Can Democrats Win The Senate?

Canada's Aleksandra Wozniak eyes the ball as she plays Croatia's Petra Martic during their second round match of the French Open tennis tournament at the Roland Garros stadium in Paris, Thursday May 28, 2009.
AP Photo/Michel Euler
Douglas Kiker of the CBS News Political Unit analyzes the fight for control of the U.S. Congress.

For all his talk of repealing tax cuts, expanding health-care coverage, reforming Medicare and the like, John Kerry could face a daunting challenge to get anything done if he manages to get elected president: two chambers of Congress controlled by Republicans.

At this point, in both the House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate, things look less than rosy for the Democrats when it comes to picking up seats in November. But the potential exists for a coup by the Democrats in the Senate, which is currently controlled by the GOP by a miniscule margin.

For Democrats, the House races this fall will boil down to trying to prevent the GOP from extending its lead. Last week, Democratic officials told The Washington Post that they'd all but abandoned hope of taking back the House, where Republicans have a commanding 228 to 206 majority.

That leaves the Senate to carry Democrats' dreams on Capitol Hill.

The Senate has famously teetered back and forth between the parties for the last three years and currently is controlled by the GOP by the slimmest of margins, 51 to 49. There are 34 Senate races this fall. Of those, 19 are currently held by Democrats and 15 by Republicans. Of those, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has written off six: John McCain of Arizona, Bob Bennett of Utah, Mike Crapo of Idaho, Chuck Grassley of Iowa, Judd Gregg of New Hampshire and Sam Brownback of Kansas.

The DSCC thinks that seven of their own incumbents are "intimidators": Chuck Schumer of New York, Pat Leahy of Vermont, Evan Bayh of Indiana, Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, Ron Wyden of Oregon and Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas. Democrats say five of their incumbents will face tough races, including: Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota, Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, Barbara Boxer of California, Harry Reid of Nevada and Patty Murray of Washington.

The Democrats' biggest hurdle will be keeping the five Southern seats that are being vacated. In a region that voted wholesale for President Bush in 2000 and has been trending Republican in every election for the last 30 years, it's been conventional wisdom that having five senators retire in the same year is comparable to the Democrats starting a tennis match by conceding the first set.

That being said, it's not a foregone conclusion that the GOP will pick up all five seats being vacated by John Edwards of North Carolina, Fritz Hollings of South Carolina, Zell Miller of Georgia, Bob Graham of Florida and John Breaux of Louisiana.

Congressional scholar Norm Orstein of the American Enterprise Institute says that in South Carolina and North Carolina, Democrats will benefit from two strong candidates: Inez Tenenbaum and Erskine Bowles, respectively. In Florida, if Betty Castor emerges as the nominee in the Aug. 31 primary, Ornstein says she'll have a strong chance against a relatively weak Republican field. Louisiana also has some potential for the Democrats, with several strong candidates, including Rep. Chris John.

Ornstein says that if Kerry is still running strong, and Bush continues to suffer political missteps on a daily basis, Democrats could win four of the five Southern states, the exception being Georgia, where no strong Democrat emerged.

Other states where Democrats have a shot:

Alaska: Freshman Sen. Lisa Murkowski took over for her father, Frank, when he was elected governor in 2002. In fact, Gov. Murkowski appointed his daughter, leaving a giant target for Democrats to charge nepotism. In addition, popular former Gov. Tony Knowles is the Democratic candidate.

Colorado: The decision this week by Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell not to run for re-election opens up a previously written-off race for the Democrats. All eyes here are on popular Republican Gov. Bill Owens and Democratic Rep. Mark Udall to decide whether or not to run.

Pennsylvania: The intra-party fight between moderate incumbent Arlen Specter and conservative Rep. Pat Toomey is bad news for the Republicans in the Keystone State. While they trade barbs and continue to fracture the party, Democratic Rep. Joe Hoeffel is able to focus on winning in November. The GOP needs to put a stop to the Specter-Toomey fight or they could lose this seat.

Ornstein says the possibility for a Democrat-controlled Senate exists, although he puts the odds at less than 50-50.

"Look at the run Bush has had in last month," Ornstein said. "If Bush has a run of bad luck and missteps in October anything like what he has had lately, then a narrow Democratic Senate is not out of the question."

For Democrats, half a chance is better than no chance at all.