WASHINGTON – Voters this fall could take small steps toward increased diversity in the Senate.
After the election, the chamber will have its first black member in six years, and the possibility exists that one or two Hispanic candidates could end a quarter-century absence of Latino representation.
Five female senators are up for re-election in November, and three women are running for open seats. The current composition of the Senate includes a record 14 women, a number unlikely to get bigger.
Three current senators are of a minority background, including Hawaii's two 80-year-old Democrats: Daniel Inouye (search), son of Japanese immigrants, is up for re-election; and Daniel Akaka (search), who is of Chinese and Native Hawaiian descent.
The third is retiring Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (search), R-Colo., the son of a Portuguese immigrant mother and an American Indian father. The Democrat looking to replace him is state attorney general Ken Salazar (search), a Hispanic-American locked in a tight race with beer baron Pete Coors, the GOP nominee.
At least one of the 34 Senate races this year is guaranteed to send a minority candidate to Washington. In Illinois, two black candidates — Democratic state legislator Barack Obama (search) and former ambassador Alan Keyes (search), a Republican — hope to replace GOP Sen. Peter Fitzgerald, who is not seeking a second term. Most polls show Obama with a wide lead.
Obama's keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in July put him on the path to a bright political future, says University of Maryland political scientist Ron Walters, who worked on the presidential campaigns of Jesse Jackson Sr.
Assuming Republicans retain control, "it's going to be very, very difficult for (Obama) to get things done in the Senate," Walters said. "White Democrats in the Senate are virtually shut out in policy-making as it is."
Still, "he will be a very important symbolic presence, and might be more important to the African-American community outside the Senate than inside the Senate."
Another black candidate, one-term Rep. Denise Majette (search), D-Ga., faces an uphill battle against the well-financed and more experienced Rep. Johnny Isakson, a Republican. Each wants to succeed Georgia's Sen. Zell Miller, the conservative Democrat.
The last black senator was Carol Moseley Braun (search), who represented Illinois from 1993 to 1999 and ran for the Democratic presidential nomination this year.
Rep. Brad Carson (search), D-Okla., a member of the Cherokee tribe, could replace Campbell as the Senate's only American Indian if he should defeat Republican Tom Coburn. Recent public polls show Carson in a close duel to replace retiring GOP Sen. Don Nickles.
There have been three Hispanic members in the Senate's history, all from New Mexico. The last was Democrat Joseph Montoya from 1964 to 1977.
Colorado's Salazar could break through, hailing from a state with a growing Latino population.
In Florida, Republicans are banking on Cuban-born lawyer and former Bush cabinet member Mel Martinez (search) to succeed retiring Sen. Bob Graham, a Democrat. Martinez could help boost turnout from the state's large Cuban population, which in turn could help President Bush in his nail-biting re-election campaign against Democratic nominee John Kerry.
Victories by Salazar or Martinez could influence political parties to groom more Hispanics for office, said Larry Gonzalez, Washington director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund.
Former state education commissioner Betty Castor is Martinez's Democratic opponent in the tough Florida Senate race. Castor and Majette are two of three Democratic women contending for open Senate seats.
The other is Inez Tenenbaum in South Carolina. One recent poll shows her trailing Republican Rep. Jim DeMint in the race to replace retiring Democratic Sen. Ernest Hollings.
Among female incumbents up for re-election are Sens. Barbara Boxer of California, Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas and Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, each popular Democrats in their respective states.
A recent poll showed Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the Democrats' "mom in tennis shoes," with a comfortable lead over the Republican challenger, Rep. George Nethercutt.
In Alaska, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a Republican appointed to the Senate in 2002 by the governor — her father, Frank Murkowski — faces former governor and popular Democrat Tony Knowles.
Amy Caiazza of the Institute for Women's Policy Research in Washington says she thinks female representation in the Senate will stay at 14 or possibly fall by one, with Murkowski facing the toughest incumbent challenge and Castor possibly winning her race.
One certainty will not change: The Senate will continue to be dominated overwhelmingly by white males.
"It's the most exclusive white men's club in the world, and that power is given up very reluctantly," said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Woman and Politics at Rutgers University. "That and the presidency are the two hardest nuts to crack."