David Zalubowski  /  AP file
Colorado Attorney General Ken Salazar, left, is the Democrats' choice to vie with Republican Pete Coors for the open Senate seat in Colorado.
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
msnbc.com
updated 8/11/2004 5:48:12 PM ET 2004-08-11T21:48:12

After two years in the minority, the Democrats have a chance to regain control of the Senate in this November’s elections, with strong candidates vying for Republican-held seats in Colorado, Alaska, Illinois and Oklahoma.

Given the residue of bitterness from the Democrats’ use of the filibuster to block President Bush’s judicial nominees, if the Democrats gain a majority, they’ll face difficulties as great as the Republicans now do in passing bills or confirming judicial nominees, if John Kerry wins the presidency in November.

In today’s often-deadlocked Senate, 60 votes — the number needed to stop a filibuster — are required to pass almost any contested measure or to approve any controversial presidential nominee.

Control the agenda
Nevertheless, if Democrats did have a Senate majority next January, they would be able to control what legislation came to the Senate floor for debate and a vote.

To that extent, they could put the national focus on increasing the minimum wage, repealing the 2001 tax cuts, or whatever issues their leadership chose.

It is possible, but difficult, for the Democrats, to attain the 51 seats they need (or 50 if John Kerry wins the presidency and John Edwards becomes the Senate’s presiding officer).

Much depends on the South, where the Democrats have had a hard time winning Senate seats in recent years. (In 2002, the Democrats’ record in the South was seven losses and only two wins.)

In Dixie, five Democratic-held seats will be up for grabs on Election Day, in the Carolinas, Georgia, Florida and Louisiana, due to the retirements of Democratic incumbents.

Mathematics for Democrats
Assume, for the sake of argument, that the Democrats hold three of those five open Southern seats.

They would then have 47 seats (we include Vermont’s Jim Jeffords, who usually votes with the Democrats and would be awarded a committee chairmanship if they gain the majority).

To advance from 47 to 50 or 51, the Democrats would need to win three or four of these seats now held by Republicans:

  • Colorado: Democratic state Attorney General Ken Salazar will battle Republican brewery executive Pete Coors for the seat held by retiring Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell.

During a bitter primary, Coors withstood attacks from allies of his rival Bob Schaffer accusing him of authorizing the Coors brewery to support "the homosexual agenda" by running ads in gay publications and offering benefits to same-sex couples employed by the brewing company.

In the 1996 and 2002 Colorado Senate races Democrats had the more articulate candidate, Tom Strickland. Republicans ran Wayne Allard, a plain-spoken and un-flashy former veterinarian. Allard won both times. And Bush carried the state by more than 145,000 votes over Al Gore.

Yet Colorado Democrats believe that this is their year.

  • Alaska: If she survives an Aug. 24 primary challenge from former state Senate President Mike Miller, Sen. Lisa Murkowski will have a tough race against Democratic ex-Gov. Tony Knowles. When her father, Gov. Frank Murkowski, appointed her to the Senate seat he’d vacated, it created for some voters a noisome whiff of nepotism.
  • Oklahoma: Conservative Democrat Brad Carson faces conservative Republican Tom Coburn. Oklahoma has not elected a Democratic senator since 1990.
  • Illinois: After much near-comic turmoil, Republicans finally found a candidate, former MSNBC television personality Alan Keyes, who will face state Sen. Barack Obama, the beneficiary of much highly favorable media coverage.

Both Keyes and Obama are spell-binding orators, with Keyes’ record decidedly conservative, as Obama’s is decidedly liberal.

Keyes lost Senate races in Maryland in 1988 and 1992, and Illinois voting history favors Obama by a wide margin.

But pundits may underestimate Keyes, who earned first-class polemical experience in the 1999-2000 GOP presidential debates, jousting with Bush and Arizona Sen. John McCain.

Specter of defeat?
A potential, but less likely Democratic opportunity is in Pennsylvania, where four-term GOP veteran Sen. Arlen Specter is grappling with a challenge from Rep. Joe Hoeffel. Never considered likable, Specter has managed to win ever since 1980, in the face of some tough challenges.

A key factor here will be the willingness of anti-abortion conservatives who turn out to vote for Bush to also vote for Specter, who supports the Roe v. Wade abortion decision.

In the April 27 primary, Specter nearly lost to anti-abortion Republican Rep. Pat Toomey.

Of course, for the Democrats’ regain-the-Senate scenario to work, they must lose no more than two of their Southern seats and lose none of the seats they now hold elsewhere in the country.

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A prime Republican target is Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota, who is being challenged by Republican John Thune, who came within 524 votes of beating Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson in 2002.

One indicator of Daschle’s parlous situation: his campaign has spent more than $9 million so far, more than four times as much as Thune’s.

Wanted: stronger GOP contenders
What is striking about this election cycle is the Republicans’ inability to recruit stronger challengers in states where they well might have had a chance.

Topping the list is Illinois. Obama appears unbeatable today, but the prospects in this race would be far different if the GOP had united behind a credible challenger early in the game.

In Arkansas, Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln is charismatic and refreshingly down to earth. She had raised $5.6 million as of June 30, an impressive amount for a relatively small state.

But Arkansas is part of the South, and that region has trended Republican in recent decades. And yet the best the Republicans were able to muster was state legislator Jim Holt, who had raised only $29,000 as of the end of June.

In Wisconsin, Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold has one the most liberal voting records in the Senate. Very nearly a win for Bush in 2000, the state is one of the prize battlegrounds in the presidential race, but not, at least not yet, in the Senate battle.

The leading fund-raiser as Republicans head toward their Sept. 14 primary is automobile dealership mogul Russ Darrow (who dubs himself “The Right Russ”) with $3 million raised, as of June 30, compared with Feingold’s $8.2 million.

Underwhelming GOP challengers in such states as Arkansas enable the Democrats to concentrate their resources on the tough races in Colorado, South Dakota and elsewhere.

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