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That elusive Senate

By Paul M. Weyrich
web posted October 25, 2004

Oh, that Senate! The races just are not settled. Predictions for the House are that the GOP will either stay the same or gain a seat or two. Veterans, such as Phil Crane of Illinois and Chris Shays of Connecticut, are in trouble. Losses by them could offset likely gains in Texas and elsewhere. There are several open seats now held by the GOP that might be Democrat pick-ups. But when all is said and done, barring some highly unlikely development, such as a Kerry landslide, the House is likely to remain about as it is. If President Bush is re-elected, that means he will have a generally friendly body with which to initiate most of his programs. It means if there is a President Kerry, he will likely have to compromise even if he manages to take the Senate with him as he wins the election. The House can be pretty tough in negotiating, so he will have to modify his program if he is to accomplish anything.

But that elusive Senate, if people tell you for sure they know what is going to happen there, they must be in touch with Nancy's Reagan's astrologer or perhaps they have just communed with Hillary. Eleven races are in play. Eleven, you say? But the major media says there are only nine races in play. You see, they absolutely refuse to give any coverage to the Tim Michels vs. Senator Russ Feingold contest in Wisconsin or the Congressman George R. Nethercutt vs. Senator Patty Murray in Washington State. Granted, both are longer shots than other races but they are still on the table.

The major media, always sympathetic to the liberals, don't want to talk up these races lest more money be made available to the challenger candidates. Michels was the surprise winner of a hotly contested but not nasty GOP three-way primary. He is a veteran and a businessman. Feingold narrowly won over Senator Bob Kasten in 1992 and then six years later was narrowly re-elected against Congressman Mark Neumann. He has never been as popular as the senior Senator, Herb Kohl. His work on so-called campaign reform, his one major accomplishment (McCain-Feingold), has blown up in his face after the 527's ended up putting more big money into the political process than there had been before the reforms.

An incumbent has great advantages and it is always hard to defeat one of either party but Michels, who is putting some of his own money into the campaign, is an ideal candidate to take on an incumbent. Again I am not saying Michels will win but I am saying the race is within striking distance; the same for the Nethercutt challenge of Patty Murray. Nethercutt has refuted some of the statements Murray has made, such as suggesting that people in the Middle East are grateful to Osama bin Laden for building schools and roads. This is Washington State and Washington doesn't elect Republicans often or easily. Again, do I predict a Nethercutt upset? Not at this point but he has reduced the race to a single-digit differential.

Alan Keyes (right) has fought a good fight against Barack Obama but the Democrat is practically a lock to win
Alan Keyes (right) has fought a good fight against Barack Obama but the Democrat is practically a lock to win

One of two seemingly settled races is in Illinois, Barak Obama vs. Alan Keyes. The only question there is the margin by which Obama will defeat Keyes. Keyes has made a valiant attempt but Illinois is increasingly Democratic. Keyes got a late start, has been a resident of Maryland and had very little money with which to run a statewide race. Obama, who is a hard-core leftist in a moderate package, has been touted for years as an up and coming star who will be the first male Black Democrat elected to the U.S. Senate. The other decided race is in Georgia where Congressman Johnny Isakson is far ahead of Representative Denise Majette, who does not have the funds to make a race of it.

Elsewhere Democrats have put another $400,000 into Kentucky where gaffes by Senator Jim Bunning have turned a cakewalk into a close contest. Republicans insist Bunning will pull it out but he has had to contend with the liberal Louisville Courier's suggesting that Bunning is mentally ill. Bunning only won by 4,000 votes six years ago. It remains to be seen how much trouble he really is in.

The most interesting contest is in South Dakota. Republican sources there tell me they believe things are looking up for the challenger, former Congressman John Thune, who lost to Senator Tim Johnson by 527 votes two years ago. The incumbent, of course, is Senator Tom Daschle, the former Majority, now Minority, Leader.

