The Senate Numbers Favor Republicans, But Will Voters?

Posted March 12, 2003 at 2:47pm

Two years ago, the Senate landscape favored Democrats. While Republicans had more seats at risk (and more open seats), the party still made gains and won control of the Senate. This time, the shoe is on the other foot. It’s Democrats who have to defend 19 seats to the GOP’s 15. Will the outcome be just as surprising? [IMGCAP(1)]

The 2004 fight for the Senate is likely to boil down to close to a dozen races, though much depends on candidate recruitment and potential retirements over the next year.

At least six seats automatically appear to be in play. Three of them — Illinois, Alaska and Kentucky — are currently held by Republicans, while three others — Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina — are now in Democratic hands.

A handful of seats, including Florida, Nevada, South Dakota, Missouri, Oklahoma and a couple of others, could well see spirited contests, depending on who chooses to run and what kind of campaigns they put together. These races are similar to contests in Georgia, Tennessee, South Carolina, Maine and Oregon in the past cycle. They could turn out to be either top-tier races or total snoozers.

Democrats start off with greater vulnerability, so candidate recruitment, which was the GOP’s key to victory in 2002, will be crucial for Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Jon Corzine (N.J.) this time. Here is a rundown of the 11 races now worth watching:

Illinois. Sen. Peter Fitzgerald (R) has a tough test ahead, with a handful of Democrats already running. His first task is to rally Republicans to his cause, which isn’t as easy as it sounds. Illinois is clearly the most vulnerable Republican seat.

Georgia. This open seat is the GOP’s top target. Rep. Johnny Isakson (R) would be a formidable nominee, but can he avoid a primary with a social conservative? The shape of the Democratic field is still far from clear.

Alaska. Appointed Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) was selected by the governor — her father — creating an obvious issue for Democrats, who are hoping former Gov. Tony Knowles will make the race.

North Carolina. GOP Rep. Richard Burr’s entry into the Senate race creates an immediate headache for Sen. John Edwards (D). The longer Edwards stays in the presidential race, the tougher it will be for him to hold his Senate seat. An open seat would be even worse news for Democrats.

South Carolina. Sen. Fritz Hollings (D) is going to have a battle on his hands if he seeks re-election, but he surely is the Democrats’ best hope of holding the seat. Republicans don’t have an ideal challenger waiting in the wings, but given the state’s partisan bent, they may not need one.

Rep. Jim DeMint appears to be the early favorite (former Rep. Tommy Hartnett and former state Attorney General Charles Condon are among others mentioned), but if Hollings retires, that list of GOP hopefuls could grow quickly. An open seat might well fall into the GOP’s lap.

Florida. Sen. Bob Graham (D) is unbeatable, but his Senate seat is at risk if he doesn’t seek re-election. The Democratic bench isn’t deep, but Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas and Rep. Peter Deutsch are interested. The list of GOP hopefuls includes Rep. Mark Foley, former Rep. Bill McCollum and possibly Rep. Katherine Harris. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Mel Martinez insists he isn’t interested, but the White House isn’t ready to take no for an answer yet.

Nevada. Sen. Harry Reid has never won with more than 52 percent, and Republicans have shown considerable strength in the state in recent elections. But Rep. Jim Gibbons is the GOP’s only top-tier potential challenger in sight.

South Dakota. Former Congressman John Thune (R) is keeping his options open, increasing talk that he’ll challenge Senate Minority Leader Thomas Daschle (D) next year. If Thune runs, the race is a tossup. If Thune doesn’t, Daschle probably is safe.

Kentucky. Sen. Jim Bunning (R) makes more than his fair share of enemies, and any of a handful of Democrats, including state Treasurer Jonathan Miller, Lt. Gov. Steve Henry or businessman (and lieutenant governor hopeful) Charlie Owen, could give the Republican cause for concern.

Oklahoma. Sen. Don Nickles (R) has been the subject of retirement rumors, but he won’t announce his intentions for months. If he doesn’t seek re-election, Rep. Brad Carson would be far and away the Democrats’ best candidate.

Missouri. While Democrats have had problems in the Show Me State in statewide races, they have current and former statewide officials who might take on Sen. Kit Bond (R). State Auditor Claire McCaskill seems uninterested, but Lt. Gov. Joe Maxwell is still mentioned.

While races in other states (such as California, Colorado and Washington) could ultimately come into play, they aren’t there yet.

The early numbers favor the GOP. But these races won’t really start to come into focus for another few months. And retirements — particularly unexpected ones — could change the mix overnight.