A Neck-and-Neck Race for the Senate

If Republicans pick up one seat, they would retake the chamber. But anything could happen, especially in these 10 contests

By Richard S. Dunham

The Senate couldn't be any more evenly divided than it is now: 49 Republicans, 49 Democrats, one Independent, and one vacancy. And here's the really interesting part: The battle for the Senate also looks evenly divided. With just one day to Election Day, five races are too close to call. What's more, underdogs -- one Democrat and one Republican -- are making come-from-behind charges. And Democrats are relying on a pair of septuagenarian replacements to help them overcome tragedy in Minnesota and scandal in New Jersey.

If the parties split the closest races, the result would be no net change in the Senate, leaving the Democrats with nominal control, because Independent Jim Jeffords of Vermont votes with them on organizational matters. But rarely do such Senate races split evenly. Republicans took most of the close calls in 1992 and 1994, but more recently, Democrats won the close contests in 2000.

The stakes are enormous: If the Republicans gain just one seat, they can take back control of the Senate. Yet, that might not be finally decided until December, when Louisiana, with its quirky election laws, would hold a runoff if Democratic incumbent Mary Landrieu falls short of 50% of the vote against three GOP challengers on Nov. 5.

Here are final updates on 10 Senate races being closely watched by both parties:

South Dakota. This race has been a toss-up from the moment President Bush convinced Republican Representative John Thune to give up a race for governor and instead challenge Democratic Senator Timothy Johnson. Both parties have poured millions of dollars into the race in one of the most sparsely populated states in the nation.

The result: Voters have been inundated with nasty personal ad spots. Republicans portray Johnson as weak on defense and a tool of union bosses. Democrats portray Thune as a despoiler of the environment and a tool of Big Business. Despite the media barrage, the dynamic of the race has changed very little. Johnson appears to be clinging to a tiny but tenuous lead. Turnout will determine the winner in what is sure to be photo finish. Even odds.

Minnesota. Democratic incumbent Paul Wellstone's death in an Oct. 25 plane crash created a one-week sprint to the finish line between Republican Norm Coleman and Democratic stand-in Walter Mondale, the former Vice-President and two-term Minnesota senator. Before the tragedy, the archliberal Wellstone looked as if he had finally pulled ahead of Coleman, a Democrat-turned-Republican, who was thumped by Jesse Ventura in the 1998 governor's race.

Yet it's hard to tell if Mondale will ride a wave of sympathy to victory, or if Republicans will be energized by the sharp partisan edge of Wellstone's Oct. 29 memorial service at the University of Minnesota. One thing is certain: Minnesotans, Democrats and Republicans alike, respect and admire Mondale. The only question is whether he's a hero of the past or a candidate for the future. Leans Democratic.

New Hampshire. Democrat Jeanne Shaheen has roared back from a double-digit deficit to make the Granite State's Senate contest a close one. This state has a reputation for rudely shocking front-runners: Just ask George W. Bush, Mondale, Bob Dole, and other early leaders who went down to defeat in New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation Presidential primaries. On the hot seat this year: Republican Representative John E. Sununu, who ousted incumbent Senator Bob Smith in the September primary.

It has been all downhill for the son of former White House Chief of Staff John Sununu since then. Shaheen is leading among the vital Independent bloc. For Sununu to win, he'll have to charge up his party's conservative base of anti-abortion and pro-gun activists. Toss-up.

Missouri. The most endangered incumbent in the nation is Missouri Democrat Jean Carnahan, who became senator after her late husband, Mel, posthumously defeated then-incumbent John Ashcroft in 2000, a month after Carnahan died in a plane crash. Republicans view her as the "accidental senator," and President Bush personally recruited former Representative Jim Talent to take her on. Earnest and direct, he doesn't have much charisma. Yet he came within a percentage point of being elected governor two years ago, and he's running strong in the traditionally Democratic St. Louis area.

