Election 2002: Senate sits on razor's edge

By P. MITCHELL PROTHERO, UPI Congressional Reporter  |  Oct. 21, 2002 at 5:21 PM
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(Part of UPI's Special Report on Election 2002)

WASHINGTON (UPI) -- It is only logical that the closest held Senate in recent history would see a tiny handful of critical -- and tight -- races determine who is in control as it lumbers towards its next session.

With the defection of Vermont Republican Jim Jeffords from the Republican Party to independent status, the Senate abruptly switched from the control of Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., to that of Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D.

While the change had the sudden effect of ripping the precious committee chairmanship gavels out of the mitts of senior Republican lawmakers and allowed the Democrats to control the rhetoric and agenda of the Senate, other than expanding television exposure for the gaggle of Democrats with dreams of a presidential run, the change only illustrated how tenuous is the power of a one-vote majority in the Senate.

So with that in mind, each party immediately began jockeying for the next election cycle where the voters would finally decide which party they wanted in control of the upper chamber and either gum up -- or expedite -- the president's agenda. Except that seems like a long shot as only a handful of the races appear competitive and those are too close to call.

It could be coincidence, or a reflection of just how closely divided the American electorate is on key issues. But more likely, it seems to reflect a sense that most Americans like congressional gridlock just fine. Simply put, Congress does not poll very well in general and perhaps most Americans are happiest when lawmakers have a hard time changing the status quo.

Democratic hopes -- to hear them tell it -- hinge on a sudden outpouring of populist angst when the nation's 401(k) statements get mailed this fall and reflect the extremely weak stock market performance.

But the recent debate over Iraq -- and a general inability to form a coherent message that has plagued the Democratic leadership since Clinton's departure -- has left it unclear whether they can get enough traction to draw a correlation between the Republican president and his strong supporters in the Congress and the corporate scandals that have enraged America.

And they have failed so far to draw any relationship between Bush's -- and by proxy, Trent Lott's senators -- performance and the currently slumping economy.

Some Democrats want to focus on the Bush tax cut, but many members are loathe to campaign against a tax cut which is appears to be popular with voters and that many Democratic senators voted for.

Republicans appear focused less on issues and more on distancing themselves from the Democratic alternative. The perfect case is in Minnesota where former St. Paul mayor -- and for that matter recent Democrat -- Norm Coleman is putting up a stiff challenge to Democratic incumbent Sen. Paul Wellstone. Coleman could even be considered the favorite in the race and appears to be running a campaign based on his not being Wellstone -- whose position as the most left-wing member of the Senate would clearly make him a hard sell in almost any state.

Despite the strong backing of the national Republican establishment -- including prodigious fundraising by President Bush and Vice President Cheney -- Coleman is a moderate Republican with fairly mainstream views that should make him a shoe-in.

But the race remains tight, most likely because for all of his rhetoric and unwillingness to moderate his positions to accomplish legislative goals, Wellstone strikes a chord in Minnesota, which has a history of supporting quirky candidates that appear more sincere than polished. For example, before the 2000 election of the seemingly milquetoast Mark Dayton to the Senate, Minnesota was represented by both Wellstone and Rod Grams, a conservative also known for having little interest in building bridges across partisan lines. The effect: for the years they represented Minnesota the two men canceled out each other's votes almost every time.

The other extremely vulnerable Democratic incumbent is Missouri Sen. Jean Carnahan, who suffers from a pretty sizable political problem: no one elected her in the first place. She was appointed to office after her candidate husband -- popular former governor Mel Carnahan -- died in a plane crash shortly before Election Day, but still managed to beat the incumbent John Ashcroft.

Aschroft -- now of course U.S. attorney general -- was put in the awful situation being forced to choose between going negative on a dead man and his widow, or saying nothing. He chose the latter, and lost.

Now after two years, Carnahan has to justify the appointment based on her first two years in office. Although coddled by the leadership, who have included her in far more press conferences than a novice would usually get, Carnahan has little to show for it in terms of legislative accomplishment. But in a Senate controlled by a single vote, few members of the Senate can claim to have made a big difference this session.

She faces a tough challenge from former Rep. Jim Talent, who seems to have some momentum in a tight race. The only problem facing Talent is that he has to balance attacking her inexperience and lack of accomplishment with the still significant sympathy Carnahan receives from her home state.

