Politics & Policy

The Cruelest Month

Senate races tighten.

I’ve been tracking 18 Senate races for NRO since last summer–but April is the cruelest month and it’s time to make a few cuts. Incumbents are sure to win in Arkansas, Nevada, and North Dakota. Each of these seats is currently held by a Democrat in a state where Republicans fare well. In each instance, however, GOP recruiting went poorly and the party didn’t get the candidate it wanted. Senators Blanche Lincoln, Harry Reid, and Byron Dorgan are breathing sighs of relief. At Republican National Committee headquarters, they can file these races under “what might have been.”

So we’re down to 15 races since my update last month.

Every race matters this year, because Republicans hold a 51-49 majority in the Senate (we’re not going to pretend that “independent” Sen. Jim Jeffords is anything but a Democrat). Here’s another way of looking at it: Republicans and Democrats are respectively guaranteed to hold 45 and 40 seats after the November elections. If Republicans win six of the following 15 races, then they’ll definitely keep control; Democrats need 11 victories. In the case of a 50-50 tie, of course, the vice president becomes the Senate tiebreaker.

Herewith, the latest:

ALASKA: Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski may face a primary challenge from former state Sen. Mike Miller. While Murkowski would surely like to avoid this problem, a solid primary win may help her fend off charges that she is merely the beneficiary of nepotism, as her father, Gov. Frank Murkowski, appointed her to the seat. At least that’s what her supporters say. Democrats are hopeful that former Gov. Tony Knowles will beat her either way. TOSS-UP

CALIFORNIA: Former Republican secretary of state Bill Jones needs to prove that he’s a top-flight fundraiser in order to defeat Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer, who will employ her usual tactic of demonizing her GOP foe as a right-wing extremist. Jones will be helped by the fact that Boxer hasn’t yet been tested in a post-9/11 environment as well as the popularity of Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. LEANING DEMOCRATIC RETENTION

COLORADO: Democrats have united behind attorney general Ken Salazar–he will be a formidable candidate. Republicans are split between former Rep. Bob Schaffer and businessman David Liniger, with Sen. Wayne Allard backing Schaffer and Gov. Bill Owens touting Liniger (who has not yet formally declared). Retiring Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell appears to prefer Liniger, who is considered by some as better able to raise money because he can write himself a large check. Many of his views, however, aren’t well known and certainly aren’t documented–unlike Schaffer, who compiled an impressive record of conservative accomplishment in the House. TOSS-UP

FLORIDA: Former HUD secretary Mel Martinez entered the GOP race late but has raised a huge amount of cash in a short amount of time–much of it from his old trial-lawyer pals, according to his main opponent, former Rep. Bill McCollum. On the Democratic side, Rep. Peter Deutsch has built a large bank account but trails former education official Betty Castor in the polls. Republicans are hoping he’ll start to run negative ads against her, which would make her damaged goods in the fall. LEANING REPUBLICAN TAKEOVER

GEORGIA: African-American businessman Herman Cain is surging among GOP primary voters, with indications that he has overtaken Rep. Mac Collins and is now running second to Rep. Johnny Isakson. The entry of Rep. Denise Majette on the Democratic side may hurt him, however, if she attracts black voters who might otherwise have crossed party lines to support Cain. The Republican race appears headed toward a runoff between Isakson and whoever comes in second place. LIKELY REPUBLICAN TAKEOVER

ILLINOIS: Democratic state Sen. Barack Obama will face Republican investor-turned-teacher Jack Ryan. Democrats will try to make Obama a national cause célèbre because he is black; in Ryan, Republicans are pleased to have a nominee that they tried and failed to recruit two years ago. Ryan is an underdog, but if 2004 turns out to be a stronger-than-expected year for Republicans everywhere, he has a chance to eke out a win. LEANING DEMOCRATIC TAKEOVER

LOUISIANA: Democrats in Washington want Rep. Chris John as their candidate, though state treasurer John Kennedy is better known in the state and holds a small lead in the latest poll. A third candidate, still to be determined, may play spoiler to one of them. The final race between the anointed Democrat and Republican congressman David Vitter will be a close one. TOSS-UP

MISSOURI: Democrats still have this one on their wish list, but state treasurer Nancy Farmer hasn’t made any gains on Sen. Kit Bond. At first, Missouri Democrats were distracted by Dick Gephardt’s bid for the presidency; now their attention has turned to the governor’s race, where the incumbent Democrat faces a primary challenge. Farmer’s challenge is becoming an afterthought. LIKELY REPUBLICAN RETENTION

NORTH CAROLINA: Former Clinton administration official Erskine Bowles runs slightly ahead of Republican congressman Richard Burr, whose name I.D. remains relatively low–a problem that won’t continue once this contest is fully engaged. TOSS-UP

OKLAHOMA: Democrats have a strong candidate in Rep. Brad Carson and Republicans are pleased with their field of corporation commissioner Bob Anthony, former Rep. Tom Coburn, and former Oklahoma City mayor Kirk Humphreys. Coburn may be the best general-election candidate for the GOP. TOSS-UP

PENNSYLVANIA: Conservatives hope Rep. Pat Toomey will upset Sen. Arlen Specter in the GOP primary on April 27. There’s even an argument that he would be a stronger general-election candidate against Democratic Rep. Joe Hoeffel. Many observers forget that Lynn Yaekel came out of nowhere and nearly beat Specter in 1992. Why does everybody think he’s so invulnerable today? LEANING REPUBLICAN RETENTION

SOUTH CAROLINA: Democrats are trumpeting a poll that shows former education official Inez Tenenbaum beating all three of the candidates vying for the GOP nomination, former Gov. David Beasley, former attorney general Charlie Condon, and Rep. Jim DeMint. Republicans insist that their private polling tells a very different story–and they continue to rank South Carolina right behind Georgia as the place where they’re most likely to pick up a seat in November. LEANING REPUBLICAN TAKEOVER

SOUTH DAKOTA: A new Zogby poll shows Democratic Senate leader Tom Daschle running ahead of former Republican congressman John Thune, 48 percent to 43 percent. Yet Daschle may have his own Ralph Nader problem in Tim Giago, who recently announced his independent candidacy and promises to draw support on the Indian reservations, which are places where Daschle probably needs to run up large margins. LEANING DEMOCRATIC RETENTION

WASHINGTON: At least Republican congressman George Nethercutt is tenacious. He trails Democratic Sen. Patty Murray in the polls but won’t go down without giving her a fight. Republicans might have fared better with retiring Rep. Jennifer Dunn; they’re nevertheless hopeful that Nethercutt can surprise and become this year’s Saxby Chambliss, who pulled an upset in 2002 against Sen. Max Cleland in Georgia. LIKELY DEMOCRATIC RETENTION

WISCONSIN: Many local Republicans would like to see Republican state Sen. Bob Welch win the primary to challenge Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold, but GOPers in Washington seem to prefer potential self-funder Tim Michels. A third Republican candidate is auto dealer Russ Darrow. LIKELY DEMOCRATIC RETENTION

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