Fight for Senate Still Turning on Open Seats in South

Posted September 19, 2003 at 1:35pm

So far, the important numbers of this year’s Senate cycle are “4” and “7.” There are now four open seats, and races in seven states are currently on the board as top-tier contests. [IMGCAP(1)]

The three open Democratic Senate seats, all of them in the South, clearly are prime opportunities for Republican takeovers. While Democrats may well field a credible candidate in South Carolina — either state Superintendent of Public Instruction Inez Tenenbaum or Columbia Mayor Bob Coble — the state’s partisan bent, especially in a presidential year, gives the eventual GOP nominee the advantage.

In Georgia, Democrats may turn their nomination over to former Atlanta mayor, former Congressman and former U.N. Representative Andrew Young. While Young, 71, is a hero of the civil rights movement and a figure of considerable achievement and stature, he looks to have considerable weaknesses as a Senate candidate.

The GOP side of the ledger in the Peach State is still scrambled, with three major hopefuls competing for their party’s nomination, Reps. Johnny Isakson and Mac Collins, and dynamic African-American businessman Herman Cain. But that shouldn’t seriously undercut the GOP’s initial edge in the race unless Democrats nominate a candidate with broader appeal than Young.

In North Carolina, Sen. John Edwards’ decision not to seek a second term makes 2002 Senate nominee Erskine Bowles the odds-on favorite for the Democratic nomination, though he could face primary competition.

But while Bowles’ financial resources, statewide name identification and campaign experience warrant putting this contest in the “tossup” category, Democrats shouldn’t kid themselves about their prospects for holding the open seat. Bowles ran a good race in 2002 but drew just 45 percent. Yes, his opponent, now-Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R), had some unique assets as a candidate. But Bowles’ showing also serves as a reminder that even good Democratic Senate candidates normally draw between 45 percent and 48 percent of the vote there, and that a solid GOP nominee, backed by a united party and adequate financial resources, begins with a measurable advantage in the Tar Heel State.

The fourth open seat, in Illinois, currently held by retiring Sen. Peter Fitzgerald (R), has produced a mess for both parties. Both the Democratic and GOP races are crowded, with a sprinkling of deep-pocketed millionaires. The basic partisan nature of the state gives any Democrat an edge in the general election, but until nominees appear, it’s hard to say much more about this zoo. Luckily, Illinois’ primary is March 16, 2004.

Most insiders are betting that other seats will also open up, with Florida heading the list. Both parties already have multicandidate races under way, even though Sen. Bob Graham hasn’t ruled out a run for re-election. Republicans are certain to nominate a conservative, while Democrats have a better mix of candidates. Still, handicapping for November must wait until after the nominations are decided.

Two other seats could also open up in Oklahoma and Louisiana. Both Sens. Don Nickles (R-Okla.) and John Breaux (D-La.) have delayed final decisions about whether to run for another term.

For the moment, each party has one incumbent at considerable risk. Appointed Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) will be facing voters for the first time since her father, Gov. Frank Murkowski (R), appointed her to fill his vacant Senate seat. Complaints about nepotism and her father’s early problems in his new office have given Democrats reason for optimism in a state not normally hospitable to them.

Democratic nominee Tony Knowles is articulate and well-known after serving two terms as governor of Alaska. But his election victories weren’t the kind that demonstrate real political muscle, and federal races produce a different dynamic around the country than do contests for state office. While this race is a tossup based on early numbers, Murkowski ultimately has a measurably better chance of winning than does Knowles.

In South Dakota, Sen. Tom Daschle (D) will or will not be in a tight race — depending on whether former Rep. John Thune (R) challenges him. Thune wants to take on Daschle (and does NOT want to run again for the House), but after his narrow Senate loss in 2002, the former Congressman is delaying a final decision. Family considerations, and now questions about Rep. Bill Janklow’s (R) House seat, are complicating factors for Thune.

If Thune runs, the South Dakota Senate race immediately becomes a tossup. And don’t believe that talk that if Thune couldn’t beat Johnson, he can’t beat Daschle. The dynamics are different because it’s a presidential year and Daschle is no longer the Majority Leader.

All or some of the seven second-tier races could come into play during the next year. GOP strategists point particularly toward Wisconsin and, possibly, Washington, while Democrats are hoping for a break or two in Missouri and Pennsylvania.

Quite obviously, the entire 2004 election cycle is likely to be affected by the presidential race, which itself will turn on the economy, Iraq and the Democratic ticket. But even there, the Democrats’ upside potential could be limited, since many of the most critical contests will be taking place in conservative or Southern states that favor the GOP.