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Storming the Senate

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Let’s break away from Texas politics to check out the race for control of the U.S. Senate, which currently has a 55-45 Republican majority. According to my favorite Web site for following national politics, www.electoral-vote.com, the current projection is for a 50-50 tie. If this were to be the final result, Vice President Cheney would be able to cast the tie-breaking vote.

Here is the algorithm used to determine who is ahead:

1. The most recent poll in every state is always used.
2. If no other polls were taken within a week of the most recent one, only the most recent poll counts.
3. If one or more polls were taken within a week of the most recent, all of them are averaged.

The main problem with this formula is that some states (usually small ones) don’t get polled very often, and the numbers can grow moldy. The latest poll in Rhode Island, for example, is dated August 23. Democratic challenger Sheldon Whitehouse led Republican incumbent Lincoln Chafee by two percentage points. Chafee beat back a primary challenge from a conservative yesterday. The campaign has to have affected the general election race–maybe Chafee got beat up, maybe he came through as a statesman, but we’re stuck with old numbers. A similar situation exists in Montana, where embattled Republican incumbent Conrad Burns trailed Democrat John Tester by three points. On August 27.

Democrats need to pick up six seats currently held by Republicans in order to have a clear majority. Seven seats in the R column are in play, and one on the Democratic side, and all of the races are very close. I’m going to give my opinion about the races–isn’t that what bloggers are supposed to do?–but no warranties, expressed or implied.

Missouri: This is the only closely contested race among the seven seats targeted by Democrats in which the Republican candidate is leading. Incumbent Jim Talent leads state auditor Claire McCaskill, 48-46. Missouri is dead even in party registration, but the Democrats have a recent history of coming close but not winning. I don’t see that changing.

Montana: Conrad Burns, the Republican incumbent, would have been vulnerable even if he didn’t have Jack Abramoff problems. He won his last race by only 3 percentage points. His disapproval rating has been higher than 50%. Jon Tester, the Democratic president of the state Senate, has held the lead most of the way, by as much as 7 points, although the latest poll (Gallup) shows Tester’s lead trimmed to 48-45. Karl Rove will appear at a fundraiser for Burns this weekend. In a debate, Burns attacked Tester as a liberal. Montana has been a solid Republican state in presidential elections but it has an independent streak at home. Max Baucus, the senior senator, is a Democrat, as is the governor (Burns’ previous opponent). If it weren’t for Burns’ big lead in fundraising, Tester would be a clear favorite. On the other hand, how much can money accomplish in Montana? Burns deserves to lose, and I think he will.

Ohio: Incumbent Republican Mike DeWine has done nothing to deserve getting beat, and yet he trails Democratic congressman Sherrod Brown, 45-41 (warning: this is a Zogby poll). The reason is that Ohio Republicans have been beset by scandal, from Governor Bob Taft to congressman Bob Ney, who resigned his seat. This race will be the best test of the theory that Republicans approach this election as a dispirited and demoralized party. Many prognosticators think that DeWine will lose. I don’t. Republicans proved in 2004 they know how they get their vote out.

Pennsylvania: Incumbent Republican Rick Santorum is just too conservative for his state, and his Democratic opponent, Bob Casey, is an economic populist and a social moderate. Santorum had a disapproval rating of 53% last spring (Survey USA). Yet the latest poll in the state (Zogby) showed the race narrowing considerably, with Casey holding a 47-43 lead, and every poll I saw on the electoral-vote Web site shows the race in the middle single digits. If the Democrats can’t beat Santorum, they are pitiful.

Rhode Island: Lincoln Chafee fended off a conservative opponent yesterday, 54-46, to win the Republican nomination. The Republican establishment doesn’t like Chafee, who frequently breaks with President Bush on votes, but they had to back him, knowing that a conservative would have no chance to win. Now he is in a tossup race with former state attorney general
Sheldon Whitehouse, who led Chafee in a poll that is now almost three weeks old, 44-42. Rhode Island is an overwhelming Democratic state, but Chafee’s father, John, held the seat for four terms and Lincoln succeeded him in 2000. This could be the closest of all the Senate races, but familiar names usually prevail in politics. I think Chafee will survive.

Tennessee: The race to succeed the retiring Senate majority leader Bill Frist made the battle for the Senate 50-50; Survey USA and Rasmussen polls of September 11, averaged, show Democratic congressman Harold Ford grabbing a 46-45 lead over Republican Bob Corker, a former mayor of Chatanooga and a real estate developer who funded his own campaign. Corker was the most moderate candidate in the Republican primary, and previous polls have shown him with a slight lead. I just don’t think that Tennessee will elect an African-American to the U.S. Senate.

Virginia: This state was regarded as safely Republican until incumbent George Allen famously hurled what many interpreted as a racial slur at a campaign aide for Democratic challenger James Webb. Allen started the race with $7 million in the bank to Webb’s half a million and a 48-32 lead in early polls. That dropped to 46-42 after Allen popped off. More recently, the average of Mason-Dixon and Zogby polls showed Webb, a former Secretary of the Navy and a George W. Bush supporter in 2000, with a 46-45 lead. Knocking off Allen, a former governor and a GOP presidential hopeful for 2008, would be a huge upset, but if Allen can hold his tongue, I don’t think Webb can hold the lead.

The Republicans do not have nearly as many opportunities. The only Democratic seat electoral-vote.com regards as close is in New Jersey, where Democratic incumbent and former congressman Robert Menendez is in trouble. Appointed to the seat by Governor Corzine in January, despite a checkered history in the area of ethics, Menendez became the subject of a federal investigation last week. (He is claiming that the investigation is politically motivated. Well, it wouldn’t be the first time.) It seems that he took in $300,000 in a rental deal with a nonprofit agency for which he had obtained millions of dollars in federal funds. Corzine should never have appointed Menendez. An early lead for the Democrat in the polls has turned into a 42-40 lead for Republican Tom Kean, son of the former governor of the same name, who chaired the 9/11 commission. I think Menendez will lose–although New Jersey tolerates political corruption more than most states.

This adds up to a net +1 for the Democrats, 54 Rs and 46 Ds. Not what the Democrats are looking for.

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