Senate Races 2006: An Early Look

By CBS News' Allison Davis

Without the lure of a fight for the White House this year, the 2006 midterm elections will serve as a mark of the nation's political mood.

At the midpoint of President Bush's second term, and with only two years until his successor will be known, the hottest, most contested U.S. Senate races dominate the talk of Washington politics.

Democrats are hoping they can regain the majority they lost in 2002 while Republicans look to increase their hold on the Senate for the third consecutive election.

In order for the Democrats to take control of the Senate, they must add six new seats while retaining all 18 Democratic-held seats being contested. This early in the election year, a Democratic majority seems unlikely, but the makeup of the Senate could look quite different come 2007.

Jennifer Duffy of the Cook Political Report predicts "more likely (there will be) a gain of between 2 and 4 seats" for the Democrats.

And while the defining issues of 2006 have yet to take shape, Duffy further contends, "Democrats certainly want a nationalized election and some of the factors that create one are present, but they haven't hit on quite the right message yet."

Republicans maintain they are the ones with the agenda and deserve to continue their legislative course.

The elections are over nine months away but here are some interesting races to watch from now until November:

  • Montana: Three-term Republican Sen. Conrad Burns is no stranger to controversy. The bombastic senator has won re-election despite accusations of sexism and several publicly documented uses of racial and ethnic slurs that, some argue, nearly cost Burns his job six years ago in a 51-48% squeaker. In 2006, with Burns linked to a fresh controversy, Democrats once again have Montana set in their sights.

    Fending off accusations of connections to lobbyist Jack Abramoff, and with dropping approval numbers, Burns recently began airing a 60-second advertisement defending his record.

  • Montana has a June 6 Democratic primary to determine whether state auditor John Morrison or state Senate president Jon Tester will take on the task of unseating Burns. While Montana is a consistent red state, it has a hugely popular Democratic governor and tends to have an independent voting streak. In early polling, either Democratic candidate appears poised to give Burns a strong run, making Montana's Republican seat a potential Democratic pick-up.
  • Florida: Democrat Bill Nelson may have sagging re-elect numbers, but he is running against Congresswoman Katherine Harris - of Bush v. Gore hanging-chad fame - whose bid for the Senate is not off to a great start. Harris' campaign manager abruptly quit at the end of last year and the national wing of the Republican Party has yet to get behind her campaign financially. It was only last week that Florida Gov. Jeb Bush agreed to campaign with Harris. And, in a briefing with reporters, Republican Sen. Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina, tasked with leading the charge for Senate Republicans in '06, refused to endorse Harris, offering, "Katherine is a good candidate. She is passionate about this. That is where I am going to leave it."
  • New Jersey: Former Democratic Sen. Jon Corzine was recently sworn in as the state's new governor. Corzine appointed Rep. Robert Menendez to complete his term in the Senate and he will run for a full term this year, putting New Jersey in play.

    Menendez has weak name recognition and faces state politician Tom Kean, Jr., the son of popular former Gov.Tom Kean, Sr., who also served as head of the September 11th Commission.

    Kean, Jr., due to his own and his father's reputation, enjoys stronger name recognition and is expected to boast a broader base of support.

    Menendez has the current governor's seal of approval but it may take more than that to hold onto the Senate's historic third Hispanic-held seat.

  • Rhode Island: Sen. Lincoln Chafee, an independent-leaning Republican, may run into trouble even before the general election begins. Chafee faces a challenge in the state's September 12 primary from a more conservative Republican, Stephen Laffy.

    Laffy is the current mayor of Cranston, R.I., a town of about 80,000 people. He has been endorsed by the political action committee Club for Growth, which is airing advertisements supporting Laffy's campaign.

    Sen. Elizabeth Dole, who has traveled to Rhode Island to campaign for Chafee, insists that she is "not even going to entertain the idea that Laffey will win that primary."

  • Pennsylvania: Conservative Republican Sen. Rick Santorum has an uphill reelection battle as his approval numbers have fallen over the past year. Challenging Santorum will be Pennsylvania state treasurer Bob Casey. A December poll has Casey beating Santorum by 11 points.

    Casey, who has said publicly that he would vote in favor of the confirmation of Judge Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court, is a conservative Democrat. He is pro-life and against stem cell research.

    With two socially conservative candidates running, the question, especially for those in more liberal areas such as Philadelphia, will be whether or not they want to keep Santorum or vote for a Democrat who does not necessarily support their social agenda. The key demographic in this race will be women.

  • Nebraska: There are some Democrats in potential trouble this year and Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska could be one of them.

    On May 9, the former COO of Ameritrade, Pete Ricketts, and the former state attorney general, Don Stenberg, will face off in the Republican primary. Ricketts is gaining attention because of his ability to self-finance parts of his campaign and run early television ads.

    The question that looms in Nebraska, a state where all 75 counties voted for Bush in 2004, is whether Nelson, a Democrat with a Republican-friendly voting record, is blue enough for Democratic supporters but red enough to win the state?

  • Washington: Sen. Maria Cantwell, a Democrat and a dotcom millionaire, squeezed by with only a 2,000-vote win in 2000. Republican Sen. Dole pointed to Washington as a "blue state in which we are on the offensive."

    The GOP candidate is Mike McGavick, the former CEO of Safeco Corp., who may not run as strong as earlier Republican possibilities such as Rep. Jennifer Dunn, who refused the race. But, according to the Republicans, McGavick raised just shy of a million dollars in "just about nine weeks."

    If that trend holds, Cantwell and Washington State could be in for another long election night.

  • Vermont: The retirement of Sen. Jim Jeffords creates an open seat. Technically, in this deep blue state, a Democratic win would mean a plus for their numbers in the Senate, since Jeffords calls himself an Independent. But, the Democrats might get more than they bargained for in Rep. Bernie Sanders, also an Independent, and a self-proclaimed socialist. He would likely side with the Democratic caucus but could create some unwanted press for the party as a whole.

    On the Republican side, one of Vermont's richest residents, Rich Tarrant, is running in the state's September 12 primary. Tarrant is the founder of IDX, a software company which he recently sold to General Electric. "Vermont is Vermont," Sen. Dole said, "Tarrant is interesting, passionate, self-funding."

    Leaning left, the 2006 race in Vermont is best filed as a true wildcard.

    This year, the overarching political question is whether or not the midterm elections will be won on local issues or become a national referendum. Will President Bush's sagging approval numbers and Republican scandals from Jack Abramoff to the CIA leak case have any effect on state races? Which Republican candidates will align themselves with the president and which will distance themselves from White House talking points? In 2005, Democrats seized on the opportunity to associate every Republican member with the image of corruption; but the big test is how well that message plays in election year races.

    And, of course, it's always worth keeping an eye on Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. The junior senator from New York has thus far escaped a tight re-election fight, allowing her to present a more national message in '06. Clinton attracts crowds of supporters and dissenters at every stop. Unchallenged or not, the potential presidential contender is sure to use her second Senate campaign as a prime opportunity to excite the Democratic base both in New York state and nationwide.