Daschle: In some trouble
Daschle: In some trouble

Daschle has spent over $9 million and still falls below 50 per cent in every poll. He has been on TV since the summer of 2003. Right now ads are flying back and forth with Daschle claiming he is pro-life, believes that marriage is between one man and one woman and accuses Thune of lying about his record. Some of Daschle's votes are problematic, as is the fund-raising letter he signed for the National Abortion Rights Action League in 2002 pleading for funds to save the "pro-choice" majority in the Senate. Moreover, recently when the Constitutional Amendment to protect traditional marriage was up for a vote in the Senate, he voted to continue filibustering the issue. Republican sources point to large crowds turning out for Thune (900 in Daschle's backyard), whereas Daschle could barely muster 300 for a similar event.

Clearly the race is too close to call. In my view, it hinges on who South Dakota voters believe will be in the White House and will control the Senate. If they think Bush will be re-elected and the GOP will keep control of the Senate, then Thune is likely to win because citizens then will have a Member of their delegation who can deal with GOP power centers. Right now the three-person South Dakota delegation consists of Democrats. On the other hand, if the perception is that John Kerry will win and the Senate will be in the hands of Democrats, then I think Daschle will be re-elected because it helps a small state to be able to deal with Democrat power centers, especially as the Majority Leader.

Just what are the odds of the Democrats taking the Senate? The respected Charlie Cook, a Democrat who is a very astute observer of races, says 30 per cent. He says the Republicans have a 70 per cent chance of maintaining control of the Senate. With eleven races in play, Republicans have to win only four to stay where they are. Democrats, to become a majority, have to win eight out of the eleven.

Colorado for a long time looked like a lost cause for Republicans but Peter Coors seems to have come from behind and is now ahead in three different polls against Attorney General Jim Salazar. One thing Coors has going for him: Voters like him (those TV ads for Coors Lite all those years no doubt).

In Oklahoma, Republicans are a bit more optimistic now because the bulk of the "undecideds" are Bush Republicans. George Herbert Walker Bush gave former Congressman Tom Coburn a strong endorsement last week and there is some hope that the President himself will stop by before the race is over and give his blessing to Coburn. "That would be worth eight points," said veteran political consultant R. Marc Nuttle.

Coburn is running against current Congressman Brad Carson, who occupies the seat Coburn had when he was in Congress. Normally the race wouldn't be much of a contest but Carson is the best candidate the Democrats could have picked for the race, and Carson had a lot of money to get on TV as soon as the primary was over. Carson knew his opponent. Coburn was broke and still lacks the resources he needs to defend himself against outlandish charges. Moreover, Coburn made some comments that came back to haunt him. Still, this is Oklahoma. Almost 80 per cent of respondents in a recent poll done for Coburn said they considered themselves conservative or somewhat conservative.

In Alaska, where appointed Senator Lisa Murkowski has been trailing former Governor Tony Knowles seemingly forever, Murkowski has now pulled slightly ahead. Her father appointed her. In doing so he has become the most unpopular Governor in recent memory. She had that appointment hanging around her neck until she decisively defeated former Senate President Mike Miller. That gave her independent legitimacy and apparently now her campaign has a bit of momentum.

All the remaining races, South Carolina, North Carolina, Florida are all two to three-point contests with the Republicans leading but not by more than 50 per cent, so a strong close by a Democrat could bring a victory.

In Louisiana, there is no doubt that Congressman David Vitter is way out front. However, in that unusual state all candidates regardless of party run together. Vitter looks like he can get 45, maybe 46 per cent of the vote. If he would get more than 50 per cent, he could avoid a runoff but that seems unlikely. So the Senate election for that seat will be held December 5th. Indeed, if things are close, control of the Senate could be determined by that election. Louisiana is the only Southern state never to have elected a Republican.

As one GOP operative told me, "Last week I was ready to throw myself off of a building but this week the trends look much better." The question, of course, is what will the trends be on November 2nd.

Paul M. Weyrich is Chairman and CEO of the Free Congress Foundation.

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