||One of the nation's top political analysts, Stuart Rothenberg, dissects politics at the congressional and statewide levels.|
Stuart Rothenberg: The fight for the Senate
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Seven weeks before Election Day, the Democrats are still poised to make Senate gains. But it is not clear whether they will net the four seats they need to win 50 seats or the five seats they need for a clear majority.
The pressure remains on Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman (D) to drop out of his state's Senate race. That would give the state party an opportunity to replace him on the ballot, probably with state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal. If Lieberman does not drop out before the end of next month -- and if he and Al Gore win in November -- the state's Republican governor will appoint Lieberman's replacement in the Senate, depriving the Democrats of an important vote.
The pressure on the senator will increase dramatically if it looks as if the Democrats will gain exactly four seats and if polls show the Gore-Lieberman ticket headed for victory.
As it stands now, two Republican incumbents are trailing their Democratic opponents: Sen. Bill Roth in Delaware and Sen. Rod Grams in Minnesota. In addition, Democrat Bill Nelson holds a lead (in most polling, but not all) over Republican Bill McCollum in a Florida open seat that is currently held by retiring Republican Sen. Connie Mack.
Roth has narrowed the gap against Gov. Tom Carper (D) in recent months, according to polling, and Republicans take heart in the fact that Minnesota Democrats have nominated Mark Dayton, the one person in the state who could possibly lose to Grams. But both incumbents are behind (a very vulnerable place for any incumbent at this point in the cycle), and each is stuck in the low to mid-40s in general election ballot tests.
Polling shows that Republican nominees now hold leads in two Democratic-held seats. Sen. Chuck Robb (D) trails challenger George Allen (R) in a battle of former governors, and former GOP Rep. John Ensign holds a double-digit lead over Ed Bernstein (D) in the race for retiring Sen. Dick Bryan's Senate seat.
If those five races hold true to form, GOP Senate control will rest on a handful of contests, including four involving Republican incumbents (Washington State Sen. Slade Gorton, Michigan Sen. Spencer Abraham, Missouri Sen. John Ashcroft, and Montana's Sen. Conrad Burns), and one Democratic open seat (New York).
Abraham remains key for a possible Democratic takeover. He ran even with or trailed Democratic Rep. Debbie Stabenow for much of the year, rarely getting to 45 percent of the vote. Most of the time, he was in the low 40s, a sign that voters had not yet embraced him.
But recent polling, including a survey conducted by an independent group, suggests that Abraham's summer TV advertising has boosted his standing in the state. He appears to have opened up a lead over Stabenow, even edging toward the magic 50 percent mark.
Democrats argue that his numbers will sink back down to their previous level as soon as voters have a chance to digest Stabenow's advertising and message. They may be correct, but we won't know for certain for a few weeks.
In any case, Abraham's improved positioning has Republican insiders feeling more optimistic about his prospects, and if he defeats Stabenow, the Democrats will have a tough time gaining the four or five seats they are hoping for.
The closest race in the nation appears to be in Missouri, where Ashcroft battles Democratic Gov. Mel Carnahan. Polling has shown the two men locked in a tight race, and there is no way to pick a winner. Given the high profile of both officeholders, little change is likely in the numbers unless one man makes a serious blunder.
The Republicans could take a huge step to holding the Senate if GOP Rep. Rick Lazio beats first lady Hillary Clinton. Surveys have shown the race close, though Clinton may have helped herself in her first debate with the Long Island congressman.
Two years ago, Republicans hoped to add two or three Senate seats to their majority but were held to a draw by the Democrats. This year, the Republicans hope to turn the table and deny the Democrats the substantial victory they are counting on.
At this point, it's too soon to know which party (if either) will be popping the champagne corks on Election Night. However, the Republicans are likely to suffer a net loss of 2 to 4 seats.
Electoral college outlook
Following is a look at the electoral college map:
Alabama (9 elec. votes)
North Dakota (3)
South Carolina (8)
South Dakota (3)
Safe/Likely Bush Total: 121
North Carolina (14)
Lean Bush Total: 58
Total Bush: 179
New Jersey (15)
New York (33)
Rhode Island (4)
Safe/Likely Gore Total: 167
Lean Gore Total: 77
Total Gore: 244
New Hampshire (4)
New Mexico (5)
West Virginia (5)
Total Toss-Up: 115