Senate Republicans are in a position to make gains in 2004 because of a combination of vulnerable Democratic seats and likely retirements, according to congressional election analysts.
While other political variables, including a weakened economy and a decline in President Bush’s popularity, could influence the outcome of next year’s Senate races, analysts say Republicans are favored to strengthen their hold on the Senate, which they control 51-48, with one Democratic-leaning independent.
“At this point in the cycle, we believe the Republicans are positioned to make Senate gains, most likely in the range of one to three seats. But that could change as retirement decisions are made, and as new economic numbers come in,” election analyst Stuart Rothenberg said in his latest newsletter, the Rothenberg Political Report.
One advantage for Republicans is that the Democrats have more seats to defend this year — 19 seats compared with 15 for Republicans — and most of the states where these elections will take place are friendlier to Republicans than Democrats.
“Only three of the 15 states with GOP senators up for re-election in ‘04 were won by Democrat Al Gore in 2000 — Illinois, Iowa and Pennsylvania,” Mr. Rothenberg said. “In contrast, nine of the 19 states with Democratic senators up for re-election were carried by Gore, nine went for Bush and [Florida] was a virtual tie.
“This gives the Republicans an advantage, as long as Bush remains popular. And a Democratic nominee who is associated with the left could add to Democratic Senate problems in those more Republican and conservative states,” he said.
Other independent Senate election analysts agree with Mr. Rothenberg’s overall assessment. “The target list is bigger and friendlier for Republicans. The Democratic target list is a lot smaller,” said Jennifer Duffy, who analyzes Senate races for the Cook Political Report.
The Democrats’ biggest potential problem is that several incumbents who may not seek re-election are from more conservative states that have become increasingly Republican. That could give the Republican Party its best chance in years to pick up several open seats.
Democrat Zell Miller of Georgia, one of his party’s most conservative legislators, has decided to call it quits after one term, making his seat the Republicans’ best bet for a pickup in a state where the Democrats have gone into a steep decline. They lost a Senate race, the governorship and some major state legislative contests last year.
Several Republicans are running for the seat, including Reps. Johnny Isakson and Mac Collins. Herman Cain, the chief executive officer of Godfather’s Pizza, also is running. A number of Democrats also are thinking about entering the race. Among them are state Attorney General Thurbert Baker and freshman Rep. Jim Marshall.
Next on the Democrats’ most-vulnerable list is Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, who has spent most of his first term running for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Mr. Edwards, who remains in the low single digits in virtually all of the party primary polls, has not said whether he will seek a second term if he abandons his White House bid. But his home state polls suggest that he is in trouble there. A Raleigh News & Observer survey in May found that 32 percent said he deserved re-election, 32 percent said they would consider another candidate and 35 percent said they would vote to replace him.
Democrats in the state say the senator is under pressure to make a decision about a second term and that he is expected to decide around Labor Day.
“I don’t think he’ll run,” Miss Duffy said.