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Battles Are Brewing for Control of the Senate
Wed Aug 20, 5:39 PM ET
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By Terry M. Neal, washingtonpost.com Staff Writer

If it weren't for the show in California, August would be a lazy month for politics. With Congress and the president on vacation, August provides the time needed to take an early look at next year's battle for control of the narrowly divided U.S. Senate.

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The House appears to be solidly in the GOP's hands. But in the Senate, the Republicans hold only a one-seat majority. Democrats will be defending 19 seats to the GOP's 15 and although less than a third of those 34 seats are truly competitive, control is truly up for grabs. If there is an advantage at this point it is probably a small one for the GOP, based less on national trends than circumstances in individual states.

That impression, and those that follow, were culled primarily from conversations with two of Washington's most respected nonpartisan election analysts -- Stuart Rothenberg, editor of The Rothenberg Political Report, and Jennifer Duffy, who analyzes Senate races for the Cook Political Report – and officials at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Where the Action Is

The most serious battleground is likely to be the southeast region, where Democrats will face tough tests in Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Florida. The outcome of two of those contests could hinge on whether North Carolina Sen. John Edwards and Florida Sen. Bob Graham will stay in the presidential race or focus on defending their Senate seats.

Perhaps the best opportunity Republicans have to pick up a win is in Georgia, where the retirement of popular Democratic incumbent Zell Miller has left his party scrambling to come up with a candidate. Former Atlanta mayor and U.N. ambassador Andrew Young has been making noises about getting in the race, which would at least make it competitive. Young is among the best-known and most popular politicians in the state and one of the few black Democrats who could capture a sizeable chunk of the white vote. Even with Young in it, the seat still leans Republican, given the state's trend toward the GOP.

A number of potentially strong candidates could battle it out in a Republican primary, including Reps. Johnny Isakson and Mac Collins, and African American businessmen Al Bartell and Herman Cain.

Retirement could also spell trouble for Democrats in South Carolina, where Ernest "Fritz" Hollings plans to step down after more than a third of a century in the Senate. Republican candidates are stepping all over themselves in a fierce primary battle, with Rep. Jim DeMint, former attorney general Charlie Condon, developer Thomas Ravenal and Myrtle Beach Mayor Mark McBride all considered credible candidates.

But Democratic candidates are stepping up to defend the seat. State Education Superintendent Inez Tenenbaum, who has proven to be an adroit and successful campaigner (Republicans say she's had sub-par competition), seems to be the favorite of national Democrats. But Columbia Mayor Bob Coble is also seen as a decent potential candidate.

North Carolina could be a problem for Democrats even if Edwards decides to put all his efforts into staying in the Senate. Elon University polls show his job approval rating hasn't been above 50 percent since February 2002. His reelection numbers are soft, too, and Republicans consider this seat a good opportunity for a pick up.

The national Republicans have already lined up behind Richard M. Burr, an ambitious five-term congressman from the Winston-Salem area. Burr was talked out of running in the 2002 Senate primary against Elizabeth Hanford Dole, who went on to defeat Erskine Bowles, a former chief of staff in the Clinton White House. Bowles would likely become the top Democratic contender for the seat should Edwards not seek reelection. On the GOP side, Bush political adviser Karl Rove is said to have paved the way for Burr. Burr is off to a strong start raising money, but is still relatively unknown outside his congressional district.

Florida is generally considered safe for the Democrats if Graham decides to seek reelection. If not, it could be a free-for-all. Rep. Mark Foley and former congressman Bill McCollum, who lost the Senate race last year, are battling it out in the Republican primary, and the field could grow. On the Democratic side, Rep. Peter Deutsch, former Miami-Dade mayor Alex Penelas and state Education Commissioner Better Castor are mentioned as the leaders on a crowded list of potential candidates.

In contrast to the four southeastern seats that Republicans are targeting, Democrats are confident about their opportunities to pick up seats in two states, Illinois and Alaska.

They are particularly gleeful about Illinois, where Republican Peter G. Fitzgerald -- a one-term senator who narrowly sent Carol Moseley Braun packing in 1998 -- is retiring. Even Republicans acknowledge it will be a difficult seat to hold, considering how the state has trended Democratic lately.

Illinois could also have one of the most crowded ballots next year, with so many people running -- or talking of running -- it might be easier to count the number of Illinoisans who aren't. Wealthy investment banker Blair Hull, state comptroller Dan Hynes and state Sen. Barack Obama top the list on the Democratic side. Republicans unsuccessfully attempted to recruit their top two choices, including former governor Jim Edgar. The GOP field includes wealthy investment banker-turned-school teacher Jack Ryan and businessman Andy McKenna Jr.

In Alaska, Democrats are eyeing the seat of Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who was appointed to the position by her father, former senator Frank Murkowski, when he left the Senate to become governor. Democrats are making a big deal of the nepotism issue. And in a state that's about as Republican as it gets, they've recruited perhaps the best candidate they could find: former governor Tony Knowles, one of the few popular and well-known Democrats in the state.

The Rest of the Best

Republicans are also keeping an eye on South Dakota and Nevada. But the GOP's hopes in those states rest largely on whether their top-tier candidates enter the race. In South Dakota, Republicans are waiting to hear whether former Republican congressman John Thune --who lost last year's hotly contested Senate race against Tim Johnson by only 524 votes -- will challenge Minority Leader Tom Daschle. The party's hopes in Nevada rest on Rep. Jim Gibbons's decision on whether to take on incumbent Harry Reid.

If Louisiana's Democratic Sen. John Breaux decides to retire, as some have speculated he will do, his seat could be ripe for the picking, national GOP officials believe. If Oklahoma's Don Nickles retires, as some believe he will do, Democrats believe Rep. Brad Carson or Attorney General Drew Edmondson could offer competitive challenges.

Democrats also believe they have an outside chance to defeat Missouri's Kit Bond and Kentucky's Jim Bunning.

There are some minor disagreements among the people we talked to about the competitiveness of races in other states. But, for the most part, Talking Points believes most states will remain in the hands of the party that currently control them. Democrats control seats in Indiana, California, Oregon, New York, Maryland, North Dakota, Connecticut, Wisconsin, Hawaii, Vermont, Arkansas, and Washington. Republicans control seats in Arizona, Utah, Kansas, Colorado, Iowa, New Hampshire, Alabama, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Idaho.

"We're cautiously optimistic," said National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman Dan Allen. "We have a lot of targets of opportunity, and the most fertile area for us is going to be down south."

His counterpart at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Brad Woodhouse, predicts Democrats will narrowly regain the Senate. "It goes without saying that we have a challenge to take back the Senate, but it's one that I think we can meet, a test I think we can pass."

Fifteen months before the election, much of this is still up in the air. Local and state issues that could have a big impact on what happens next year are still playing out. Some key personal decisions about retirements and candidacies are still being pondered. Changes in the national landscape could tip the balance. Will the U.S. find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq (news - web sites)? Will body bags keep continue to come from that war-torn country? Will the economy rebound -- most importantly with significant job creation? Will there be another major terrorist attack in the United States or against U.S. forces? Will the lights go out again on the eastern seaboard?

The answers to these questions could come at any time -- even in the lazy month of August.


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