Can the Democrats Retake the Senate?

Now that Kentucky's up for grabs, the minority party just might come back to power this November.

| Tue Oct. 19, 2004 2:00 AM EDT

As the debates wind down, newspapers fire up their endorsements, and voters settle on their candidates, one thing is clear: The presidential race is still wide open. Even more uncertain, however, is the fate of the Senate. 13 states—Alaska, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, Oklahoma, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and South Dakota—are up for grabs. Six of those are Democratic seats (FL, GA, LA, NC, SC, SD) and seven are Republican seats. Republicans currently have a 51-49 advantage in the Senate, since Jim Jeffords (I-VT) caucuses with the Democrats.

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That means it's an uphill climb for the Democrats in the Senate. At present, they will certainly take Illinois, while losing Georgia. They are also likely to take seats in Alaska, Colorado, and Oklahoma, while losing seats in North and South Carolina. In tha case, they will either have to maintain their holds on Florida, South Dakota and Louisiana, or else take a Senate seat or two elsewhere—Pennsylvania and Kentucky are the most likely targets—in order to gain control of the upper chamber. It's not impossible, but it will be tough. Herewith is a rundown of the closest Senate races in the country:

Alaska: This red-state race is leaning blue, with recent tracking polls showing Democrat Tony Knowles, a former state governor, with a slight but consistent lead over the Republican incumbent, Lisa Murkowski. Strangely enough, nepotism has been the big issue in this race -- Murkowski was appointed to the Senate by her father, Frank Murkowski, after he left the Senate to fill Alaska's governor spot. Alaskans have never quite forgiven her for it.

The candidates had their first debate last Thursday, arguing mostly over a natural gas pipeline in Alaska and the best way to get ANWR drilling passed through Congress. Yet in many respects, the two candidates couldn't be more different: Knowles supports gay rights and abortion rights in a state that favors neither, and has opposed the Bush tax cuts for those making over $200,000. These sorts of positions are why John Kerry won't win Alaska anytime soon, but Knowles' popularity within the state should help him squeak out a close victory -- the most recent poll has him up 48-45.

Colorado: Colorado is quickly shifting away from its traditional Republican tilt, and Democrat Ken Salazar, the state's attorney general, might be the first to capitalize on that trend. The moderate Salazar polls well among both Latino voters and rural voters, who could decide this election. His opponent, beer magnate Pete Coors, has mostly run as Bush-lite -- in favor of tax cuts, the Patriot Act, and the war in Iraq -- although he did promise to lower the drinking age in Colorado if elected.

Salazar looks like the odds-on favorite here. The Denver Post recently endorsed him, and polls show Salazar with a slight edge in the race. Voter registration groups like ACT have recently signed up a large number of voters in the Denver area, which could put Salazar over the top.

Florida: This is perhaps the closest Senate race this year, as former HUD Secretary Mel Martinez (R) and former state education commissioner Betty Castor (D) jockey for retiring Sen. Bob Graham's seat. Martinez was picked to help Bush shore up Latino voters, especially Cuban-Americans, but his vicious attack ads have turned off some voters. In the Republican primaries, he accused former Rep. Bill McCollum of siding with "the radical homosexual lobby." More recently, Martinez ran an ad attacking Castor for her associations with Sami Al-Arian, a university professor allegedly connected to terror financing. (Castor, to her credit, ran an ad showing President Bush hobnobbing with Al-Arian in 2000.)

The first debate will take place Monday, pitting the conservative Martinez—who opposes abortion rights and minimum wage increases, while supporting Bush on the war in Iraq and Social Security—against Castor, who closely resembles in her views. The latest Mason-Dixon poll shows a 45-45 tie, and this race could come down to turnout in Florida and whatever legal challenges affect the final outcome.

Georgia: With Zell Miller retiring, Georgia is a surefire Republican pickup. The latest Zogby poll gives Republican Congressman Johnny Isakson a 53-35 lead over Rep. Denise Majette. The big question in this state is whether Georgian Democrats can keep control of the State House (they currently lead 102-75), and possibly regain the Senate (they trail 30-26). Otherwise, this race is out of contention. For liberals, one bright spot in this race is that Isakson's congressional record suggests strong support for abortion rights.

Illinois: Barak Obama is a rock star in Illinois. He will bury Alan Keyes.

Kentucky: The biggest surprise in recent weeks has come from Kentucky, where Republican incumbent and former major league baseball player Jim Bunning was once thought to be untouchable. Early polls showed his challenger, state Sen. Daniel Mongiardo, easily 20 points behind. But in recent weeks, the Republican has acted increasingly bizarre: Storming away from reporters in news interviews, comparing the complexion of his Italian-American opponent to Saddam Hussein's sons, accusing Mongiardo of beating up Bunning's wife. In a debate last Monday, Bunning refused to participate in person, insisting on beaming in over satellite broadcast. His campaign later admitted that the candidate had read his opening and closing statements off a teleprompter.

