WASHINGTON – Democrats have a new "Dream Team" of Senate candidates with Barack Obama of Illinois, Ken Salazar (search) of Colorado and Brad Carson of Oklahoma, according to a new fund-raising appeal from the party.
"Our recruiting has been an incredible success matched up against the Republicans' inability to recruit their top-tier candidates," said Cara Morris, spokeswoman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (search).
The three Democratic candidates, who are respectively black, Hispanic and Native American, are centerpieces in the Democrats' strategy to retake the Senate. But Republicans say they are fielding their own slate of powerhouse candidates and cite investment-banker-turned-inner-city-school-teacher Jack Ryan in Illinois, among others, as an emerging star. Ryan will face Obama in November for the seat being vacated by Republican Peter Fitzgerald.
"There's a dearth of Democrats," said Dan Allen, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee (search). Allen said Democrats have not even selected a candidate to run in Georgia, where Democratic Sen. Zell Miller is retiring. Meanwhile, several GOP candidates are competing in the July primary for the seat.
"We have a solid deep bench of people who want to step up," he said.
Observers had anticipated 2004 to be a tough year for Democrats in the U.S. Senate, with five Southern senators retiring, compared to three Republican seats opening up. But with Republicans battling for the nomination in heated primaries and Democrats managing to sign up some credible candidates, election watchers say that while still a long shot, this year's control of the Senate could change hands.
"The Democrats have a shot at the majority, but they need a lot to go right for them. They need to count on states which in presidential elections go Republican," said Jennifer Duffy, who covers Senate races for the Cook Political Report (search).
The Republicans have a 51-48 edge in the Senate, with one Democratic-leaning independent, so a shift of one or two seats could change control of the body. With eight open seats, both parties see an opportunity for gains.
"Parties understand quite well that it's hard to defeat an incumbent, and most of the change, to the extent there is change, will come in open seats," said Stuart Rothenberg of the Rothenberg Political Report (search). Asked whether the Senate will be won or lost in the open seats, Rothenberg replied, "Absolutely."
Republicans say they have an advantage because the five retiring Democrats all hail from the South, territory that is increasingly backing GOP candidates.
"We have President Bush on the top of the ticket and we're going to be playing offense down South," Allen said. "If you look at it from the terms of re-alignment in the past decade" the Republicans are prepared for a good showing in November.
Among the places where the GOP could take Democratic seats are in Florida and South Carolina, where long-serving members Bob Graham and Fritz Hollings are retiring.
But Democratic officials said it would be a mistake to look at trends in national politics while analyzing state races.
"It really is important to look at it in a state-by-state way," Morris said. "The Republican mythical lead in the South, I don’t think it will turn out to be true."
Republicans still have to go through several motions in the South before their candidates emerge. In South Carolina, leading GOP candidates for the open seat are former Gov. David Beasley, Rep. Jim DeMint, former State Attorney General Charlie Condon and wealthy developer Thomas Ravenel.
Conversely, Democrats are all but set to elect in June South Carolina Superintendent of Education Inez Tenenbaum, one of the Democratic party's only recent statewide winners, as their Senate contestant.
"Tenenbaum is the best candidate the Democrats could expect to get. Meanwhile, the Republicans have a six-way primary that will get ugly before it's over," Duffy said.
The Georgia primary race is also shaping up to be an exciting one for Republicans, with Reps. Johnny Isakson and Mac Collins entangled in a close battle against Godfather Pizza CEO Herman Cain. Three serious candidates are vying for the Republican nomination in Oklahoma — Oklahoma City Mayor Kirk Humphreys, Rep. Tom Coburn and State Corporation Commissioner Bob Anthony.
Florida Republicans will have to choose in August among former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Mel Martinez, former U.S. Rep. Bill McCollum, state House Speaker Johnnie Byrd and State Sen. Daniel Webster.
Although they have been less acrimonious, Democrats have not been completely free of primary contests. Obama emerged from a pack of seven in Illinois. Florida Democrats have three major candidates — Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Pinellas, Rep. Peter Deutsch and Florida Election Commissioner Betty Castor — to choose from in the upcoming primary.
A unique situation also presents itself in Louisiana, where several Democratic candidates will run against a single Republican, and if no candidate achieves 50 percent, they will head to a run-off to replace retiring Democratic Sen. John Breaux.
Duffy said Democrats have "a little bit of an edge" nationally, in part, because they were "able to unite behind a single candidate in a state and avoid a lot of primaries."
Former White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles, for example, is leading in the polls against Republican Rep. Richard Burr. Burr and Bowles, who ran against Sen. Elizabeth Dole in 2002, are competing for the open seat vacated by retiring Sen. John Edwards.
The Democrats have benefited from some good luck in Colorado. The surprise retirement of popular Colorado Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell coupled with Gov. Bill Owens' decision not to run means the Colorado seat is now in play. The Republican competitor will likely be former Rep. Bob Schaffer, whom some pundits are calling a second-tier candidate against Salazar, the state's popular attorney general.
The developments in Colorado "have given the Democrats more opportunities than they had a few months ago. The playing field has developed in such a way that allows the Democrats to offer a reasonable scenario as to how they could pick up a seat or two," Rothenberg said.
Duffy warned that the GOP's intra-party fights expected in Florida, South Carolina, Georgia and Oklahoma, where Republican Sen. Don Nickles is retiring, are costly and may leave the GOP candidate wounded before the general election.
Morris added that not only do Republicans bloody each other and draw down their war chests during primary season, but the candidates are also forced to run to the right to appeal to primary voters.
Despite the primary battles ahead, Republicans do enjoy a solid fund-raising lead, reporting about $12.9 million on hand at the end of February, while the Democrats had just $2.5 million.
Acknowledging financial difficulties, Morris said, "The DSCC had a lot of challenges to overcome last year with the new campaign finance laws coming into play. In the past, we had concentrated on a smaller number of donors. Now we are concentrating on a real grassroots fund-raising."
She added that despite the disadvantage, the slate of strong candidates will help fund-raising. Duffy agreed.
"The good thing about having good candidate is they can usually raise their own money. Barack Obama has enormous national fund-raising potential as does Ken Salazar."