A Few Late-Breaking Upsets Emerge as ’04 Goes Down to the Wire

Posted November 1, 2004 at 3:38pm

As readers of this column know, I’ve already admitted that I have no idea who’ll win the presidential race. A big turnout of new, anti-Bush voters obviously could elect Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, while an electorate that is more averse to change during a time of war may re-elect the president. But we all know that, so what’s the use of dwelling on it?[IMGCAP(1)]

The Electoral College math has gotten easier to understand. President Bush could withstand a loss in Ohio (and its 20 electoral votes) by adding Iowa (7 votes) and Wisconsin (10 votes), but a loss in Florida (27 electoral votes) probably would be fatal.

Over in the fight for the House, Democrats seem to be banking on a Kerry surge of new voters to change the makeup of the electorate. If that surge is happening, nobody monitoring House races, including Democratic pollsters, has picked it up.

In the meantime, GOP numbers suggest a number of possible House surprises, including Iowa’s 3rd and Missouri’s 5th districts.

In Iowa, challenger Stan Thompson (R), who lost to Rep. Leonard Boswell by 8 points in 2000, is back and making a stronger run at the Democratic Congressman in a 12-county district that includes Des Moines.

Boswell is a farmer who served in the state Senate for a dozen years before winning election to Congress in 1996. But Thompson has been endorsed by both the AFL-CIO and the state Farm Bureau, giving him an unusual set of allies.

A recent Research 2000 survey shows Boswell over the crucial 50 percent mark, while Republican polling shows Thompson within range in a district went for Al Gore in 2000. A Republican win there would be an upset, and the race is worth watching.

If you are looking for a super-duper upset in the House, you might keep an eye on Missouri’s open 5th district, where five-term veteran Rep. Karen McCarthy (D) is retiring.

Former Kansas City Mayor Emanuel Cleaver won a competitive primary to earn the Democratic nomination, which should be tantamount to victory in the district. But this year it isn’t.

The district has a Democratic performance of about 63 percent, the same percentage that then-Sen. Jean Carnahan drew in 2002 and her late husband attracted in 2000. But Cleaver’s controversial record in Kansas City and Republican Jeanne Patterson’s free-spending efforts apparently have combined to create a possible GOP upset.

One Democratic insider I spoke to recently is flat-out predicting an upset, while GOP polling last week showed Patterson within 4 points and the Democrat getting much less than 50 percent of the vote. Still, some observers are skeptical about the Democrats’ chances.

Two other races — California’s 20th and Indiana’s 9th — are worth a look. Indiana’s Baron Hill has emerged as one of the Democrats’ more vulnerable incumbents. And Rep. Cal Dooley’s open California seat may well be in play, depending on which party’s polling you believe.

If you are looking for an interesting Democratic opportunity — assuming that you’ve been following the House closely and already know that Reps. Phil Crane (Ill.), Christopher Shays (Conn.), Rob Simmons (Conn.) and Max Burns (Ga.) are in serious fights — you might keep your eye on Nebraska’s 1st.

The district, represented by retiring Republican Doug Bereuter, includes most of the eastern quarter of the state, except for metropolitan Omaha. Bereuter has won consistently with more than 60 percent of the vote since he was first elected in 1978, and George W. Bush drew 59 percent in the district.

Private polling shows Republican House nominee Jeff Fortenberry, who served on the Lincoln city council, holding only a mid-single-digit lead over Democratic state Sen. Matt Connealy. A farmer from rural Burt County, Connealy faces a an uphill contest in the Republican-leaning district, but the Republican’s socially conservative views gives the Democrat a chance to peel off moderate GOP voters.

Over in the Senate, at least a couple of races are becoming clearer.

In South Carolina, observers on both sides of the aisle agree that Rep. Jim DeMint (R) has opened up a clear lead and is likely to defeat state education chief Inez Tenenbaum (D). In Colorado, Attorney General Ken Salazar (D) seems to be maintaining a consistent lead over businessman Pete Coors (R). Salazar has shown enough strength to establish him as the favorite in the contest.

Republicans assert that small but significant movement in polling in Alaska, North Carolina and Kentucky have benefited their party’s nominees. While Sen. Jim Bunning (R) hasn’t yet hit the all-important 50 percent mark, Republican and Democratic observers agree that the Democrats’ lack of a “ground game” in the state — in part because it isn’t in play in the presidential race — gives the Republican a potentially important edge.

Florida remains the tossup of all tossups. A strong showing in the presidential race could well determine the Senate seat as well. South Dakota also looks like it is going down to the wire, with Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D) having the slightest of advantages in late polling.

If you are looking to narrow down the key races in the fight for the Senate, you can’t go wrong by focusing on Florida, North Carolina, Oklahoma and Alaska.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.