2004 Senate Update

April 17, 2003

Now that the Iraq situation is stabilizing somewhat, it’s time for another 2004 Senate analysis. I’m going to cover all the important races so that you don’t have to read my previous updates.

With Bush at the top of the ticket in 2004 and a gerrymandered House Republican majority that will endure, barring a meteor strike, the Senate is the key battleground in 2004. The GOP has a genuine opportunity to get a filibuster-proof majority for the first time since the Great Depression.

The Senate playing field in general favors the GOP because:

1. The Senate should be rightfully Republican. Bush won 30 states in 2000 and, if each of them elected two GOP senators, Republicans would enjoy a 60-40 advantage in the Senate. Senate races have been getting increasingly ideological in the last few election cycles; so the GOP’s odds are looking better and better in Bush states. Note also that most of the closely decided states in 2000 were won by Gore. Republican candidates will be competitive in these states as well.

2. More Democrats than Republicans are up for election in 2004. Out of 19 Democrats, 10 are from states that Bush won in 2000. Out of 15 Republicans, only 3 are from states that Gore won in 2000.

3. 2004 is a presidential election year, in which ideology will matter and the top of the ticket will matter. I’d expect President Bush to be a strong candidate for re-election and also help with fund-raising for GOP candidates, like he did in 2002.

4. Democratic hatred of President Bush is forcing “moderate” Democrats up for re-election in 2004 to take up a much more hardline position than they’d like to. Their controversial votes in the Senate over the next two years will provide ample fodder for GOP campaign ads.

I’ll be “conservative” and make Republicans seem more vulnerable than they really are, and Democrats stronger than they really are. With that in mind, here’s what the outlook is like:

Vulnerable Republicans

1. Peter Fitzgerald (IL) – Fitzgerald would likely have lost his seat in 2004 if he’d decided to run. Instead, he’s decided not to run. The Democrats will likely pick up this seat (Illinois has been trending Democratic and Gore won by 12 points in 2000.) If Republicans recruit former Governor Jim Edgar, they might stand a fair chance; but that looks unlikely at this point.
UPDATE: Edgar has announced that he isn’t running for this seat. Oh, well.

2. Lisa Murkowski (D-AK) – Murkowski was appointed by her father to fill out his Senate term when he was elected governor in 2002. She may have to face a tough primary because she’s not considered conservative enough. In the general election, though, the only Democrat who could give the Republicans a run for their money is former Governor Tony Knowles. Even so this seat is likely going to remain Republican.
UPDATE: Knowles has jumped into the race. That makes things quite interesting.

3. Don Nickles (OK) – Nickles won’t run for re-election in 2004. While Oklahoma is a very strong Bush state, Democrats still have a small chance of picking up this seat. GOP Rep. Ernest Istook and Democratic Rep. Brad Carson are the likely candidates.
UPDATE: Istook has decided not to run to replace Nickles. Istook isn’t wimping out. He wants to stay in the House, but says he’ll run for the Senate if the GOP cannot find a strong candidate to replace Nickles. I’m sure Republicans will have no problem finding someone to hold this seat.

4. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (CO) – Campbell is retiring for health reasons. If popular Republican Governor Bill Owens runs for the seat, he’ll likely win it. If not, this is a tossup.

UPDATE: Owens says he won’t run. That makes this race a tossup, although Colorado’s increasing Republican leanings will help the GOP candidate somewhat.

5. Arlen Specter (PA) – “Scottish Law” Specter has a very low ACU rating and even helped “Bork” Robert Bork. He is facing a well-funded primary challenge from GOP Congressman and Club For Growth prodigy Pat Toomey. Specter’s voting record has become much more conservative since Toomey announced his challenge; this is going to be an interesting race to watch. And don’t fret about Toomey being too conservative to win in the general election. He’s a superb candidate, like Pennsylvania’s other senator, Rick Santorum, and will be able to win swing voters.

Vulnerable Democrats

1. Zell Miller (GA) – As I predicted, Zell Miller is retiring. Republicans will likely pick up this seat; it’s just a question of which candidate will be nominated. I’d prefer a genuine conservative like Congressman Jack Kingston to a mushy moderate like Congressman Johnny Isaakson. Isaakson is running, but Kingston and other conservatives are, surprisingly, yet to throw their hats into the ring.
UPDATE: GOP Congressman Mac Collins has entered the race. Collins is a genuine conservative.
UPDATE 2: Herman Cain, a conservative African-American pizza magnate, has jumped into the race for the Republican nomination. Cain is, apparently, a good candidate and makes this race much more interesting, especially considering that the possible Democratic nominees are all black.

