As one of the most unpredictable midterm elections in modern history winds to a close, both parties are in a state of high anxiety. Democrats are nervous about holding their one-seat majority in the Senate, with seven races too close to call. Republicans, meanwhile, are seeing their grip on the nation's governorships slip away, which could complicate President George W. Bush's governor-centric reelection strategy in 2004.
No wonder Bush and his Democratic nemesis, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.)--a possible Presidential candidate in 2004--are traipsing across the country to buck up their party's candidates. Still, a few match-ups have a special resonance for America's most powerful Republican and Democrat--contests where defeat would spell personal repudiation. These are the "heartburn races" keeping Bush and Daschle up at night:
FAMILY AFFAIR. There's more than a governor's seat at stake in Florida. Also on the line: the Bush family's honor and bragging rights to the state that put George W. Bush over the top in 2000. A year ago, the President's younger brother Jeb seemed to be sailing to reelection. But a state budget crisis, a second election plagued by voting snafus, and a child-welfare scandal have propelled Democratic newcomer Bill McBride to within striking distance. "A lot of people see this as a surrogate of the 2004 election or as the first test of Bush's strength," says Susan A. MacManus, professor of political science at the University of South Florida at Tampa.
The reason: The Sunshine State is vital to the President's reelection prospects. With California and New York solidly Democratic in national elections, Republicans need Texas and Florida to remain in the White House. Without a brother running the state, George W. could be faced with a hostile Democratic Secretary of State filling Katherine Harris' seat at the recount table next time.
The President has pulled out all the stops to help Jeb and will be heading south at least two more times before Election Day. Bush also has showered federal funds on Florida. Earlier this year, he announced that Washington would spend $235 million to buy oil and gas rights to stop drilling off the Florida coast and in the Everglades. And the Administration moved several hundred NASA jobs from California to Florida. If Jeb gets whupped in November, about the only upside is that it won't be by Janet Reno.
DEEP IN THE HEART. Former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk is just the kind of candidate the White House covets: a pro-business moderate, a former big-city chief executive, and a longtime Bush ally. There's only one problem--Kirk is a Democrat. And he's giving Bush's handpicked choice in the Texas Senate race more of a contest than the Bushies had anticipated when Senator Phil Gramm announced his retirement.
Despite the Lone Star State's GOP proclivities, Kirk, a charismatic African American, has kept on the heels of Republican John Cornyn by building a coalition of urban minorities and suburban centrists. But Bush is doing all he can to give his candidate an edge. He has raised millions at fund-raisers and appears in TV ads. Family members have also been springing up like Texas bluebonnets, ranging from First Lady Laura Bush to First Mom Barbara Bush. Quips University of Texas government professor Bruce Buchanan: "They're essentially sending anyone who can walk, run, or fly to campaign for Cornyn."
SURROGATE SHOWDOWN. The President isn't the only one who faces a potential embarrassment in his home state. Daschle's South Dakota Senate colleague and protege, Tim Johnson, is trying to fend off a strong challenge from Republican Representative John R. Thune. Bush personally recruited the congressman to run for the Senate over a cozy White House dinner, sealing the deal with a dessert of chocolate bonbons.
Bush's involvement has given the Senate race an added dimension: a surrogate showdown between a Presidential wannabe and a President who carried the state in a 2000 landslide. "South Dakotans are essentially voting for their President or their majority leader," says Charles E. Cook Jr., editor of The Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan newsletter.
It's a race Daschle is taking personally. In an effort to remain his state's favorite son--and retain his job as Senate leader--Daschle has campaigned frequently alongside Johnson. He, too, has tried to channel legislative favors by ushering a measure through the Senate that would provide $6 billion in drought relief to South Dakota ranchers. To drive a wedge between Thune and Bush, Daschle is quick to point out how Thune, who is campaigning as the candidate with the ear of the Prez, failed to persuade the White House to back the massive aid package. Instead, Bush is offering a scaled-down, $752 million relief plan.
Meanwhile, both parties are spending money hand over fist to promote their candidates: By raising more than $10 million combined as of Sept. 30, the matchup is on track to be the most expensive per-capita Senate race in history.
BURNED BY THE TORCH. On Sept. 23, Daschle traveled to New Jersey to campaign on behalf of embattled incumbent Senator Robert G. Torricelli. He might as well have stayed home. Within days, "the Torch" had withdrawn from the race amid an ethics scandal that just wouldn't go away. To further complicate matters, Daschle played a key role in the embarrassing scramble to find a clean candidate willing to replace Torricelli on the ballot.
Even though the Dems' new standard-bearer, former Senator Frank Lautenberg, is a longtime enemy of Torricelli, Republican Doug Forrester argues that the switcheroo ties the two together in a political conspiracy. "Forrester is running against the Torricelli-Lautenberg machine," says Jack Oliver, the deputy chairman of the Republican National Committee. "This is a great opportunity for New Jersey to have a clean break with machine politics."
The stakes in the battle for the Senate almost can't be overstated. If Democrats maintain their majority, Bush will have enormous difficulty with his political agenda, including tax reform, a pro-drilling energy plan, and a conservative judiciary. With a single seat separating the parties, tight races in states from Minnesota to New Hampshire could make the difference. Daschle and Bush want to win them all. But for reasons both personal and political, some states are more important than others. Just ask Al Gore, who lost his home state of Tennessee in 2000, and with it, the Presidency. By Alexandra Starr in Washington