- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 1, 2004

Republicans say they are confident they will keep control of the Senate despite a series of events that Democrats say puts them within easy reach of Senate control.

“I’m very optimistic and very encouraged by our opportunity to expand and strengthen the majority in the U.S. Senate,” Sen. George Allen, Virginia Republican and chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said yesterday. “I’m more enthused every single day.”

With five Democratic senators set to retire in the increasingly Republican-friendly South, Republicans began 2004 with little danger of losing their Senate majority.

But that was before a Republican senatorial candidate dropped out, a couple of surprise Republican retirements and several protracted primary battles tossed a number of comfortable Republican wins into more questionable territory.

Brad Woodhouse, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, has gleefully monitored the shifts and sends out e-mail alerts — sometimes a dozen in a day — detailing the developments for reporters.

“George Allen likes to talk in football analogies,” said Mr. Woodhouse, a basketball fan. “The race for control of the Senate is a jump ball, and we’re ready to meet him at half-court.”

The most notable Senate race to blow up in the faces of Republicans is the one to replace retiring Republican Sen. Peter G. Fitzgerald of Illinois. Democratic candidate Barack Obama has captured the hearts of his party nationally, but Republican candidate Jack Ryan quit the race last month after a judge unsealed his divorce records, which contained his wife’s testimony that he had tried to pressure her into performing sex acts with him while at a strip club.

Two Republican senators that were expected to cruise to re-election instead announced their retirements. One was Sen. Don Nickles of Oklahoma, who was elected to his fourth term in 1998 by 66 percent, and the other was Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Colorado, who in 1998 was elected to his second term with 62 percent of the vote.

Protracted Republican primary battles in several states have brought delight to Democrats, especially those in South Carolina and Colorado.

“There is no doubt that the Senate election is going to be close — one of the closest in history — and control of the Senate at the end of this year is going to be a tossup,” Mr. Woodhouse said.

While cautious about predicting individual races, Mr. Allen said confidently yesterday that Republicans would maintain and widen their control in the Senate.

When considering seats that are not up for re-election, along with those that are generally considered safe, Republicans hold a 44-to-40 seat advantage. A so-called watch list of five seats includes three Republican and two Democratic seats — including those now held by Sen. Barbara Boxer, California Democrat, and Sen. Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania Republican — that are unlikely to change hands.

Control of the Senate is expected to come down to 11 competitive races. Republicans must win just four of those races to maintain control while Democrats must win nine to prevail.

Of those 11 races, Mr. Allen said, seven are in states where President Bush won by seven percentage points or more in the 2000 election. In two more, Florida and Colorado, Republicans are increasingly dominant in state politics.

Only when talking about two races — Illinois and Washington — did Mr. Allen sound less than confident of victory. Republicans have yet to find a replacement for Mr. Ryan in Illinois, and in Washington, Democratic Sen. Patty Murray faces Rep. George Nethercutt, who is untested in statewide races.

However, Mr. Nethercutt is known as a “giant killer” after toppling former House Speaker Tom Foley 10 years ago, Mr. Allen said.

Mr. Woodhouse accused Republicans of “living in the past” and painting a “rosy scenario” after the major congressional victories in 1994.

“This is a far different world politically,” he said. “It’s a far different world for the president than it was in 2002 or even 2000.”

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