By Ciro Scotti
Not so long ago, the Democrats' chances of wresting the Senate away from the Republicans looked not impossible but remote. But oh what a difference several months, a little nepotism, tied tubes, and some curious behavior can make.
Now with a bit of momentum from a John Kerry Presidential victory (based on nothing but gut, let's say he gets 51% of the popular vote and 284 Electoral College votes), the Dems could be in charge of the Senate next year.
If you're looking for hard evidence about Election 2004, stop here. The truth is that nobody really knows how this election will turn out, and the best you're going to get are best guesses. But (don't we journalists just love to cover our behinds and then say "but"?) Neutral has already crawled out on a limb, so here's where it's putting its money.
Out of 34 contested Senate seats, nine look as if they're in play. Of those nine, the GOP must win three if it's to retain its 51-48 superiority over the Democrats (seat 100 belongs to Jim Jeffords of Vermont, an independent).
In Alaska, Republican Lisa Murkowski, who was appointed by her father the governor, Frank Murkowski, is struggling against former Democratic Governor Tony Knowles. Three problems for Murkowski: Her dad isn't very popular, Knowles is, and nepotism doesn't play all that well in the Last Frontier. Knowles wins.
In Colorado, the Republican is beer baron Pete Coors; the Democrat is Attorney General Ken Salazar. Coors seems a decent sort, the kind of guy you might want to have a brewski with on the 19th hole. But not exactly the sharpest beer-bottle fragment on the frat house floor. Salazar is an up-by-the-cowboy-bootstraps Latino with strong rural support. Salazar wins.
In Florida, former Bush Housing & Urban Development Dept. Secretary Mel Martinez was handpicked by the White House to be a candidate for the Sunshine State Senate seat. Former state Education Commissioner Betty Castor is his Democratic opponent. Martinez ran a primary campaign against former Representative Bill McCollum that was widely criticized for its cheap shots. In a state battered and still dizzy from the forces of nature, Castor seems more comforting. She wins -- especially if Kerry comes out on top there.
In Louisiana, there's a four-way race among Republican Representative David Vitter, Democratic Representative Chris John, state Treasurer John Kennedy, and state Representative Arthur Morrell. To win, one candidate needs to get 50% of the vote. Vitter has a substantial lead in the polls, but that doesn't mean he could win in a runoff. Too confused to call.
In North Carolina, former Clinton Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles, who was defeated by Senator Elizabeth Dole in 2002, is trying again. His opponent is Representative Richard Burr, a Gingrich Republican. The race is tight, but despite improvement as a campaigner, the patrician Bowles may still be too uptight. Burr wins.
In Oklahoma, shoot-from-the-lip former Republican Representative Tom Coburn, a medical doctor, is up against moderate Democratic Representative Brad Carson. Coburn, who vehemently opposes abortion, caught a good deal of flak during the campaign over allegations that he sterilized a young woman without her permission. And his inability to obfuscate makes him seem quite un-senatorial. Democrat Carson wins.
In South Carolina, state Education Superintendent Inez Tenenbaum is the Democrat, Representative Jim DeMint is the Republican. Thinking big thoughts like endorsing a 23% national sales tax that replaces income taxes could hurt DeMint if the notion scares enough cash-register voters. Meantime, Tenenbaum has taken some very non-Democratic positions like supporting a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. Tenenbaum by a nose.
In South Dakota, Republican John Thune, who came within inches of winning a Senate seat in 2000, has mounted another strong candidacy, this time against Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle. It has been a white-knuckle election season for old warhorse Daschle, but will voters turn their backs on a pol who can bring home the bacon like the Minority Leader? Sorry, John.
Lastly, in the manna-from-heaven department, the Democrats have a shot at taking the once-pretty-safe Kentucky seat occupied by former baseball great Jim Bunning, who has been behaving more like erratic former Red Sox centerfielder Jimmy Piersall than the Hall of Fame pitcher he was. Bunning early on said his opponent, state Senator Daniel Mongiardo, looked like one of Saddam's sons. Recently, he referred to September 11 as November 11, and his behavior in televised debates bordered on the bizarre. Rather than embarrass themselves further, the good people of Kentucky will pick Mongiardo.
That's all of Neutral's predictions. Of course, I'll be ready to crow -- or eat crow -- on Nov. 3. The only thing for certain is that Election 2004 promises to be a corker. So sit back and watch the most expensive, overproduced, overanalyzed, and edge-of-the-seat show America has seen in quite some time.
Scotti is a senior editor for BusinessWeek in New York and offers his views in A Not-So-Neutral Corner, only for BusinessWeek Online