Skip to comments.Still in Doubt, Fight for Senate Grows Feverish
Posted on 11/02/2002 11:33:30 AM PST by GeneD
WASHINGTON, Nov. 2 State polls showing that more than half a dozen Senate seats were still within either party's grasp prompted Republicans and Democrats today to intensify their feverish campaigns for control of the chamber.
Seeking to influence the truly undecided voters and to make sure those who have made up their minds go to the polls both parties marshaled volunteers to ring doorbells and hand out leaflets. They also paraded big-name politicians and star-quality supporters before the cameras and drowned out commercials for consumer goods with advertisements extolling their candidates and assailing their opponents.
Politicians and strategists on both sides agreed that control of the Senate could not be forecast with any certainty. Still, Democrats said they were increasingly confident they could hold their one-seat margin, and perhaps even expand it. Some Republicans also said privately that Democrats have a thin advantage in these final days, if only because Republicans need to gain a seat in order to take control.
It could be days or weeks, however, until the outcome of the races is known, given the possibility of challenges and a December runoff election in Louisiana. Strategists on both sides say that races in Missouri, Colorado, Arkansas, South Dakota, New Hampshire and Minnesota, among others, could break either way.
"It is easier for me to imagine the Democrats holding the Senate than the Republicans getting to 50, but not a lot easier," said Stuart Rothenberg of the Rothenberg Political Report, a veteran nonpartisan analyst. "This is a hold-your-breath election."
The elections will either maintain the status quo or vault Republicans back into control of the Senate, which they lost last year with the party switch of Senator James Jeffords, independent of Vermont. With the death last month of Senator Paul Wellstone of Minnesota, the Democrats now control 49 seats. The Republicans also have 49 seats, but Mr. Jeffords votes with the Democrats.
In a telling sign of the White House determination to lend the prestige and power of the presidency to help Republican candidates, President Bush was barnstorming Tennessee, Georgia and Florida today in a burst of weekend campaigning for his allies. His first stop today was in eastern Tennessee to campaign for a former presidential campaign rival, Lamar Alexander, who is challenging the Democratic incumbent, Bob Clement.
"We need Lamar Alexander and we need to change the United States Senate," Mr. Bush told a cheering crowd of thousands in a hanger at the Tri-Cities Regional airport in Blountville. From there he was on his way to Georgia to campaign for Representative Saxby Chambliss, a Republican who polls show to be trailing in his effort to unseat Democratic incumbent Max Cleland.
Mr. Bush planned to visit Illinois, Iowa and Minnesota before returning to South Dakota. On Monday, he was scheduled to make final stops in Missouri and Arkansas before a rally in Texas. By then, he will have visited all the battleground states in the past week, some of them several times.
There was so much attention on the Senate because many political operatives and analysts said they considered it unlikely but certainly not impossible that Democrats could capture the six seats needed to gain control of the House. There is a consensus that Democrats will score a big net gain in governorships.
A spokesman for Senator Tom Daschle, the Democratic leader who has been campaigning in his home state of South Dakota to help Senator Tim Johnson in his neck-and-neck battle with Representative John R. Thune, said Mr. Daschle was cautiously optimistic he would remain majority leader after Tuesday's voting. But he noted that some of the critical races are in states President Bush carried two years ago.
Publicly, party officials expressed more confidence.
"We will definitely hold it, and the question is how many can we pick up," said Tovah Ravitz-Meehan, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
Republicans insisted that the fight was far from over, particularly with Mr. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and even Laura Bush, the first lady, among the Republican luminaries campaigning.
Mitch Bainwol, executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said Republicans were well aware from the moment Mr. Jeffords' switched parties that retaking the Senate in a mid-term election would be difficult.
"Along the way we have had to endure a bunch of open seats, political trickery in New Jersey and tragedy in Minnesota," Mr. Bainwol said. "Yet we are very much in the hunt."
Of all the competitive contests, the Senate race in Minnesota has drawn the most attention over the past week with the death of Senator Wellstone in an airplane crash, and former Vice President Walter F. Mondale's decision to jump back into elective politics and run in his place against Norm Coleman, the Republican. Many Republicans said they first thought the seat would remain Democratic out of sympathy toward Mr. Wellstone, but they say there has been a backlash against the overt political tenor of a memorial service for the two-term senator.
"Before the memorial service I would have said it is pretty clearly going to go Democratic, but it was so poorly handled," said Senator Sam Brownback, Republican of Kansas, who attended the service.
In Missouri, Senator Jean Carnahan, has long been considered one of the most endangered Democratic incumbents. She has trailed in recent public polls behind former Congressman Jim Talent and Republicans believe they are in position to claim that seat. Democratic officials say party polls put the race closer. As many as 2,000 union volunteers were planning to travel to Missouri this weekend to try to work for the big turnout considered critical to Mrs. Carnahan's chances.
Democrats consider their best chance to defeat a sitting Republican to be in Arkansas, where incumbent Tim Hutchinson is being challenged by Attorney General Mark Pryor, the son of a popular former governor and senator, David Pryor.
The race in Colorado, a rematch of 1996, is so tight that the leading candidates, Senator Wayne Allard, a Republican seeking a second term, and Tom Strickland, a Democrat and former United States attorney, traded the lead several times through the week, according to the daily tracking poll in the Rocky Mountain News. By Friday, Mr. Strickland was ahead once more, but by only two points, well within the 4.4 percent margin of sampling error.
But Mr. Allard was expecting a lift after appearing at a party rally Friday night with Mr. Cheney and today with former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani of New York.
The race is so close that strategists in Colorado say the outcome could well be determined by the Libertarian candidate, who might siphon more votes from Mr. Allard than Mr. Strickland.
Both parties are also watching New Hampshire, where recent polls showed Representative John E. Sununu, a Republican, and Gov. Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat, running virtually even in the race for the seat now held by Bob Smith, the Republican Mr. Sununu defeated in a primary. Republican operatives said polls there showed that Mr. Sununu was trailing just a few days ago but that he has since bounced back.
Republicans are nervous about North Carolina, where Erskine B. Bowles, the former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton, has closed the gap on former cabinet secretary Elizabeth Dole.
A big dream of Democrats is winning back the Senate seat from President Bush's home state of Texas. But the Democrat, Ron Kirk, former mayor of Dallas, is trailing in polls against the Republican, state attorney general John Cornyn. Still, many analysts believe the race could be close on election day.
Mr. Cornyn, who has benefited from appearances by President Bush and Mrs. Bush, has a lead ranging from three to 10 points, depending on the polls. But record early voting across the state particularly in traditionally Democratic areas has led some analysts to say that Mr. Kirk could pull off an upset.
In Louisiana, a unique election system would require a second election in December if none of the candidates break 50 percent. To help the incumbent Democrat, Mary Landrieu, reach that goal, the national party has shipped off $500,000 to the state in recent days.
Over the last week or 10 days, the party has also dispatched $600,000 to help Frank R. Lautenberg in New Jersey, the former Senator who replaced Senator Robert G. Torricelli on the ballot after Mr. Torricelli abruptly dropped out of the contest in the face of sinking poll numbers.
Mr. Bainwol, the Republican Senate strategist, said the turn of events in the Senate races had been astounding.
"If somebody had told me a year ago that the future of Democratic control of the Senate was going to be displayed in the form of Frank Lautenberg and Walter Mondale, I would have said they were nuts," he said. "Yet that's where we are."
Or, in NH, they are still trying to decide whether to write in Smith, vote for Shaheen out of pique, suck it up and vote Sununu, or stay home.