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The Map So Far

Senate Playing Field Narrows as GOP Struggles to Recruit and Democrats Face Problems in the South

The 2004 Senate playing field has narrowed over the past several months as both parties have failed to lure star recruits into marginal contests, leaving just a handful of races to decide control of the body.

This narrowing has been trumpeted by Democrats as a sign that they are picking up momentum, but an analysis of the races currently in play as well as contests that could develop seems to presage a status quo election that would leave Republicans in the majority.

“The likelihood of us taking [the Senate] back is not so great, and the likelihood of us losing ground is not so great,” predicted one Democratic consultant, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Given the Republican tilt of the cycle — Democrats must defend 19 seats to the GOP’s 15 — a break-even election for Democrats would be seen by most observers as a victory, especially considering new campaign finance laws that ensure Republicans a significant financial edge next year.

If Democrats stayed at their current 49 seats, “conventional wisdom would give us a win but we are in this to win back the Senate,” said Anita Dunn, a Democratic media consultant and top adviser to Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.).

Republicans acknowledge that they may have inflated expectations earlier in the year but believe the raw numbers still show that the cycle is shaping up in their favor.

“We feel cautiously optimistic about where we stand right now,” said National Republican Senatorial Committee Communications Director Dan Allen. “There are a lot of positive developments in the South and Washington state.”

By any measure, however, Republicans have had a rough summer of recruiting, capped by Rep. Jim Gibbons’ (R-Nev.) decision last week to not challenge Sen. Harry Reid (D) in 2004.

Republicans have also seen their first-choice candidates in Arkansas, Illinois, North Dakota and Washington decide against races in recent months.

One prominent Republican strategist dismissed the recent recruiting struggles.

“Nothing changes in the basic math because of this,” the strategist said. “Nevada and Arkansas were sideshows. It was always going to come down to a handful of races anyway.”

Democrats have been slightly more successful with their own recruiting, convincing former Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles (D) to take on appointed Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R). They also tout Rep. Joe Hoeffel (Pa.) and Missouri state Treasurer Nancy Farmer as recruiting successes, though neither was the party’s first choice.

But Democrats have failed to recruit a candidate in Georgia’s open-seat race as well as a challenger to Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.), who party leaders believe would be vulnerable with the right opponent.

“The map is all about opportunities,” said Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman Brad Woodhouse. “It is clear that opportunities for Republicans have shrunk and the opportunities for Democrats have expanded.”

While Woodhouse’s statement is accurate on its face, a close look at the playing field reveals that the top pickups for each party remain roughly equivalent.

Republicans’ two top targets are Southern open seats held by Sens. Zell Miller (D-Ga.) and Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.), both of whom are retiring.

In Georgia, Republicans have Reps. Johnny Isakson and Mac Collins as well as businessman Herman Cain running for their nomination.

Democrats have struggled to find a candidate, although former U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young (D) is likely to run. If not, Michelle Nunn, the daughter of former Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), has said she will consider the race.

Hollings’ retirement surprised few observers on both sides of the aisle but gave GOPers a ripe target in the most strongly Republican state in the South.

National Democrats worked to clear the field for state Superintendent of Education Inez Tenenbaum but could not keep Columbia Mayor Bob Coble from entering the race as well. Tenenbaum remains the early favorite in the primary, but Coble is a serious candidate.

Republicans have an even more crowded primary field with Rep. Jim DeMint, former state Attorney General Charlie Condon and wealthy developer Thomas Ravenel all in the race.

For Alaska Democrats, Knowles’ candidacy gives them hope in a state where no one from their party has been elected to Congress since 1974. Knowles served two terms as governor but never received better than 51 percent and benefited heavily from Republican disarray in both 1994 and 1998.

Murkowski, appointed by her father to complete his Senate term in late 2002, has her own problems, largely stemming from the way she ascended to the Senate. Her father, Frank Murkowski, is now the state’s governor, and budget woes have led some Republicans to blame both father and daughter. Lisa Murkowski could face a primary challenge as well.

Beyond those top targets, uncertainty reigns, especially among Democratic incumbents.

In Florida and North Carolina, Sens. Bob Graham (Fla.) and John Edwards (N.C.) are running for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination and have not decided whether they will run for re-election in 2004.

A slew of candidates — both Democrat and Republican — are running for Graham’s seat, although most Democratic strategists believe the three-term Senator will decide to seek re-election after bowing out of the presidential race.

Edwards will formally announce his presidential candidacy Sept. 16 and is not expected to make a return Senate bid. If he steps aside, the most likely replacement is 2002 nominee Erskine Bowles (D), who is itching to get into the race, according to Democratic sources. Former state Rep. Dan Blue and Rep. Bob Etheridge are also seen as possibilities.

Waiting for whichever Democrat emerges is Rep. Richard Burr (R), the crown jewel of GOP recruitment efforts so far this cycle. Burr, who has represented a

Winston-Salem-based district since 1994, has proved to be a tenacious campaigner and fundraiser. At the end of June, he showed nearly $3.5 million in the bank, the most of any challenger candidate this cycle.

Retirement rumors continue to swirl around Sen. John Breaux (D-La.), who has said he will not make a decision on his re-election race until after the November 2003 gubernatorial race. Breaux is a heavy favorite for re-election, but if he opts for retirement, the race to replace him will be close.

And despite all evidence to the contrary, Republicans — and even some Democrats — continue to believe Daschle may end his political career in 2004. If he chooses to run, as seems likely, former Rep. John Thune is the GOP’s first choice and the likely nominee.

Sen. Don Nickles (Okla.) is the only Republican seen as a retirement possibility. Nickles is expected to make a decision before the end of the year.

Sens. Kit Bond (Mo.) and Jim Bunning (Ky.) are both high on Democrats’ wish lists, but both have done a standout job of fundraising in the first half of 2003. Bond ended June with $2.8 million on hand; Bunning banked $2 million.

Democrats struggled to find a candidate against Bond but eventually settled on Farmer, who has drawn surprisingly positive reviews in the early going but must show an ability to raise significant funds in her October quarterly report.

In Kentucky, no prominent Democrats have emerged and none is likely to until the 2003 gubernatorial race ends.

Although both sides disagree on the net effect of the narrowing of the Senate playing field, one clear result will be that more money will be spent on fewer races. With party leaders like Minority Whip Reid and Democratic Policy Committee Chairman Byron Dorgan (N.D.) likely safe, the DSCC is free to concentrate its resources on states with pricey media markets like Pennsylvania and Illinois.

“Any time a state we need to defend is taken off the map it allows us to allocate resources to other priorities,” said Woodhouse, the DSCC spokesman. “The map is moving toward us politically and financially.”

But with the party committees banned from raising and spending soft money by the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, Senate Republicans have opened up a financial edge in the first seven months of 2003.

Through July, the NRSC had raised $16.5 million to the DSCC’s $12.3 million; the NRSC had $5.3 million on hand with no debt. The DSCC had netted $2.5 million but still carried more than $3 million in debt from the 2002 cycle.

Republicans also believe that with the massive amount of money the Bush campaign is likely to dedicate to turnout for the presidential race, the Senate committee will not have to raise and spend nearly as much to get its voters to the polls.

“The money we would have to spend on turnout will be used to communicate with the [voters in the] middle,” said one Republican strategist.

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