Politics & Policy

October Surprises

Five weeks and counting.

Karl Rove insists that Republicans will pick up Senate seats this year, and Democratic senator Jon Corzine of New Jersey says control of the chamber is up for grabs. We’ll know the truth in five weeks. Here’s the latest rundown on the races, updating a previous report filed during the GOP convention.

ALASKA: It’s a dead heat in the frozen north, with Republican senator Lisa Murkowski confronting a tough challenge from Democratic former governor Tony Knowles. A poll at the end of August showed Knowles on top, 46 percent to 45 percent. Knowles probably would have a better chance of winning if it weren’t a presidential-election year, because George W. Bush is going to trounce John Kerry in Alaska–and Bush might just carry Murkowski to victory on his coattails. TOSS UP

CALIFORNIA: Democratic senator Barbara Boxer leads Republican Bill Jones, 49 percent to 42 percent. And that’s just among men, according to a new poll from the Public Policy Institute of California. Among voters generally, she’s ahead 54 percent to 38 percent. Jones is having trouble keeping up. I’m changing this one to: LIKELY DEMOCRATIC RETENTION

COLORADO: The polls here show Democrat Ken Salazar consistently ahead of Republican Pete Coors, but also not by much. A Pueblo Chieftain poll recently had Salazar ahead by one point, 46 percent to 45 percent. Republicans aren’t sure whether Kerry’s apparent decision to abandon the state will help or hurt–it’s less Democratic money for turnout efforts, but also a little trickier to tie Salazar to a pol who doesn’t play well in the Rockies. If Coors can begin to perform as well as a Republican should among rural voters, he ought to come out on top. TOSS UP

FLORIDA: The Sunshine State has become the Hurricane State, and nobody seems to know what effect the weather will have on the Senate race between Republican Mel Martinez and Democrat Betty Castor. If another storm leaves more people without power, how much TV advertising will they miss? Right now, the race is a dead heat. A week ago, a poll sponsored by Quinnipiac University had Castor at 43 percent and Martinez at 42 percent. Martinez recently agreed to debate Castor on Meet the Press, after previously refusing. LEANING REPUBULICAN TAKEOVER

GEORGIA: No, it’s not too soon for Republican congressman Johnny Isakson to start measuring the windows in Zell Miller’s Senate offices. A mid-September poll had Isakson leading Democratic congresswoman Denis Majette, 53 percent to 38 percent. LIKELY REPUBLICAN TAKEOVER

ILLINOIS: When candidates start to say things like, “The only poll that matter is the one on Election Day,” it’s usually a sign that they are in fact trailing in the polls. And it’s even worse when they begin to call for “a complete ban on all polling activity and all publication of such polling activity.” That’s what Republican Alan Keyes just did. Democrat Barack Obama currently leads him, 68 percent to 23 percent. If Keyes were America’s only lawmaker, it would be illegal to tell you that. LIKELY DEMOCRATIC TAKEOVER

LOUISIANA: There’s been some talk about GOP congressman David Vitter doing so well in the open primary on November 2 that the December 4 runoff won’t be necessary. Don’t count on it. He’ll almost certainly face either state treasurer John Kennedy or congressman Chris John, who are currently locked in a bitter struggle that’s dividing Democrats. Although he’ll be November’s hardest-working Republican, Vitter couldn’t ask for a better set up. TOSS UP

MISSOURI: Republican senator Kit Bond can start drafting his victory speech. In the latest St. Louis Post-Dispatch poll, he leads Democrat Nancy Farmer, 53 percent to 38 percent. And it sure doesn’t hurt that Missouri appears to be tipping in Bush’s direction. LIKELY REPUBLICAN RETENTION

NORTH CAROLINA: Democrat Erskine Bowles has led GOP congressman Richard Burr all year long, but only now is Burr spending serious money on television advertising. His current plan to let viewers know that Bowles worked in Bill Clinton’s White House–something Bowles hasn’t bothered to boast about. If anti-Clinton sentiment is as strong as Burr thinks, the race will tighten. TOSS UP

OKLAHOMA: There’s no getting around that fact that former GOP congressman Tom Coburn has had a rough week or so. Democratic congressman Brad Carson is now running neck-and-neck with him, after falling behind in August. Most recent surveys show Carson ahead by one to four points. Yet Coburn has strong grassroots support among conservatives, and his true strength in the July primary didn’t become evident until just days beforehand. The race has turned nasty, and Coburn may surge again. LEANING REPUBLICAN RETENTION

PENNSYLVANIA: Conservative congressman Pat Toomey nearly upset Sen. Arlen Specter in the GOP primary–and yet Democrats couldn’t manage to find a competitive candidate for the general election in this swing state. Specter is running far ahead of Rep. Joe Hoeffel, 51 percent to 25 percent, in the latest Keystone Poll. Is there any doubt Toomey would have been more than competitive against this unreconstructed leftist? I’m upgrading Specter’s chances to: LIKELY REPUBLICAN RETENTION

SOUTH CAROLINA: Democrat Inez Tenenbaum has decided to attack GOP congressman Jim DeMint’s tax-reform proposals–a strategic choice that has allowed her to close the polls but probably won’t be enough to pull her ahead. Taxes are a Republican issue, and DeMint will have enormous credibility when he starts to swing back, as he is just starting to do. A Democratic poll in early September showed DeMint in the lead, 44 percent to 41 percent. Three points is probably as close as Tenenbaum will get in this race. LEANING REPUBLICAN TAKEOVER

SOUTH DAKOTA: Republicans may not have a bigger target in the year’s Senate races than Minority Leader Tom Daschle. They’re banking on former congressman John Thune performing better than he did two years ago, when he narrowly lost to Sen. Tim Johnson. Most polls show Daschle ahead, but not by much. This time, Republicans will be keeping a closer watch on ballot boxes in Indian country. LEANING DEMOCRATIC RETENTION

WASHINGTON: A recent poll showing Democratic senator Patty Murray leading Republican congressman George Nethercutt by 20 points may have turned a lot of heads, but it’s probably false. A GOP survey a few days earlier had Murray in the lead but still vulnerable: 48 percent to 41 percent. Nethercutt remains an underdog, but the man who ousted Tom Foley in 1994 may yet surprise. LIKELY DEMOCRATIC RETENTION

WISCONSIN: Republicans are saying this may be their dark-horse contest. Two weeks ago, businessman Tim Michels won the GOP primary to take on Democratic senator Russ Feingold, who brings the advantage of incumbency to the race but is not loved in his home state. Feingold nearly lost his reelection six years ago, when Democrats performed well nationally. This time, with political issues having turned away from health care and toward national security, military vet Michels may be able to pull off an upset. A recent ABC News poll (which possibly oversampled GOP voters) gave Feingold a lead of 51 percent to 45 percent. But most voters still don’t know much about Michels, and that will change. The Republican nominee has the financial means to write himself a seven-figure check. Will he do it? And how big will it be? LIKELY DEMOCRATIC RETENTION

OVERALL: I’m sticking with the prediction I started making two months ago: 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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