C2K Senate Race Preview

You will not read much about the New York Senate race in this article.

That's because there's a bunch of othercompetitive races for U.S. Senate this year. And while the HillaRudy battle has been upstaging most everything else, a veritable orchard of competitive races for U.S. Senate has been growing out on the fruited plain and elsewhere.

While it's unlikely the Democrats will be able to wrest control of the senate from the GOP this year, most people who get paid to watch these things say the Dems are likely to pick up about two seats in November, give or take a seat. That eventuality would leave the GOP in the 107th Congress with a thin 53-47 majority, give or take a seat.

Of 33 senate races this year, 19 fall in states with a GOP incumbent. In a country that seems evenly divided in its major-party allegiances, and with a tight presidential race in the offing, this is the GOP's main worry.

"We have a 55-45 lead in the Senate. But we have five more seats at risk than the Democrats do; we have five more seats in exposure, if you will," says Stuart Roy, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Those looking for a race featuring a threatened GOP incumbent should start in Minnesota, that frigid, politically turbid state whose voters put erstwhile Reform Party candidate Jesse Ventura into the governor's mansion in 1998.

N's and M's

The GOP views three "M" states as "challenges," where four "N" states are called "opportunities." For the Dems, as you might guess, it's just the opposite.
Missouri - Sen. John Ashcroft is popular and well-respected, but so is the term limited governor challenging him.
Michigan - Freshman Sen. Spencer Abraham faces tough challenge from Rep. Debbie Stabenow. Stabenow has more money at the moment.
Minnesota - Not-very-popular freshman Sen. Rod Grams could face stiff challenge; but a late Democatic primary may work in Grams' favor.
Nebraska - With untouchable Sen. Bob Kerry splitting for the big apple, the GOP thinks it has a shot at picking up a seat.
Nevada - Rep. John Ensign, who lost in his last bid to incumbent Sen. Harry Reid by 428 votes, should pick up the seat this time; the state's leaning GOP and Ensign is ahead by 22 points in the polls.
New Jersey - Nobody will know until June who's running against whom; this state's as wide-open as can be.

Minnesota Sen. Rod Grams, a conservative Republican with a divorce, at least one Capitol Hill affair, and several other personal miscues under his belt, is closely watching the crowded field of Democrats looking to challenge him by winning in the state's June primary.

Democrats say Grams has failed to concoct the recipe for boad appeal in a state where pragmatism and individual character are much more important than political affiliation. The main threat to Grams is thought to be Democrat Mike Ciresi, a wealthy attorney who hopes to be the last man standing after the primary.

Though Grams' campaign spokesman says "I hadn't heard that," the Republican National Committee and the Democratic National Committee have both targeted Minnesota as a place where money will be directed.

"We would by no means say we're going to walk away with the election, not in the least," Grams spokesman Kurt Zellers tells CBSNews.com. "Sen. Grams strongly believes you have to earn each vote in Minnesota.

Two other knock-down, drag-out states will be Delaware and Missouri. In each state, a term-limited Democratic governor is challenging a powerful incumbent.

In Missouri, the smart money's still on Sen. John Ashcroft. But the state's governor, Mel Carnahan, is popular - and well-funded - despite some recent political gaffes, which included commuting an execution while the Pope was in town.

"With any other challenger, it would be a cakewalk election for Ashcroft," says Roy. Popular as he may be, Ashcroft is a freshman and, if he's going to be beaten by a Democrat, this is the year.

In Delaware, however, term-limited Gov. Thomas R. Carper has a big lead in polls over Sen. William Roth, the finance committee chairman. Roth is much older than his challenger and the race could turn on grassroots campaigning, since the state has no real television market, experts say.

"This is going to be a very short and intense campaign," says Jennifer Duffy, senate editor of the Cook Political Report.

If watching a Democratic incumbent sweat it out is more your cup of tea, then catch the first Delta Shuttle to Virginia, where incumbent Sen. Charles "Chuck" Robb - he of a checkered personal past and a plurality victory in 1994 - is set to battle with former Virginia Gov. George Allen.

"We've got ten incumbent senators running for re-election," says David DiMartino, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. "Of the ten, the only state in which the GOP successfully recruited a legitimate candidate to challenge is in Virginia."

Confident, to be sure - perhaps a bit overconfident - but statements to this effect from on-high in the Democratic party must have Robb's knuckles turning white. Allen is leading in opinion polls in this conservative state, which recently elected a statehouse GOP majority, and even Democrats say he's the most vulnerable incumbent.

"Clearly, this is the state where we have the best opportunity," Roy says.

In other swing states, the picture is less clear:

Nebraska, a state that elects from both parties, will see former Gov. Ben Nelson vying to replace outgoing Sen. Bob Kerry (D), who is retiring. The GOP is fielding several candidates, including state Attorney General Dn Stenberg - who ran an lost against Nebraska's junior Sen., Chuck Hagel.

While the GOP believes Kerry's retirement is an opening for them in this state, Democrats express confidence that Nelson, who fares well in opinion polls, will retain the seat.

"Nelson Â… starts of with a 35 point lead over the closest challenger. We have the front-runner in that race," DiMartino says.

Nebraska could end up being a "coattail race," experts say; one that - more than others - is subject to the whims of the presidential vote.

The most high-profile Senatorial conflict takes place in New York. Much ink has been spilled already over the race between first lady Hillary Clinton and New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. So not much needs to be said here.

"New York is kind of a toss-up Â… but we think we've got the upper hand there," DiMartino says, presumably basking in recent polls, which give the first lady a slight lead in the wake Giuliani's ham-handed handling of the latest police shooting.

One last race one to watch: Pennsylvania. Duffy and others say they still think the state leans Republican. But with Rep. Klink challenging Sen. Rick Santorum, it could be quite a battle. Klink, however, is going to have to get on the fund-raising horse quickly.

"He's broke," says Duffy, who notes Klink had to leverage his primary campaign in April with a mortgage on his house.



  • CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff

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