Monday, November 29, 2004

Democratic senators in the states that President Bush won will face a tough road to re-election in 2006, Republicans say, with their sights set most eagerly on two Democrats named Nelson — Sens. Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Bill Nelson of Florida.

“They have something to worry about, and they need look no farther than Tom Daschle,” said Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican, referring to this month’s defeat of the Senate minority leader from the red state of South Dakota, which Mr. Bush won by 22 percentage points.

“Any Democratic senator running for re-election in a state where the president did extremely well has got to know they are an endangered species,” he said.

Mr. Cornyn said he expects Mr. Bush will “use his capital” to help Republican Senate candidates in 2006, and “these red-state Democratic senators are particularly vulnerable.”

“For Democrats who were hoping the worst was over in 2004, there isn’t a lot of good news,” said Nathan Gonzales, political editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

In Nebraska, Gov. Mike Johanns, a Republican, looks like Mr. Nelson’s probable challenger for 2006, and Mr. Bush is expected to campaign on his behalf. In Florida, Republicans will be gunning for Mr. Nelson and hope to recruit a big name such as term-limited Gov. Jeb Bush to challenge him.

“These two definitely are going to be watching their backs,” said David Mark, editor of Campaigns & Elections magazine. “Particularly on judicial nominees, they’re going to be real careful on who they decide to block.”

Political analysts say Sens. Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico and Kent Conrad of North Dakota could have problems too, depending on whom Republicans find to challenge them.

Mr. Bush would be a particularly effective force in the Plains states — he won Nebraska by 35 percentage points and North Dakota by 27 points on Nov. 2. His victory margins in Florida and New Mexico were modest — five points and one point respectively.

Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia — also a red-state Democrat up for re-election in 2006 — will be re-elected if he chooses to run for a ninth term at age 88, analysts say. But if he retires, Democrats will have a headache trying to keep the seat in a state that gave Mr. Bush a 13-percentage-point triumph.

Red-state Democratic senators may end up voting with Republicans often on judges and tax cuts, Mr. Mark predicted, a prophecy turned into a warning by Mr. Cornyn.

“Senators from red states who continue that obstruction or join in it do so at their own peril,” the Texan said.

But analysts also say Republicans shouldn’t be overly confident or place too much stock in what happened to Mr. Daschle.

First, his case was unique, analysts say, because he was a party leader and thus closely associated with the party’s liberal positions.

Second, much depends on whether Republicans can recruit strong candidates to run against these Democrats. Mr. Daschle lost in large part because he faced a “talented and well-known candidate in the state,” who “ran a near-perfect campaign,” Mr. Gonzales said.

Republicans won’t have Mr. Bush’s name at the top of the ticket in 2006, which helped the party’s candidates this year.

Likewise, conservative Democrats from red states won’t have a liberal Massachusetts presidential candidate heading their ticket to hurt them, so “they can tailor their message and campaign as they like” in 2006, Mr. Gonzales said.

A few Republican senators face problems of their own as they seek re-election in 2006 in states Sen. John Kerry won this year: Pennsylvania’s Rick Santorum, Rhode Island’s Lincoln Chafee and Maine’s Olympia J. Snowe. The latter two have liberal voting records, making Mr. Santorum the most vulnerable blue-state Republican in 2006, analysts say.

“Republicans … shouldn’t overread the defeat of [Mr. Daschle],” said Brad Woodhouse, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “And they’ll need to look over their shoulders in 2006 as well.”

As for Mr. Nelson of Nebraska, spokesman David DiMartino said the senator knows it will be a tough race, but isn’t worried.

“We are realistic that we have an uphill fight in a very conservative state, but Ben Nelson’s record reflects Nebraska values and he’ll be proud to defend it,” he said.

All acknowledge that much could happen between now and 2006 — on everything from the Middle East to Social Security reform — that could affect the elections.

“Trying to predict what the political landscape will look like in two years is a little like trying to predict when [suspended Indiana Pacers player] Ron Artest is going to have his next temper tantrum,” Mr. Woodhouse said.

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