- The Washington Times - Monday, May 5, 2008

“Saturday Night Live” veteran Al Franken should have had an easier run for U.S. Senate in Minnesota against an embattled Republican incumbent but is being dogged by $70,000 in unpaid taxes and is slipping in the polls — just one of the topsy-turvy races clouding Democrats’ expectations of big gains in November.

The Franken tax flap, a bruising Democratic primary in Oregon and signs of trouble for the Democratic incumbent in New Jersey have Senate Republicans thinking they might salvage a bad election year from a potentially terrible one.

Republicans face no easier task in the House, and have little chance of wresting control of the chamber from Democrats in November. Yet a few vulnerable Democratic seats give Republicans hope of chipping away at the majority’s 235-199 advantage.

The unexpected twist is welcome for Republicans, who are grappling with economic woes that voters typically blame on the president’s party, continued dissatisfaction with the Iraq war and a huge fundraising disadvantage.

“This year for us is going to be about defense,” said Rebecca Fisher, spokeswoman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), which is guarding six vacant seats and lags its Democratic counterpart in fundraising by a 2-1 margin.



“But what we’ve seen in the last few months is a lot of change in these races, even races we were very nervous about,” she said. “As worried as we were about a significant number of seats in the beginning, that is beginning to change.”

House Minority Leader John A. Boehner called the November elections “a battle Republicans can win.”

“America is a center-right country, and middle-class families and small businesses have no interest in Democrats’ agenda of higher taxes, ever-higher gas prices, more wasteful spending, government-run health care that will drive up costs and weak national security,” the Ohio Republican said last week.

The party still faces an uphill battle to save Sen. John E. Sununu against Jeanne Shaheen, a three-time governor in New Hampshire. The state took a dramatic turn toward Democrats in 2006.

Democrats also are poised to capture the open seats of retiring Republican Sens. Pete V. Domenici of New Mexico and John W. Warner of Virginia.

Republican strategists say privately that the party likely will lose all three seats but defeat Sen. Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana, one of the most vulnerable Democrats on the map. The net gain of two seats would boost the chamber’s Democratic majority from 49, with two Democrat-leaning independents, to 51 plus two.

Reps. Steve Pearce and Heather A. Wilson of New Mexico are fighting furiously for the Senate Republican nomination while Rep. Tom Udall, a Democrat, builds a sturdy lead for the general election. Mr. Udall topped Mr. Pearce 54 percent to 40 percent and Mrs. Wilson 56 percent to 36 percent in a recent Rasmussen Reports survey.

In Virginia, a state ripe to turn from red to blue, former Gov. Mark Warner is favored to pick up the Senate seat for the Democrats against likely Republican rival James S. Gilmore III, also a former governor.

Mr. Gilmore trails in fundraising and must fend off a challenge from the right by Delegate Robert G. Marshall of Prince William County at the state Republican Party convention May 31.

Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman Matt Miller said Mr. Warner’s high approval rating coupled with Mr. Gilmore’s unpopularity upon leaving office in 2002 create a recipe for success.

“You put those two together and it’s not surprising that Warner is in a commanding position,” he said.

In Minnesota, Mr. Franken looked strong against Sen. Norm Coleman, one of the Republican Party’s most vulnerable incumbents.

Minnesota is trending Democratic, and both President Bush and the Iraq war are wildly unpopular in the state. Minnesota voters elected Democrat Amy Klobuchar to an open U.S. Senate seat in 2006 by a 20-point margin.

Mr. Franken, roiled for more than a month by questions about his personal finances, announced Tuesday that he owed about $70,000 in unpaid taxes in at least 17 states where he performed between 2003 and 2007. He blamed bad accounting and said he overpaid taxes by that much in Minnesota and New York.

Critics smelled a cover-up and dubbed the comedian a “scofflaw” and a “tax deadbeat.”

A Rasmussen Reports poll shows Mr. Coleman captured 50 percent of surveyed voters for the first time and opened a seven-point lead over Mr. Franken. The incumbent had a thin lead, 48 percent to 46 percent, in March and Mr. Franken enjoyed a three-point lead in February.

Sen. Gordon H. Smith, Oregon Republican, has struggled against low approval ratings, but the Democrats vying to challenge him, state House Speaker Jeff Merkley and political upstart Steve Novick, are locked in a tough primary contest.

Mr. Merkley, the favorite of the party establishment, is suffering the brunt of the damage from incessant criticism of his early support of the Iraq war coming from Mr. Novick, a 4-foot-9-inch Harvard lawyer and activist with a hook for a left hand.

A potential spoiler for either Democrat in the general election is John Frohnmayer, an independent candidate who would appeal mostly to liberals.

“Everything that needs to happen for us in that race is happening,” said the NRSC’s Ms. Fisher. “We feel really good about that race.”

Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, New Jersey Democrat, leads primary rival Rep. Robert E. Andrews, but polls show most voters say it is time for the 84-year-old incumbent to go. These numbers suggest the Republican nominee will have a shot at the seat.

About 61 percent of likely New Jersey voters and 56 percent of Democrats say they want someone new in the Senate. Just 26 percent said they want Mr. Lautenberg re-elected, according to a Monmouth University poll for Gannett released last week.

In the House, at least 25 Republicans and about a half-dozen Democrats are retiring. Many political analysts, noting a huge fundraising advantage for Democrats, say it could take more than one election cycle for Republicans to seriously pose a challenge for the chamber’s majority.

Many of the retirements are in safe Republican districts, and the party is aggressively targeting the 21 freshmen Democrats who hold seats in districts carried by Mr. Bush in 2004 but which turned with the Democratic tide in 2006.

