Senate Entropy Grows

senate race 2000
When Rudy Giuliani bowed out of the New York Senate race in favor of Rick Lazio, the gargantuan Senate clash that was shaping up lost much of its luster. It was a lot like when the Florida Marlins went to the World Series in 1997: Even though they won, nobody really cared.

But have no fear, political junkies. Just because New York has turned into an Empire-sized dud, Senate bouts in Missouri, Delaware, Minnesota - and possibly Florida - are sure to fill the intrigue gap.

Who will control the Senate in 2001? Where will the best races take place? Sound off on the Campaign 2000 bulletin board!

And, perhaps even better, the larger struggle for outright control of the Senate is unquestionably heating up. Lots of seats are in play, the Democrats are emboldened and the issue contrasts are stark. Any way you slice it, some big-name politicians will be out of work come November.

It’s widely agreed that ten states – Delaware, Florida, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island and Virginia – could go in either direction come November. Ten is a high number, given the relatively small size of the Senate. And in the last two months, two more states – Georgia and Connecticut – have been thrown in the mix. Even though these once-safe seats are likely to play in different directions, they increase the entropy of the overall picture.

In Georgia, where the well-regarded Republican Sen. Paul Coverdell passed away unexpectedly in July, former Democratic Gov. Zell Miller, appointed to serve out Coverdell’s term, s practically a lock for a six-year term after Nov. 7.

Quaking In Their Boots?
The two most vulnerable incumbents are in the states of Minnesota and Virginia.

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. Republican Sen. Rod Grams has weak approval ratings and is by most accounts a very vulnerable target. But the state's Democrats are squabbling among themselves. Four candidates are still hoping to take on Grams. The Democratic race won't be decided until Sept. 12.

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.

"Chuck Robb is the DSCC's number on institutional priority. We're in the business of protecting our incumbents, and he's our only incumbent who's in any kind of trouble," says David DiMartino, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

The Republican National Committee and the Democratic National Committee have both targeted Minnesota and Virginia as places where resources will be directed, party officials say.

“Miller is the clear front-runner,” says David DiMartino, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “He has about an 80 percent approval rating. We fully anticipate holding on to that seat."

But while the devil has gone to Georgia for the GOP, the opposite scenario may be taking place in the Constitution State, where Joe Lieberman’s Democratic seat could easily to end up in a Republican’s hands.

If Gore wins the presidency, Lieberman must abandon his seat. That would allow the state’s Republican governor, John Rowland, to appoint a Republican Senator.

"We might have an issue there with losing that seat" if Lieberman becomes vice president, says DiMartino.

Lieberman, who is permitted to run for the Senate and vice presidency under state law, could theoretically abandon his Senate bid as late as Oct. 27, and throw his support to a local Democrat. But as the weeks go by such a gambit becomes increasingly unlikely.

"It's not going to happen. It would be overtly political. I don't think it would wash," Stuart Roy, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, says flatly of that scenario. “Any chance the Democrats were given in Georgia was taken away by the selection of Lieberman."

Ironically, then, the Democrats stand a better chance of retaking the Senate if Gore loses in his White Huse bid.

While just a few short months ago, the HillaRudy battle in New York state promised to be the race with the most fireworks, that honor now tentatively goes to the battle between Missouri’s incumbent Republican freshman Sen. John Ashcroft and the Show-Me State’s term-limited Democratic Gov. Mel Carnahan.

The Missouri race is legitimate clash of political titans.

"That's the barn burner in this election cycle,” says DiMartino. "It's going to be extremely close. Right down to the wire.”

Popular as he may be, Ashcroft is a freshman and, if he's ever going to be beaten, this is the year.

"With any other challenger, it would be a cakewalk election for Ashcroft," says Roy.

In fact, New York is not even the second-hottest Senate race anymore. That’s because another term-limited governor, Tom Carper, will be looking to unseat veteran Republican William Roth. 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, of the Delaware Duel.

Three Other
Notable Races

Nebraska will see two popular politicians vying for the seat being vacated by Sen. Bob Kerrey. State Attorney General Don Stenberg emerged from a crowded field in May 9th's GOP primary. Stenberg faces former Democratic Gov. Ben Nelson who is hoping to replace Kerrey as the state's only Democratic member of Congress.

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

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

Michigan, where Republican Sen. Spencer Abraham is battling for survival against well-funded congresswoman Debbie Stabenow.

In August, President Clinton travelled to Michigan and raised, according to the Democrats, $825,000 for Stabenow in a day of fund raising. It was his second fund-raising trip for Stabenow.

While Abraham still has more money than his challenger, Democrats note his approval numbers have not cracked 42 percent despite months of TV ads.

“Abraham has a lot more money that they do, so they're going to spend it wisely, when they think people are paying attention," DiMartino says.

In Rhode Island, a heavily Democratic state where deceased Republican Sen. John Chafee's appointed son Lincoln hopes to retain the seat, the GOP is watching an increasingly bitter fight between two would-be Democratic challengers.

Says Roy: "The Democratic primary has gotten nastier annastier. That's great for us."

However, only one Rhode Islander in ten is a Republican.

Not to further slight the first lady, but if the Democrats start making inroads in the race to replace retiring GOP Sen. Connie Mack in Florida, then Hillary and Rick would be in danger of falling from the top three.

“The New York race has lost some of its national interest,” says Prof. Gary Jacobson, who follows the congressional landscape from the University of California at San Diego. “Lazio is unknown outside of his district, and is not a flashy figure as far as I can tell. It looks like a very close race. It’s a very Democratic state, which should help her, but she has some baggage. She’s not universally loved.”

Opinion polls and conventional wisdom – not to mention a boat load of registered Empire State Dems – do give the first lady the edge, experts say.

Individual states aside, a GOP strategist told this week the Republicans’ goal is to hold on to a majority, even though they would not be surprised to lose a seat or two. Democrats, newly emboldened by rising poll numbers and by electoral mechanics, are by contrast pushing hard for a big November.

The GOP, which has more exposed incumbents this cycle than the Democrats, is confident it can retain its Senate majority. If it does, would be the first time since 1920 the GOP held a majority in the Senate over four election cycles.

"We have some potentially challenging races,” says Roy. “And we're realistic about that. This is an important election … it's one where we have a political trifecta: the White House, Senate, and the House are all within reach for both parties.”

Among the other challenging races for the GOP: Michigan, Minnesota (see above), and possibly Rhode Island. Besides Virginia (see above) the toughest trick to turn for the Democrats will be in Nevada, where GOP Rep. John Ensign looks to be the odds on favorite to replace retiring Democratic Sen. Richard Bryan.

If, by some nasty quirk of fate, the GOP fails to pick up Nevada and/or Virginia, it would be a huge victory for the Democrats, who could in such an unlikely scenario come that much closer to regaining control of the Senate.

While much has changed, it’s still unlikely that the Democrats – however emboldened – will be able to wrest control of the Senate from the GOP this year. However, they are likely to close ranks on the GOP. It should of course be noted that this prediction doesn’t translate into some surge in popularity for Democrats. Rather, it's based on electoral math: Of 34 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.

But, says Roy, "It would take a tidal wave that doesn't appear o be there" for the Dems to retake the Senate.