- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 28, 2005

White House political adviser Karl Rove’s attempt to persuade North Dakota Gov. John Hoeven to run against Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad next year underscores the overriding factor that likely will determine who wins the key 2006 Senate races — recruitment.

Mr. Conrad’s seat is considered safe right now, but it could fall into the vulnerable column if Mr. Rove can persuade the Republican governor, whose approval ratings are nearly 70 percent, to challenge the senator in a state that President Bush won last year with 63 percent of the vote.

Mr. Bush’s chief political strategist flew to Fargo, N.D., on Saturday to meet with the governor, who is leading Mr. Conrad in early head-to-head polls 35 percent to 27 percent — with 27 percent undecided. The White House has promised to give Mr. Hoeven its fullest support if he runs, but he has not revealed his intentions and isn’t expected to until later this fall.

The stakes in next year’s Senate races are high. Republicans, who hope to maintain their 55-seat majority, have opportunities to pick up open Democratic seats in Minnesota and Maryland. But two of their incumbents are facing rugged re-election battles in heavily Democratic Northeastern states — conservative Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and liberal Sen. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, who is being opposed in a party primary.

A negative political climate has compounded the Republicans’ problems. Mr. Bush’s job approval polls have fallen to 42 percent, and surveys show deeper dissatisfaction about the economy, gasoline prices and the overall direction of the country — complaints that could help the Democrats score some net gains.

“I see Democrats picking up a couple of states. I think there is a slim chance they can pick up the Senate,” said Jennifer Duffy, the Senate elections tracker at the Cook Political Report.

“Today, the playing field is tilted in favor of Democrats. It doesn’t mean it will be tilted as much or even in the same direction next month, let alone a year from now, but that’s where it is now,” Charlie Cook writes in his latest Senate election analysis.

In addition, more Republican seats seem to be in play than Democratic ones, and rumors that Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi will decide in December not to seek re-election could force Republicans to defend another open seat.

But Republicans see their situation in a much different light. Virtually all of the party’s incumbents are expected to retain their seats because they are in heavily Republican states where Democrats have not done well for some time.

Although Pennsylvania and Rhode Island are problematic for the Republicans, senior party campaign officials point to several Democratic incumbents whose re-election polls are weak and where Republicans have recruited strong challengers. Among them:

• Washington: Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell likely will face business executive Mike McGavick, the chief executive officer of Safeco, who was a top aide to former Republican Sen. Slade Gorton and is wealthy enough to finance a major campaign. Mrs. Cantwell’s re-election polls are at 39 percent in a race that has been rated a “tossup” by congressional elections analyst Stuart Rothenberg.

• Minnesota: Republican Rep. Mark Kennedy, who has represented just about every part of the state during his political career, is the party’s nominee for this open Democratic seat in a state that has been trending Republican. The Democrats, however, have not picked a nominee, though their strongest candidate is Patty Wetterling, whom Mr. Kennedy beat in 2004.

• Maryland: Republican Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele faces difficulty to succeed retiring Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes in this heavily Democratic state, but he has statewide name recognition as the No. 2 official in Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.’s administration and the support of a united party. The Democrats, on the other hand, face a divisive, multicandidate primary battle, with no heavyweight candidates.

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