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GOP Hasn’t Yet Sewn Up Control of the Senate

With only a month to go until Election Day and President Bush holding a narrow but clear lead in national polls over Massachusetts Democratic Sen. John Kerry (at least until post-debate polls), Republicans have not yet locked down control of the Senate even though most of the competitive contests are being fought in Republican-friendly states.[IMGCAP(1)]

None of the most-watched races seems to be moving out of the competitive column, and that has made for an unusually wide swing of potential outcomes — anywhere from a Democratic net gain of a seat or two to a GOP net gain of three or four.

Two takeaways are guaranteed.

Democrats will win in Illinois, where state Sen. Barack Obama (D) is in a laugher against perennial candidate Alan Keyes (R). And in Georgia, Rep. Johnny Isakson (R) is a sure-fire winner over Rep. Denise Majette (D).

Last week, Roll Call reported that members of the Congressional Black Caucus were pushing the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee to invest in Majette’s Senate bid. One senior House Member even was quoted as saying the race “is so close, she’s only a few points behind,” an apparent reference to a Democratic poll showing a 5-point race.

Let’s get real here. Nobody who follows races closely thinks this is a single-digit contest. Majette has the same chance of beating Isakson as the Montreal (now Washington) Expos have of winning this year’s World Series — and the Expos were mathematically eliminated from the pennant race weeks ago.

If the DSCC wants to be politically correct and spend its limited resources in Georgia, it certainly can. But the committee would be insane to do so.

Democratic prospects have improved in two states: Oklahoma and South Carolina.

Rep. Brad Carson (D) is almost certainly running the best Senate campaign of the cycle. Down by at least half a dozen points after former Republican Rep. Tom Coburn’s impressive primary win, Carson came out swinging. His recent ad criticizing Coburn for having opposed disaster aid to the state is a winner, and Oklahoma Democrats are having a field day using Coburn’s own words against him.

Of course, Carson could run a perfect race and still lose. This is Oklahoma, after all. The president will bury Kerry in the state, requiring the Democratic Congressman to attract lots of Bush voters. Still, nobody is betting against Carson now. Certainly I’m not.

Democrat Inez Tenenbaum is gaining ground on favorite Rep. Jim DeMint (R) in South Carolina, primarily by portraying him as a tax hiker. The Congressman’s numbers definitely have suffered, even though a recent Club for Growth survey suggests otherwise.

While Democrats are selling a poll that shows that Tenenbaum has pulled ahead in the contest, DeMint probably still leads narrowly. A Democrat win there would change the party’s prospects at retaking the Senate.

In North Carolina, it’s the Republican Senate nominee who appears to be on the move. Two polls, a partisan one for Rep. Richard Burr (R) and a new independent survey, show Burr in a statistical tie with Erskine Bowles (D). The Republican’s name ID is growing with his ad campaign, and he appears to be pulling away conservatives from Bowles, particularly in the eastern part of the state.

Bowles never was going to win this race by 10 points anyway, so it isn’t surprising that the contest is now tight. The Democrat’s basic problem is simple: He is facing a competent GOP Senate nominee in a state that prefers Republican Senate candidates. The race remains a tossup.

Senate contests in Alaska, Colorado and South Dakota look essentially unchanged. All three contests are tossups, though Colorado state Attorney General Ken Salazar (D) and Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) certainly started with advantages and have not yet been overtaken by their Republican adversaries.

New Louisiana numbers suggest that Rep. David Vitter (R) is approaching the critical 50 percent mark, which would negate the necessity of a runoff. But hitting that mark remains a considerable long shot.

Wisconsin is the hot race of the day for long-shot lovers. GOP challenger Tim Michels launched his general election campaign with a quirky ad that mocks incumbent Sen. Russ Feingold’s (D) efforts to enact campaign finance reform, and the state’s apparent move to the right has some Republican strategists talking upset.

Often, all the close Senate races fall to one party or the other. With so many close contests, enthusiasm (or lack of it) from the top of the ticket could have an effect on Senate results. That’s why, even though it’s harder for the Democrats to reach 50 or 51 than it is for the Republicans, the fight for the Senate continues to be worth watching. Both parties still have work to do.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

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