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The Senate Races You Aren’t Watching, But Should

Sure, sure, you’re already excited about the re-election bid of Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) and the open Senate seat in Minnesota. And yes, you are following the Rhode Island Senate race to see whether Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R) draws a strong primary challenger, and whether the GOP can hold that seat next November. [IMGCAP(1)]

There’s also a pretty good chance that Florida’s 2006 Senate race is now on your radar screen, given Rep. Katherine Harris’ decision to run for the Republican nomination. You may even be excited about the open-seat contest in Maryland to replace retiring Sen. Paul Sarbanes (D), since you’ve heard that the Republicans have recruited a potentially appealing candidate, Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, who’s African American.

But if you are really interested in what kind of year it will be for the two parties, you might want to focus your attention on some contests that have lower profiles right now, but have considerable potential.

Montana shows signs of ultimately becoming a top-tier Democratic takeover opportunity, not least because the party has two credible candidates against incumbent Sen. Conrad Burns (R).

Burns has had two narrow wins and one blowout victory. But his easy 62 percent re-election in 1994 occurred during a great year for Republicans around the country. Then-President Bill Clinton (D), not Burns, defined that election cycle (negatively).

Montana Democrats will choose between state Auditor John Morrison and former state Senate President Jon Tester, two men with different attributes. Morrison, a lawyer, is the more polished of the two challengers. He also is expected to have more money. Tester is an organic farmer with a folksy, populist style. Either Democrat should give Burns a run for his money.

Ohio also has potential for the Democrats, if they can find a strong challenger to Sen. Mike DeWine (R). National and state party insiders have been talking to two Democratic congressmen, Reps. Sherrod Brown and Tim Ryan, about a possible Senate race. While DeWine would begin as a favorite for re-election, the state’s political environment — namely, a near meltdown for the Ohio GOP — gives Republicans reason for concern.

Democratic insiders are cautiously optimistic about Missouri as they wait for a decision by state Auditor Claire McCaskill about her intentions for 2006. Party insiders note her narrow loss in the 2004 governor’s race — she lost by three points, which was less than half the losing margin of Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry that year — and they believe that her name recognition and stature would automatically make her a top-tier challenger against the incumbent Republican Sen. Jim Talent.

Now, I think that Democrats may be getting a bit ahead of themselves in Missouri. Even if McCaskill runs — and there certainly is no guarantee that she will — she would have a difficult time against Talent, who won a 2002 special election to fill the remainder of the late Mel Carnahan’s term. (Carnahan’s wife, Jean, had been appointed to fill the seat until the special election.)

In a federal contest, McCaskill would have to deal with more ideologically explosive issues, and in recent cycles, Missouri has become a GOP-leaning state. Secretary of State Nancy Farmer’s ineffectual challenge to Sen. Kit Bond (R) last cycle makes McCaskill’s challenge tougher.

Talent, who had $3.4 million in the bank on June 30, is one of the more appealing candidates that you’ll find. Democrats won’t approve of his unapologetic cultural conservatism, but he’s a low-key, likeable and thoughtful person who is difficult to demonize. He ran a terrific race against Carnahan.

Republicans, for their part, have a potentially interesting opportunity in Washington State, where state and national strategists appear to be rallying behind businessman Mike McGavick (R).

McGavick hasn’t run for office before, but he is expected to be well-funded, and people who have met him say that, as a candidate, he is the whole package. Of course, first-time candidates sometimes find campaigns more difficult than they had initially expected, and nobody knows how well he will sell himself to voters. But GOP insiders believe that Sen. Maria Cantwell (D) is weak and that, in spite of the state’s Democratic lean, they have a serious opportunity.

West Virginia and North Dakota also remain on the radar screen for Republicans, even though the party doesn’t have a credible challenger in either state — yet.

Talk that Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R) will challenge Sen. Robert Byrd (D) won’t go away, though most insiders seem to be betting that the Republican Congresswoman won’t give up her House seat to take on the state’s larger-than-life politician.

GOP optimism is a bit stronger about North Dakota, where party strategists hope that popular Gov. John Hoeven (R) will take on Sen. Kent Conrad (D) next year. Hoeven feels no pressure to decide quickly, but insiders insist that he is very interested in the Senate. If he runs, the race becomes one of the more interesting in the nation.

These races don’t have the national visibility that some other contests do. But 14 months from now, they could decide control of the Senate.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.