Senate Majority Likely to Be Won by a Hair

The fall political winds may be strong enough to blow Democrats back into control of the Senate on Election Day, say election watchers, but don't bet on it. The odds of such success aren’t that good.

"I think right now it looks like a slim chance, but it could happen because political tides can break hard one way or another," said Bob Erikson, political science professor at Columbia University.

"It’s happened before — the Republicans in 1980, by winning all of the close races, and when the Democrats took it back in 1996, by winning all the close ones," said Gary Jacobson, political science professor at the University of California at San Diego.

According to political handicappers throughout Washington, D.C., at least eight of the 34 Senate seats up for a vote this year are highly competitive or a "toss up." Nineteen of the 34 seats up for grabs are currently held by Democrats. In 14 of them, incumbents are running again, five are open, the result of retirements. Analysts say Democrats would have to come close to sweeping them if they want to take over the chamber in January.

The current makeup of the chamber is 51 Republicans, 48 Democrats and one independent who votes with Democrats. If President Bush (search) is re-elected, Vice President Dick Cheney (search) remains Senate president and Democrats will need two new seats to take over. If Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry (search) wins the presidency, running mate John Edwards (search) becomes Senate president, and Democrats will need to pick up one seat to take control.

"Democrats are very hopeful and energetic and optimistic," said Nathan Gonzales of the Rothenberg Political Report.

"But a lot of these races are being fought in the ‘red states,’" he added, referring to the pro-Bush states that, in this case, are mostly in the South. "The Democrats have good candidates but they have to win a disproportionate number of these states to win."

If they do take over, however, it could set into motion an entirely new dynamic on Capitol Hill no matter who is president next year.

"The Senate does play an important part in what’s happening in Washington — not only in judicial nominations, and it has subpoena powers — but it plays an important role in passing or slowing down an agenda," said Cara Morris, spokeswoman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (search).

If Bush wins and faces a Democratic Senate, there could be more gridlock, much like the circumstances he faced in June 2001 after Sen. Jim Jeffords (search) switched parties and handed over the majority to Democrats. A Democratic Senate and Republican president could lead to more investigations.

On the other hand, Kerry could win and face a similar fate if the Senate and House remain under GOP control. If he wins and sweeps in a Democratic Senate along with him, he will have help implementing an agenda.

"The other issue that matters especially in the Senate is we will probably have a Supreme Court nomination," as one justice or other is sure to retire in the near future, said John Fortier, research fellow with the American Enterprise Institute (search).

"It’s going to be a battle no matter what. If the Democrats control the Senate and Bush is president … you have a lot of ways to block a nomination. The same thing if Kerry is president with a Republican Senate."

Canvassing Washington, D.C., analysts, composed the following "cheat sheet" to monitor eight "must watch" races so far. The selected races are in alphabetical order, rather than by rank of importance.

Alaska: Tony Knowles (D) v. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R)

This state in its own time zone has one of the tightest races of the year. Murkowski, whose father appointed her to the seat when he ran and won the governorship in 2002, has been trying to shake the specter of nepotism. Knowles is a popular former governor.

"This race is as even as you can get," said Fortier.

Colorado: Pete Coors (R) v. Ken Salazar (D)

Coors, scion of Coors Brewery, is running to replace retiring Republican Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell. He faces Democratic Colorado Attorney General Salazar. Salazar has more political experience, but the state trends Republican, making this race very close.

"I think it’s a great race," said Gonzales, who added that Colorado has become competitive in the presidential race as well, which should bring out more voters for the down ticket.

Florida: Betty Castor (D) v. Mel Martinez (R)

Democratic Sen. Bob Graham is retiring. Castor, former Florida education commissioner, is running against former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Mel Martinez, a Bush appointee. The race is in a "dead heat," according to handicappers. To make things harder, both candidates have been attempting to campaign in a state ravaged by hurricanes.

"I think you will see record turnout by both major parties," said Karen White of Emily’s List (search), which is supporting Castor. "[Republicans and Democrats] are converging on the state like never before."

Louisiana: Rep. Chris John (D) v. John Kennedy (D) v. Arthur Morrell (D) v. Rep. David Vitter (R)

According to state law, one of these candidates racing to replace outgoing Democratic Sen. John Breaux will have to get more than 50 percent of the vote to win outright. If not, the two top vote-getters will meet in December for a run-off. According to a recent Democratic poll, Vitter leads John, the top Democrat, 44 percent to 24 percent.

"I would give a slight edge to Republicans but it’s going to be close," Fortier said in contrast to the polling data.

North Carolina: Erskine Bowles (D) v. Richard Burr (R)

Bowles, who lost to Republican Elizabeth Dole in 2002, appears better positioned this time to capture the seat being vacated by Edwards, who is running for vice president. But a Republican tilt in this state benefits Burr.

"On paper, it’s a good chance for a Republican pickup, but I give a good chance for holding on to the John Edwards seat to Democrats," said Fortier, who believes Edwards will bring a lot of Democrats to the polls on Nov. 2.

Oklahoma: Rep. Brad Carson (D) v. Tom Coburn (R)

Two-term Rep. Carson wants to replace retiring Republican Don Nickles. He faces colorful conservative and former Rep. Coburn, who beat expectations to win a grueling primary in July. Democrats say Coburn is too extreme, and that reputation gained heed after Coburn, an OB-GYN, faced questions about his sterilizing a minor. Though in Bush territory, the state is not averse to electing conservative Democrats, say analysts.

"It’s a place where Brad Carson fits the profile," said Fortier. "It also depends on whether Coburn shoots himself in the foot."

South Carolina: Inez Tenenbaum (D) v. Rep. Jim DeMint (R)

According to handicappers, DeMint has the slight edge over Tenenbaum in this competitive race to replace retiring Democratic Sen. Ernest Hollings. She is the state superintendent of education, he is a three-term fiscal conservative in a highly Republican state.

"Jim DeMint is looking the best and thankfully the issue they are talking about is taxes and you can’t beat Jim DeMint on taxes," said Andy Roth of the Club for Growth (search), which is supporting the Republican’s candidacy.

South Dakota: Sen. Tom Daschle (D) v. John Thune (R)

Former Rep. Thune is running again, after losing a close race to Sen. Tim Johnson in 2002. Though analysts say Daschle is a better opponent — he’s the minority leader and in his third term — they also acknowledge that Thune has learned his lessons and has raised a lot more money.

"We’ll wonder if Daschle survives," said Jacobson.