ballot this cycle. Plus, out of the 19 Democratic seats that are up this cycle, 10 get counted because they are solidly in the "D" corner. Also in that total are two seats (in California and Wisconsin) that appear likely to stay in the Democratic column, one (in Washington) that leans toward staying Democratic, and the Republican open seat in Illinois, which Democrats are poised to pick up now that GOP nominee investment banker-turned-teacher Jack Ryan has dropped out. Unless Illinois Republicans replace Ryan with a well-known candidate or one who can self-fund the race, their party has no real chance of defeating Democrat Barack Obama.

This means that 92 Senate seats are accounted for. The eight others are the only ones truly in play: five now held by Democrats and three held by Republicans. So, to seize control, Democrats need to win at least six of these eight competitive seats if Kerry wins; seven of the eight if he doesn't. By any measure, that's a tall order.

The Democrats' task seems especially tough when other objective factors are considered. Four of the five competitive seats that the Democrats must defend are open, and it's generally much more difficult to hold on to a seat when no incumbent is running. All four of the Democrats' competitive open seats are in states that President Bush carried in 2000 -- Florida, Louisiana, North Carolina, and South Carolina. The two competitive Republican open seats are also in what's considered Republican-leaning territory -- Colorado and Oklahoma. If history is any guide, keeping these open Senate seats will be easier for the Republicans this year.

However, when the Senate picture is viewed through more-subjective lenses -- such as the quality of individual candidates, the toll taken by primary fights, the relative fundraising strengths, and the issue agenda -- things don't look quite as bleak for Democrats. The early betting was that Democrats would lose a majority of their five open seats in the South, but their candidates are competitive in four of those races. And the fact that the GOP nominees in Colorado and Oklahoma will have to survive bruising primary battles before facing strong Democratic nominees makes both of those states less certain to remain Republican.

So, winning six or seven of the eight competitive Senate contests is not out of the question for the Democrats. Here's where those eight races stand.

Alaska

Even though Alaska hasn't elected a Democrat to the U.S. Senate since 1974, the state's 2004 Senate contest could be the most competitive in the nation. Appointed GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski is saddled with considerable baggage. And Democrats have recruited the strongest possible candidate in former Gov. Tony Knowles.

Murkowski's father, Frank, was first elected to this seat in 1980 and still held it when he ran for governor in 2002. Winning the governorship allowed him to appoint his Senate successor. After several weeks of consideration, he appointed his daughter, a state legislator. The appointment created an uproar. How she got into the Senate isn't Lisa Murkowski's only problem, though. Gov. Murkowski has broken campaign promises and, as a result, diminished his own popularity and added weight to his daughter's baggage.

The incumbent senator's bid for a full, six-year term in her own right got more difficult when two fellow Republicans -- former state Senate President Mike Miller and former U.S. Attorney Wev Shea -- announced that they would challenge her in the August 24 primary. Miller is running because he objects to Lisa Murkowski's appointment by her father and does not consider her sufficiently conservative. Shea entered the contest because he thinks that the state's GOP leadership has ignored ethics allegations against the state party chairman, who is a close friend of the governor, in allowing him to keep his post.

Miller has been on the air and has scored endorsements from some conservative leaders in the state, including Lt. Gov. Loren Leman. Early polling, though, gives Lisa Murkowski a healthy lead. Her two GOP rivals will split the anti-Murkowski vote, increasing her odds of securing the nomination.

Murkowski is a strong, smart candidate who knows what she needs to do to win. She addresses her appointment head-on, telling voters that she hopes that they will consider what she has done in the Senate, not how she got there. She has also been on the air with ads touting her experience and accomplishments in the Senate. Apart from surviving the primary, her other task is to put some distance between her work in the Senate and her father's actions as governor. That will need to be the focus of her race.

Knowles has had his campaign up and running for a year. He's already run a biographical TV ad. He emphasizes his two successful terms as governor and what he sees as Alaska's need to have a Democratic voice in Washington. Knowles, who supports drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, contends that drilling has a better chance of winning Senate approval if Alaska has someone well positioned to lobby Senate Democrats. It does not help Knowles that the Democrats' presumptive presidential nominee is Kerry, one of the Senate's most vocal foes of ANWR. Knowles also isn't helped by the fact that Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota calls drilling in ANWR unnecessary.

Polling continues to show a very tight general election. Monthly surveys conducted by the Democratic firm of Ivan Moore Research show a statistical tie between Murkowski and Knowles. They are both very good candidates, and this race should go down to the wire.

