The battle for the Senate

Published October 26, 2004 7:05PM (EDT)

Earlier this year many analysts agreed that the Democrats' only chance of winning control of the Senate was to win by such a large margin in the presidential election that it would filter down-ballot. While a big Kerry win may seem unlikely, Democrats still have a chance to take a majority in the upper house, thanks to some remarkably incompetent Republican opponents.

Top honors in that category, of course, go to Illinois GOP contender Alan Keyes, of whom the National Review magazine has said "there is not a worse candidate for a major office in America this year." But he's not the only who is flailing: In Alaska, South Carolina and Oklahoma, three states that President Bush is expected to dominate by 15 to 30 points, Republican candidates are struggling to stay afloat.

In South Carolina, Congressman Jim DeMint is still backing away from earlier support of a national sales tax and his comment that unmarried, pregnant women aren't morally fit to teach children. His opponent, State Superintendent of Education Inez Tenenbaum, has managed to cut DeMint's lead in the race down to four points, according to the most recent poll released shortly before the candidates' final debate on Monday night.

In Alaska, former Democratic Governor Tony Knowles narrowly leads Republican incumbent Lisa Murkowski, who was appointed by Governor Frank Murkowski. Apparently, Alaskan voters don't agree that the most qualified candidate the Republican Governor could've found for an open senate seat was his own daughter -- and they may elect their first Democratic senator in 23 years. With one week to go, Knowles holds a slight 2-point lead -- in spite of the fact that Ted Stevens, Alaska's popular Republican senator, is pushing for Murkowski's reelection.

In Oklahoma, one of the most solidly Republican states in the country, Democrat congressman Brad Carson is leading Republican Tom Coburn, a physician and former U.S. representative who has been sinking under allegations of fraud and medical malpractice. On Monday Coburn told an Oklahoma radio station that his faith in God helps him survive the attacks on his character, but he's still losing to Carson 47-40 in the most recent poll.

Republican candidates in some other key races are faring better. In South Dakota, Republican Jim Thune is gunning for Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle's seat in what is the most heavily funded contest in the country, with more than $31 million poured into the race between the two parties. A Daschle loss would be a big blow to the Dems; the latest Rasmussen poll shows Thune has tied the race, 49-49.

In Florida, State Education Commissioner Betty Castor is fighting former Bush administration HUD Secretary Mel Martinez for the seat currently held by Bob Graham. The White House is said to have handpicked Martinez, a Cuban-American they hope will bolster President Bush in the state. But Democratic turnout is expected to be strong, in part due to a ballot measure that would hike the minimum wage. The candidates are tied at 44, according to a Miami Herald/St. Petersburg Times poll.

In Colorado, Democratic State Attorney General Ken Salazar is campaigning against millionaire beer brewer Peter Coors. Zogby's most recent poll puts Salazar ahead by 9 points -- though other recent polls have given Coors the lead.

In Louisiana, the Republican candidate, David Vitter, is losing by a slight margin -- even while running against a party that hasn't settled on its own contender. Louisiana's unique election system allows for multiple candidates from the same party to compete, and Vitter is opposed by several Democrats. He currently polls at 35 percent; his top two Democratic opponents poll at a combined 36 percent. If, as expected, no candidate receives a majority of the vote in November, Louisianans will vote in a runoff in December.

Finally, former Clinton White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles is battling Republican representative Richard Burr for John Edwards' North Carolina senate seat. After months of trailing just behind, Burr has now tied Bowles 45-45, according to a Mason-Dixon poll released last week.

That makes a total of eight, and if Kentucky Senator Jim Bunning continues to fall apart, nine truly competitive senate races -- of which Democrats would have to win at least six to gain a true majority. This year's fight to the finish is by no means only for the White House.

By Jeff Horwitz

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