Election 2004 Part II: The SenateWritten By Christian A. Klein, AED Washington Counsel
Article Date: 08-01-2004
Copyright (C) 2004 Associated Equipment Distributors. All Rights Reserved.
GOP looks to expand Senate majority; Democrats look to take back power.
The November elections loom larger every day. In this space last month we looked at the hot races that will determine who controls the House of Representatives next year. This month, we look at the Senate.
As described in last month’s CED, it’s mathematically possible that the Democrats could take back the House, but most experts think it unlikely. Things are a bit different on the other side of Capitol Hill, where the Republicans’ margin of control in the Senate is thinner. The Senate has 100 seats (two for every state). Of those, the Republican Party (also called the “Grand Old Party” or GOP) holds just 51 and the Democrats control 49 (48 Democrats plus an Independent who votes with them.) Experts put the chances of the Democrats reclaiming the Senate (which they lost in 2002 after a brief period of control) at about 50-50.
Although the Democrats have a shot at winning Senate control on paper, the odds still favor the GOP. Of the 34 Senate seats up for election this year, 19 are held by Democrats and 15 by Republicans. Of those, eight Republican seats and 10 Democratic seats are considered safe and are expected to remain in the hands of the incumbent party. That means there are 16 seats (seven GOP and nine Democrat) that are either competitive or in which the non-incumbent party stands a reasonable chance of winning.
Both the Democrats and the GOP have one seat that experts believe will slip from the incumbent party’s grasp this year. For the Democrats, it’s Georgia, where conservative Democrat Zell Miller (D) is retiring. For the Republicans, it’s Illinois where Peter Fitzgerald (R) is stepping down after one term and the GOP primary winner recently withdrew in the face of
In Kentucky, Missouri and Pennsylvania incumbent GOP senators are facing potentially difficult races but are expected to prevail. In Alaska, the Republican incumbent is in a tough race with no clear favorite. GOP open seats in Colorado and Oklahoma are, like Alaska, in the “very competitive” category.
Democratic incumbents in California, Washington and Wisconsin may have a run for their money but are favored to win re-election. The seats in real jeopardy for Democrats are Florida, Louisiana, North Carolina, South Carolina, and South Dakota. South Dakota is the only one of these seats not in the South and the only seat in which the incumbent is not retiring.
To hold the Senate, Republicans will have to protect their competitive seats in the West and pick up at least a couple Democratic seats in the South. To take back the Senate from the GOP, the Democrats need to reverse that formula.
So what will determine who controls the Senate next year? The biggest factor will likely be the presidential race. National politics tend to influence Senate contests more than House races. As of early July, George W. Bush and Sen. John Kerry (the presumptive Democratic nominee) were locked in a dead heat in national opinion polls. If one of them pulls far ahead in the coming months, it will likely give his party’s candidates a big boost, particularly given that many of the competitive Senate races are in states in which Bush did well in 2000.
There’s another important reason why the presidential race is such a significant factor in determining Senate control. Under the Constitution, the vice president presides over that chamber and can cast votes in the case of a tie. If the Senate is split 50-50 after the November elections (as it was after the 2000 elections) the president’s party will wield the gavel, and with it control committee chairmanships and the floor agenda.
There’s another presidential factor to consider: If Kerry wins the presidency, under current law in Massachusetts, the state’s GOP governor would appoint an interim senator to succeed Kerry. That successor would almost certainly be a Republican. In apparent anticipation of this scenario, the Democrat-controlled state legislature has passed a bill that would provide for a special election rather than a gubernatorial appointment in the event of a Senate vacancy.
As of the time of this writing, Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney (R) had not indicated a position on the bill, but the state Republican Party was pushing for a veto.
Finally, there’s the fact that the presidential race has diverted Bush’s attention from the Senate campaigns. In 2002, the White House actively helped recruit top-notch candidates in the most competitive Senate races, while urging potential GOP rivals to sit the races out. That helped many Republican candidates avoid competitive primaries, allowing them to raise more money early on and save their powder for November.
This year, it’s the other way around. Bush and Cheney are preoccupied with their own re-election and haven’t played as active a role in helping the party select Senate candidates. At the same time, the Democrats have been actively working to help their best candidates avoid contested primaries in states like Colorado, South Carolina, and Oklahoma. In the end, that could make a difference.
Right now, our best guess is that the Democrats will pick up seats currently held by the Republicans in Alaska, Colorado, and Illinois, and the Republicans will win Democrat seats in Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina, South Carolina, and South Dakota, giving the GOP a net gain of two seats.
But November is still a long way off and a lot could change between now and then (particularly after some of the more competitive states hold primaries and the races begin in earnest). The only thing that’s for sure this far out is that for political junkies the next few months will be pretty exciting.
Excerpted from August 2004 Construction Equipment Distribution.
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