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Democrats' Climb for Senate Control Gets Steeper

When Illinois Republicans imported Maryland's Alan Keyes to be their stand-in Senate candidate this month, they briefly cornered the market in Senate campaign news. But most of the Senate race developments recently have been happier for the GOP. In fact, primaries in the South and West in recent weeks have raised the odds against the Democrats regaining the Senate majority this year.

Retirements are leaving Senate seats open this fall in eight states. Four of these have just chosen their nominees this summer (South Carolina, Oklahoma, Georgia and Colorado), and the Republican winner in each is the one who -- for different reasons in each case -- will pose the hardest challenge for rival Democrats this fall.

The most recent development came in Colorado, where a tight primary contest turned decisively at the end in favor of Pete Coors, chairman of the brewing giant that bears his family name. Coors had more money than former Rep. Bob Schaffer, who was backed by social conservatives in the state, and Coors should have more money than the Democrats' nominee, state Attorney General Ken Salazar, this fall. Coors' views are probably closer to those of most Coloradoans than Schaffer's, and he brings more of the big name excitement and media impact a statewide candidate needs.

Two weeks earlier, Oklahoma Republicans made just as clear-cut a call favoring the outsider over the insider. The nominee here is former Rep. Tom Coburn, a physician-legislator who, like Schaffer, honored his term-limit pledge and left the House after six years. Coburn is, if anything, even more conservative than Schaffer. He recently raised eyebrows by refusing to rule out the death penalty as punishment for doctors who perform abortions. But he also made a reputation in the House for working with various Democrats on Medicare and other health care issues.

Coburn rather easily beat the more mainstream candidate, Kirk Humphreys, the former mayor of Oklahoma City. And in this case, despite his strong views, Coburn may well be the stiffer test for the Democratic nominee. One reason is that he and the Democratic nominee, Rep. Brad Carson, share a base in the state's eastern counties, and that may cost Carson some of the homeboy votes he was counting on. But a bigger, more subjective reason is Coburn's powerful identity as a prairie populist from Muskogee, a Southern Baptist deacon and a man who keeps his word. Coburn on the ballot will compel voters to the polls in ways the lower-key Humphreys could not.

In Georgia and South Carolina, neighboring states trending strongly Republican, the Democrats' battle to hold the Senate seats was always uphill. But it was no help to them when the GOP chose Jim DeMint in South Carolina and Johnny Isakson in Georgia. Both are incumbent members of Congress with good ties to all factions of their party and no salient points of vulnerability. DeMint beat back a challenge from former Gov. David Beasley, against whom Democrats had a backlog of ammunition. Isakson prevailed over a pair of rivals decidedly more conservative and less saleable in the crucial suburbs of Atlanta.

The Democrats in these states chose highly capable nominees of their own. Rep. Denise Majette is a talented freshman from one of Georgia's two majority-black districts. Inez Tenenbaum is the popular statewide Superintendent of Education in South Carolina. Either would be her state's first female senator. Both may have higher office in their futures, but this is not likely to be their season.

All these summer outcomes have been largely overlooked amid the news of the presidential race, Iraq, the Olympics and the like. But taken as a bouquet, they are especially fragrant for the GOP, which had endured a long season of deteriorating weather on the Senate front. For months, the party was failing to field its first-choice candidates against Democratic incumbents (California, Oregon, Washington, Nevada, Colorado, North Dakota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana and New York) or primaries were threatening to weaken the GOP effort in target states.

But now the ship appears to have been righted. Republicans expect to nominate one of two well-known figures in Florida on Aug. 31 and should have an even chance of capturing that seat. In Louisiana, their candidate Rep. David Vitter should get a plurality in the Nov. 2 election, a good way to enter the runoff against the No. 2 finisher (probably Democrat Chris John) in the December runoff.

It was always a long shot for the Democrats to get back on top in the Senate in 2004. Even though the current Republican majority is just 51 seats, the Democrats' practical task for 2004 was to defend what they had (19 of the 34 seats on the ballot). Then, when five Democratic incumbents bailed out in the South, Bush's best region, Republicans started thinking about a net gain of several seats. The number 55 was mentioned as attainable before the recruiting disappointments and intraparty squabbles began.

Right now, neither party seems likely to run the table. The GOP could lose an incumbent in Alaska (appointive senator Lisa Murkowski faces former Gov. Tony Knowles), the Democrats could lose one in South Dakota (their leader, Tom Daschle, has his best opponent ever in former Rep. John Thune). The other two-dozen incumbents seeking re-election are mostly secure.

The eight vacancies may split about evenly, too, with the Republican seat in Illinois going Democratic while Georgia and South Carolina go Republican. North Carolina, Florida and Louisiana are hard to call, but Republicans can't count on taking any of them away right now.

That's why it was so crucial for the GOP to put its best foot forward in defending its ground in Colorado and Oklahoma. Democrats need to win both, or it's hard to see a road to their majority.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.