Divine Nine: Fight Is On

Several States Still Seen as Tossups

Posted October 25, 2004 at 6:48pm

One week removed from Election Day, the battle for control of the Senate rests on the outcome of nine races across the country, as Democrats continue to argue that they will be able to hold their own in staunchly Republican territory and the GOP looks to build on its majority by netting as much as a three-seat gain.

The partisan makeup of the chamber remains murky as strategists for both parties agree that a slim majority of those nine seats remain true tossups — even as they disagree on which way the contests will ultimately break.

Democrats only need a net pick-up of two seats to reach a 51-seat majority, but the party’s math for getting there is complicated by the fact that it must hold onto a majority of open seats in the South while picking off Republican-held seats in Alaska and Colorado. Additionally, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) must survive his re-election battle with former Rep. John Thune (R), a race that is currently considered a dead heat and expected to be decided by only a couple hundred votes.

Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Jon Corzine (N.J.) and National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman George Allen (Va.) debated their respective positions heading into the final week of campaigning when they appeared together last weekend on “Fox News Sunday.”

Allen argued that Republicans are poised to pick up three seats, bringing their total to 54, while Corzine predicted that Democrats would net two seats in order to get to a 51-seat majority.

“With Tom Daschle the Majority Leader,” he added.

The NRSC and DSCC are currently airing ads in eight states. The DSCC is not on the air in South Dakota and the NRSC is not airing ads in Kentucky on behalf of Sen. Jim Bunning (R).

Among the nine races, Democratic prospects of picking up Republican-held seats look brightest in Colorado and Alaska. The party is also hopeful that Rep. Brad Carson (D) will pick up the seat of retiring Sen. Don Nickles (R) in Oklahoma, although Carson still faces a steep climb.

Republicans, meanwhile, are most focused on holding those three seats, while picking up seats in South Dakota, Florida and North Carolina. Polls in all three of those races, in addition to Oklahoma, have shown the contests to be essentially tied. The GOP also expects to pick up a seat in South Carolina, even though the race is tighter than once expected.

“With about a week out Senate Republicans are cautiously optimistic not only about maintaining the majority, but strengthening it,” NRSC spokesman Dan Allen said. “I think we’re well positioned in a lot of the Southern races as well as South Dakota and we feel good about where some of our open seats are right now.”

DSCC spokesman Brad Woodhouse argued that while the GOP has seen its battleground map shrink as efforts to defeat Sens. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) look more dim than once expected, the Democrats have expanded their playing field with Bunning’s recent addition to the list of endangered incumbents.

“What they’ll tell you is that we have to run the table to take back the Senate,” Woodhouse said. “What I would say is that they’ve been saying that all year … Well, we’re one week from the election and their predictions still have not come true. We’re running competitively in each one of these states. In fact, our map has expanded.”

Complicating the Senate picture even further is the likelihood that one or more races will be decided by such a slim margin that control of the Senate might not be immediately known pending the outcome of recounts.

Even if there aren’t recounts, control could still be up in the air on Nov. 3, with the outcome of an all but certain runoff in Louisiana the determining factor in who wields the gavel next Congress. That scenario would also hinge on who wins the presidency. If President Bush wins re-election and Democrats control 50 seats in the Senate (49 Democrats plus one Independent), they would need to win Louisiana in order to ensure a majority in the chamber.

Illinois and Georgia are also hosting open-seat contests this cycle, but the parties are expected to split those victories, with Democrats picking up the seat of retiring Sen. Peter Fitzgerald (R-Ill.) and Republicans nabbing the seat of retiring Sen. Zell Miller (D-Ga.).

This following is a final look at the races that will determine control the Senate:

Alaska: Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) is without a doubt the most endangered incumbent seeking another term this cycle. After being appointed to succeed her father, former Sen. and now-Gov. Frank Murkowski (R), nepotism has been the central issue in this campaign.