Unless Carnahan gets a record turnout among minority voters, she's likely to lose her seat. And since Talent would take office as soon as the election is certified, the GOP could gain control of the Senate during any postelection session. Leans Republican.

Arkansas. The name Pryor is golden in Arkansas. David Pryor is a revered former governor and senator. Now, his son, Mark, is trying to topple a scion of an Arkansas Republican dynasty, the Hutchinsons. Senator Tim Hutchinson, a self-proclaimed champion of family values, has been in political hot water ever since his highly publicized divorce and remarriage to a former staffer. Pryor, who's Arkansas' Attorney General, has been running as a squeaky clean alternative. And he has largely steered clear of Arkansas' favorite son, Bill Clinton.

Pryor has been running slightly ahead as the race nears the finish line. Hutchinson needs a strong turnout from his friends in the Religious Right. The big question: Will they forgive him? Leans Democratic.

North Carolina. Democratic Erskine Bowles has staged the most impressive comeback of the 2002 election. Springtime polls had him trailing Republican Elizabeth Dole, the former two-time Cabinet member, by more than 40 percentage points. Bowles suffered through a bruising primary that was delayed for months by a court fight over redistricting.

But the wealthy businessman and former Clinton chief of staff has come on strong. Thanks to millions of dollars in attack ads that have focused debate on Democratic issues such as Social Security and trade, he's now within striking distance. If the election were held next month, Bowles would probably win. But he might run out of time. Leans Republican.

Georgia. This state has a long history of come-from-behind Senate wins, and Republican Saxby Chambliss is hoping that pattern repeats itself. The GOP congressman has narrowed the once-daunting lead of popular incumbent Max Cleland through a series of harsh negative ads questioning the Democrat's commitment to national defense and homeland security. Cleland, a decorated Vietnam veteran, complained bitterly after GOP ads featured photos of him, Saddam Hussein, and Osama bin Laden. What's more, he noted that his foe avoided service in Vietnam.

Chambliss, an able orator and smooth debater, has scored points in joint appearances with the less-polished incumbent. But Cleland remains popular across party lines, and the early deficit might prove too large to overcome. Leans Democratic.

New Jersey. How frustrated are New Jersey Republicans? They watched with pleasure as Democratic incumbent Robert Torricelli's reelection bid imploded after the Senate ethics committee rebuked him for his dealings with a former campaign fund-raiser who sought favors in exchange for personal gifts. But the lawmaker known as The Torch ruined the Republicans' strategy by abruptly pulling out of the race.

Amid howls of outrage from the GOP, the Dems replaced Torricelli with his Democratic archenemy, former Senator Frank Lautenberg. The 78-year-old retired business executive remains feisty and has built a solid lead. The fatal error of Republican Doug Forrester: He concentrated so much on destroying Torricelli, he never gave voters a positive reason to choose him. Democrat favored.

Colorado. The rematch between Republican Senator Wayne Allard and the man he narrowly defeated six years ago, Democratic lawyer Tom Strickland, looks like 1996 all over again. Allard narrowly leads in most polls, but he's having trouble winning the backing of more than 42% of voters. Yet, even though he has been in office for six years and has compiled one of the most conservative voting records in the Senate, he's no better known than his challenger.

Strickland has scored points with his attacks on Allard's environmental record. Allard is trying to use corporate corruption charges against his opponent, whose law firm has lobbied for bankrupt telecom Global Crossing. Toss-up.

Iowa. This once-promising race for Republicans never panned out. The GOP was convinced that longtime Democrat incumbent Tom Harkin was too liberal for the Hawkeye State. Yet their chosen candidate -- Greg Ganske -- has been an ineffective candidate. His big problem: The GOP conservative base is unenthusiastic about a maverick moderate who has teamed up with Democrats on issues ranging from health care to campaign-finance reform. Democrat favored.

Dunham is a White House correspondent for BusinessWeek's Washington bureau. Follow his views every Monday in Washington Watch, only on BusinessWeek Online

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

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