- The Washington Times - Monday, May 21, 2001

The evenly divided U.S. Senate, where Republicans perilously cling to a 50-plus-one vote majority, is unarguably the most suspenseful trench warfare battleground in American politics.
In a chamber where the Republicans rule, at least procedurally, thanks to Vice President Richard B. Cheneys tie-breaking vote, legislative control is a day-to-day, vote-by-vote struggle. The loss of one Republican senator — Strom Thurmonds day-to-day health is of more than passing interest to his colleagues in both parties these days — would put the Democrats back in charge and erect a huge obstacle to President Bushs agenda.
On the other hand, the switch of a single Democratic senator, like Zell Miller of Georgia, who has joined Republicans to support Mr. Bushs sweeping tax-cut plan and other administration proposals, would give the Republican Party a little more maneuvering room to keep the Democrats at bay.
But with a hefty 20 Republican senators up for re-election next year, versus only 14 for the Democrats, everything will have to go right for the Republican Party to hold onto its majority, let alone extend it in next years midterm elections, political analysts say.
The partys track record in senatorial contests has been poor lately, and Republicans are still trying to figure out how they lost five incumbents last year at a time when they were adding slightly to their narrow majority in the House and recapturing the White House.
"Overall, the Democrats probably begin the Senate cycle with a slight edge that could get them a net gain of a seat or two. But there are too many unknowns at this point in the cycle to justify a serious projection," Stuart Rothenberg says in his bimonthly Rothenberg Political Report, which closely tracks congressional races.
"At the moment, exactly half of the 34 Senate seats up next year are, for one reason or another, worth watching," Mr. Rothenberg said. "All we can say is that control of the Senate is very much in doubt."
"The national political lay of the land appears relatively flat. Historical trends tilt toward the Democrats, but not dramatically. The presidents current performance is good, minimizing — but not necessarily eliminating — any midterm effect," he said.
Mr. Rothenbergs most vulnerable list includes three Senate Democrats: Jean Carnahan of Missouri, Gov. Mel Carnahans widow, who was appointed to the seat after he won the election a few weeks after being killed in a plane crash; Tom Harkin of Iowa; and Paul Wellstone of Minnesota. Both Mr. Harkin and Mr. Wellstone are liberal, polarizing figures with weak polling numbers who are facing strong Republican challenges.
Republicans in Mr. Rothenbergs vulnerable column include Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina, who turns 80 in October and has had health problems, but who says he is considering another race; New Hampshires Robert C. Smith, who barely won re-election in 1996 with 49 percent and may face a primary challenge from Rep. John E. Sununu; and Tim Hutchinson of Arkansas, who faces "a potentially strong opponent, as well as possible fallout from his divorce."
Still, strategists in both parties believe that their prospects next year look good and predict they will add to their numbers.
"I think we have a very solid opportunity to not only hold the Senate but to expand our majority. Its awfully early, we understand that. But the first three months of the year have increased our confidence to get the job done," said Mitch Bainwald, the National Republican Senatorial Committees executive director.
A big reason for his renewed confidence in this cycle is that many of his partys incumbents will be running in Republican-friendly states that Mr. Bush carried.
"In 2000, eight of our incumbents were up in states that Al Gore ultimately carried. In 2002 only Sen. Susan Collins of Maine is in a state that Gore carried and we believe she is extraordinarily well positioned to keep that state," Mr. Bainwald said.
"The overwhelming difference between last cycle and this cycle is that we are playing in states that are much more favorable to Republicans," he said. "We have fewer seats to defend in Gore territory, which means we can spend our time and energy and focus going after Democratic incumbents."


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