People like to say that political campaigns don’t begin until after Labor Day. Well, didn’t we just have one? Granted, there’s still one more to go before next year’s Senate elections, but who’s counting? Here’s the latest on the 2004 races, updated from my report in July.
The major development since then has been the GOP’s failure to recruit its best candidates for races in Arkansas and Nevada–states where Republicans might have had a good chance at victory, but now probably don’t have much chance at all. This has lifted Democratic morale significantly and may even affect the retirement decisions of a few key incumbents.
A quick recap of the big picture: Republicans currently hold a 51-seat majority. There will be 34 Senate elections next year for seats now held by 19 Democrats and 15 Republicans. Of these, I’ve used a pretty generous standard of competitiveness to determine that 17 of these races are possibly up for grabs. A dozen Democrats and 5 Republicans now occupy these seats. Most of these contests will become much less competitive over time. Still, I’m in an extra-generous mood, so I’m going to expand the list by one to include Colorado, for reasons described below.
And now, the state-by-state outlook:
ALASKA: Sen. Lisa Murkowski remains the GOP’s most vulnerable incumbent, though Republicans are a bit more hopeful about her chances now than they were a few months ago. She’s scaring off primary challengers, though it’s still possible she’ll face a pro-lifer who could cause some damage. Former Gov. Tony Knowles, a Democrat, will be a tough opponent in November, though it’s worth noting that his two gubernatorial victories came in non-presidential-election years. That won’t be true in 2004, when Bush’s spot at the top of the ticket should boost Murkowski in this GOP-friendly state.
ARKANSAS: Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln would have had a tough reelection if either Gov. Mike Huckabee or former Rep. Asa Hutchison had decided to challenge her. Both demurred. Lincoln now must be considered a clear favorite for a second term.
CALIFORNIA: Everything’s on hold until after the recall election. As far as the Senate goes, Republican interests probably would have been best served without there being a recall election in the first place. This would have given next year’s nominee the useful ability to link Sen. Barbara Boxer to fellow Democrat Gray Davis. Now, however, either Davis will get a boost from beating the recall or he’ll be gone. It’s possible that a disastrous Bustamante administration might serve as a replacement boogeyman. In the meantime, it’s totally unclear who the GOP nominee will be. My guess is that Boxer will coast to reelection, though this may become a race to watch if an outstanding Republican candidate emerges. If Tom McClintock drops out of the recall race and endorses Arnold Schwarzenegger–an increasingly unlikely prospect–keep an eye on him for the Senate contest.
COLORADO: There’s probably only one Democrat in the state who has a chance of beating Republican Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, and that’s Rep. Mark Udall. Earlier this year, it didn’t look like Udall was going to get in. Now he says he hasn’t made up his mind and will do so this fall. A recent poll had Campbell running well ahead of both Udall and former Sen. Gary Hart, who has hinted that he might run (but also has said he would get out of Udall’s way). Campbell would be the favorite in any race, but only Udall’s absence will give him a solid lock on a new term.
FLORIDA: Bob Graham’s campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination hasn’t taken off–he’s not even a top-five candidate. This may compel him to drop out and announce he’s running for reelection: Florida is one of those states where he must eventually make a choice about doing one or the other. If he quits the Senate, however, the Democrats will pick between Rep. Peter Deutsch, who has raised more than $3 million, and Miami-Dade mayor Alex Penelas. The GOP field is crowded, even though Rep. Mark Foley recently dropped out.
GEORGIA: Almost certainly a GOP pick-up here, as businessman Herman Cain, Rep. Mac Collins, and Rep. Johnny Isakson duke it out for a Republican nomination that practically will coronate retiring Democrat Zell Miller’s successor. The well-funded Isakson is the frontrunner, but he suffers from a history of statewide election flops and a voting record that isn’t 100 percent pro-life.
ILLINOIS: This open seat, now held by retiring Republican Peter Fitzgerald, is the Democrats’ Georgia–their best 2004 pick-up opportunity. It’s also another example of Republican recruitment problems. The GOP’s best candidate, former Gov. Jim Edgar, has said he won’t run. As of now, the smart money seems to be on Democratic comptroller Dan Hynes becoming the state’s next senator, though there are lots of candidates on both sides and anything could happen.