As a result, Kentucky's largest local paper, the Louisville Courier-Journal has questioned Bunning's mental health, and on Sunday endorsed Mongiardo in a rather unexpected move. The latest Garin-Hart-Young poll has Mongiardo tied with Bunning, 43-43, and the DSCC has decided to pour a good deal of money into this race. A Kentucky pick-up would be huge for the Democrats.

Louisiana: At present, there are three candidates in this race -- Republican David Vitter, and Democrats Chris John and John Kennedy. If none of the candidates gets a majority, the race will be decided in a December runoff. Recent polls, however, have showed Vitter at 47 percent, and Republicans have urged him to try to win the race outright on November 2. If he can't pull that off, Congressman Chris John is a strong contender for the runoff --Louisiana has never sent a Republican to the Senate, and Democrat Mary Landrieu won the runoff in 2002 despite having the hugely popular President Bush personally campaign against her.

Missouri: The latest poll shows Republican incumbent Kit Bond with a 59-34 lead over Nancy Farmer. Farmer has raised only $2.3 million as of July, and Bond has managed to dominate the airwaves. Now that Kerry is planning to pull advertising out of Missouri, this one-time potential tossup will almost certainly stay Republican.

Oklahoma: By rights, Oklahoma shouldn't be a battleground state for the Democrats. But their candidate, Rep. Brad Carson, has run a strong campaign. Even more significant, his opponent, former Republican Rep. Tom Coburn, has run a near-psychotic campaign. An Oklahoma woman has accused Coburn, a former physician, of involuntarily sterilizing her while under anesthesia. It's a serious charge, but hardly surprising for a guy who: calls treaties between the U.S. and Indian nations "a joke", accused Oklahomans of being a "bunch of crapheads", decried "rampant" lesbianism in Oklahoma public schools, and suggests the death penalty for abortion doctors. Seven local newspapers have already called for Coburn to step down. If this were anywhere else but Oklahoma, Carson would be crushing him. As it is, the Democrat is leading by only a slim margin, 43-40 according to the latest Wilson poll.

North Carolina: Erskine Bowles, who served as head of the Small Business administration under Bill Clinton, is trying to keep hold of John Edwards' seat for the Democrats. Bowles has established a reputation as a moderate, having backed the balance budget amendments during the 1990s, but that may not be enough to win over conservative voters in North Carolina. Bowles opponent, Republican Rep. Richard Burr, is currently leading 47-45 in the latest Rasmussen poll.

In recent debates, both candidates have been busy scuffling over who deserves credit for the $10.1 billion tobacco buyout that just passed through Congress. (In the conference committee, Burr helped strip out FDA regulations for, among other things, cigarette advertising.) Burr's support for free trade may hurt him in a state that has lost 80,000 jobs in import-heavy industries, but all signs are pointing to a Republican pickup here.

Pennsylvania: Senate analysts have largely ignored this race, but they shouldn't. Incumbent Republican Arlen Specter was bloodied after a primary challenge from hard-right Rep. Pat Toomey, and reports indicate that all those disillusioned Toomey conservatives might stay home on election day. Specter, who spent around $15 million in the primaries, has always tried to cultivate a moderate image, but after the Bush era, he's vulnerable among independents on two fronts: He voted in favor of the Federal Marriage Amendment (see here for more), and he backed off from blocking the Labor Department's scale-back of overtime pay, after pressure from the White House. Specter's Democratic challenger, Rep. Joe Hoeffel, has the support of a few prominent bloggers and is a largely charismatic candidate -- he was recently arrested for protesting against genocide outside of Sudan's embassy. If he can get his name ID up, he could well oust Specter. The latest Survey USA poll has Hoeffel within striking distance, 41-47.

One interesting twist to this race: The Philadelphia Inquirer, which backed John Kerry, has endorsed Arlen Specter on the grounds that as chair of the Judiciary Committee he would be more likely to select moderate Supreme Court justices if the Republicans stay in power. Yet Specter has publicly promised to support Bush's picks for the Supreme Court, and has backed pro-life justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas in the past. The Democrats should push hard to oust Specter.

South Carolina: Democrats choose state superintendent Inez Tenenbaum to run to replace retiring Sen. Fritz Hollings (D). Her opponent, Jim DeMint, is a radical conservative who supports replacing the income tax with a national sales tax, and has said that gays and lesbians should not be allowed to teach in schools. (He later apologized for those comments, during the candidates' Sunday debate on Meet the Press.) Still, the latest Survey USA poll has DeMint up 46-43. The recent debates have focused on education (South Carolina was dead last in SAT scores under Tenenbaum), abortion rights (DeMint would outlaw abortion even in cases of rape or incest), and DeMint's proposal for a national sales tax.

South Dakota: Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle is facing a tough fight against Republican challenger John Thune. The Republicans have thrown millions of dollars into this race, and Daschle's only hope for survival has been to de-emphasize his relationship with John Kerry and focus on local issues—from all of the pork he's brought home to South Dakota to his support for hunting the endangered white-tailed prairie dog. Recently, Daschle has worked hard to appeal to American Indian voters, hoping that they're support can make the difference. The race is certainly high stakes: Daschle has raised $18.3 million to Thune's $12.8 million, but the latest Rasmussen poll has shown a 49-49 tie.