Colorado

The general election race to succeed retiring GOP Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Colorado is shaping up to be competitive, but both parties first must choose nominees in August 10 primaries.

The Democratic establishment has rallied around state Attorney General Ken Salazar, but school administrator Mike Miles, who has been campaigning for more than two years, surprised Salazar at the state party convention in May. Not only did Miles draw enough support there to get his name on the primary ballot, he also secured the top line by getting a larger share of the delegate votes than Salazar.

Nevertheless, Salazar is heavily favored to win the Democratic primary. Miles, who has the support of the party's more liberal faction, will force Salazar to expend time and resources to win the nomination.

Salazar brings some important assets to the race. He has won statewide election twice, is considered moderate, and is Hispanic. Salazar has also proven to be a strong fundraiser and has been on the air with biographical spots.

The Republican primary is expected to be more competitive than the Democratic one. Even though former Rep. Bob Schaffer and Coors Brewing Chairman Pete Coors agree on most issues, Schaffer has picked up the support of many of the state's conservative activists and leaders, including that of former Republican Sen. Bill Armstrong. Schaffer's challenge is to increase his name identification and raise enough money to compete effectively with Coors, who has very deep pockets and is a strong fundraiser.

Coors is almost universally known in the state. And he begins the race with the support of Campbell and Gov. Bill Owens. But Coors must make the difficult transition from corporate executive to candidate. His missteps so far include a call for lowering the legal drinking age to 18 -- an idea that came across as self-serving. Coors's other challenge is to distinguish his views from those of Coors Brewing. He has endorsed amending the U.S. Constitution to ban same-sex marriage. His company has stated that it does not share that position. It provides benefits to same-sex couples and has an aggressive marketing campaign targeting the gay community. The company's gay-friendliness is what raises doubts among conservatives about candidate Coors.

A mid-June Mason-Dixon poll showed Coors ahead of Schaffer, 39 percent to 35 percent, with 29 percent undecided. Given his well-established name and financial strength, Coors might be the stronger general election candidate. But if the primary turnout is low, the state's most conservative Republicans will pick the nominee -- probably Schaffer.

Republicans argue that Salazar has never been really tested on the campaign trail. That may be true, but the Mason-Dixon poll put him 7 points ahead of Coors and 14 ahead of Schaffer.

The primaries will determine whether one party goes into the general election with an advantage, but expect a competitive contest this fall.

Florida

Both parties will host competitive August 31 primaries in Florida, where Democratic Sen. Bob Graham is stepping down after three terms.

In the five-way Democratic contest, the front-runners are former state Education Commissioner Betty Castor, a former president of the University of South Florida; and Rep. Peter Deutsch. Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas has raised a decent amount of money and has aired some television ads, but he is not popular with the Democratic establishment. And former Vice President Gore recently had some very harsh words about Penelas's behavior during the 2000 presidential recount. If anything, Penelas may be a spoiler, since he and Deutsch share a South Florida base.

Geography is bolstering Castor's chances. Her base is along the Interstate 4 corridor, which runs east-west between Daytona Beach and Tampa and generally provides about 38 percent of the Democratic primary vote. The Panhandle makes up another 24 percent. The Gold Coast, which includes Miami-Dade County, Broward County (Fort Lauderdale), and Palm Beach County and is Deutsch's and Penelas's base, accounts for just 34 percent of the vote. The remaining 4 percent is in the Fort Myers area. As the only Democratic candidate from Central Florida against two candidates from South Florida, and as the only woman against two men, Castor has a good shot at the nomination.

Deutsch, though, has a hefty war chest that he is starting to dip into for television ads introducing himself to voters outside of his Broward County-based congressional district. Some of his supporters have formed a controversial 527 group to help him win the nomination. According to news reports, the American Democracy Project's purpose appears to be to criticize Castor's handling of a situation involving a professor accused of aiding Islamic organizations linked to terrorist activities. The project's accusations could cause problems for her. But Deutsch denies any role in its activities.

Most surveys give Castor a double-digit lead over Deutsch and Penelas, but there are enough undecided voters to change the outcome. This primary seems destined to get very ugly.

The Republicans, meanwhile, have eight announced candidates. Former HUD Secretary Mel Martinez; former Rep. Bill McCollum, who was the party's 2000 Senate nominee; and state House Speaker Johnny Byrd are leading the pack. Millionaire businessman Doug Gallagher and businesswoman Karen Saull have promised to spend a lot of their own money and, as a result, may become factors in the race.

