Posted on September 27, 2004 in Washington Watch

While all eyes are focused on the race for the White House, it is important to note, as well, that 34 of the 100 seats in the United States Senate and all 435 seats in the House of Representatives are also being contested in this election year.

Republicans currently maintain control of both houses of Congress, with a two seat edge in the Senate (51 Republicans, 48 Democrats, and 1 Independent-who votes with the Democrats) and a 25 seat lead in the current House of Representatives. (230 Republicans, 204 Democrats, and 1 Independent).

Early this year it was assumed that Republicans would not face a challenge to their control of either Senate or the Congress. This was especially the case in the Senate where it was thought that Democrats would face insurmountable hurdles in November 2004.

Control of the Senate is important since it is that body that approves presidential appointees, sets the legislative agenda that can either facilitate or impede the President’s program, and has significant powers to hold hearings and investigate allegations of Executive Branch wrong-doing.

Of the 34 Senate seats being contested this year, the Democrats had to defend 19 with only 15 Republican-held Senate seats up for election. More to the point is the fact that five of the 19 Democratic seats were in the conservative deep South. And those were made all the more difficult for Democrats, because, in each case, they were “open seats” resulting from the of retirement of incumbents. All of this appeared to give Republicans an advantage and even the possibility of increasing their hold over the upper house.

At this point, however, the picture has somewhat changed-in large measure the result of the fact that Republicans also must now defend four “open seats” in Illinois, Colorado, Alaska, and Oklahoma.

In Illinois, State Senator Barack Obama, a young charismatic African American, has electrified the nation and his state with his strong leadership qualities. His keynote address at the Democratic convention established Obama as a future star in national politics. His chances for a victory in November were helped when his early Republican opponent, a wealthy businessman, was forced to withdraw in the midst of a marital scandal. When Illinois Republicans picked, as a replacement, an embarrassing and controversial opponent, Obama’s victory was assured. In very Republican Oklahoma, Democratic Congressman Brad Carson, a moderate, has also been helped by a scandal that has plagued his conservative Republican opponent, former Congressman Tom Coburn. The two were running neck and neck, with Coburn having repeatedly hurt himself with ill-tempered comments. But recent revelations of a disturbing medical malpractice case involving fraud have done even more to damage Coburn, a former doctor. Carson now holds a sizable lead.

In Alaska, former Democratic Governor Tony Knowles is running slightly ahead of Lisa Murkowski, the Republican. Murkowski is currently serving in the Senate having been appointed by her father. After he ran and won the Governor’s post in 2002, Murkowski Sr. selected his daughter to fill out the remaining two years of his term-an action that didn’t sit well with some voters. As a result, Knowles may become the first Democratic Senator elected in Alaska in decades.

In Colorado polls are showing that the Democrat, Attorney General Ken Salazar, is holding a slight but steady lead over Republican Pete Coors, head of the Coors Brewing Company. Coors had to run in a difficult primary race and, being new to politics, has suffered from a number of public miscues.

But even with these good fortunes, the Democrats chances for success will rise and fall on the outcome of five Southern contests in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, and Louisiana.

At present only in North Carolina, where former Clinton Chief of Staff and 2002 Senate candidate Erskine Bowles holds a steady lead over Congressman Richard Burr, do their chances look very good. In two other states, South Carolina and Florida, the Democratic and Republican candidates appear to be quite close, while in Georgia Republican Congressman Johnny Isakson appears to hold a sizable lead over one-term Congresswoman Denise Majette.

In Louisiana, the contest to replace popular moderate Democratic Senator John Breaux is still very much up in the air. Since Louisiana runs an open election in which all the candidates run in November, a Republican and three Democrats are in the race. If none of the four receives over 50% of the total vote on November 2 (and it appears likely that no one will), the top two finishers will compete in a runoff election the following month. The Republican candidate is Congressman David Vitter and the top two Democrats are Congressman Chris John, an Arab American, and State Treasurer John Kennedy. At present Vitter is leading, but well under 50%, with John and Kennedy running neck and neck. John, who has the endorsement of Senator Breaux, is expected to do well, but the outcome of Louisiana’s race will most probably not be determined until December.

Two other races deserve close scrutiny. In South Dakota, current Democratic Senate leader Tom Daschle was expected to face a tough contest from former Congressman John Thune, a Republican. But Thune, who lost an earlier Senate race in 2002 by a mere 524 votes, is not doing as well as national Republicans had hoped. If, however, President Bush does as well in South Dakota as recent polls show, then Daschle may be in trouble. Current polls, however, give Daschle a comfortable lead. Meanwhile, a dark horse race has emerged in Kentucky where unpopular Senator Jim Bunning is facing what may be a tough challenge from a little known State Senator Dr. Daniel Mongiardo.

What emerges from this survey is that what was a certainty for Republicans is now somewhat less than certain. If Democrats win all four Republican open seats, and hold their own in three of the five open Democratic seats in the South, they could regain control of the Senate. It’s a tall order, but one which will bear watching in November.

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