Politics & Policy

Dems 2006?

How the Senate is looking.

Can the Democrats seize the Senate in 2006? Many pundits think they’re on track to a very good year, though gaining control of the chamber will require them to win six seats now held by Republicans and also to fend off a handful of lively GOP challenges. That’s a tall order, especially with President Bush appearing to rebound in the polls, following a bad dip last autumn.

Herewith, a roundup of Senate races worth watching. (For the last report, from November, go here.)

ARIZONA: If Democrats retake the Senate, it will be because challengers like former Democratic party chair Jim Pederson have defeated incumbents like Republican Senator Jon Kyl. But the odds of that happening don’t look good. LIKELY REPUBLICAN RETENTION

FLORIDA: Many Washington Republicans have decided that Congresswoman Katherine Harris cannot beat Democratic senator Bill Nelson, whom they believe ought to be vulnerable. Yet she is the GOP’s only serious candidate. There is some speculation that Congressman Mark Foley may jump in, especially if Harris posts unimpressive financial numbers for the fourth quarter of last year. A December poll suggested that Foley would nevertheless face an uphill battle, as Harris enjoyed a lead over him, 44 percent to 23 percent. LEANING DEMOCRATIC RETENTION

MARYLAND: A November fundraiser featuring President Bush did not bring in as much cash for Lt. Gov. Michael Steele as some organizers had hoped, but Republicans remain optimistic that Steele will compete for the seat of retiring Democratic senator Paul Sarbanes. The leading Democratic candidate is congressman Ben Cardin, though he faces a potentially difficult primary battle with former Congressman Kweisi Mfume. LEANING DEMOCRATIC RETENTION

MICHIGAN: In a December poll, Democratic Senator Debbie Stabenow led three Republican candidates but did not break 50 percent against any of them. The strongest GOP contender appears to be Oakland County sheriff Mike Bouchard; he trailed Stabenow 47 percent to 35 percent. Other Republicans include former Detroit council member Keith Butler and conservative activist Jerry Zandstra. Unfortunately for all of them, only 33 percent of Republican voters said they were satisfied with the current GOP field. LEANING DEMOCRATIC RETENTION

MINNESOTA: A poll in November suggested that Republican Congressman Mark Kennedy is viewed less favorably around the state than either of his potential Democratic opponents, county attorney Amy Klobuchar and liberal activist Patty Wetterling. Kennedy probably would prefer to face Wetterling in the general election. This will be a close contest. LEANING REPUBLICAN TAKEOVER

MISSISSIPPI: Last week, Republican Senator Trent Lott did not sound like a man who is running for reelection: “I’m meditating very, very deeply here,” he said. An announcement about his plans could come any minute. If he seeks another term, he’s a shoe-in. If he doesn’t, GOP contenders will include congressman Chip Pickering. The Democrats will want to look at former governor Ronnie Musgrove, former attorney general Mike Moore, and congressman Gene Taylor. LIKELY REPUBLICAN RETENTION

MISSOURI: Last month’s murder of David Exposito, the former husband of Democratic auditor Claire McCaskill, appears not to have affected McCaskill’s bid to unseat Republican senator Jim Talent. LEANING REPUBLICAN RETENTION

MONTANA: Close ties to Jack Abramoff may haunt Republican senator Conrad Burns, who clung to a narrow lead over Democratic state auditor John Morrison in a December poll: 46 percent to 40 percent. Last May, Burns enjoyed a 15-point advantage. Many D.C. Democrats believe this contest is up for grabs. LIKELY REPUBLICAN RETENTION

NEBRASKA: National Republicans are hoping businessman Pete Ricketts wins the nomination to challenge Democratic senator Ben Nelson, in large measure because he can self-fund–he has already pumped nearly $1 million into his campaign. Former GOP state chairman and former attorney general Don Stenberg also will compete in the primary. LEANING DEMOCRATIC RETENTION

NEVADA: Jack Carter, son of the former president, is running as a Democrat against Republican senator John Ensign. Democrats who are interested in actually winning this race would like to see Las Vegas mayor Oscar Goodman announce his candidacy. LIKELY REPUBLICAN RETENTION

NEW JERSEY: New governor Jon Corzine has chosen Democratic congressman Bob Menendez as his replacement in the Senate. Possible primary foes include congressmen Rob Andrews and Frank Pallone, but each passing day makes their candidacies less likely. Meanwhile, Republicans may have their best Senate candidate in years with Tom Kean Jr., the son of the former governor. A December poll gave Menendez a slight edge, 44 percent to 38 percent. TOSS UP

