Politics & Policy

Racing For The Senate

States of Election 2004.

A surprise retirement from a GOP incumbent, a controversy among Democrats in Illinois, and the return of conservative hero Tom Coburn–just when you thought the Senate picture was coming into sharper focus, breaking news keeps us guessing.

#ad#With Republicans holding a 51-seat majority in the Senate, every one of these contests matters. Nearly two months ago, I cautiously predicted that the Republicans would pick up two seats in November. I’ll stick by that judgment for now, but a GOP gain of five or six seats or a loss of as many as four seats is possible. (For those keeping score at home, here are my previous reports from January, September, and July.)

Herewith, the state of the Senate races:

ALASKA: Gov. Frank Murkowski (R.) is rumored to be recording a tune called “Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Senators.” His daughter Lisa, whom he personally appointed as his successor in the Senate, continues to trail former governor Tony Knowles (D.) in the polls. Still, it’s very close: The latest tally had Knowles at 45 percent and Murkowski at 42 percent. TOSS-UP

ARKANSAS: Last fall, a poll gave Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln an approval rating of 55 percent and a disapproval rating of only 10 percent. It’s amazing someone named Lincoln could be so popular in the Old South. What’s next, Senator Sherman of Georgia? LIKELY DEMOCRATIC RETENTION

CALIFORNIA: Former secretary of state Bill Jones, nominated for the Senate by GOP primary voters last week, may be the best candidate to unseat Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer. Despite this, Jones is a heavy underdog. Republicans may take some consolation from Boxer’s fundraising numbers, which aren’t as impressive as they might be. A come-from-behind win isn’t out of the question for Jones. LEANING DEMOCRATIC RETENTION

COLORADO: The retirement of Republican Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell changes everything. If Gov. Bill Owens enters the race, he probably keeps the seat for the GOP–but he also delivers a very serious blow to his presidential hopes in 2008. It’s pointless to handicap the race until he makes up his mind. If he doesn’t run, treasurer Mike Coffman and several members of Congress may get in. Keep an eye on Rep. Tom Tancredo (R.), a conservative known for his hard-line-immigration-reform stance, who says he won’t defer to Owens in the primary and whom the White House would very much prefer not to have as the GOP nominee. On the Democratic side, self-financed millionaire Rutt Bridges already has declared. Rep. Mark Udall refused to take on Campbell, but may run now. He is probably the Democrats’ best hope. Another possible Democratic contender is attorney general Ken Salazar, TOSS-UP

FLORIDA: Former Rep. Bill McCollum leads the GOP primary pack, with 37 percent support in a recent Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel poll. Former HUD secretary Mel Martinez was in second place with 15 percent and a group of others failed to break single digits. McCollum is liked by many party activists, but he worries others–especially in D.C.–because of his lackluster Senate race four years ago. Among Democrats, former education official Betty Castor can claim 36-percent support, followed by Miami-Dade mayor Alex Penelas at 19 percent and Rep. Peter Deutsch at 18 percent. LEANING REPUBLICAN TAKEOVER

GEORGIA: Rep. Johnny Isakson remains the favorite for the GOP nod, though Rep. Mac Collins may yet displace him. Georgia law allows for a runoff–and that may help Collins in the end. LIKELY REPUBLICAN TAKEOVER

ILLINOIS: This has long looked like the Democrats’ best pick-up opportunity in 2004. Now Blair Hull, who has led several recent polls for the Democratic nomination, is accused of abusing his ex-wife. A group called the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault has called for him to withdraw and he appears ready to sink fast. Perhaps this will give comptroller Dan Hynes the opening he needs to win–he is probably the best candidate the Democrats can put forward. Another challenger is state senator Barack Obama, who holds a very narrow lead over Hynes in the latest survey. Republicans would love to run against a tainted Hull and they wouldn’t mind facing Obama, either. The GOP is lining up behind former investment banker Jack Ryan, who is not to be confused with the former governor, also named Ryan, or the Tom Clancy action hero. LEANING DEMOCRATIC TAKEOVER

LOUISIANA: Democrats will have a hard-fought primary, as state treasurer John Kennedy and Rep. Chris John square off. Sometimes these close contests help, if they put a nice shine on the winner; sometimes they hurt, if the loser slings enough mud and fractures the base. Retiring Sen. John Breaux (D.) would like to see John elected as his successor, but Kennedy is much better known around the state. The Republicans will go with Rep. David Vitter. TOSS-UP

MISSOURI: Democrats continue to view this as their dark-horse race. If John Kerry picks Dick Gephardt as his running mate, will it give state treasurer Nancy Farmer the boost she needs to topple Sen. Kit Bond? A recent poll had Bond leading Farmer, 49 percent to 39 percent. LIKELY REPUBLICAN RETENTION

NEVADA: With secretary of state Dean Heller saying he won’t run because it would be “next to impossible to win,” Republicans have given up on beating Democratic Sen. Harry Reid, a man who won reelection six years ago by just a few hundred votes. All that’s left to do now is nominate a sacrificial lamb. LIKELY DEMOCRATIC RETENTION

NORTH CAROLINA: Free trade has been a big issue in the Democratic presidential primaries; it will be a big issue in this Senate race as well. It’s not clear who will be helped or hurt. Democrat Erskine Bowles will distance himself from his role in the pro-trade Clinton administration and GOP Rep. Richard Burr will try to explain away his vote for Trade Promotion Authority. TOSS-UP

NORTH DAKOTA: A year ago, Democratic Sen. Byron Dorgan had a 51 percent approval rating–among Republicans. LIKELY DEMOCRATIC RETENTION

OKLAHOMA: Former Rep. Tom Coburn’s entry into the GOP primary shakes up this contest; he’ll have the support of the Club for Growth and national conservatives as he faces former Oklahoma City mayor Kirk Humphreys. Democrats are solidly behind Rep. Brad Carson, the man who now occupies Coburn’s old House seat. TOSS-UP

PENNSYLVANIA: Sen. Arlen Specter appears headed for a decisive win over Rep. Pat Toomey in the GOP primary–though this hasn’t stopped him from running shameful ads about how Toomey is mean to little girls with severe disabilities. Democratic Rep. Joe Hoeffel waits in the wings. LEANING REPUBLICAN RETENTION

SOUTH CAROLINA: Democrats are surprising upbeat about their chances with former education official Inez Tenenbaum. Republicans face a competitive primary between former governor David Beasley, former attorney general Charlie Condon, and Rep. Jim DeMint. LEANING REPUBLICAN TAKEOVER

SOUTH DAKOTA: Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D.) is winning praise from the National Rifle Association–and is a slight favorite to defeat former Rep. John Thune (R.). LEANING DEMOCRATIC RETENTION

WASHINGTON: Rep. George Nethercutt (R.) soon may come to wish that he had kept on breaking his old term-limits pledge and remained in his House seat, as Sen. Patty Murray (D.) shows no signs of weakening. LIKELY DEMOCRATIC RETENTION

WISCONSIN: Facing a sub-par field of GOP candidates, Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold has a virtual lock on reelection. LIKELY DEMOCRATIC RETENTION

John J. Miller — John J. Miller is the national correspondent for National Review and the director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College. His new book is Reading Around: Journalism on Authors, Artists, and Ideas.

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