Politics & Policy

Summer Senate Update

The fireworks to come.

Since my previous report on the 2004 Senate races, South Carolina Republicans have picked a nominee–and he’s surging. The Illinois GOP settled on a candidate in March–only to see him implode in June. Contested primaries in Georgia and Oklahoma will come into much sharper focus by the end of the month, followed closely by Colorado.

Herewith, a quick look at the closest contests.

ALASKA: Several months ago, Democratic challenger Tony Knowles consistently polled a few points ahead of Republican senator Lisa Murkowski. Their positions have reversed, at least for now, with Murkowski edging Knowles in recent surveys. The latest has her ahead, 44 percent to 42 percent. Knowles supports drilling for oil in the Arctic, but most non-Alaskan Democrats don’t–and these party ties finally may be hurting the former governor. TOSS UP

CALIFORNIA: Republican secretary of state Bill Jones is still struggling to gain traction against liberal Democratic senator Barbara Boxer. LEANING DEMOCRATIC RETENTION

COLORADO: Recent polls show brewer Pete Coors and former congressman Bob Schaffer running neck-and-neck in the GOP primary–a pair of surveys in June reported conflicting results. The Denver Post poll (which showed Coors nipping Schaffer) suggested that Coors would be a stronger general-election candidate, though both he and Schaffer trailed the likely Democratic nominee, attorney general Ken Salazar. Conservatives are tending to support Schaffer, but not unanimously. Republicans will pick their man on August 10. TOSS UP

FLORIDA: The GOP nomination has turned into a three-way race between state House speaker Johnnie Byrd, former HUD secretary Mel Martinez, and former congressman Bill McCollum. One recent poll showed McCollum holding a healthy lead, and another suggested that Byrd has charged into first place. The primary itself is nearly two months away, on August 31. LEANING REPUBLICAN TAKEOVER

GEORGIA: Rep. Denise Majette appears headed toward the Democratic nomination–and then likely defeat against whomever Republican voters pick on July 20. The GOP favorite is congressman Johnny Isakson, though businessman Herman Cain and Rep. Mac Collins are hoping that one of them will force a run-off, where Isakson’s less-than-perfect record on right-to-life issues may haunt him. LIKELY REPUBLICAN TAKEOVER

ILLINOIS: Even before GOP nominee Jack Ryan withdrew from this race, Republicans faced an uphill battle against Democratic state senator Barack Obama. It will be impossible to assess this contest until the GOP settles on a new candidate, except to say that their chances look much worse. If only congressman Henry Hyde were a younger man! I’ve changed the outlook here to: LIKELY DEMOCRATIC TAKEOVER

LOUISIANA: Former GOP governor Buddy Roemer will throw a monkey wrench into the plans of Republican congressman David Vitter if he enters this race. Roemer has until August 6–the deadline for becoming a candidate–to make up his mind. TOSS UP

MISSOURI: Republican senator Kit Bond is cruising to reelection, thanks in part to a fractured opposition. Democrats once had high hopes here, but it’s hard to imagine them winning now. LIKELY REPUBLICAN RETENTION

NORTH CAROLINA: Democrats are feeling good about their chances, with former Clinton aide Erskine Bowles leading Republican congressman Richard Burr, 47 percent to 39 percent. This gap almost certainly will close, and much may ride on the presidential election. Bowles’s Clinton connection has been a mixed blessing–his ads mention his White House experience but don’t mention his old boss. It will be interesting to see whether he campaigns with the author of My Life this fall. TOSS UP

OKLAHOMA: The GOP primary on July 27 probably will result in a run-off between former congressman Dr. Tom Coburn and former Oklahoma City mayor Kirk Humphreys. The winner will face Democratic congressman Brad Carson. Polls show Coburn running ahead of Carson and Humphreys trailing him, which is no surprise because Coburn has won election in the Democrat-heavy eastern part of the state. Although Humphreys is fairly conservative, Coburn is a hero from the House class of 1994. TOSS UP

PENNSYLVANIA: Republican senator Rick Santorum now shares something in common with former Democratic congressman Ron Klink, the man he beat in 2000: They’ve both endorsed liberal Republican senator Arlen Specter for reelection. The incumbent is far ahead of his opponent, Rep. Joe Hoeffel–52 percent to 23 percent, according to a recent poll. Spoiler aspirant Jim Clymer of the Constitution party attracted support from 2 percent of respondents. LEANING REPUBLICAN RETENTION

SOUTH CAROLINA: Congressman Jim DeMint just captured the GOP nomination and now he’s pulling ahead of Democratic state education chief Inez Tenenbaum–the most recent poll has DeMint up, 47 percent to 41 percent. Democrats insist that his lead is soft because it comes from all the ads he ran during the primary. But does it matter? In the end, it may simply provide further evidence that hard-fought primaries produce stronger general-election candidates. LEANING REPUBLICAN TAKEOVER

SOUTH DAKOTA: Local issues are dominating this race: Democratic senator Tom Daschle recently demanded that the White House approve drought relief for farmers and Republican former congressman John Thune has talked about measures to prevent prairie dogs from encroaching on ranchland. Thune will need to nationalize this race if he’s going to win. Will South Dakota’s small-c conservatives grow to resent Daschle’s close ties to leftist filmmaker Michael Moore? LEANING DEMOCRATIC RETENTION

WASHINGTON: In the latest poll, Democratic senator Patty Murray holds a good lead over Republican congressman George Nethercutt, 51 percent to 39 percent. Nethercutt may get a boost if Bush decides to campaign heavily in the Evergreen State. LIKELY DEMOCRATIC RETENTION

WISCONSIN: Will anybody be paying attention to the GOP primary on September 14, when Republicans at last have a chance to pick a nominee? Will their candidate have enough time to convince voters to oust Democratic senator Russ Feingold? Unlike most of this year’s Senate races, the contest in Wisconsin is occurring in a swing state where the president will be spending a fair amount of time and money. If Bush has a really big year–much bigger than it looks currently–then maybe, just maybe, the GOP has a chance. But don’t bet on it. LIKELY DEMOCRATIC RETENTION

OVERALL: With Republicans holding a 51-seat majority, they have virtually no room for error. Yet odds are good that they’ll add to their majority. If my predictions above are correct–minus the five “toss-up” races I’m refusing to predict right now–then the GOP will gain two seats. In the toss-up races, Republicans are defending three seats and the Democrats two, which gives the Democrats a very slight edge in this category. So for now, let’s call it this way: REPUBLICANS GAIN 2 SEATS.

John J. Miller, the national correspondent for National Review and host of its Great Books podcast, is the director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College. He is the author of A Gift of Freedom: How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America.

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