The big showdown

Will the GOP take control of all three branches of government? Or will the Democrats embarrass the Bush machine? A guide to Tuesday's key electoral contests.

Published November 5, 2002 4:28PM (EST)

Which of the midterm election races could keep us glued to our cable news Tuesday night?

Maybe none, if you're one of the more than 60 percent of all voters likely to sit the election out. But that doesn't mean the stakes -- or the chance for great late-night drama -- aren't high. Of the very few 435 House and 34 Senate races expected to be competitive, those that are have a lot riding on them -- conceivably, control of both the Senate and House. President Bush has been out campaigning hard for struggling candidates in the campaign's final days, as has the Democrats' leading light, Bill Clinton (and, yes, Al Gore has done some select stumping, as well). While Bush hopes to capitalize on his 60-plus approval rating, Democrats have tried a traditional get-out-the-vote campaign led by labor unions and are relying heavily on black voters in many key races.

If Republicans regain complete control of the Congress -- as they briefly did in 2000, before Sen. Jim Jeffords jumped ship to become an Independent -- look for Democrats to play up their expected gains in gubernatorial races across the country. Many of the states that fell under Republican rule during the midterm election of 1994 are wobbly -- thanks to the shaky economy. While some major states like New York and Texas will probably remain in Republican hands, others are still too close to predict.

So here's guide to the closest -- and most crucial -- Senate, House and governors' races:

The Senate

  • Arkansas: Sen. Tim Hutchinson, perhaps the GOP's most vulnerable Senate incumbent, is trying to fend off a tough challenge from the attorney general, Democrat Mark Pryor. The son of a former state political giant and U.S. senator, Pryor was thrown off message in the final hours of his campaign over allegations that he failed to pay Social Security taxes for his housekeeper. Hutchinson's campaign has also been tainted by scandal: A high-profile divorce has not served the "family values" candidate well.
  • Colorado: In a rematch of their 1996 contest, Sen. Wayne Allard, R-Colo., and Democrat Tom Strickland are trading accusations of corporate sleaze: Strickland claims Allard takes marching orders from the accounting industry and has tried to stall a corporate reform bill in Congress. Allard raises questions over the timing of Strickland's sale of stock in Global Crossing and Qwest and derides him as a "millionaire lawyer-lobbyist."
  • Louisiana: Nobody doubts that Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Democrat, will get the most votes in this state's Senate election. But under state law, a candidate needs 50 percent of the vote to win, or else the two top vote-getters head for a December runoff. The GOP has fielded three candidates to help keep Landrieu under 50 percent, and polling indicates that the strategy may prove successful -- which could keep control of the Senate undetermined for another month.
  • Minnesota: Since Paul Wellstone's death just over a week ago -- when Wellstone appeared to be pulling away from his challenger, St. Paul mayor Norm Coleman -- former vice president Walter Mondale has been enlisted by Democrats to put his name on the ballot. Polls show the race's outcome is still uncertain. Coleman, a former Democrat recruited to run by the White House, received a bizarre boost in the polls after Wellstone's memorial service was criticized as inappropriately partisan. Ventura retaliated Monday by appointing an Independent to hold Wellstone's seat. Will voters be vindictive, too?
  • Missouri: Two years after being appointed to the Senate seat won by her late husband, Jean Carnahan is the Democrats' most vulnerable incumbent. The race to fill the final four years of Mel Carnahan's term has been a showdown between Carnahan and former Rep. Jim Talent, a Republican who came within a few thousand votes of becoming the state governor in 2000. Carnahan has called Talent too conservative; Talent calls Carnahan too inexperienced.
  • New Hampshire: Republicans chose pragmatism over ideology in the primary, picking Rep. John Sununu, son of the former White House chief of staff, over colorful incumbent Bob Smith. But polls indicate the state's large bloc of independent voters remains up for grabs, giving hope to Gov. Jeanne Shaheen, the Democratic candidate, as the campaign winds down.
  • Georgia: This race has emerged as something of a sleeper. For months, Sen. Max Cleland, a Democrat, seemed poised to win fairly easily over Rep. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga. Chambliss has made a campaign issue out of the Senate's failure to pass the bill, supported by President Bush, to create a new Homeland Security Agency, and he has used the issue to help secure the endorsement of the Veterans of Foreign Wars -- a startling development for Cleland, who lost three limbs while serving in Vietnam.
  • North Carolina: Slowly but surely, Democrat Erskine Bowles, Bill Clinton's former White House chief of staff, has chipped away at the large lead Elizabeth Dole once held in this race to succeed Republican Jesse Helms. Republicans have criticized Bowles' corporate past and even attacked his wife's business for moving jobs south of the border. Bowles, meanwhile, has sought to focus on anything but Clinton, his former boss.
  • Texas: Democrats have pinned their hopes on former Dallas mayor Ron Kirk, something of a summertime darling of the national press corps, who has given attorney general John Cornyn a stiff challenge. Democrats would love to embarrass Bush by defeating his party in the president's home state, but polls show Cornyn clinging to a small but steady lead. Kirk maintains that those polls underestimate the number of blacks and Latinos who will come to the polls Tuesday to vote for Kirk and the party's gubernatorial candidate, Tony Sanchez. But Bush, as a safety precaution, plans to end his whirlwind campaign swing stumping for Cornyn.
  • South Dakota: This race between two popular statewide elected officials has become a proxy war for President Bush and Tom Daschle, the Senate Majority Leader. Sen. Tim Johnson, a Daschle protégé, has been joined at the hip to the majority leader as both struggle to keep their jobs next year. Bush has visited the state five times to stump for a candidate he personally helped talk into the race, Rep. John Thune.
  • The House

