Handful of States Seen as Key to GOP Senate Takeover

By Christine Hall | July 7, 2008 | 8:29 PM EDT

(CNSNews.com) - Republican efforts to wrest control of the U.S. Senate from the Democrats will be made more difficult this fall by the fact that the GOP will have 20 seats to defend while Democrats will only have 14.

However, in converting the political races into a medical metaphor, Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), the Senate's only doctor, insists Republicans may "have more patients," but Democrats "have more in intensive care."

Democrats control the Senate by the narrowest of margins, following the decision by Vermont Sen. James Jeffords to bolt the Republican Party, become an Independent and vote with the Democrats.

As a result, the Bush administration and the Republican-led House have seen their legislative agenda involving judicial nominations, a Medicare prescription drug benefit, the death tax repeal, and other issues stymied time and again by Senate Democrats.

"I think it'd be a lot easier for me to accomplish what I want to accomplish with Denny Hastert (R-Ill.) as speaker ... and [Senate Minority Leader] Trent Lott (R-Miss.) as majority leader," President Bush acknowledged to news sources earlier this year.

Election Day could change that. More than a third of the 100-seat Senate is up for grabs, but only about a dozen races - mostly involving freshmen or open seats-- are considered in play with fewer still considered too close to call.

Frist, the physician turned senator, who chairs the National Republican Senatorial Committee, is reportedly looking for Democratic-controlled seats in Minnesota (Paul Wellstone), Missouri (freshman Jean Carnahan) and South Dakota (freshman Tim Johnson) to fall to Republican challengers.

And, in fact, public opinion polls have consistently shown those three races to be close, with just one to seven points separating incumbent and challenger.

Republicans are also hoping to unseat freshman Democrat Max Cleland in Georgia, who will likely face four-term GOP Rep. Saxby Chambliss, with the outside possibility of likewise unseating the three-term Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and freshman Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.).

Torricelli still holds a commanding lead in most polls over millionaire businessman and Republican rival Douglas Forrester. However, "Toricelli has a problem," explained Dan Allen, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. "He hasn't been very forthright and honest about ... the fundraising scandals he's had."

Democrats, meanwhile, are targeting Republican-controlled seats in Arkansas (freshman Tim Hutchinson), Colorado (freshman Wayne Allard), New Hampshire, Oklahoma (two-term James Inhofe) Oregon (freshman Gordon Smith), Tennessee (open) and Texas (open).

Political analyst Charles Cook believes the elections could become a referendum on the job President Bush is doing. Cook points to public opinion polls showing a slippage in the president's still-high job approval ratings and a significant drop in the number of Americans who believe the country is headed in the right direction.

Unlike Cook, Democratic political strategist Mark Mellman does not see the 2002 mid-term election as a referendum on Bush. "Not at all," he emphasized. Rather, people let their feelings about the president be a tie-breaker in their vote for other offices, Mellman said.

"Today, with the relatively small number of competitive House races and the vast spending on those races, and the vastly increased spending on Senate races, very few people walk into the voting booth ignorant or agnostic" about the candidates," said Mellman. "And so, in very few cases does that presidential tie-breaker matter these days."

Instead, Democrats are looking for the spate of corporate accounting scandals to improve their Election Day odds, along with alleged voter dissatisfaction with GOP ideas on Medicare prescription drugs and the reforming of Social Security. Opinion polls have shown that the public trusts Democrats more on those issues.

When it comes to health care issues like prescription drugs and a patient's bill of rights, "that's an issue where we're going to be able to make some strong inroads," Mellman said.

Despite George W. Bush's victory in the 2000 presidential race even after he decided to touch the "third rail" of politics - Social Security -- by proposing to privatize a portion of the pay-as-you-go program, it's still an issue that helps Democrats, Mellman believes.

"The argument against privatization is not about the risk of the stock market, it's about the cuts in benefits," Mellman explained. "The reality is that every plan that's been put together [by Republicans] cuts Social Security benefits."

Dan Allen, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), disagrees.

"The problem they (Democrats) have is you can only scare people so many times before they start to scratch their head and go, 'wait a minute, you've been promising to deliver year after year, but you're still not delivering,'" said Allen. "The Democrats have reached that on prescription drugs [and] Social Security," he said. "They're constantly offering up attacks, but they're not offering solutions."

As for the corporate scandals, Allen believes voters will conclude that Republicans are "trying to work to get solutions ... whereas the Democrats would rather use it as a political issue."

E-mail a news tip to Christine Hall.

Send a Letter to the Editor about this article.