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Will Senate Democrats win, lose or draw?

Analysis

WASHINGTON – The upcoming November elections in the Senate, called midterms as they fall in the middle of a four-year presidential term, are no exception in one sense: most of the 33 seats being contested are safe for the incumbent.

And because of negative factors ranging from scandal to an unpopular Republican president and a conflicted war effort, political analysts are almost unanimous in conceding that Republicans will lose seats in November. In the aftermath of Florida Rep. Mark Foley’s resignation from the House over the indecent e-mails he allegedly sent to an underage male page, GOP strategists fear the undoubted damage in the house could spill over into Senate races as well, especially if Christian voters stay away from the polls as an expression of distaste for the seediest of all the recent republican corruption scandals.

But how many they’ll lose is still the critical question in one of the most momentous non-presidential election years since 1994, when Republicans seized majority control of Congress. With majority control comes committee chairmanships that decide which bills advance and which do not; leadership authority to appoint the members of conference committees assigned to harmonize the differences in similar bills passed in the Senate and House of Representatives; rule making authority over a multitude of procedural points; more funds for staffing; and many other advantages both large and small.

Democratic control of the chambers is considered especially helpful to constituents who number in the minority, Native peoples for instance. Though the Native vote has always been overwhelmingly Democratic, still Indian country has solid backing on the Republican side of the aisle. But it has proved thin in the current 109th Congress. Because single Republican senators were absent from conference committees for various reasons on three separate occasions, tribes are dealing with inimical amendments on energy rights of way, pensions and highway appropriations. If Democratic majority leadership had appointed the conferees, the support in conference would not have been so thin.

Democrats are defending 17 seats in the Senate, Republicans 15, and Independents 1 (in Vermont). Going into the Nov. 7 national elections, the GOP has a majority of 55 seats in the Senate. Democrats number 44 and Independents 1.

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To regain the Senate majority, Democrats must gain six seats, retain Vermont’s Independent candidate in their caucus, and return all 17 of their candidates who are up for re-election.

It’s a tall order, but it had begun to look possible as Democrats nationally began to show a comparative edge in fundraising over previous years. But here is where conventional wisdom began to hit the skids: with so many incumbents on safe ground, big money is needed only in several key states, and both parties have more than enough of it to plug in at key points of the crucial campaigns. So this year, close races will not depend as much on money as on the ability to turn out voters.

Given the GOP’s recent reputation for “closing well” in tight races, few analysts are prepared to predict that Republicans will lose all six of the races that are considered down-to-the-wire close. Another race has become too close to call for Republicans; but that Democratic edge may be nullified as one of their 17, considered safe some months ago, finds himself in a tight contest. He is Robert Menendez, challenged in New Jersey by Republican Tom Kean Jr., a political scion who is reaping a benefit from his father’s career as governor.

The race that has taken an unexpected turn toward the Democratic candidate is in Virginia. Sen. George Allen, the incumbent Republican, cast a racial slur that has been picked up by an instant-messaging Internet generation, and suddenly Democrat James Webb is in the race.

The other key races are also too close to call, as polls show fluctuating numbers from week to week. In Tennessee, Democrat Harold Ford and Republican Bob Corker are neck-and-neck in a contest to replace retiring Sen. Bill Frist, the Republican majority leader in the Senate; in Missouri, Democratic challenger Claire McCaskill is giving incumbent Republican Jim Talent all he can handle; in Montana, Democrat John Tester has edged ahead of incumbent Republican Sen. Conrad Burns, plagued by the aftermath of the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal; in Rhode Island, Sen. Lincoln Chaffee survived a close Republican primary and hopes a tight GOP organization in the state can turn out enough voters to push him past Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse on election night; in Ohio, GOP incumbent Sen. Mike DeWine is in the fight of his political life against Democrat Sherrod Brown; and in Pennsylvania, Republican Sen. Rick Santorum, despite gains in recent polls, still trails Bob Casey for the Democrats.

Even if Menendez falls, Democrats may be able to afford a loss in one of those six races or in Virginia, but only if Florida conforms to expectation by re-electing Bill Nelson, a Democrat, over Katherine Harris, the Republican candidate. Harris – she of “hanging chad” fame in the disputed 2000 presidential election – has been all but disowned by her own party on grounds she would galvanize Democrats to defeat her. But as in Santorum’s case, recent polls show her gaining ground.

A leading wild card factor has emerged not in Vermont, where favored Independent candidate Bernie Sanders is considered safe for the Democratic caucus, but in Connecticut, where Sen. Joe Lieberman lost the Democratic primary but is favored to win re-election on the Independent ticket. Chances are he’ll count on most votes toward a Democratic majority; but depending on how it all plays out as of Nov. 8, his party affiliation could end up costing Democrats majority control of the Senate. That is the fear anyway in Democratic circles, where a recent history of not quite “closing the deal” in national elections continues to haunt the hopeful.