2. Fritz Hollings (SC) – Whether Hollings retires or not, the GOP is likely to pick up this seat. Hollings, who will be 82 in 2004, just might retire and make this even easier for the GOP. His intentions are as vague as ever; but Republican Congressman Jim DeMint is already running and will give Hollings a high hurdle to jump.
UPDATE: State Superintendent of Education Inez Tenenbaum says she’s “enthusiastic” about running if Hollings retires. Hollings says he’d like to retire if a suitable replacement can be found; so this is likely going to be a DeMint-Tenenbaum race.
UPDATE 2: Hollings will not seek re-election.

3. John Edwards (NC) – I’m not sure what the liberal media establishment sees in this wildly gesticulating, empty-headed, pretty-boy trial lawyer (to consider him Presidential Material!) With a job approval rating of 43%, Edwards is in trouble in his home state. You can bet his challenger will do a much better job than bumbling senator Lauch Faircloth, whom Edwards toppled in 1998. Edwards’ presidential campaign isn’t going very well and he’s moving ever-leftwards to gain the affections of Democratic presidential primary voters. When his presidential campaign inevitably fails, he’ll be facing a tough challenge back home from GOP Congressman Richard Burr.
UPDATE: A new poll has bad news for Edwards. His re-elect percentage is just 32 and he holds just a 47-36 lead over Burr, who is still unknown to half the voters.
UPDATE 2: Edwards’ lead is now down to 47-39.
UPDATE 3: Edwards is not seeking re-election to the Senate. This means the seat is likely going to be won by Burr.
UPDATE 4: Burr leads likely Democratic nomi
nee Erskine Bowles 43-37 in the race to replace Edwards. The numbers may look close, but they’re actually very good news. Most North Carolinians have never heard of Burr, but know Bowles well from his 2002 Senate run against Elizabeth Dole. Burr’s numbers can only get better as the campaign progresses.

4. John Breaux (D-LA) isn’t sure whether he wants to run for re-election in 2004. Breaux says he’ll wait for the 2003 gubernatorial campaign to end before making a decision. If Breaux doesn’t run in 2004, this seat will be wide open, with GOP Rep. David Vitter having the edge. If a Democrat becomes governor, Breaux may resign and let “moderate” Democratic Rep. Chris John be appointed in his place, which would make the 2004 race a tossup between John and Vitter.
UPDATE: Breaux hasn’t decided whether he’ll retire in 2004, but says he’ll serve out his current term.
UPDATE: Breaux has decided to retire! Yet another GOP pickup opportunity in the South.

5. Bob Graham (FL) – Bob Graham is the most frustratingly indecisive man in politics today. He takes weeks or months to make up his mind on things and almost always ends up making a hardline partisan Democratic decision. He’s done the same with his run for the presidency, vacillating for months. And he promised not to run for the Senate if he ran for the presidency, only to go back on that pledge. This hardline leftist deserves to lose his seat. Unfortunately, Florida voters will probably re-elect him if he runs for the Senate after losing the presidential nomination. Regardless of whether Graham retires or not, though, he’ll get a good challenge from GOP Congressman Mark Foley. If Graham retires, this seat will lean Republican and someone like HUD Secretary Mel Martinez would make a strong GOP candidate.
UPDATE: Mel Martinez won’t run in 2004. Given the lack of strength on the Democratic bench, though, this seat is still eminently winnable for the Republicans.
UPDATE 2: Graham’s poll numbers back home are plummeting because of his shrill liberal rhetoric. Running for re-election may no longer be an attractive option.
UPDATE 3: Foley has dropped out of the race. Former Congressman Bill McCollum is now the front-runner for the Republican nomination. If Graham doesn’t run for re-election, the general election is going to be a heck of a nail-biter. If there is one Senate seat that will be significantly affected by the winner of the presidential race, this would be it.
UPDATE 4: Graham has dropped out of the presidential race. In his typical infuriating, vacillating way, he hasn’t yet decided whether he’ll run for re-election to his Senate seat.
UPDATE 5: Graham isn’t running for re-election!
UPDATE 6: According to the Rothenberg Report, Martinez is taking another look at the race. I’d expect other strong candidates to consider it as well, now that they know they won’t be running against Graham.
UPDATE 7: Martinez has decided to run. On paper, the Cuban-American Martinez would make an excellent candidate and have tremendous synergy with Bush’s re-election bid. However, I don’t know how he’ll perform in the Republican primary. Florida looks to be the most interesting Senate race in 2002, both in the primaries and the general election.

