Senate seat races throwing up some surprises


Democrats look like taking many more Senate seats than they had originally thought they could, writes Denis Stauntonin Atlanta

A FEW WEEKS ago, Georgia Republican senator Saxby Chambliss seemed to be coasting to victory against a relatively unknown opponent in a race few Democrats thought they had much hope of winning.

A solid conservative and fierce champion of his state's farmers, Chambliss looked like such a shoo-in that Democrats struggled at first to find a plausible candidate to challenge him.

Today, however, the Republican is in a dead heat with Jim Martin, a former state legislator who has received little help from his party's national headquarters.

Democrats are salivating at the prospect of revenge against Chambliss, who won his seat in 2002 after a campaign that questioned Democrat Max Cleland's commitment to national security - even though Cleland lost two legs and an arm in the Vietnam War.

Georgia's is the latest senate race to trend Democratic in a year that now points to bigger gains for the party in both houses of Congress than anyone would have predicted a few months ago.

In neighbouring North Carolina, Republican Elizabeth Dole, a former presidential candidate, is trailing in the polls and in Kentucky, senate minority leader Mitch McConnell is struggling.

In Virginia, former Democratic governor Mark Warner is viewed as a near certainty to win the seat being vacated by his Republican namesake, John Warner.

"We're doing extremely well in places we didn't expect to do well," Chuck Schumer, head of the Democrats' Senate campaign committee, acknowledged last week. "Georgia was a surprise to us."

Democrats currently have a 51-49 majority in the Senate but one of the Democrats is Connecticut Independent Joe Lieberman, who is supporting John McCain for president.

In close votes, a handful of conservative Democrats from southern and western states often abstain or vote against their party, so the Democratic leadership has to depend on moderate Republicans breaking ranks.

Republicans can block legislation through a filibuster, which can only be overturned by a 60-vote majority; Schumer has set 60 seats as his target for this year's senate elections.

A filibuster-proof majority in the Senate and an expanded majority in the House of Representatives would give Barack Obama, if he is elected, enormous room for manoeuvre on everything from judicial appointments to economic policy and immigration reform.

Out of 35 senate seats up for election next month, Republicans are defending 26 and Democrats just 12. Democrats are ahead in all the races they are defending, although Mary Landrieu is in a tough fight in Louisiana and some polls put Frank Lautenberg's lead in New Jersey in single digits.

All 10 of the closest senate races are in Republican-held seats and Democrats are either ahead or drawing even in most of them.

Republicans have all but given up on holding Warner's seat in Virginia and Pete Domenici's in New Mexico, while Democrats are confident of victory in Colorado.

Dole is behind in almost every poll in North Carolina and in Minnesota, comedian Al Franken last week moved ahead of Republican Norm Coleman.

Moderate Republicans like New Hampshire's John Sununu and Oregon's Gordon Smith are also trailing their Democratic challengers. In Alaska, veteran Republican Ted Stevens, who went on trial for corruption this month, is three to six points behind Democrat Mark Begich.

Democrats in the south believe that a dramatic increase in voting by African-Americans could push their Senate and House candidates over the top.

In Georgia, for example, 25 per cent of black voters turned out in 2004 but if that number increases to just 30 per cent, the Democrat will almost certainly win the senate race.

African-American voters could also play a crucial role in North Carolina and in Mississippi, where Democrat Ronnie Musgrove is within a few points of incumbent senator Roger Wicker.

In the House, where all 435 seats are up for election on November 4th, Democrats are confident of expanding their current 36-seat majority. Virginia congressman Thomas Davis, who ran the Republican campaigns for the House in 2000 and 2002, admitted last week that his party would lose seats for the second consecutive cycle. "I readily concede you're going to see an election where we're going to lose double digits in the House."

One Republican problem is that the party is defending 29 House seats where a congressman is retiring, while Democrats are only defending six. Democrats are also outspending Republicans in House races by a ratio of about three to one.

Maryland congressman Chris Van Hollen, who is leading the Democratic House campaign, says the party is spending heavily to promote congressional candidates to new voters who are backing Obama. "That requires a fair amount of intensive voter education, to make sure people stick around and go right down the ballot," he said.