- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 25, 2006

Yes, there have been growing Democratic advantages in generic congressional polling: Increasingly larger percentages of registered voters are telling pollsters they prefer a Democratic-controlled Congress. Yes, Chuck Schumer has built an impressive cash-on-hand advantage at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. With $27.4 million in the bank at the end of February, the DSCC had 90 percent more ready cash than the National Republican Senatorial Committee. And yes, President Bush’s low job-approval numbers are casting a large shadow over November’s midterm election. Nevertheless, Democrats still face an uphill struggle to recapture control of the Senate.

The Senate’s current lineup includes 55 Republicans, 44 Democrats and Vermont’s Democratic-caucusing independent James Jeffords, whose 2001 defection from the Republican Party delivered Senate control to the Democratic Party before it lost it in the 2002 election. For Democrats to regain a Senate majority, Rep. Bernie Sanders, Vermont’s at-large Socialist congressman who caucuses with the Democrats in the House, would have to win Vermont’s open Senate seat. Beyond “retaining” Vermont, Democrats would have to achieve a net gain of six other seats. Five Republican incumbents are believed to face the most trouble. And Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist’s retirement puts Tennessee in play.

In the blue state of Pennsylvania, two-term conservative Republican Sen. Rick Santorum faces Robert Casey Jr., a pro-life Democrat whose father was re-elected governor of the Keystone state in 1990 with 68 percent of the vote. Pennsylvania sent Mr. Santorum to the Senate with 47 percent of the vote in 1994 and then re-elected him with 52 percent in 2000. Montana’s three-term Republican Conrad Burns, who won re-election with 51 percent in 2000 against a Democrat whom red-state Montanans elected governor in 2004, has since been associated with scandal-plagued lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Sen. Lincoln Chafee, who was appointed to succeed his father in 1999, was the only Republican senator who opposed the Iraq war in 2002; he and John McCain were the only Republican senators who opposed both the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts. Mr. Chafee first faces a tough primary; if successful there, he then confronts the decidedly liberal voters of Rhode Island, who gave Al Gore 61 percent of their vote in 2000 and John Kerry 59 percent in 2004. Two-term centrist Sen. Mike DeWine must face Ohio’s cranky voters in the midst of exploding Republican scandals in the state.

In a 2002 special election, then-Rep. Jim Talent defeated incumbent Democratic Sen. Jean Carnahan with 49.8 percent of the vote. The freshman Mr. Talent is now involved in a tight race to win a full term. Meanwhile, Democratic Rep. Harold Ford, the scion of a Tennessee political machine that has shown an uncanny ability to max out the Memphis vote, will face the winner of a three-way Republican primary to replace Mr. Frist.

Republicans say they like their chances in the blue states of Maryland and Minnesota, where Democratic incumbents are retiring, and in New Jersey, which last elected a Republican senator 34 years ago. Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington, who in 2000 spent $5 million more than incumbent Sen. Slade Gorton and won the race by fewer than 2,500 votes, likely faces a tough race against former Safeco CEO Mike McGavick.

The failure of Republicans to recruit their first-choice candidates in the red states of Nebraska, North Dakota and West Virginia and the heretofore lackluster campaign of Katherine Harris in Florida may end up giving the most vulnerable Democrats a relatively free ride.

For Democrats to capitalize on this gift and regain control of the Senate, they may have to: successfully defend all their own seats in play; win virtually all the close races; and, in the process, defeat all the vulnerable Republican incumbents. That is a very tall order.

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