  • Indiana: The fight to replace Rep. Tim Roemer, D-Ind., has been expensive and nasty. In a sign of just how close, and how crucial, this race is, Bush dropped in Thursday to support Republican Chris Chocola in his race against former Rep. Jill Long Thompson, the Democrat.
  • Maryland: The newly drawn district represented by moderate Republican Connie Morella has gotten much more Democratic. This suburban Washington district was first host of a nasty Democratic primary in which Chris Van Hollen defeated Mark Shriver, son of Eunice Kennedy and Sergeant Shriver. Despite support from gun-control groups and a moderate voting record, Morella is considered among the GOP's most vulnerable.
  • New Mexico: The race to replace 11-term Rep. Joe Skeen, R-N.M., pits two fairly conservative candidates against each other. Democrat John Smith, a state senator, is trying to appeal to conservatives, refusing fundraising help from House liberals like Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Mo. Democrats are hoping a strong Latino turnout will give Smith a boost over former state Rep. Steve Pearce, the Republican nominee.
  • New York: Rep. Felix Grucci, R-N.Y., is in an unexpectedly competitive race, thanks in part to a failed attack against his opponent, Democrat Timothy Bishop. Grucci, a member of the famous Grucci fireworks family, alleged that Bishop "turned his back" on rape victims when Bishop was a college administrator. A lawsuit was filed to force Grucci to pull the ads off the air.
  • Pennsylvania: Twenty-year veteran Rep. George Gekas, the Republican, and five-term Rep. Tim Holden, the Democrat, face off because of redistricting, and both parties are pouring money into the race.
  • South Dakota: With Rep. John Thune, R-S.D., vacating his seat to run for the Senate, Gov. Bill Janklow carries the Republican torch against Democrat Stephanie Herseth.
  • The Governorships

  • Alabama: Democratic Gov. Don Siegelman is facing a tough challenge from Rep. Bob Riley, R-Ala., who gave up his safe House seat to challenge Siegelman. The governor has had difficulty selling his plan for a state lottery to help fund new education proposals in the state, and new polls show him trailing the Republican challenger by as many as eight points.
  • Arizona: Republicans have dominated politics in the state for decades, but Janet Napolitano, a Democrat, has led Rep. Matt Salmon, R-Ariz., and polls show her clinging to a slight lead. But momentum in the race is said to be with Salmon.
  • Florida: To beat the president's brother in a state that has come to symbolize the nation's political divide would be a political coup for Democrats. But that chance seems to have evaporated in recent days, thanks in part to Democrat Bill McBride's lackluster performance in a recent debate against Gov. Jeb Bush. Democrats are still holding out hope, sending Bill Clinton and Al Gore, separately, to campaign for McBride, but some polls now have Bush with as much as a 15-point lead.
  • Massachusetts: In one of the country's nastiest governor's races, state treasurer Shannon O'Brien, a Democrat, has called Republican Mitt Romney "the face of corporate greed," while Romney has tried to convince voters he can salvage the state's economic problems the way he rescued the 2002 Olympic Games in Salt Lake City.
  • Maryland: Democrats have reigned here since Republican Spiro Agnew was elected governor in 1966. But while Democrats enjoy a large majority in the state registration-wise, Rep. Bob Ehrlich, R-Md., has made his appeal to voters as a moderate and is running even in the polls. Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend's campaign may be determined ultimately by black voter turnout, which may explain why she has called former president Clinton in to campaign for her twice in the final days of the campaign.
  • Tennessee: After Al Gore's stinging defeat in his home state two years ago, a loss that cost the former vice president a promotion, former Nashville mayor Phil Bredesen is trying to show that Democrats have a future in Tennessee. But Rep. Van Hilleary, R-Tenn., is hoping conservative turnout propels him to victory. As part of that appeal, the Tennessee Republican Party sent a mailer criticizing Bredesen for promoting a school curriculum that "mandated the teaching of Buddhism and Hinduism to second-graders" while he was mayor of Nashville. Bredesen said the mailer amounted to "religious bigotry."

  • By Anthony York

    Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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