Senate Republicans are looking to snatch three Southern seats from Democrats in next year’s election now that Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina has bowed out of running for re-election.
The North Carolina race joins two other open Senate contests in the Republican-leaning South — in Georgia and South Carolina — where Republicans hope to widen their slim Senate majority.
“I’m cautiously optimistic,” said Sen. George Allen, Virginia Republican and chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “In all of [the races] we have outstanding candidates in good terrain.”
Jennifer Palmieri, spokeswoman for Mr. Edwards, said Democrats’ chances in North Carolina and elsewhere will only be better with Mr. Edwards running for president.
“The best chance for North Carolina to hold on to that seat is for John Edwards to be the nominee,” she said. “The best chance for Democrats in general is to have John Edwards campaigning for president in every House district and every Senate district. That’s what makes him so attractive to be at the head of the ticket.”
Holding on to their three open seats in the South will be no cakewalk. In each of the Southern states where Democrats are losing incumbents, voters supported President Bush in the 2000 election with 55 percent or more of the vote.
“In presidential-election years, Democrats running in North Carolina for the Senate don’t do as well as they do in the off-years,” said Ted Arrington, professor of politics at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
Already running hard is Republican Rep. Richard M. Burr, who ended the second quarter with $3.6 million on hand.
The most-talked-about Democratic nominee for next year’s race is Erskine Bowles, former chief of staff for the Clinton administration. He lost last year’s Senate race, with 45 percent of the vote, to Sen. Elizabeth Dole.
In addition, Mr. Bowles faces a possible primary challenge from, among others, former North Carolina House Speaker Dan Blue, who is black.
“If he runs, Blue knows he’s coming from behind and he has to run negative,” Mr. Arrington said. “But Bowles can’t return in kind because he’ll need the black vote in November.”
Even if Mr. Edwards had remained in the race, Republicans were hopeful about unseating him.
Mr. Burr “was going to be one of our strongest candidates anyway,” Mr. Allen said yesterday. “This just bolsters that campaign even more.”
But Democrats don’t plan to let go of any of their seats too easily.
“We’re not ceding an inch in the South,” said Brad Woodhouse, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “We’re going to play hard in the South and we’re going to play to win in the South.”