At this stage, McCollum has the highest name identification and a base of support among conservatives. Martinez has the backing of much of the GOP establishment, including that of National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman George Allen, as well as considerable support in South Florida's Cuban-American community. Byrd is vying for conservatives, although he presided over a contentious legislative session and got extremely poor reviews for his leadership. Gallagher and Saull have recently launched aggressive television advertising efforts to boost their name identification, but both need to persuade voters that they are substantial candidates.

Given McCollum's 2000 loss, Martinez is widely thought to be a stronger general election option. To win the GOP primary, Martinez needs to become better-known statewide. McCollum leads in the polls, but has not gained much ground in the past year, whereas Martinez appears to be picking up support.

Both national parties will pour huge resources into Florida for the presidential fight. The Senate race will benefit from the parties' get-out-the-vote activities, but may also be relegated to the background this fall.

Louisiana

The open-seat contest in Louisiana has settled into a four-way race involving Republican Rep. David Vitter and three Democrats: Rep. Chris John, state Treasurer John Kennedy, and state Rep. Arthur Morrell.

If none of the candidates gets more than 50 percent of the vote in November, the top two vote-getters -- regardless of party -- will meet in a December runoff. Republicans cleared their field for Vitter, virtually guaranteeing him a spot in the runoff. The Democratic establishment is rallying around John, who has won endorsements from retiring Sen. John Breaux, most statewide Democratic officeholders, and the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee. Although Kennedy performs well in polls, his support appears to be shallow. And insiders question his ability to raise enough money to be competitive. Morrell, who is African-American, will get some black support.

Vitter is a solid candidate, but he is in an uphill battle against history. First, Louisiana has never elected a Republican to the Senate. Second, Louisianans seldom elect Republicans statewide, and only do so in very unusual circumstances. Third, Louisiana voters tend to be suspicious of candidates from the New Orleans metro area, which is home to Vitter, Kennedy, and Morrell. All of this bodes well for John.

Still, holding this seat in a presidential election year is hardly a slam dunk for Democrats. Vitter is leading in the polls and is ahead of John in fundraising. Louisiana races tend to start late, so there probably won't be much activity beyond raising money and building organizations until fall.

North Carolina

In North Carolina, where Democratic Sen. John Edwards is vacating his seat, businessman Erskine Bowles, who was chief of staff in the Clinton White House, is taking a second shot at the Senate. He was the state's Democratic Senate nominee in 2002, when he spent $6.5 million of his own money but got just 45 percent of the vote against Republican Elizabeth Dole. Democrats argue that Bowles is better positioned for this race, because he retains his generally positive name recognition and has become a more skillful candidate.

The Republican nominee is Rep. Richard Burr, who has been in the race since early last year. He has spent 18 months raising money and building his name identification beyond his 5th District. Taking a page from Dole's successful playbook, he is spending much of his time in small towns and rural areas.

Bowles went on the air in June with two ads, one biographical and another touting his economic proposal. Burr is taking some heat for not yet running ads of his own. But holding back is probably wise, because Bowles has much deeper pockets.

Americans for Job Security aired a pro-Burr spot in June. And Republicans are encouraged that despite having been on the ballot two years ago and having spent a total of $11.3 million in 2002, Bowles is polling below 50 percent and has just an 8-point lead, 47 percent to 39 percent, according to a mid-June Research 2000 survey.

The race will be dominated by talk of trade and job creation. Both candidates have records as free-trade proponents but have adopted more-protectionist views in recent years, as their state has hemorrhaged jobs in the textile and furniture industries.

Bowles's advantage should vanish when Burr goes on the air, but Kerry's selection of Edwards as his running mate has added a new dimension to the race. This contest will almost certainly remain very tight until the end.

Oklahoma

For the moment, all of the attention in the contest to replace retiring GOP Sen. Don Nickles of Oklahoma is on the Republican side, where former Oklahoma City Mayor Kirk Humphreys, former Rep. Tom Coburn, and state Corporation Commissioner Bob Anthony are vying to win the nomination in the July 27 primary. If no one gets a majority of the vote, there will be a runoff on August 24.

Humphreys is the establishment candidate and collected endorsements from most of the state's top Republicans soon after Nickles announced his retirement. Humphreys has spent much of his time traveling to each county, putting together a grassroots organization. He has two major problems, though. First, being a former "big-city" mayor makes it harder for him to win the support of suburban and rural voters. Second, some Republicans resent that the party leadership anointed him in hopes of avoiding a primary. That resentment produced Anthony's candidacy and, to a lesser extent, Coburn's.

