Senate Looks Like a Lock for GOP

By Justin Torres | July 7, 2008 | 8:26 PM EDT

( - Under cover of anonymity, Republicans are saying that Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan's untimely death in a plane crash Tuesday makes it nearly impossible for Democrats to regain the Senate this year.

His opponent in the Missouri Senate race, incumbent John Ashcroft, has suspended all campaigning indefinitely out of respect for the Carnahan family and the family of Chris Sifford, a longtime aide who also died in the plane crash that killed the Missouri governor and his son.

Among political analysts, however, Carnahan's death was immediately viewed through the lens of next month's election, and appeared to doom the Democrats' already long-shot chances of retaking the Senate.

"This makes it almost impossible for [Democrats to take the Senate], short of a total national meltdown of the Republican party," said an aide for the Senate Republican caucus.

Indeed, Carnahan's death comes at a time when it has become increasingly clear that Democrats will not retake the Senate, and may not even change the balance of power there much at all.

Republican Senate candidates who seemed vulnerable in the early summer, such as Michigan's Spencer Abraham, Pennsylvania's Rick Santorum, and Washington's Slade Gorton, have taken comfortable leads in their races. Abraham has led his opponent, Rep. Debbie Stabenow, in every poll taken since mid-September, after being down as much as nine points at the beginning of the summer.

Santorum - after spending one million dollars a month for the past three months - still has $2.7 million on hand and is likely to collect $1.5 million before November 7th. (His opponent, Rep. Ron Klink, declined to release his campaign balance sheets last week, reportedly for fear they would inspire a slew of stories writing his political obituary.)

In the end, while there may be as many as ten new faces in the Senate next year, the election may be a wash that doesn't change the 54-46 edge Republicans have today. Republicans have fallen behind in two high-profile open seats that are already controlled by Democrats - New York and New Jersey - but they like their chances in both Virginia, where former Gov. George Allen is battling incumbent Democrat Charles Robb, and Nevada, where former Rep. John Ensign is well ahead of attorney Ed Bernstein in the race to replace Democrat Richard Bryan.

In Virginia, a recent Richmond Times-Dispatch poll shows Allen leading Robb by three percentage points, 45-42. Recently, Allen has been hitting Robb for his low profile in 12 years in the Senate, telling the Washington Post, "You would think he'd say, 'All right, here's what I've done: A, B, C and D. Re-elect me so I can do X, Y and Z,' . . . But there's none of that."

In Nevada, Bernstein is well behind Ensign, who came within 500 votes of winning a Senate seat in 1998. Three recent debates did little to provide Bernstein with the opening he needs to win the race, especially after Bernstein fumbled a question about the receding waters of Walker Lake in north Nevada in the third debate. A columnist for the Las Vegas Review-Journal wrote after the debates "Ensign has done exceptionally well during the debates, avoiding gaffes, staying on message and even getting the better of his Democratic foe on a couple of occasions. . . . Neither has emerged a clear winner, which means any gap in the polls that Bernstein hoped to close during the debates will remain open."

For their part, Democrats hope that any GOP gains will be offset by Democratic pickups in Florida and Minnesota. In Florida, Democratic Insurance Commissioner Bill Nelson has opened up a double-digit lead, 45 to 34 percent, over Republican Rep. Bill McCollum, a House impeachment manager. Nelson also has $2.3 million in cash on hand for the final stretch, to McCollum's $1.6 million. Handgun Control, Inc., has unveiled a website attacking McCollum's House votes on waiting periods and guns shows; the site includes video of a television commercial the group is running in Florida.

In Minnesota, incumbent Republican Rod Grams is running well behind his opponent, former state auditor Mark Dayton, heir to a department store fortune. Dayton, almost alone among Democrats this year, has decided to run a frankly liberal campaign in the maverick state of Minnesota, calling for a massive expansion of government health care plans and contrasting his "progressive" platform with the conservative Grams. The Republican has stressed his roots in Minnesota's farming past and adopted a tractor as his campaign symbol, to contrast with Dayton's wealthy upbringing.

One race that could change the balance of power in the GOP's favor is in Nebraska, where popular Attorney General Don Stenberg is running neck-and-neck with Gov. Ben Nelson. The race, befitting two candidates the Omaha World-Herald has called "tweedle-dull and tweedle-duller," was low-profile throughout the summer, but has heated up in recent weeks. Stenberg has hit Nelson for raising property taxes on ranchers, while Nelson has accused Stenberg of mismanagement when he served as director of the budget. Both candidates have towed a traditional line on social issues in this conservative Plains state, opposing homosexual marriage and same-sex partnership benefits for state workers.