New Jersey Republicans were also cruising along with a "Doug Forrester is not Bob Torricelli" platform that was starting to look like a sure winner, until the Democrats also came to that conclusion and replaced their incumbent -- and all of his ethical problems -- with someone who could win.

This cheeky move seems to have left Forrester with little to say except "I'm not Frank Lautenberg." New Jersey seems to agree with that perception, but unfortunately for the Republicans, New Jersey has already sent Lautenberg to the Senate for 18 years and probably will again.

Another GOP tactic has been to tie several complicated national security issues into a single refrain of the war on terror, which appears to also include a war on opponents who vote against national missile defense, or wonder about the wisdom of invading Iraq in the near future or disagree with the administration over the best way to form a Department of Homeland Security.

An example of this strategy at work is Rep. John Thune, R-S.D., who in his bid to unseat Democratic incumbent Tim Johnson has questioned previous Johnson votes on missile defense and implied that opposition to such a program constitutes a lack of interest in protecting the nation from terrorists.

It was not as effective as Thune hoped at the time, however, because Johnson's son is actually in the military and was stationed in Afghanistan when the ad ran. But regardless, South Dakota is a conservative state filled with voters that support Bush and even the help of Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle -- whom the local voters seem to adore regardless of his affiliation -- might not be enough to save Johnson.

The race is too close to call and might remain so until November.

In Georgia, Sen. Max Cleland is under fire from his Republican opponent for failing to take the nation's security seriously because he has also voted against national missile defense and disagrees with the White House on labor protections in the new homeland security agency.

But Rep. Saxby Chambliss has failed to make this case resonate with voters, perhaps for two reasons.

The first is that Cleland supported and voted for a homeland defense agency when the issue was first raised -- and the president and other Republicans opposed such a plan. The second is that he lost three of his four limbs fighting in Vietnam.

Regardless of his voting record, it seems foolish to attack the triple amputee war hero for not protecting the nation from external threats. Gaffes aside, this race could tighten in the coming weeks as Georgia is a conservative state that supports the president in every major poll and Cleland has never been overly popular. But so far, Chambliss has failed to make the strong run many predicted.

In an attempt to make political hay out of some of the ill-advised war-patriot rhetoric used by several Republicans -- most notably the president -- Daschle took to the Senate floor last month in a strongly worded denouncement of using such issue for politics. But several weeks later, outrage has failed to materialize and with most voters seemingly cynical about campaign mores anyway, it appears Daschle's gambit has also been dismissed as political posturing.

The most vulnerable Republican incumbent -- Sen. Tim Hutchinson of Arkansas -- appears to be in real jeopardy of losing his seat because of both his opponent's popularity and questions about his personal behavior.

Because of his credentials as a supporter of religious conservative values and a tough critic of former President Clinton's -- the former governor of Arkansas -- well documented personal foibles, Hutchinson raised some eyebrows in 1999 when he divorced his wife of 29 years and married a former aide, Randi Fredholm, who had only just been born when he wed his first wife.

This embarrassing incident left him open to a challenge and Attorney General Mark Pryor -- the latest scion of a popular Arkansas political dynasty -- has put him in deep trouble.

A win by Pryor could offset a Republican win in Minnesota or South Dakota, but Democratic control of the Senate will be sorely tested on election day, when a number of scenarios could lose them their single vote margin.

Republicans are likely to hold seats once considered vulnerable in New Hampshire and Oregon, leaving them in need of only two extra wins.

With Wellstone looking like an underdog at this stage, Republicans probably only need to win in either Missouri, South Dakota, Georgia or Iowa, where incumbent Democrat Tom Harkin had been coasting to victory before he became embroiled in a political embarrassment over whether his staff secretly taped a meeting held by his Republican opponent, Rep. Greg Ganske. Harkin nonetheless remains the front-runner.

The best place for a Democratic upset remains Colorado, where incumbent Republican Wayne Allard -- who is charismatically challenged both on the stump and in person -- faces a rematch from former U.S. Attorney Tom Strickland. Allard's conservative record on abortion and the environment poll very poorly at home, but Strickland's career as a lawyer and lobbyist hardly drives the locals into a supportive frenzy. Allard won this race last time around, but his performance in the Senate appeared anodyne at best.

This could turn into a race where neither candidate polls very well and facing an extremely low turnout, could be hard to call until Election Day.

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