What’s In Play: The Senate’s Top Dozen Takeover Opportunities

Posted September 17, 2004 at 2:56pm

Control of the Senate is all about takeovers, with the Democrats needing a net gain of one seat (if Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry wins the White House) or two (if President Bush is re-elected). Here is the current list of possible takeovers, with the most likely takeovers at the top of the list. [IMGCAP(1)]

Illinois (Sen. Peter Fitzgerald, Republican, open seat): Who in their right mind thought that Alan Keyes (R) would be an asset to the GOP ticket in Illinois? A guaranteed Democratic pick-up.

Georgia (Sen. Zell Miller, Democrat, open seat): Rep. Johnny Isakson (R) probably beats most any Democrat in the state, but against a black woman from Atlanta, Rep. Denise Majette (D), it isn’t even a fair fight. A sure GOP win.

South Carolina (Sen. Fritz Hollings, Democrat, open seat): State Superintendent of Education Inez Tenenbaum hasn’t run the kind of race she needs to win in this strongly Republican state, but she hopes her new attack on Rep. Jim DeMint (R) for supporting a national sales tax will turn the race around. At least Democrats have finally moved on from their losing trade argument. A likely takeover for the Republicans.

Florida (Sen. Bob Graham, Democrat, open seat): Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Mel Martinez must heal some party wounds, but his potential appeal among Hispanics (both Cubans and non-Cubans) is a goldmine for the GOP. Former state Education Commissioner Betty Castor would beat a second-tier Republican opponent, and she did survive attacks by Rep. Peter Deutsch (D), in the Democratic primary. But Mel Martinez is no Peter Deutsch. This race looks to be a tossup, but with a slight edge to Martinez. A wild card: Who knows how the hurricanes will affect the race?

Colorado (Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, Republican, open seat): Early polling showed state Attorney General Ken Salazar solidly ahead of his potential GOP opponents, but this race is close and the state’s Republican bent could well help businessman Pete Coors. A big question: What kind of candidate will Coors be down the stretch? Tossup.

Alaska (Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Republican): Murkowski is still burdened by the circumstances of her appointment and her father’s low popularity as governor, but the state’s strongly Republican bent may well save her. Democrat Tony Knowles, a former two-term governor, has been running even or a couple of points ahead of the Senator. Knowles must run far ahead of Kerry in the state and pray that voters are so angry with Gov. Frank Murkowski (R) that they decide to punish his daughter. Tossup.

Oklahoma (Sen. Don Nickles, Republican, open seat): Rep. Brad Carson is the Democrats’ best open-seat candidate this cycle, and he’s running a marvelous race. But that may not be enough in reliably Republican Oklahoma. Democrats think former Rep. Tom Coburn (R) is an ideological wacko, but he has considerable populist and conservative appeal. Coburn’s strong showing in the Republican primary and Kerry’s likely disastrous showing in the state add up to problems for Carson. But this race is still very much in play, and Coburn is now finding himself on the defensive.

South Dakota (Sen. Tom Daschle, Democrat): Former Rep. John Thune (R) is an excellent candidate, but the same can be said of Senate Minority Leader Daschle. Daschle probably leads by a couple of points, but a larger electorate, due to the presidential race, could turn the contest toward the challenger. In a race this tight, the incumbent, Daschle, gets a slight edge.

North Carolina (Sen. John Edwards, Democrat, open seat): Democrat Erskine Bowles got off to a fast start and clearly bested Republican Rep. Richard Burr in the pre-Labor Day campaign. But as the state starts to split along partisan and ideological lines, Bowles will find the going tougher. Still, Bowles has the resources to win, and Burr must come from behind.

Louisiana (Sen. John Breaux, Democrat, open seat): Republican David Vitter leads the field in all polling, but this race is all about the runoff. Vitter will face a credible Democrat, and that scenario has never produced the big win in Louisiana that Republicans have been looking for. I’m not certain why it should do so now. Very competitive, but history suggests an edge to the Democrat in the runoff.

Pennsylvania (Sen. Arlen Specter, Republican). Challenger Rep. Joe Hoeffel (D) is articulate and appealing, but he doesn’t have the money to win, and Specter has lined up enough Democratic constituencies to bolster his appeal to swing voters. The only reason this race is worth watching is Jim Clymer, the conservative Constitution Party nominee, who will draw some conservatives away from the Senator. Still, Hoeffel can’t win on his own. He’ll need a wave, which is not on the horizon.

Washington (Sen. Patty Murray, Democrat): It’s a tough call whether Kentucky challenger Dan Mongiardo (D), Missouri challenger Nancy Farmer (D), Wisconsin challenger Tim Michels (R) or Washington challenger Rep. George Nethercutt (R) gets the last slot on this list. For now, Nethercutt gets the nod because of his money, base and personal appeal. Still, Murray is clearly favored to win.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.