- The Washington Times - Monday, June 16, 2003

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.

Rep. Richard M. Burr, the likely Republican nominee, has raised more than $2 million for the race. Several Democrats have expressed interest in running, including former White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles, who lost last year’s Senate race to Elizabeth Dole.

Seven-term Sen. Ernest F. Hollings, South Carolina Democrat, is likely to announce his retirement, opening up a big opportunity in this strongly Republican state. At 81, he has been sending signals that his wife does not want him to run and he has recently given the Democratic state chairman the green light to look for other candidates.

Democrats have a longer list of names of those who are not interested in running for Mr. Hollings’ seat than those who are, election analysts say. On the Republican side, Rep. Jim DeMint has been running for months.

“Without Hollings in the race, I think it is enormously hard for the Democrats to hold onto the seat,” Miss Duffy said.

Also on the Republicans’ retirement watch is Sen. Bob Graham of Florida, whose late entry into the Democratic presidential race has failed to stir much interest. He has given no clue as to whether he will run for a fourth term if he drops out of the primary contests. Mr. Graham underwent extensive heart surgery earlier this year, and some party advisers said they think he will decide to call it quits.

With Republicans controlling the governorship and 17 of 25 congressional seats, Florida is one of the party’s strongest states. Republican Rep. Mark Foley is the front-runner for the nomination, but several Democratic candidates also have indicated their interest if Mr. Graham steps down.

Thus far, Illinois Sen. Peter G. Fitzgerald is the only Republican who has announced that he will not run again, handing the Democrats their best opportunity to pick up a Republican seat. Republicans’ attempts to recruit former Gov. Jim Edgar have failed, and eight Democrats are seeking the seat, including millionaire investment banker Blair Hull and trial lawyer John Simmons, who say they are willing to fully finance their races from their personal fortunes.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Alaska Republican, also is in jeopardy. She was appointed by her father, Gov. Frank H. Murkowski, to fill his Senate vacancy, and that decision sparked Democratic cries of nepotism that could hurt her. Former Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles, a Democrat, is close to announcing his candidacy for the Senate seat.

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