Politics & Policy

Republican Senate Hopes

They'll win some and lose some, but come out ahead.

“We have strong candidates, invigorating ideas and solutions, and we have the right leadership at the top of our ticket,” says Sen. George Allen of Virginia, who heads the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

GOP loyalists are hoping he’s right: Senate Republicans hold a small edge heading into the fall. They currently control 51 seats, compared to 49 for the Democrats (or 48, if you insist on counting Vermont’s liberal Jim Jeffords as an “independent”).

Herewith, a summary of the races, updating NRO’s previous report from two weeks ago:

ALASKA: Republican senator Lisa Murkowski won her primary last week, even as a pro-life challenger performed better than expected–Mike Miller was outspent 11 to 1, but still managed to capture 37 percent of the vote. Will his backers now support Murkowski? She’ll need them: Murkowski is in a dead-heat race against former Democratic governor Tony Knowles. Alaskans will have until midnight, east-coast time, to cast their ballots on November 2–so folks anxious to know who will control the next Senate may be in for a very late night. TOSS UP

CALIFORNIA: “Watch out for Bill Jones,” says George Allen, head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. The latest Field Poll shows Democratic senator Barbara Boxer leading Republican Jones, 53 percent to 36 percent. Perhaps Jones will get a slight boost when the president swings through California this fall–something he’s likely to do, even though he won’t win the Golden State’s electoral votes. At least it’s something for Republicans to hope for. LEANING DEMOCRATIC RETENTION

COLORADO: Republicans believe the name-brand appeal of Pete Coors will help them top Democratic attorney general Ken Salazar. Coors is helped by the fact that his primary opponent, former congressman Bob Schaffer, has encouraged his supporters to get behind the nominee. The general election looks like a nail-biter. The latest poll, from a GOP firm, has Salazar ahead, 47 percent to 43 percent. For Coors, this is progress: Back in April, right after Coors announced his candidacy, a Rocky Mountain News survey gave Salazar a 16-point advantage. TOSS UP

FLORIDA: Today’s primary may be inconveniently scheduled for most Republicans, whose eyes are turned to New York, but the Bush campaign is keeping a close watch on this race. Officially, the White House is neutral–but it would love to see former Housing and Human Services Secretary Mel Martinez win the nomination and help turn out the Cuban vote in November. A survey for the Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel gives McCollum the small lead he has enjoyed for months, with 35 percent of the vote for McCollum, 31 percent for Martinez, and 12 percent of businessman Peter Gallagher. A new Mason-Dixon poll, however, calls it the other way, with Martinez at 33 percent, McCollum at 27 percent, and Gallagher at 12 percent. Among Democrats, education official Betty Castor appears ready to beat congressman Peter Deutsch. Republicans are hoping voters have heard the negative ads Deutsch has run against his opponent. LEANING REPUBLICAN TAKEOVER

GEORGIA: GOP congressman Johnny Isakson has done everything right in his campaign so far, from declaring for this open seat early to winning the primary without a runoff. There’s no reason to think he’ll blow it now, as he squares off against Democratic Rep. Denise Majette. A recent GOP poll put Isakson on top, 51 percent to 37 percent. LIKELY REPUBLICAN TAKEOVER

ILLINOIS: The quixotic Senate candidacy of Republican orator Alan Keyes continues. Some conservatives may be entertained–but as the football season kicks off, many are also wishing former Bears coach Mike Ditka had come to their rescue. A recent Chicago Tribune poll showed Keyes trailing Democrat Barack Obama, 65 percent to 24 percent. LIKELY DEMOCRATIC TAKEOVER

LOUISIANA: A new poll shows congressman Chris John running slightly ahead of his fellow Democrat, state treasurer John Kennedy, but the open-primary race scheduled for November 2 is close. Whoever prevails almost certainly will face Republican congressman David Vitter on December 4, in one of those weird Louisiana runoffs that takes place a month later than every other state’s general election. Vitter is trying to make history by becoming Louisiana’s first GOP senator. TOSS UP

MISSOURI: Republican senator Kit Bond never seems to win convincingly, but he always manages to eke out a victory. Democrat Nancy Farmer may yet close in the polls, but she won’t overtake Bond. LIKELY REPUBLICAN RETENTION

NORTH CAROLINA: Republican Richard Burr resisted the temptation to spend much cash over the summer, leaving him with a bundle of money for the fall. Now he’ll need every penny, as the polls consistently show him trailing Democrat Erskine Bowles. The Raleigh News & Observer currently tips the race at 47 percent for Bowles and 38 percent for Burr. TOSS UP

OKLAHOMA: Republican Tom Coburn’s secret weapon is that he has a history of winning Democratic votes–including those in Democratic congressman Brad Carson’s current district. By grabbing some of his opponent’s base, Coburn positions himself well for November. A recent GOP poll has him up, 47 percent to 39 percent. LEANING REPUBLICAN RETENTION

PENNSYLVANIA: A Republican poll shows Sen. Arlen Specter leading Democratic congressman Joe Hoeffel, 49 percent to 32 percent. Too bad for Democrats that Hoeffel is an unreconstructed left-winger–he can’t get to Specter’s right on any issue and court conservatives turned off by the incumbent’s liberalism. LEANING REPUBLICAN RETENTION

SOUTH CAROLINA: What if South Carolina held a Senate race and a real policy debate broke out? Democratic nominee Inez Tenenbaum is trying to make a major issue of Republican congressman Jim DeMint’s support for a bold tax reform that would come in the shape of a national sales tax. “It’s not a mainstream idea,” says Tenenbaum. DeMint is sticking to his guns, calling the current tax code a job killer. And it doesn’t seem to be hurting DeMint at all, based on his own polls, which show him holding a healthy lead over Tenenbaum, 50 percent to 38 percent. LEANING REPUBLICAN TAKEOVER

SOUTH DAKOTA: The polls here are consistent: Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle leads his Republican opponent John Thune, but by a narrow margin. The latest survey, sponsored by the NRSC, puts it at 48 percent for Daschle and 45 percent for Thune. If the former GOP congressman is going to come through with an upset, he’ll need to nationalize this race. A presidential visit to South Dakota might help, but will Bush devote any time to a state he’s going to win no matter what? LEANING DEMOCRATIC RETENTION

WASHINGTON: Republican congressman George Nethercutt is conceivably within striking distance of Democratic senator Patty Murray–a recent GOP poll shows Murray at 49 percent and Nethercutt at 40 percent. Still, the man from the eastern half of the state probably needs Bush and Republicans to have an unusually strong year, like the one that helped him knock off former Democratic House Speaker Tom Foley in one of 1994’s biggest upsets. LIKELY DEMOCRATIC RETENTION

WISCONSIN: Republicans will pick a candidate in a three-way primary in two weeks, choosing between Russ Darrow, Tim Michels, and Bob Welch. Conservatives seem to prefer Welch, but not unanimously. No matter who wins, the contest against Democratic senator Russ Feingold will be difficult–in no small part because he’ll have only seven weeks to present himself to the public, make the case for change, and somehow prevail. LIKELY DEMOCRATIC RETENTION

OVERALL: If all of my predictions about retentions and takeovers are correct, and the two parties split the four races I’m calling toss-ups, then the final result will be–REPUBLICANS GAIN TWO 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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