Thursday, December 29, 2005

Analysts See Democrats Gaining in 2006 Races - December 29, 2005 - The New York Sun - NY Newspaper

Analysts See Democrats Gaining in 2006 Races - December 29, 2005 - The New York Sun - NY Newspaper: "December 29, 2005 Edition > Section: National

Analysts See Democrats Gaining in 2006 Races
BY JOSH GERSTEIN - Staff Reporter of the Sun
December 29, 2005

WASHINGTON - A Maryland politician who could become the first black Republican senator in nearly three decades, a business executive credited with bringing one of Washington state's biggest insurance companies back from the brink, and a state senator who is the son of one of New Jersey's most popular governors are among the Republican Party's best prospects to gain Senate seats in next year's election.

Meanwhile, Democrats are hoping that a young African-American congressman will make history by winning a Senate race in Tennessee, and that in Pennsylvania the son of another famous governor can oust Senator Santorum, who looks vulnerable.

Several political analysts interviewed by The New York Sun this week said they expect Democrats to narrow the Republican advantage in both houses of Congress next year. But they said Democrats are likely to fall short of winning a majority in either chamber.

The experts cautioned that many races may turn on hard-to-predict factors such as the military situation in Iraq and the vitality of the American economy. One pollster held out the possibility that the Republicans could increase their majorities if the economy grows quickly and large numbers of troops begin returning from Iraq.

"It's a pretty safe bet that 2006 will be a Democratic year. It may be a mild Democratic year, a moderate Democratic year, or a bonanza," a professor of politics at the University of Virginia, Larry Sabato, said.

An analyst of Senate races for the non-partisan Cook Political Report, Jennifer Duffy, predicted that Democrats will pick up between two and four Senate seats, leaving the GOP with a razor-thin majority that has little power under Senate rules. "If the Republicans have trouble with 55 seats, it's not going to be any easier with 53 seats or 51 seats," she said.

Pollster Scott Rasmussen said surveys taken in contested Senate races in October and November suggested "a very bleak outlook" for Republicans. "The polls we've done in the last couple of weeks are less grim, but they're not anything to be enthusiastic about," he said.

While many consider it too early to ponder elections that are still more than 10 months away, some candidates say their bids are already in full swing.

"This is the phase of organizing, fund raising, and preparing," said Michael McGavick, a Republican who is seeking to unseat Senator Cantwell of Washington, a first-term Democrat. Mr. McGavick, 47, who is stepping down this week as CEO of a Seattle-based insurance firm, Safeco, said he is unconcerned about polls that showed an erosion of confidence in President Bush. "Voters, especially here in the Northwest, are very independent of those national trends," said Mr. McGavick, who also worked as chief of staff to a former senator from Washington, Slade Gorton. "Public sentiment shifts fast," the challenger said.

Ms. Cantwell, 47, who used a dot-com fortune to defeat Mr. Gorton five years ago, is in no financial position to make a similar contribution this time. The value of her holdings in an Internet firm she once worked for, Real Networks, dropped sharply after the tech bubble burst.

An aide to Mr. McGavick, Julie Sund, said he may also benefit from the perception that Maria Cantwell has largely been overshadowed by Senator Murray, another Democratic woman senator from Washington state. "People don't really have an issue they associate with Maria," she said.

Another Republican hopeful, the lieutenant governor of Maryland, Michael Steele, is taking a more restrained approach to the early phases of his campaign to fill a seat vacated by the retirement of Senator Sarbanes, a Democrat. A spokesman for Mr. Steele, Leonardo Alcivar, said the candidate intends to keep focused on his state duties at least through the spring.

Republican leaders hope Mr. Steele, who is African-American, can pick up support from black voters, who have generally been loyal to Democrats. "They'll now, have for the first time in a generation in Maryland, a real choice and they haven't had that," Mr. Alcivar said. Democrats may frustrate Mr. Steele's efforts by fielding a former congressman and ex-president of the NAACP, Kweisi Mfume, though he must first face a primary contest with Rep. Benjamin Cardin.