Democrats remain enthusiastic about the chances of former Gov. Tony Knowles (D), who has led the contest in most polls — the most recent by a 47 percent to 43 percent margin.

Polls in the Last Frontier do not close until midnight on Nov. 3 in the East. Republican strategists are confident that control of the Senate will be known before the votes are counted in Alaska. If not, it is likely to signal a good night for Democrats.

And remember, a recount is required by state law if the two candidates are separated by less than one half of 1 percent.

Colorado: Just as in Alaska, Democrats are growing more and more optimistic about state Attorney General Ken Salazar’s (D) prospects in the Centennial State. Salazar faces brewing magnate Pete Coors (R).

A new Zogby poll found Salazar leading by 9 points, and over the key 50 percent mark. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), who appeared with Salazar on Saturday, is hoping that the Senate nominee might provide some reverse coattails.

Florida: This race — as one Republican strategist recently described it — is “deader than dead even,” not unlike many polls of the presidential contest in the Sunshine State.

Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Mel Martinez (R) and former state Education Commissioner Betty Castor (D) are waging a nasty battle to win the seat of retiring Sen. Bob Graham (D). Terrorism and Castor’s tenure as president of the University of South Florida (where Republicans charge she allowed a terrorist cell to operate) have taken center stage in the contest.

Both parties privately admit it’s been difficult to get a grasp on how this race will ultimately unfold, as it has largely taken place in the shadow of the presidential contest.

Strategists agree that the contest is not likely to be decided largely outside of the margin of the presidential race which, judging from the 2000 election, could only be several hundred votes.

Kentucky: In a late-breaking development benefiting Democrats, Sen. Jim Bunning (R) is now locked in a tight battle with state Sen. Dan Mongiardo (D).

Recent polling has shown Bunning, who won re-election in 1998 with just 50 percent of the vote, below that same mark and the DSCC threw a late infusion of cash toward an ad campaign hitting Bunning. A Democratic poll released Monday showed Bunning ahead by just 1 point.

Louisiana: Even though polls have shown Rep. David Vitter (R) teetering awfully close to the 50 percent mark needed to avoid a December runoff, both sides are resigned to the fact that they will be spending the better part of November in the Pelican State.

But unlike in 2002, when Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) faced a December runoff with then-state Elections Commissioner Suzanne Haik Terrell (R), Republicans are much more enthusiastic about Vitter’s chances.

Rep. Chris John (D) has been unimpressive as a candidate so far, but still, he is expected to make the runoff with Vitter.

This state hasn’t elected a Republican to the Senate since Reconstruction but the GOP feels good about its ability to break that streak in 2004.

North Carolina: After holding a substantial lead through the summer of 2002, Senate nominee Erskine Bowles (D) finds himself in a dead heat with Rep. Richard Burr (R).

The most recent poll in the race found the two men tied at 45 percent, the amount that Bowles garnered against now-Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R) in 2002. Some strategists argue that in a GOP-leaning state Bowles has hit a ceiling while Burr, a lesser-known commodity statewide, still has some room to grow.

Oklahoma: Democratic Rep. Brad Carson appears to have thrown all that he could at former Rep. Tom Coburn (R), but this increasingly bitter contest is still tied — not a good sign for Carson.

The straight-shooting Coburn has provided Carson with plenty of campaign fodder, but Carson has yet to see any real momentum build and the race remains a dead heat. Several recent polls have shown Coburn with a 1- to 2-point lead and strategists on both sides believe if that lead holds into Election Day, Coburn is likely to win.

South Carolina: Rep. Jim DeMint (R) no longer has the large lead he once did over state Superintendent of Education Inez Tenenbaum (D). Still DeMint is considered favored to win in this deeply Republican territory.

South Dakota: The race between Thune and Daschle is considered the marquee contest of this cycle.

Thune, a former Congressman, lost to Sen. Tim Johnson (D) by only 524 votes last cycle in the closest contest of 2002.

Polls show the race currently tied.