- The Washington Times - Monday, November 1, 2004

Republicans are expected to hold on to their House majority tomorrow, but the Senate is turning into a nail-biter, with nine races in play that could upset the party’s precarious hold on power.

As the congressional elections enter their final hours, control of the Senate — where Republicans have a 51-48 seat majority, with one Democrat-leaning independent — appears to be up for grabs.

Eleven governorships also are at stake tomorrow, five held by Republicans and six by Democrats, that could expand the Republicans’ 28-seat statehouse majority by a seat or two.

Senate Republican seats are in danger of being taken over by the Democrats in Illinois, Alaska and Colorado, while four of five Southern Democrat open seats are at risk and Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle is running behind in some polls against Republican former Rep. John Thune. Two other Republican seats in Kentucky and Oklahoma also look vulnerable.

“We continue to believe that it is easier for the Republicans to get to 51 seats than it is for the Democrats,” veteran elections analyst Stuart Rothenberg told his newsletter subscribers over the weekend. “But the Senate remains a very interesting and unpredictable battleground.

“Anything from a Democratic gain of a seat or two to a GOP gain of two or three seems possible. The most likely scenario is continued Republican control of the Senate — and possibly a gain of a seat for the party,” he said.

A pickup of two or three Republicans would give President Bush a stronger majority on Capitol Hill to get his legislative agenda passed, should he win re-election, but it would pose a significant, if not insurmountable, obstacle if Sen. John Kerry becomes president. A Democratic takeover, on the other hand, would block the Bush agenda for at least the next two years.

House: Few seats in play

In the House races, veteran congressional election analysts generally agree there are not enough competitive contests for the Democrats to get the 218-seat majority needed to take back the chamber they lost in 1994 after a 40-year reign. Republicans rule with a 227-205 majority, with one independent and two vacancies.

While several senior Republicans are in trouble, “few seats are in play, and the party’s House majority does not appear to be at risk,” Mr. Rothenberg said in his latest report on House races.

All 435 congressional seats are up for election, but 405 (213 Republicans and 192 Democrats) are considered safe or favored to win their elections. Most of the rest are competitive or tilting Republican, with eight races clear tossups.

The fate of five Democratic lawmakers in Texas, as a result of a redistricting plan passed by the Republican-controlled state Legislature and engineered by House Republican Leader Tom DeLay of Texas, was the most far-reaching factor in the House elections battle.

It now appears likely that four of the five Democrats who had their districts redrawn by Republican map makers will be defeated, dramatically changing the political makeup of the Texas delegation. Overall, Texas Republicans could add as many as six seats to their House lineup.

Among the five redistricted Democrats, Reps. Charles W. Stenholm, Max Sandlin and Nick Lampson were running well behind their Republican opponents by at least 10 percentage points. Rep. Martin Frost also was struggling against Republican Rep. Pete Sessions. Only seven-term Democratic Rep. Chet Edwards had a strong lead over challenger Arlene Wohlgemuth.

Senate: Shift of power?

In the battle for the Senate, 15 Republican seats and 19 Democratic seats are up this year. Two contests, in Illinois and Georgia, are expected to be takeovers, nine are close or clear tossups, and the rest are mildly competitive or safe.

Illinois state Sen. Barack Obama, who delivered the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention, was expected to easily beat former Ambassador Alan Keyes to win the Senate seat being vacated by retiring Republican Sen. Peter Fitzgerald. He would be the first black man to be elected to the Senate by a popular vote since Massachusetts Sen. Edward Brooke in 1966, who served two terms.

In Georgia, three-term Republican Rep. Johnny Isakson also was a shoo-in to win the seat of Democratic Sen. Zell Miller, who is calling it quits after a single term.

Here is how the other competitive Senate races look now:

• North Carolina: Democrat Erskine Bowles, who was President Clinton’s chief of staff, had been leading in the polls for months until Republican Rep. Richard M. Burr began running a wave of TV ads that reminded voters of Mr. Bowles’ close connections to the Clinton White House. Mr. Bowles’ lead quickly evaporated, but the race remains close, though several polls give Mr. Burr a slight edge.

