The battle for control of the Senate next year has dramatically shifted in favor of Republicans because of Democratic retirements across the South and high-level White House recruiting.
Election analysts now believe that the Republicans will not only significantly expand their 51-48 Senate majority by two or three seats, and possibly more, but will strengthen the Republican Party’s growing political dominance in the Southern and border states for the remainder of this decade.
The 100th seat is held by a Democrat-leaning independent.
The senatorial lineup in the 13 Southern and border states currently stands at 19 Republicans and seven Democrats. Republican strategists say they will be able to sharply increase their numbers in the region for two reasons: the open seats are in politically conservative states that President Bush won in 2000, in most cases by wide margins, and because it is a region where he receives his highest voter-approval scores.
If Mr. Bush wins a second term, a larger Senate majority would significantly boost his chances of getting the rest of his legislative agenda and his blocked judicial nominations approved.
“The South is shaping up to be very fertile territory for us, with the Democrats forced to defend at least four open seats, and with President Bush at the top of the ticket, he will help all of our candidates,” said Dan Allen, chief spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
The four Senate Democrats who have announced they will not seek re-election are Sens. Zell Miller of Georgia, who says he will support Mr. Bush next year; presidential candidate John Edwards of North Carolina; Bob Graham of Florida, who abandoned his candidacy for the White House; and Ernest F. Hollings of South Carolina, who is ending his sixth term and a 38-year career in office.
They could be joined by a fifth Democrat, Sen. John B. Breaux of Louisiana, who has yet to say whether he will seek a fourth term amid widespread speculation that he will step down.
The Republican Party’s growing political strength in the South, together with a bonanza of open Democratic seats, could dramatically redraw the political map in the South, strategists say.
“If the Republicans win Senate seats in the Carolinas and Georgia next year (all quite possible), they’ll hold all of the U.S. Senate seats in seven contiguous Southern states starting in Virginia and stretching around to Mississippi,” elections analyst Stuart Rothenberg wrote in Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper.
Meanwhile, two Republican senators also have announced that they will not seek re-election: Sens. Don Nickles of Oklahoma and Peter G. Fitzgerald of Illinois, a heavily Democratic state.
Democratic strategists say that Mr. Fitzgerald’s seat is their best shot at a pickup next year, .along with that of Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Alaska Republican, who has been fighting charges of nepotism after her father, Gov. Frank H. Murkowski, appointed her to finish his unexpired term.
Among the four Southern open races, Republicans believe their strongest chances are in Georgia and North and South Carolina.
Among those vying for the Republican nomination in Georgia are Reps. Johnny Isakson and Mac Collins and Godfather’s Pizza executive Herman Cain. Mr. Isakson, a prolific fund-raiser with $3 million in his campaign war chest, is the front-runner in the race. Democrats, meantime, have had a hard time finding a heavyweight candidate to run. Former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young considered running, but decided against it.
In South Carolina, Rep. Jim DeMint is the Republican Party’s front-runner, followed by former state Attorney General Charlie Condon, Myrtle Beach Mayor Mark McBride and developer Thomas Ravenel. On the Democratic side is state Superintendent of Education Inez Tenenbaum.
Former Clinton White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles is the Democrats’ leading contender in North Carolina, even though he badly lost his previous Senate race against Republican Elizabeth Dole in 2002 by 54 percent to 45 percent. The Republican Party’s nominee will be Rep. Richard M. Burr, who already has $4 million in cash on hand for his campaign.
Four Democrats have announced their candidacies for Mr. Graham’s seat in Florida: Reps. Peter Deutsch and Allen Boyd, Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas and former state Education Commissioner Betty Castor.
Republicans, who have not yet been able to find a top candidate to run in Florida, were cheered by the recent news that Housing and Urban Development Secretary Mel Martinez, who had declined White House pleas to run, was now reconsidering his decision. Republican strategists say he would be their strongest candidate and Mr. Bush has pledged to aggressively campaign for him.