Even though Anthony has been elected statewide three times, he does not seem to be getting any traction and is running a distant third in primary polls. Coburn is another story. As the most socially conservative Republican in the race, he has something of an instant following. But, like Humphreys, he needs to get better known in the western half of the state. All three candidates are on the air, claiming to carry the conservative mantle in the race.

Humphreys and Coburn appear to be locked in a tight primary contest. According to an early-June CMA Strategies poll for the Humphreys campaign, Humphreys had 36 percent, Coburn 34 percent, and Anthony 10 percent.

The presumptive Democratic nominee is Rep. Brad Carson, a moderate representing rural and suburban voters in the 2nd District, which encompasses most of the eastern third of the state. He has compiled a voting record that seems well suited to a Senate bid. Carson is strongly favored to win the Democratic primary, where he will be up against state Insurance Commissioner Carroll Fisher, lawyer Monte Johnson, and retired teacher Jim Rogers. Carson is focusing on raising money and promoting his economic development plan for western Oklahoma.

Either Humphreys or Coburn would give Carson a very competitive race. Humphreys has aggressively challenged Carson's voting record, but some observers have argued that Coburn might be the stronger GOP nominee, because he and Carson share a suburban Tulsa base. Although many of the voters in that area are registered Democrats, they supported Coburn in his three congressional races.

President Bush should easily carry Oklahoma, but Democrats contend that this outcome won't hurt Carson. The Democrat probably now enjoys a very slim advantage over both Humphreys and Coburn. But, barring a GOP meltdown during the primary contest, the general election race should be extremely tight.

South Carolina

With the primaries and a GOP runoff behind them, both parties are gearing up for the general election in South Carolina, where Democratic Sen. Ernest Hollings is retiring after 38 years.

Three-term Rep. Jim DeMint scored a decisive 59 percent to 41 percent victory over former Gov. David Beasley in the June 22 Republican runoff. DeMint is an unabashed advocate of free trade; Beasley was touting a more protectionist view. But concerns about Beasley's record as governor and his character weighed more heavily, casting doubt on the potency of trade as an issue for South Carolina Republicans.

DeMint now faces state Superintendent of Education Inez Tenenbaum, who easily won the Democratic primary. A former teacher and a lawyer, Tenenbaum has twice been elected statewide, has a good fundraising base, and is running as someone who supports the war in Iraq, the death penalty, and a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage nationwide.

Republicans argue that DeMint is the kind of economic conservative who appeals to voters across the spectrum and that Tenenbaum, who supports abortion rights, is more liberal than she claims to be.

Even though trade was not a pivotal issue in the GOP primary, it will get a great deal of attention in the general election campaign, because Tenenbaum is stressing trade and job creation.

She is probably as strong a nominee as Democrats could have hoped to field in South Carolina in a presidential year. Still, South Carolina is one of the most Republican states in the South. And a candidate's past strength in down-ballot contests often does not count for much in a race for federal office.

The first post-runoff poll shows DeMint with a lead over Tenenbaum. But this race could tighten and be decided by the state's 280,000 swing voters.

South Dakota

Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota is the only Democratic incumbent whose bid for re-election is now a toss-up. The three-term senator will face former Republican Rep. John Thune, who in 2002 came within 524 votes of ousting freshman Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson.

Democrats argue that Daschle will be a much tougher opponent for Thune than Johnson was. They point out that Daschle has a very long record of delivering for the state. Republicans contend, though, that as party leader, Daschle has put the needs of his national party over the needs of the state. They point specifically to the obstructionist tactics Democrats have used since losing control of the Senate. And Republicans will also try to prove that what Daschle does in Washington is very different from what he voices support for when he's back home.

Thune remains a very strong candidate and seems aware of some of the mistakes he made in 2002. He has restructured his campaign team and is working to make in-roads into Native American reservations, where Johnson trounced him. Thune has also worked hard to close the financial gap with Daschle, who had spent about $8.3 million as of mid-May. Daschle has also been on television for more than a year, with ads designed to show that his efforts in the Senate have improved the lives of average South Dakotans. Thune's television advertising began this month with spots featuring his two daughters talking about his record on issues important to South Dakota.

Observers disagree on where this race stands. Daschle supporters say that he has spent the past year building a very solid foundation and enjoys a lead in the low teens. As evidence, they point to a mid-May Zogby International survey that gave Daschle a 52 percent to 39 percent advantage. Republicans contend that the race is much closer. They point to a Mason-Dixon poll, also taken in May, that showed Daschle ahead by just 2 points, 49 percent to 47 percent.

Either way, the South Dakota race should be undeniably close, once Thune's ads go on the air.

 
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