NEW YORK: Westchester district attorney Jeanine Pirro’s decision not to challenge Democratic senator Hillary Clinton leaves the GOP nomination wide open. The latest Republican name to surface is former Surgeon General Antonia Novello. Richard Nixon’s son-in-law, lawyer Ed Cox, was in the race and then got out of the race; he may get back in. Former Yonkers mayor John Spencer, a pro-life conservative, earns the prize for consistency: He has been the only Republican candidate who got in and stayed in. LIKELY DEMOCRATIC RETENTION

NORTH DAKOTA: Some will consider the failure to recruit a top-flight candidate against the eminently beatable Democratic senator Kent Conrad to be the GOP’s biggest failing in the 2006 election cycle. LIKELY DEMOCRATIC RETENTION

OHIO: In the Democratic primary, congressman Sherrod Brown led former House candidate Paul Hackett, 51 percent to 22 percent, according to a poll in December. The winner of this contest will square off against Republican senator Mike DeWine, who is considered vulnerable by observers in both parties. Brown would provide a predictably liberal challenge; Hackett would generate enthusiasm among anti-war lefties but also possibly snag a valuable endorsement from the National Rifle Association. LEANING REPUBLICAN RETENTION

PENNSYLVANIA: Republican senator Rick Santorum appears to be gaining ground on his Democratic challenger, state treasurer Bob Casey Jr. Unfortunately for Santorum, there’s still quite a bit of ground to gain. A December showed Casey ahead, 50 percent to 39 percent; in October, the spread was 16 points. The latest wrinkle involves former Pittsburgh Steelers star Lynn Swann’s decision to run for governor as a Republican. Will this lead to improved GOP turnout, helping Santorum? Or will it increase black turnout, helping Casey? TOSS UP

RHODE ISLAND: Republican senator Lincoln Chafee continues to fend off a primary challenge from Cranston mayor Steve Laffey, with substantial help from the National Republican Senatorial Committee. Secretary of state Matt Brown has become the first Democrat to go on TV, in his own primary bid against former attorney general Sheldon Whitehouse. TOSS UP

TENNESSEE: With Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist stepping down, Republicans are watching a primary between former congressman Ed Bryant, Chattanooga mayor Bob Corker, and Rep. Van Hilleary. Bryant and Hilleary enjoy the best name recognition; Corker has the most money. Democrats will go with congressman Harold Ford Jr., who turned 35 last May. Will voters think he’s too young for the job? LEANING REPUBLICAN RETENTION

VERMONT: The Swift Boat Vets may target socialist “independent” Bernie Sanders, who is the de facto Democrat in the race to succeed retiring “independent” Jim Jeffords. But Republicans will face a difficult battle, after they pick between retired Air Force colonel Greg Parke and businessman Richard Tarrant. LIKELY DEMOCRATIC RETENTION

VIRGINIA: Democrats appear to have settled on party activist Harris Miller as their candidate to take on Republican senator George Allen. The incumbent will be tough to beat, but Democrats at least would like to knock him around before Allen launches a widely anticipated presidential bid. Miller says he can write his campaign a check for $3 million–and much of it certainly will be devoted to negative advertising. Democrats also have flirted with the idea of recruiting former Navy Secretary James Webb, a Republican-turned-Democrat, but this now appears doubtful. LIKELY REPUBLICAN RETENTION

WASHINGTON: Democratic senator Maria Cantwell led Republican businessman Mike McGavick in a December poll, 50 percent to 39 percent. The national GOP nevertheless considers Cantwell vulnerable. If 2006 turns out to be a better-than-expected year for Republicans, McGavick may surprise. LEANING DEMOCRATIC RETENTION

WEST VIRGINIA: Republicans are still looking around for a candidate to take on aging Democratic Senator Robert Byrd. LIKELY DEMOCRATIC RETENTION

WISCONSIN: Polls continue to suggest that former governor Tommy Thompson could oust Democratic senator Herb Kohl. The latest, in December, showed Thompson leading a potential match-up, 45 percent to 42 percent. Yet Thompson has given no indication that he is actually running. The same poll shows Kohl walloping other Republicans, including businessman Tim Michels, who ran unsuccessfully in 2004. LIKELY DEMOCRATIC RETENTION

John J. Miller is national political reporter for National Review and the author, most recently, of A Gift of Freedom: How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America..

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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