6. Blanche Lincoln (AR) – Popular governor Mike Huckabee can probably take out lightweight Lincoln. Sources say he’s getting ready to run. Popular former congressman and current DEA Administrator Asa Hutchinson has been making trips to Arkansas, stoking speculation that he might run for the Senate in 2004. Either of these GOPers would prove a major headache for Lincoln.
UPDATE: Huckabee has finally made up his mind not to challenge Senator Blanche Lincoln (D-AR) in 2004. That leaves Asa Hutchinson and Lt. Governor Winthrop Rockefeller as potential Republican challengers. Hutchinson will, hopefully, be persuaded by the White House to get into the race and knock off Lincoln.

7. Tom Daschle (SD) – Losing 2002 GOP candidate John Thune is looking increasingly to run (as a contributor to his 2002 campaign, I just got a letter asking for contributions for a new group he’s starting, which looks like a jumping-off point for a 2004 run.) If Thune runs, this race will be a tossup, thanks to Daschle’s outrageous comments and the fact that he’s no longer Senate Majority Leader. Daschle will have to spend time and money on his own race, rather than helping other Democrats.
UPDATE: A traffic accident seems to have complicated things. If Congressman Bill Janklow vacates his seat because of the fallout from the accident, will Thune try for it? Or will he challenge Daschle?
UPDATE 2: Congressman Bill Janklow (R-SD) will resign, now that he’s been convicted of a felony. This puts Republican John Thune in a dilemma: Does he run against Tom Daschle in 2004 or retain the House seat for Republicans? Democrats have a talented candidate for the House seat in young Stephanie Herseth, who narrowly lost to Janklow in 2002. Herseth is a talented politician who, like most statewide Democrat politicians in the Dakotas, can camouflage her ultraliberal beliefs by brilliantly lying about them.
UPDATE 3: Thune has jumped into the race. He’s expected to hire GOP miracle-worker Dick Wadhams as his campaign guru. Wadhams has a record of winning close races and is especially good at Get-Out-The-Vote (GOTV,) as he proved in 2002’s Colorado Senate race, which Republican Senator Wayne Allard won comfortably. If Thune runs a better campaign than he did against Tim Johnson, (especially in GOTV,) he could beat Daschle. However, for now, I’d give the edge to Daschle because he’s an entrenched incumbent in a state where voters seem to love pork more than principle. To win, Thune needs a Bush landslide and a very strong GOTV effort that can match the superb effort that Daschle’s team, led by campaign manager Steve Hildebrand, will doubtless put up.

8. Patty Murray (WA) – Osama Mama could have been beaten by GOP Congresswoman Jennifer Dunn (my congresswoman.) A recent poll showed the two neck-and-neck; but Dunn decided not to challenge Murray, leaving speaker-slaying Congressman George Nethercutt as the only credible challenger. If Nethercutt runs, he’ll give Murray a tough challenge; but she’ll probably squeak home. Unless the networks call Florida for Bush early in the day.
UPDATE: Nethercutt has decided to challenge Murray. I give the edge to Murray in this race; but Nethercutt can make her life very miserable. Also, the Bush campaign will probably target Washington state in 2004, thereby helping Nethercutt in his Get-Out-The-Vote (GOTV) efforts.

9. Harry Reid (NV) – Senate Democratic Whip Harry Reid always
wins his seat by tiny margins. GOP Rep. Jim Gibbons is gearing up to challenge him in 2004 and he’ll probably face another tough re-election fight. Having Bush at the top of the ticket just might be enough to tip the scales against him.
UPDATE: A bitter fight over the state budget has resulted in maneuvers that may bring a conservative backlash at the polls in 2004. That’s bad for Reid, of course.
UPDATE 2: Gibbons is out of race. That makes this seat pretty safe for Democrats.

10. Byron Dorgan (ND) – Dorgan and Kent Conrad did a merry two-step in the early 90s to provide very conservative North Dakota with two hard left senators. Former governor Ed Schafer, however, could make life very uncomfortable for Dorgan if he decides to challenge him.

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