Downballot Derby: Minn. Senator Faces Tough Re-Election Fight

With all the attention being paid to the presidential race, it's easy to forget that the House and Senate are also up for grabs in November. But since there are 435 House seats and a third of the Senate on the ballot, it can be hard to keep track so we'll be helping you do just that from time to time with a look at all the key developments in those campaigns across the country.

This week, we take a look at Senate races in Minnesota and New Jersey, tidbits from Michigan and Nebraska and the return of "Dr. Death."

Minnesota Senate: Republican Sen. Norm Coleman formally kicked off his re-election campaign on Wednesday. This race is sure to get a lot of attention in the coming months for two reasons: one, because it's expected to be a close race in a key swing state; and two, Coleman's likely Democratic opponent is comedian Al Franken.

Franken will try to tie Coleman to President Bush's agenda throughout the campaign. In a speech to supporters on Tuesday, he presented his candidacy as a vehicle for helping to set "a new direction in this country."

Coleman's challenge will be to counter anti-Republican sentiment in the state, a tall order especially with Republican National Convention taking place in Minneapolis-St. Paul in September. He is going to focus on his record and by highlighting the times he had diverged from the president. He said he was a "voice of optimism in cynical times," the Minneapolis Star-Tribune reports.

New Jersey Senate: Ex-Goya Foods executive Andy Unanue just jumped into the race for the Republican nomination in New Jersey on Sunday, but already there's a brewing controversy about him.

It involves a 2004 lawsuit initiated after Unanue and his father were ousted from Goya. Released transcripts accused the 40-year-old former chief operating officer of several charges, including showing up drunk at work.

Unanue has disputed the allegations and said they were made during a family squabble that has since been settled. In an interview with the Newark Star-Ledger, he said of the allegation that he went to work drunk: "That is false. I deny it categorically."

New Jersey Republicans, meanwhile, blame incumbent Democratic Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg for leaking the story. Congressional Quarterly reports that State party GOP chairman Tom Wilson sent a letter to Lautenberg accusing him of "sleazy personal attacks." A spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee denied connection with the story.

Unanue is set to square off in the June primary against announced candidates New Jersey Sen. Joe Pennacchio and college professor Murray Sabrin. Princeton businessman John Crowley also could enter the race.

Michigan's 9th District: Jack Kevorkian (yes, that Kevorkian) announced on Monday that he's running for Congress as an independent against Republican Rep. Joe Knollenberg in a suburban Detroit district.

The assisted-suicide advocate who was paroled last year after eight years in prison said his main priority will be promoting the Ninth Amendment and individual rights, including the right to die through assisted suicide.

"I'm not a politician," Kevorkian said. "My mind is free. So I can say what I think."

Gary Peters, a former state senator and state lottery commissioner, is seeking the Democratic nomination and had more than $360,000 in the bank, according to the Associated Press.

Kevorkian must gather 3,000 signatures by July 17 to get his name on the ballot.

Michigan's 15th District: Staying in Michigan, John Dingell, the chairman House Energy and Commerce Committee, is announcing today he will run for re-election and seek his 28th term in the House. The 81-year-old Democrat was first elected in 1955 and next year could become the longest serving member of the House in history.

Nebraska Senate: Lastly, here's a tidbit from the Senate race in Nebraska, where one of three Democrats seeking the nomination has lost his driver's license. Scott Kleeb, who teaches history at Hastings College, had his license revoked for getting six traffic tickets in less than 2 years. Kleeb said half of the tickets came during a failed bid for the House in 2006. This time, he faces off against industrialist Tony Raimondo and Larry Marvin in the primary on May 13. The winner will likely face off against former Bush Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns in November to replace retiring Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel.

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