LOUISIANA: Democratic Sen. John Breaux says he’ll make a decision about reelection after this year’s governor’s race. This has fueled speculation that if Democrat Richard Ieyoub wins in November, Breaux will step down and let Ieyoub appoint Rep. Chris John to fill the vacancy. This would give John a small boost against his likely GOP opponent, Rep. David Vitter, in what would be a tight race. If Breaux runs again, though, he’s a shoe-in.
MISSOURI: GOP Senator Kit Bond remains a strong candidate for reelection, but Democrats insist they have a chance here. It is an exceedingly small chance.
NEVADA: Democratic Sen. Harry Reid surely breathed a big sigh of relief when Rep. Jim Gibbons decided not to run against him: Instantly, Reid went from being his party’s most vulnerable incumbent to an almost sure bet on winning a return ticket to Washington.
NORTH CAROLINA: The decision by Democratic Sen. John Edwards not run for reelection (and instead pursue his presidential ambitions) probably improves GOP chances here, albeit slightly. Incumbents always have intangible advantages, even when they aren’t hugely popular. But the Democrats also have a good candidate in President Clinton’s former chief of staff, Erskine Bowles. This looks like a close race between Bowles and GOP Rep. Richard Burr: A Raleigh News and Observer poll released last week had Burr leading, 43 percent to 37 percent.
NORTH DAKOTA: Here’s another state with GOP recruitment problems, even though Bush ran 25 points ahead of the Gore-Nader bloc in 2000. Earlier this year, the best Republican candidate, former governor Ed Schafer, said no to a race. Last month, Dale Brown, a popular basketball coach, said he’s skipping, too. That leaves Democratic Sen. Byron Dorgan wondering who his opponent will be–and no doubt thinking he’ll get another six years in the capitol. He’s probably right.
OKLAHOMA: Republican Sen. Don Nickles says that in November or December he’ll let us know about running again. If he quits, this could become a very competitive contest, with Democratic Rep. Brad Carson already positioning himself for an open-seat race. On the GOP side, Rep. Ernest Istook and Oklahoma City mayor Kirk Humphreys will square off for the nomination. It would be worth keeping an eye on J. C. Watts, too.
PENNSYLVANIA: All the interest here, so far, has been on Rep. Pat Toomey’s primary challenge to Arlen Specter, who was recently dubbed “The Worst Republican Senator” by a leading magazine (order an online subscription here). Both candidates have agreed not to air ads between now and November, so that a united GOP can focus on a few local elections. That means you’ll have to wait for a Toomey piece on former Clinton deputy chief of staff Harold Ickes recently sending a $1,000 check to Specter. The incumbent must be considered the favorite, but Toomey offers an appealing alternative for conservatives tired of Specter’s liberalism. For the Democrats, Rep. Joe Hoeffel has a small chance against Specter and a better one against Toomey.
SOUTH CAROLINA: First elected to the Senate in 1966, Democrat Ernest Hollings had to wait until earlier this year for Strom Thurmond to retire and become his state’s senior senator. Now he’s getting out, too. After Georgia, this is the GOP’s best pick-up hope. The Republican primary will come down to former attorney general Charlie Condon and Rep. Jim DeMint.
SOUTH DAKOTA: It looks like former GOP Rep. John Thune, who nearly unseated Sen. Tim Johnson last year, will take on Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle. A recent Sioux Falls Argus Leader poll had the incumbent slightly ahead of Thune, 48 percent to 46 percent. Daschle is definitely looking over his shoulder–last week he signed on to a bill pushed by the National Rifle Association.
WASHINGTON: The GOP’s first choice to take on Sen. Patty Murray was Rep. Jennifer Dunn, but she declined to run. Now it’s up to Rep. George Nethercutt. Murray is one of those unimpressive politicians who looks eminently beatable but somehow manages to keep on winning. Nethercutt will give her a tough time. Just remember that she’s a survivor and the Seattle market is terra incognita for him.
WISCONSIN: Former Gov. Tommy Thompson (now head of HHS) says that state senator Bob Welch has the best chance of winning the GOP primary, whose contestants also include businessman Tim Michels and auto dealer Russ Darrow. Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold will be a strong favorite against any of them–especially Darrow, who has written checks to the senator in the past.