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The Longest Seat

A state-by-state look at the competitive Senate races shows a tough road ahead for Republicans hoping to take back control.

12:00 AM, Oct 8, 2002 • By FRED BARNES
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THERE'S GOOD NEWS and bad news for Republicans in the New Jersey Senate race. The good news is GOP candidate Doug Forrester isn't the stiff he's been cracked up to be. Appearing on "Fox News Sunday," he was feisty and disciplined. The bad news is that with the U.S. Supreme Court's refusal yesterday to interfere with the replacement of Sen. Robert Torricelli by Frank Lautenberg as the Democratic nominee, Forrester is now the underdog. And because of that, Democrats have a slightly better-than-even chance of retaining control of the Senate in the November 5 midterm election.

New Jersey's is one of eight competitive Senate races in 2002--four Democratic, four Republican--that will decide who runs the Senate. With the scandal-drenched Torricelli on the ballot and his campaign in free-fall, Forrester was favored to win, giving Republicans a leg up in netting the one seat needed to take Senate control. With Torricelli gone, it's a different story. Three polls show Lautenberg, who retired from the Senate in 2000, with a lead of 4, 6, or 11 percentage points. In any case, Lautenberg is now the favorite.

If not in New Jersey, Republicans will have to win at least one of the three other Democratic-held seats--in Minnesota, Missouri, or South Dakota. At the moment, their best chance appears to be against Democratic Sen. Paul Wellstone in Minnesota. Wellstone opposes President Bush's Iraq policy, and Republican Norm Coleman has sought with some success to make that the overriding issue. Wellstone also reneged on his promise to quit after two Senate terms. Polls show the race in a dead heat but Wellstone unable to climb above 45 percent, which is bad for an incumbent.

In Missouri, former Republican congressman Jim Talent has gained on Democratic Sen. Jean Carnahan, but not enough to take a lead. The race is a tossup. South Dakota, where GOP hopes of ousting Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson were high last spring and through the early summer, is now a disappointment. Representative John Thune, whom the president talked into running for the Senate, is roughly tied with Johnson. Republicans had expected him to be in the lead at this point.

The bottom line is: Republicans aren't ahead in any Democratic state. And they must protect their four vulnerable seats. Democrats aren't ahead--with a lead outside the margin of error anyway--in any of these races either. But remember, the burden is on Republicans to gain a seat. The status quo would leave Democrat Tom Daschle as Senate majority leader.

Let's start with Arkansas, where GOP Senator Tim Hutchinson, having divorced his wife and married one of his staffers, is in a tough fight for reelection. Republican operatives insist he's roughly even with Democrat Mark Pryor, son of former governor and senator David Pryor. But Democrats believe Pryor is ahead. He's proved to be clever in discussing issues--and avoiding liberal positions--during debates with Hutchinson. If he beats Hutchinson, Republicans will have to win two of the Democratic seats to take over the Senate.

It's possible, but they'll also have to hold onto their seats in New Hampshire, Colorado, and Texas. Of those, New Hampshire is the most problematic. Rep. John Sununu beat Sen. Bob Smith in the GOP primary and now faces Democratic Governor Jeanne Shaheen. Sununu matches up better against Shaheen than Smith would have, but the race remains a tossup. In Colorado, Sen. Wayne Allard has a tiny lead over Democrat Tim Strickland, but he's no cinch. When they debated on "Meet the Press" in September, Strickland was the clear winner.

Unless lightning strikes, Texas is likely to stay in Republican hands, though Democrats have an exciting, if error-prone, candidate in Ron Kirk, the black ex-mayor of Dallas. But while Republican John Cornyn, the Texas attorney general, has taken the lead, he hasn't been able to put Kirk away. Nonetheless, Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee, the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, insists this contest is all but over, with Cornyn the winner.

So far this election cycle, no trend has developed for either party. It may be that the dominance of the Iraq issue has thwarted Democrats from capitalizing on the sour economy and troubled stock market. But sometimes a tilt doesn't come until the last two or three weeks in a campaign. Sometimes it doesn't come at all. And sometimes a party can fight off a trend, as Republicans did in 1982 by gaining a Senate seat in the teeth of a deep recession. My guess is this time there won't be a partisan tilt. But if there is, it will probably help Democrats.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.