In New Jersey, a Republican state senator, Thomas Kean Jr., appears well positioned for a bid for the seat currently occupied by Senator Corzine,a Democrat who will soon leave federal office to assume the governor's job. The Senate candidate is a son of Thomas Kean, a former governor of New Jersey, who gained national prominence as chairman of the commission that investigated the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

Mr. Corzine's handpicked successor, Rep. Robert Menendez, who will be sworn in next month to serve out the departing senator's term, is planning to mount a campaign for the seat. He may face primary challengers as well.

The chairman of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, Senator Schumer, said Tuesday that he believes Democrats have a chance to pick up Republican seats in seven states: Arizona, Missouri, Montana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Tennessee. "If the stars align right, we could actually take back the Senate," Mr. Schumer told the Associated Press. However, in an earlier dispatch from the news agency, the senator set a more modest goal. "If we can pick up two or three, we'd be very happy," Mr. Schumer said.

A spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, Brian Vick, called Mr. Schumer's upbeat assessment "a nice dream." Mr. Vick noted that in six of the seven races Mr. Schumer cited, the Democrat will be facing an incumbent Republican. In recent years, 88% of Senate incumbents have been reelected, the spokesman said.

"We're in a lot better position," Mr. Vick said. "He needs to worry about the open seats they have."

However, to many non-partisan analysts, some Republican senators look a bit wobbly. One is Mr. Santorum, a staunch conservative who may face a challenge from Robert Casey Jr., the Pennsylvania state treasurer and son of the late governor. "It is the marquee Senate race, the one everybody's going to watch," Ms. Duffy said.

Mr. Casey, who opposes abortion rights, faces some primary opposition from Democrats who support legalized abortion but is expected to win the nomination. Some Republicans believe Mr. Casey's anti-abortion stance could put Senator Clinton, an abortion rights advocate, in the uncomfortable position of having to either remain silent on the pivotal race or back a pro-life candidate.

Mrs. Clinton's political action committee, Hillpac, gave $5,000 to Mr. Casey earlier this year. "Senator Clinton looks forward to supporting the Democratic nominee," a Clinton adviser, Ann Lewis, said yesterday.

In a recent Quinnipiac poll, Mr. Casey had 50% support while 38% of voters favored Mr. Santorum. The poll showed that when Mr. Casey's supporters who also favor abortion rights were told that both Messrs. Casey and Santorum believe abortion should be illegal, 22% of the abortion rights supporters said they probably would not vote at all in the race.

Mr. Santorum also faces a primary challenge from a libertarian who favors abortion rights, John Featherman. "We put abortion as the number one issue," said Mr. Featherman, a real-estate broker. "I have my work cut out for me."

In Tennessee, Rep. Harold Ford Jr., a Democrat, could win the seat being vacated by Senate Majority Leader Frist, who is keeping his pledge to leave the Senate after serving two terms. Mr. Ford, 35, would be the first African-American ever elected to the Senate from that state. At the moment, Republicans are splintered in a hotly contested three-way primary.

"It's going to be expensive. It's probably going to be ugly," Ms. Duffy said of Mr. Ford's race.

One-third of the Senate seats are up for grabs next year, as is every seat in the House. At the moment, because of the effects of redistricting and gerrymandering, fewer than 30 House races are expected to be competitive, though the number could increase if more members retire in the coming months.

Despite some recent improvements, ominous signs remain for the Republicans. A recent Mason-Dixon poll taken in Montana, one of the reddest of red states, showed the Democratic state auditor, John Morrison, running just 6 points behind Senator Burns, a third term Republican suffering from his ties to a Washington lobbying scandal.

Mr. Rasmussen noted, however, that early in 2002 some Democrats predicted big gains, only to be disappointed. "That same thing can happen between now and next November," he said.

December 29, 2005 Edition > Section: National"

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