Senate in the Balance

by Jeff Fleischer

(Mother Jones, October 30, 2004)

House of representatives

As the Democrats’ quest to regain control of the Senate enters its final days, it should come as no surprise that the latest polls show the most important races — and therefore, control of the chamber — still very much up in the air.

In Alaska, former Gov. Tony Knowles has maintained a narrow lead for months, and polls show him up by 3-5 points on the incumbent Lisa Murkowski. The race there is generating plenty of voter interest, with absentee ballots going out to more than 58,000 voters (compared to 32,000 four years ago) and the Democrats encouraging absentee and early balloting. As political scientist Larry Sabato notes, Bush’s expected landslide in the state has not been able to move the race:

“Nothing has changed, and Knowles is still up. Can Bush rescue Murkowski? We have argued elsewhere that there will be more straight ticket voting and less ticket splitting in this election…But if there is any exception on the map of the United States, it is Alaska, home of exceptionally independent citizens. We’ll see what the final surveys say, but Murkowski has never been able to overcome the nepotism charge, and her governor-father is more unpopular than ever.”

In North Carolina, John Edwards hasn’t been able to boost Erskine Bowles’ bid for the seat he’s vacating. While Bowles had a semi-comfortable lead early in the summer, the race is now statistically tied, with Burr getting a $3 million boost this week from the National Republican Senatorial Committee. That money has helped launch a series of ads attacking Bowles on immigration. Still, the former Clinton chief of staff is polling ahead of Kerry in the state, and the race is far from over.

In South Carolina, Inez Tenenbaum continues to trail Jim DeMint despite the GOP frontrunner’s continued gaffes. However, strange comments on the campaign trail have proven problematic for Kentucky incumbent Jim Bunning (whose lead is down to one point in the most recent poll) and Oklahoma’s Tom Coburn (who holds a margin-of-error lead over Democrat Brad Carson). Both Bunning and Coburn are running well behind Bush in their states.

Despite its status as solidly pro-Bush, Louisiana has never sent a Republican to the Senate. That state’s most recent tracking poll shows Republican David Vitter with a majority of votes. There’s no doubt Vitter will gain the most votes on Tuesday against two Democrats, but he needs to fare better than 50 percent to avoid a runoff. As the Lafayette Advertiser notes, Vitter “should not celebrate yet” as Democrats historically break late in Louisiana. Examples include frontrunner Bobby Jindal losing the 2003 governor’s race after a double-digit lead, and Mary Landrieu rebounding to win a Senate runoff in 2002 despite White House efforts to oust her.

Meanwhile, John Thune has taken a slight lead over Tom Daschle in the latest Zogby poll. The most expensive Senate race in history remains too close to call, as Republican groups nationwide are hitting the other guys’ Senate leader with unprecedented fury.

Then there’s the two tight races in presidential battlegrounds.

Colorado’s Ken Salazar appears to be leading, with a nine-point lead in the most recent Zogby poll — though other recent polls have shown a more narrow gap. The outcome of this race could easily swing based on the outcome of Bush/Kerry in Colorado, where the once-red state is still up for grabs. Salazar, with a track record of getting out the vote, could also benefit from the massive numbers of new voters in Colorado.

In Florida, Zogby has the most recent numbers, which have Mel Martinez beating Betty Castor within the margin of error. This one, too, will probably come down to which party has better get-out-the vote in the swing state. As Sabato points out, odds are “it will be either a Bush/Martinez victory, or a Kerry/Castor party on election night.”

Democrat Denise Majette is gaining in new polls, but probably not enough to make the Georgia race competitive. And in Illinois, Barack Obama remains solidly in the driver’s seat, with Alan Keyes incredibly polling at less than 20 percent.

With just four days left, what happens in the Senate remains anyone’s guess. Several races will likely come down to how big a margin the presidential candidates win in those states and turnout remains absolutely crucial for both parties.

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