CNN/TIME AllPolitics Vote '96

Control Of Senate? Anyone's Guess

By R. Morris Barrett/AllPolitics

senate

WASHINGTON (AllPolitics, Nov. 3) -- Heading into the election season, Republicans exuded confidence that their 53-47 majority was invincible. They pointed out that with 34 Senate seats in play, eight of 13 retirements were Democratic, among them Southern, conservative-leaning seats in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia and Louisiana.

But a steady resurgence of President Bill Clinton and congressional Democrats has turned Election Day into a crap shoot.

Some 16 races are virtual tossups, about evenly split between the two parties. Eight of the 19 Republican seats at stake are endangered: Colorado, Maine, Oregon, Wyoming, Kansas, New Hampshire, South Dakota and North Carolina.

Meanwhile, eight of 15 Democratic seats are tossups: Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, New Jersey, Nebraska, Montana and Massachusetts. Democrats need a net gain of three seats to regain control (four if Clinton loses and the vice president can't break a tie). Just a few months ago that seemed unlikely, but now Democrats claim they have a fighting chance.

winston bryant

What happened? While the Republicans' budget balancing bust last winter played a role, the peculiarities of each race probably tell most of the story.

Early on, Louisiana Republican Louis "Woody" Jenkins seemed to have the edge in his race, until scandal hit surrounding IRS liens on a business he owns. Now, there's no clear favorite in his race against state Treasurer Mary L. Landrieu.

Republicans were drooling over Arkansas Democrat David Pryor's seat. Then popular GOP Lieutenant Gov. Mike Huckabee left the Senate race for the governor's mansion after then-Gov. Jim Guy Tucker was convicted of Whitewater-related crimes. In Huckabee's place, Rep. Tim Hutchinson has been running scared from the Newt Gingrich label; he's neck-and-neck against state Attorney General Winston Bryant.

jeff sessions

In Alabama, Democratic Sen. Howell Heflin's seat seemed ripe for GOP takeover, but state GOP Attorney General Jeff Sessions has under-performed while Democratic state Sen. Roger Bedford has done better than expected.

Georgia's Democratic Senate candidate, Secretary of State Max Cleland, has led in recent polls over businessman Guy Millner. The race is too close to call, but a bruising primary fight hurt Millner, whose vanquished GOP rival has done little to pull his supporters behind the Republican ticket.

max cleland

Providing the opening for Democrats, incumbent Republicans are running scared in several states (weakened by Republican budget problems, Medicare squabbles and government shutdowns), while new storms appear to be blowing through a few GOP strongholds.

South Dakota Republican Sen. Larry Pressler is the most vulnerable Republican senator seeking re-election. Despite having spent upwards of $4 million on the campaign so far, his own poll numbers show him below the 50 percent mark against his top-shelf Democratic challenger, Rep. Tim Johnson.

Conservative New Hampshire's Bob Smith, under fire for his support of a Senate pay raise, is showing vulnerability against former Rep. Dick Swett. In Idaho, GOP incumbent Larry Craig is getting a stiff challenge from Boise businessman (and maverick Democrat) Walt Minnick.

larry pressler

In Wyoming, of all states, the GOP candidate running for retiring Republican Alan Simpson's seat, state Sen. Mike Enzi, has his hands full against Democrat Kathy Karmpan. The race for Bob Dole's longtime Kansas GOP seat pits Rep. Sam Brownback against Democratic nominee Jill Docking, whose is nipping at his heels.

Still, if the Democrats' Senate candidates are putting in a good showing, they shouldn't look to Clinton for coattails, if history is any guide. Three times since World War II (1956, 1972 and 1984), the party of re-elected presidents has either lost seats or just broken even.

Moreover, after months of laying low, national Republican leaders have begun spending heavily on behalf of their candidates, while the flurry of legislative activity at the close of the 104nd Congress -- welfare reform, telecommunications reform and health insurance reform -- has given Republicans something to run on.

In Minnesota, an energized and experienced Republican, former Sen. Rudy Boschwitz, is getting heavy backing from the Republican Party in his effort to unseat Democratic incumbent Paul Wellstone, who is fighting for his political survival in a race that's too close to call. Boschwitz has harped relentlessly on Wellstone's vote against the recently signed welfare reform law, calling his rival "embarrassingly liberal."

Ever a longtime Democratic target, N.C. Sen. Jesse Helms, is showing resilience against challenger Harvey Gantt, with Gantt's second effort to wrest away the GOP seat has suffered from disorganization and lack of drive.

Republicans may just pull off the biggest upset of them all: In Massachusetts (Massachusetts!), incumbent Democratic Sen. John Kerry is fighting for his political survival against popular GOP Gov. William Weld, a moderate who has gone to great lengths to distance himself from the socially conservative wing of his party.

Given what seems an equal number of tossups, the edge, in the end, might go to the Republicans, since they only need to hold their own to stay in power, while the Democrats need to gain a minimum of three seats.

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