Senate control still uncertain

February 11, 2000

Senate control still uncertain

While control for the Senate may not appear to be as close as control for the House, several late developments have left the outcome in doubt. The Republicans start with a 54-46 advantage, but Democrats, who stand to lose one or two of the seats they now hold, must make a net gain of five seats to get a majority, a prospect that is completely in play in the remaining days of the 2000 election.

Democrats would have to retain the endangered seat of Sen. Charles S. Robb (D-Va.) and most of the seats left vacant by retiring Democrats. In addition, they would have to pick up the Florida seat left vacant by the retiring Connie Mack and knock off most of the seriously vulnerable GOP incumbents to win a majority. However, this is not an impossible feat.

After picking up the campaign of her deceased husband, former Governor Mel Carnahan, polls now show Jean Carnahan in a dead heat with Senator John Ashcroft in Missouri. Farther north in Michigan, Congresswoman Debbie Stabenow has closed the gap with embattled Senator Spencer Abraham. These recent developments have left the battle for the Senate much closer than most analysts had predicted several months ago.

A review of the races as they stand in the few days of the campaign points to the likelihood of a Democratic gain of one to three seats; however, Democrats are more optimistic. Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Robert G. Torricelli (N.J.) has predicted that his party will wind up with 48 to 51 seats. He believes control will be determined by the outcomes in Montana, where Senator Conrad Burns is in a tough reelection fight, Virginia, and Michigan.

National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is confident the GOP will retain control, marking the first time since the 1920s that Republicans have controlled the Senate for four consecutive Congresses. However, this hinges on strong showings from Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, William Roth of Delaware, and Senate Aviation Subcommittee Chairman Slade Gorton of Washington, who is in the toughest race of his political career against Internet entrepreneur Maria Cantwell.

In any case, odds favor a more closely divided Senate, which could pose serious difficulties for the next president. Of the 34 seats at stake on Election Day, 19 are held by Republicans and 15 by Democrats, putting the GOP at somewhat greater risk. About a dozen seats are regarded as being competitive, half of them highly so, with more Republican than Democratic seats fall in the most competitive category.

From the start, Democrats have been pinning their hopes on knocking off the members of the "Class of '94," the senators who came into office riding the wave of anti-Washington sentiment, which made the "Republican Revolution" possible. However, such hopes seem to be fading with the only senators in jeopardy, who were elected in 1994, being Abraham of Michigan and Senator Rod Grams of Minnesota, who has trailed throughout much of his race against investment company president Mark Dayton.

Republicans' best opportunity to pick up a seat appears to be in Nevada, where former representative John Ensign (R) has a strong lead for a Democratic-held open seat. They have also been counting on former Virginia Governor George Allen to defeat Robb, although new polls indicate that Robb has closed the gap and that the race will most likely come down to voter turnout.

Republicans hold out hope for Congressman Rick Lazio's Senate campaign in New York against First Lady Hillary Clinton, and Rep. Bob Franks' campaign in New Jersey against multimillionaire Jon Corzine. However, Franks will have to overcome the millions of dollars—expected to set a national record at more than $50 million—which Corzine, a former Wall Street executive, will have pumped from his own bank account into this race.

Republicans are also eyeing an open Democratic-held seat in Nebraska, where former Democratic Governor Ben Nelson holds a slight lead over state Attorney General Don Stenberg. They believe the state's GOP-leaning voter tendency, combined with Nelson's loss to now-Sen. Chuck Hagel (R) four years ago, should put them over the top in the Husker state.

So as the election cycle comes to a close, the outcome still remains uncertain. While Republicans stand a better chance of retaining their Senate majority than they have of retaining their majority in the House of Representatives, a Democrat takeover is not out of the question. However, one thing may be certain, both Republicans and Democrats could be up very late on November 7 waiting to see if their efforts have all paid off.

November 2, 2000