Analysis: The Senate Part II-The West

By PETER ROFF, UPI National Political Analyst  |  Sept. 19, 2002 at 9:16 PM
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WASHINGTON, Sept. 19 (UPI) -- The majority of Senate contests this fall are in the South and West. Out of 34 races, 20 are in these two regions: 7 in the West and 13 in the South.

Although conventional wisdom holds that these regions generally are strong for the Republicans, the Democrats have show strength in statewide campaigns there in the last several cycles.

The American West has been evolving for some time. The demographics are changing as cities like Denver, Phoenix and Salt Lake City continue to grow in size. At the same time the more rural areas are starting to experience suburban development, making the Rocky Mountain states much more politically complex.

The traditional affinity for issues like guns and property rights are now squaring off against taxes, education and, to some extent, immigration.

In the coastal states, the environment continues to gain in importance, creating a wedge inside the GOP and an opportunity for Democrats to win over certain upper income areas where taxes had been the defining issue. Quality of life concerns are gaining in importance against pocket book issues.

Of the seven races in the region three -- Alaska, Idaho and Wyoming -- are not likely to become competitive.

Sens. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, and Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., face what could charitably called opponents, neither of whom represent a threat to the incumbents. In Idaho, Republican Sen. Larry Craig is being challenged by former U.S. Ambassador to Belgium Alan Blinken, a former Wall Street investment banker. Craig says he thinks Blinken is the toughest opponent he has ever had to face in 22 years in congress but the concerns are most likely driven by the amount of money Blinken can bring to the race. President Bush carried the state in 2000 with 67 percent of the vote, meaning that Craig likely enjoys a comfortable cushion.

New Mexico's Pete Domenici, a Republican member of the Senate since 1972 may have a tougher than expected race against Democrat Gloria Tristani, a former Clinton appointee to the Federal Communications Commission. Domenici, the former chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, is widely respected for his grasp of federal finances; however that does not generally help win votes among the folks back home.

Moreover, New Mexico is not a traditionally Republican state. Al Gore won here in 2000 by approximately 5,000 votes and Democrat Bill Richardson, the former Clinton U.N. Ambassador and energy secretary is widely expected to win the governor's race in the fall. Add to that the two GOP-held House seats that are generally seen as competitive and this could turn into a race -- if Tristani can improve her currently less than stellar fundraising in order to explain to the voters why New Mexico needs a new senator after 30 years.

Republicans had high hopes, one year out from the election, that November would bring about the defeat of Democrat Max Baucus, the Democrat who chairs the Senate Finance Committee. Baucus barely won re-election with 50 percent of the vote in 1996 against former GOP Lt. Gov. Denny Rehberg, not the state's lone U.S. House member. Had former GOP Gov. Marc Racicot, the most popular politician in Montana and now the chairman of the Republican National Committee, chosen to make the race, there was general consensus he would have coasted to an easy victory.

Instead, the GOP is running state Sen. Mike Taylor, a self-made millionaire who earned his money in beauty salons, beauty schools and the hair care business. Taylor, a Teddy Roosevelt look-alike who sometimes portrays the former president at public events, is waging a tough fight but currently trails Baucus by 25 points in the most recent public polls.

What Taylor does have going for him is that Montana is Bush country, the president having defeated Al Gore in the state by 24 points in 2000. That alone though is not enough to carry Taylor to victory, especially since Baucus has close to $3 million in the bank compared to the Republicans less than $250,000.

Democrats had high hopes that Oregon Secretary of State Bill Bradbury would be the man to beat Republican U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith after retiring Democrat Gov. John Kitzhaber chose not to run for the senate.

The race has been close but Smith has tended to lead in the polls. A Grove Quirk Insight poll for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee from mid-August found Smith up over Bradbury 45 percent to 41 percent. Bush lost Oregon but Smith seems to have done his homework for the race and Bradbury has been pounded by some pretty tough ads over the summer. The race could develop as the fall campaign moves ahead. It is always possible that the Democrat's stronghold in the Portland area could produce enough votes to defeat Smith -- as happened in his first run for the U.S. Senate in the 1996 special election that followed the resignation of Republican Bob Packwood -- but Republicans are feeling better about this race than they were at the beginning of the year. For Democrats there are better targets of opportunity on the map.

The big race for the region is the rematch between Republican U.S. Sen. Wayne Allard and attorney Tom Strickland, the Democrat. In 1996 Allard came out on top, 51 percent to 46 percent. Allard is a workhorse, not a show horse, as the saying goes -- an appropriate description for a man who was a veterinarian before going into politics.

The race is already shaping up as a nasty one, with each campaign trying to make effect use of so-called negative advertising. Allard has consistently shows a small lead in the polls and Bush did carry the state -- giving the incumbent a slight edge. But Strickland will have plenty of money and is fighting fiercely. And the changing demographics in the state, which gained one U.S. House seat in the reapportionment thanks to population growth, means Allard will be facing a number of voters who were not there the last time he ran.

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