• South Carolina: Rep. Jim DeMint was favored in this Republican-leaning state. Then a slew of ads from Democratic state Superintendent of Education Inez Tenenbaum, running as a conservative, attacked him for supporting a bill that called for replacing the income tax with a 23 percent sales tax. That has made this race “too close for comfort. South Carolina remains a Democratic upset possibility,” Mr. Rothenberg says. Still, polls give Mr. DeMint a single-digit edge in a state that likes to elect Republicans.

• Florida: The race between former state Education Commissioner Betty Castor and former Bush Housing and Urban Development Secretary Mel Martinez is tied. But Mr. Martinez is getting strong support in the state’s large Hispanic community, particularly among Cuban Americans. Both the Mason-Dixon and Quinnipiac polls are giving him a one- to three-point lead.

• Louisiana: The challenge for Republican Rep. David Vitter, the consistent front-runner in this state’s open, multicandidate election, is to get 50 percent of the vote to avoid a December runoff that always favors the Democrats. An Oct. 25 state poll by MRI gave him 51 percent of the vote, but other polls continue to show him running in the low 40s against his two Democratic rivals.

• Oklahoma: After hitting some rough spots this month, former Rep. Tom Coburn’s campaign has made a comeback of sorts and the Republican physician now leads his Democratic opponent, Rep. Brad Carson, in most polls — by 42 percent to 39 percent, according to Wilson Research Strategies. Both men are seeking to replace retiring Sen. Don Nickles, a Republican.

• Colorado: Most of last week’s polls showed Attorney General Ken Salazar leading Republican Pete Coors, who is making his first bid for elective office, but not all of them. Zogby International put Mr. Salazar ahead by nine points, the Rocky Mountain News had him up by six points, but Mason-Dixon had the contest dead even at 46 percent for each.

• Alaska: Still fighting charges of nepotism after her father, Gov. Frank Murkowski, appointed her to fill his open seat, Sen. Lisa Murkowski is trailing former two-term Gov. Tony Knowles. She was running two to six points behind in the latest polls. But Ted Stevens, the state’s senior senator and the chairman of the Appropriations Committee, has been campaigning hard for her. Republican strategists say a heavy vote for Mr. Bush in this strongly Republican state could give her the edge to overcome Mr. Knowles’ lead.

• South Dakota: Mr. Thune, making a second try for the Senate at the urging of the White House, is running slightly ahead of Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle. A new Thune TV ad shows Mr. Daschle talking positively about trial lawyers, abortion rights and New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.

• Kentucky: This contest was not supposed to be on the vulnerable list, but when Republican Sen. Jim Bunning began making some erratic statements, getting into shouting matches, his critics in the press began attacking him and his double-digit polling numbers dropped. He has a single-digit lead over Dan Mongiardo and is favored to win, but the race has tightened in the past week.

Who’s moving in

In the governorship races, Republicans are hoping to pick up seats in Indiana, Missouri and Washington state.

In Indiana, Mr. Bush’s former director of the Office of Management and Budget, Mitchell E. Daniels Jr., is in a tight race against Democratic Gov. Joe Kernan, a former POW in Vietnam who was lieutenant governor until he stepped into the governorship after the death of Gov. Frank O’Bannon.

The Democrats have held the governorship for the past 16 years, but Indiana has been hit hard by a manufacturing downturn and revenue shortfalls. The latest independent polls show Mr. Daniels with a narrow lead.

In Missouri, Republican Secretary of State Matt Blunt, son of House Republican Whip Roy Blunt, is running against state Auditor Claire McCaskill, a former prosecutor who defeated Gov. Bob Holden in the Democratic primary.

The race is considered too close to call, though polls showed that Mr. Blunt, a Navy reservist who served in Afghanistan after the September 11 terrorist attacks, was up by a few points.

In Washington state, Democratic Attorney General Christine Gregoire and former state Sen. Dino Rossi also are in a tight race to replace Democratic Gov. Gary Locke, whose popularity plummeted as a result of a declining economy and budget problems. As of last week, Mr. Rossi was gaining on his opponent in a contest that is considered too close to call.

Democrats, however, are hoping to pick up a Republican-held governorship in Montana, where Gov. Judy Martz, whose job-approval polls have plunged to 20 percent, decided not to seek re-election. Rancher Brian Schweitzer, who made a strong but unsuccessful bid to unseat Republican Sen. Conrad Burns in 2000, is running against Secretary of State Bob Brown, who won a five-way Republican primary in which his rivals accused him of being a tax-raiser.

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