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Charting The Senate Field

In her latest Political Points commentary, CBS News Senior Political Editor Dotty Lynch takes an early look at how the 2002 Senate races are stacking up.

Veteran Republican pollster Bob Teeter said once that he always saved his notes from speeches he gave a year or so before each election just to see how wrong he was. Only a man with as great a track record as Teeter could afford to be so self-deprecating, but he was making a good point about political predictions. Often, assessments made early in a campaign cycle become self-defeating prophecies. Candidates who are thought to be vulnerable tend to take their re-election contests more seriously than others – hiring professional staffs, raising big early money and getting themselves off of the endangered list. Vulnerable incumbents also inspire multiple challengers from the opposition party; consequently there is a bloody primary with a victor who may be more vulnerable than the incumbent.

Sometimes, of course, political pundits are just plain wrong. (No names mentioned here because the brotherhood does not look kindly on this kind of talk.) With the spring primaries just about over, some clear trends are emerging and many of last summer's predictions look very shaky.

For example, Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., was on everyone's vulnerable list and Republicans were salivating about taking him on as "too liberal" for Montana. But Baucus used his chairmanship of the Senate Finance Committee to help President Bush pass his tax cut, and he looks far from too liberal now. The GOP couldn't get its favorite Montanan, former Gov. Marc Racicot, to run, and its nominee, State Sen. Mike Taylor, has been slow off the mark.

Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend was thought to be a shoo-in to be the state's next governor. But she had a tough time clearing the primary field and then got a credible opponent in Rep. Bob Erlich. A poll released last week showed the race neck and neck.

Of course, the most infamous blooper of the year was the supposition that former L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan would be able to take out California Gov. Gray Davis. The White House, for one, believed this. However, conservative novice Bill Simon blew Riordan away in the Republican primary and George W. Bush's penance was to do not one, but two big fund-raisers for Simon in California.

The big-picture prediction which seems to be holding is that the focus this year will be on the control of the U.S. Senate and that it will come down to a handful of the 34 seats that are up for grabs. Now that many states have settled on their candidates, roughly half of the races seem to be safe for the incumbents. Six Democrats (Biden, Durbin, Kerry, Levin, Reed and Rockefeller) and 11 Republicans (Cochran, Craig, Domenici, Enzi, Hagel, Inhofe, McConnell Roberts, Sessions, Stevens and Warner) look like they are in very good shape for re-election. Warner won't even have a Democratic opponent.

The other 17 contests are more or less in play. The incumbent or the incumbent's party is favored in 12 states right now; five states, three represented by Democrats and two by Republicans, are absolute toss-ups. Here's how they stack up:

17 SENATE SEATS IN PLAY

  • Leaning Democratic (5)
    Baucus (Mont.)
    Torrecelli (N.J.)
    Cleland (Ga.)
    Harkin (Iowa)
    Landrieu (La.)
  • Leaning Republican (7)
    Collins (Me.)
    Allard (Colo.)
    Smith (Ore.)
    Helms (N.C.)
    Graham (S.C.)
    Thompson (Tenn.)
    Gramm (Texas)
  • Toss-ups (5)
    Wellstone (Minn.)
    Johnson (S.D.)
    Carnahan (Mo.)
    Hutchison (Ark.)
    Smith (N.H.)

    The Democrats in the "leaning" category have all had relatively good spring seasons. Now that Republicans have chosen their candidates in Iowa and New Jersey, they will try to exploit the vulnerabilities of incumbents Torrecelli and Harkin, but so far these senators have raised serious money and surprised many with their staying power. Mary Landrieu could still be vulnerable in Louisiana if the GOP can find more serious candidates to run and force her into a run-off. But the leading Republican, Rep. John Cooksey, had a case of foot-in-mouth disease after Sept. 11 (referring to Arabs as people "wearing diapers on their heads") and his campaign has been stalled. Republicans have started playing the "too liberal" card against Georgia Democrat Max Cleland, and think they have a good candidate in Saxby Chambliss.

    In the "leaning Republican" column, Colorado's Wayne Allard and Oregon's Gordon Smith have coasted pretty well through the spring. However, operatives on both sides say these incumbents remain vulnerable and that their races will get more competitive. In North Carolina, Republican Elizabeth Dole has successfully remained above the fray, while Democrat Erskine Bowles has been stalled by the state's shifting primary date. Texas Democrat Ron Kirk has made a surprisingly fast start and is keeping the race to replace retiring Republican Sen. Phil Gramm in the "lean" column; while in South Carolina, Democrat Alex Sanders is causing Republican Rep. Lindsay Graham some sleepless nights. Everyone thought that Tennessee's Lamar Alexander would slide to victory when he jumped into the seat being vacated by Fred Thomspon, but his GOP primary opponent, Ed Bryant, has slowed him down a bit.

    The five toss-ups probably will go down to the wire. In New Hampshire, Republican Bob Smith is giving John Sununu a tough primary fight, although Sununu still looks like a stronger candidate against Democratic Gov. Jeanne Shaheen. Arkansas' Tim Hutchinson has been dogged by stories of his messy divorce and has a tough race against Democrat Mark Pryor. The three Midwestern Democrats – Wellstone, Johnson and Carnahan – all have solid Republican opponents with serious White House backing.

    These assessments will undoubtedly change as the campaigns heat up. Our former colleague Eric Engberg once observed that journalism was the one profession where bad judgment was actually rewarded. "Get a story right and nobody notices," he said. "Make a mistake and it's called an upset and you have an even bigger story."

    Pundits of the world subscribe to the Engberg doctrine.


    A veteran of the Washington scene, CBS News Senior Political Editor Dotty Lynch provides an inside look at the issues and personalities shaping the political dialogue in the nation's capital and around the country.