“With John McCain squaring off against a polarizing liberal candidate, the playing field for House Republicans expands,” Mr. Boehner said.

One of the most vulnerable first-term House Democrats is Rep. Tim Mahoney of Florida, who was elected in 2006 after Republican incumbent Rep. Mark Foley resigned amid a sex scandal involving former male House pages. Mr. Mahoney leans conservative for a Democrat, but the South Florida district is a Republican haven.

Rep. Nancy Boyda of Kansas is another Democratic freshman who is vulnerable, though she is being helped by a drawn-out Republican primary contest between the conservative district’s former incumbent, Jim Ryun, and state Treasurer Lynn Jenkins.

Republicans also are eager to recapture the Houston-area seat of former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. Democrat Nick Lampson won the seat in 2006 after Mr. DeLay stepped down amid ethics charges.

Some Republican House seats also are vulnerable. Rep. Don Young, Alaska Republican, faces both federal and state corruption probes involving an Alaska oil-services firm and a Florida highway project. Alaskans are getting a widespread sense that it’s time for Mr. Young, 74, to leave after serving as the state’s sole House member since 1973. Mr. Young faces strong challengers in both the Republican primary and, if he survives, in the general election.

SENATE RACES TO WATCH

New Hampshire: Republican John E. Sununu is perhaps the most vulnerable sitting senator, as Democratic challenger and former Gov. Jeanne Shaheen has a strong lead in the polls. Democrats made big gains in the state in 2006, largely on a tide of anti-Bush sentiment. Mr. Sununu’s strong early support for the Iraq war has led Democrats to portray him as a Bush lackey. But Mr. Sununu’s campaign war chest is more than double Ms. Shaheen’s.

Minnesota: The state has a historic love affair with outsider politicians, and comedian and political talk-show host Al Franken would be the latest on that list if he can unseat vulnerable first-term incumbent Sen. Norm Coleman, a Republican. Mr. Coleman in 2002 narrowly defeated former Vice President Walter Mondale, who was running a hastily organized campaign after incumbent Paul Wellstone died in a plane crash weeks before the election. Mr. Franken’s campaign has hit some snags, but Mr. Coleman’s once-strong support for Mr. Bush and the Iraq war haven’t endeared him to many Minnesotans.

Colorado: With the retirement of Republican Sen. Wayne Allard in November, the expected matchup of Democrat Rep. Mark Udall and former Republican House member Bob Schaffer is shaping up to be a close race. Mr. Udall represents left-leaning Boulder, while Mr. Schaffer represented east Colorado in the House for two terms. Mr. Udall has an edge in fundraising and name recognition. Mr. Schaffer ran for the Senate in 2004 but lost to brewer Pete Coors in the Republican primary.

Maine: Republican incumbent Susan Collins most likely will win re-election in November, but it might not be easy. Her main Democratic challenger, five-term Rep. Tom Allen, is against the Iraq war and has tried to portray Miss Collins as a Bush ally. But Miss Collins is liberal on many issues for a Republican, which plays well to Maine’s centrist electorate.

HOUSE RACES TO WATCH

Alaska 1: Republican Don Young has served as Alaska’s sole House member since 1973. But a federal corruption probe, as well as Mr. Young’s help with the infamous “bridge to nowhere,” give Democrats hope they can take his seat. Democratic challengers include Ethan Berkowitz, a former minority leader in the Alaska House. Mr. Young also will have strong competition in the primary from Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell, who has the endorsement of Gov. Sarah Palin, a Republican.

Florida 16: Democratic incumbent Rep. Tim Mahoney was elected in 2006 after Republican Rep. Mark Foley resigned amid charges of inappropriate contact with male House pages. Mr. Mahoney is a member of the conservative Democratic Blue Dog Coalition, but that might not be enough for this Republican-leading South Florida district.

Kansas 2: Another Democratic freshman, Rep. Nancy Boyda, faces a tough re-election battle in this conservative district. A drawn-out Republican primary contest between the district’s former incumbent Jim Ryun and state Treasurer Lynn Jenkins could buoy Mrs. Boyda’s chances.

Alabama 5: With nine-term Democrat incumbent Rep. Robert E. “Bud” Cramer set to retire in November, Republicans are well-poised to take control of this district, which President Bush carried in 2000 and 2004. But a crowded primary field in both parties make this contest difficult to predict.

Oregon 5: This northwest Oregon district has been up for grabs since Democratic incumbent Rep. Darlene Hooley unexpectedly announced in February she was stepping down. Republican candidate Mike Erickson, a wealthy businessman, won 43 percent of the vote against Ms. Hooley in 2006. President Bush narrowly carried the district in 2004.

Pennsylvania 10: Democratic freshman Rep. Christopher Carney beat Republican incumbent Don Sherwood in 2006 after Mr. Sherwood was involved in a sex scandal. But Mr. Carney now faces a formidable Republican challenger in businessman Chris Hackett in this conservative district in northeastern Pennsylvania.

Texas 22: Rep. Nick Lampson, a Democrat, won this Houston-area seat in 2006 after incumbent and former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay stepped down after he was indicted on campaign-finance charges. The Republican-leaning district has attracted more than a dozen Republican challengers, including Pete Olson, a Navy veteran and a former chief of staff to Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican.

Ohio 15: Eight-term Republican Rep. Deborah Pryce is not seeking re-election for this Columbus-based seat, which is expected to be one of the most tightly contested House races in the nation. Democrat Mary Jo Kilroy, who narrowly lost to Mrs. Pryce in 2006, is again running. Her main Republican challenger is state Sen. Steve Stivers, an Iraq War veteran.

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