Key Senate Seats Still Up for Grabs

By Christine Hall | July 7, 2008 | 8:26 PM EDT

( - Coming into the home stretch of the November 7 general election, the Democrats are seeking 3-to-5 Senate seats while Republican hope to retain control of the chamber.

Republicans now hold a 54-to-46 majority in the Senate. Democrats would need a net gain of 5 seats to earn majority status and take control of the Senate.

However, the presidential election could be the Senate's wildcard. If the chamber is split evenly between the parties, then, constitutionally, the vice president becomes the tie-breaking vote. That is clear-cut should Republicans George W Bush and Dick Cheney win.

If Democrats Al Gore and Joe Lieberman win, however, Lieberman's Senate seat will be filled by appointment by Connecticut's Republican governor, giving the GOP an important additional seat.

"We've never put a number on it, but we're confident we're going to hold a majority in the Senate," said Stuart Roy, communications director for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. "It will be the first time since 1920 that Republicans have held a majority in the Senate in four consecutive elections," he added.

According to Roy, the key to victory is in the states of Nevada and Virginia where GOP challengers could unseat Democratic incumbents.

The latest polls show nearly dead heats in a number of Senate races, including Delaware, Michigan, Missouri, and New York.

While the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is expecting a 3-to-5 seat gain, David DiMartino, a spokesman for the committee, conceded that, "It's really hard to come up with a guesstimate on what the final numbers will be."

DiMartino said the Democratic candidates, many of whom he described as moderates, are focused primarily on the issue of prescription drug benefits.

"The number one priority for almost all our candidates is getting a prescription drug benefit for seniors through Medicare," said DiMartino. "We think that's what the American people want to see done immediately, and it should have been done this year. When we get some new members in the next Congress, we think we're going to get it done finally," he said.

"For the most part, we've got a class of strong moderates for the Democratic Party," DiMartino continued. He cited the senatorial candidates in Florida, Nebraska, Washington, Michigan and Delaware as examples.

"These are candidates who are a little more moderate than other candidates that we have, like John Dayton in Minnesota and John Corzine in New Jersey," DiMartino said. "I think we have representation from the whole spectrum of the Democratic Party, but probably more candidates that are more moderate than normal," he added.

Here's a snapshot of the latest polling numbers for close and open seat races:

In Delaware, Republican incumbent William Roth is locked in a close race with Democratic challenger, Gov. Thomas Carper, according to both parties' internal polls.

"You just never know in a state like Delaware [because] it's not a traditional state, as far as how their campaigns are run," said DiMartino. "Both [candidates] are so popular, anything can happen," he said.

In Florida, Thursday's Zogby poll of likely voters shows Democratic challenger Nelson besting Republican incumbent McCollum, 42-to-37 percent, which is outside the poll's margin of error.

"It's probably going to close a little bit, and it will be tight, but we're pretty sure Nelson is going to win. He's a statewide elected official [with] a statewide base. McCollum is fighting an uphill battle there," said DiMartino.

Roy downplayed the strength of Nelson's statewide base, pointing out that most voters wouldn't recognize the name of their state insurance commissioner, which is the office Nelson holds in Florida.

"It's a wide open race," said Roy, who added that 18-to-20 percent of likely Florida voters are still undecided.

In Michigan, three recent polls of likely voters show the race too close to call. A new poll by John Zogby shows Democratic challenger Rep. Debbie Stebenow with a four-point lead over incumbent Republican Sen. Spence Abraham. Another poll by Rasmussen Research released this week shows Abraham ahead by one point. A poll released last week by the Detroit Free Press/WXYZ Radio showed a dead heat: 41-to-41 percent.

But the Republican Senatorial Committee's polls show Abraham ahead, according to Roy. "We never had Stebenow getting closer than four points of Abraham," he said.

Pollster Scott Rasmussen predicts that a "crucial factor" in the Michigan race will be voter turnout. If members of the United Auto Workers turn out in heavy numbers, it will help Stebenow.

In Minnesota, the latest poll of likely voters shows Democratic challenger Mark Dayton leads Republican incumbent Sen. Rod Grams, 47-to-42 percent. Women seem to be the deciding factor in that race, giving the Democrat a whopping 17-point lead, compared to men, who are giving Grams a 7-point advantage. Internal polling by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee shows an even bigger Democratic lead, 12-to-15 points, according to DiMartino. Roy said Republican internal polls show only a five-point Democratic lead.

In Missouri, it's a strange situation. Incumbent Sen. John Ashcroft is tied with his deceased opponent, Mel Carnahan. A likely voter poll released this week by Rasmussen Research shows Carnahan ahead 48-to-46, percent, which is within the two-point margin of error. A Zogby poll shows Carnahan leading by four points, 48-to-44 percent, also within the poll's four-point margin of error.

"Cooler heads are starting to prevail in Missouri," said Roy, noting that Ashcroft is popular and has received some important editorial endorsements recently.

Democrats have pledged to appoint Carnahan's widow to the Senate should he win the race posthumously.

In Nevada, it looks as if the open seat now held by retiring Democrat Richard Bryan will go to Republican John Ensign, who is comfortably ahead in a recent Mason-Dixon poll.

In New York, two polls show Republican Rick Lazio ahead by five points. A Zogby poll shows Lazio with 48 percent to Hillary Clinton's 43 percent. Rasmussen, on the other hand, finds Clinton ahead, 47-to-44 percent, which is within the margin of error of 3.1 percent.

Roy expressed confidence in Lazio's lead, but DiMartino expects a Clinton surge.

"We think Hillary's lead is bigger than what some of the polls show," said DiMartino, an outcome he conceded is not reflected in the committee's internal polls. "The Democratic performance in that state is going to be really big," DiMartino predicted, "and Gore is going to win by a lot, which will drive up the [numbers for Hillary]."

In New Jersey, Democrat Jon Corzine increased his lead over Republican Bob Franks by two points since last week, according to a November 1 poll of likely voters by Quinnipiac University. Corzine now leads by eight points, 47-to-39 percent, with a 3.5 percent margin of error.

Roy, however, thinks the out-spent Franks will come from behind and win. "The human ATM machine has met his match," Roy said of Corzine.

In Virginia, Republican challenger George Allen leads Democratic incumbent Sen. Chuck Robb, according to two likely voter polls released this week by Rasmussen Research and the Washington Post, respectively. Rasmussen's poll shows Allen's lead at 50-to-44 percent while the Post's poll shows a statistical dead heat with Allen up by two points, 48-to-46 percent.

"It's going to come down to turnout in Northern Virginia," DiMartino predicted, "[but] most of the undecideds are women, and...we think they will finally go Robb's way."