Democrats see '86 as chance to regain control of US Senate
The contest for control of the United States Senate has begun its shakedown phase. With elections little more than a year away, candidates are starting to make decisions in key states that point to a mighty struggle for control of the Senate in 1986. There are perhaps a dozen tight races in the 34 states that will elect senators.Skip to next paragraph
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The outcome will determine whether Republican control of the Senate has been a temporary blip, or a sign that the GOP is moving toward majority-party status.
For Democrats, it is the ``only objective way to measure how we're doing between presidential elections,'' says Sen. George J. Mitchell (D) of Maine, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Failure to retake the Senate would be a serious setback, he says.
In interviews, partisan and independent campaign watchers give Democrats a slight edge in the early going.
Republicans, who hold 22 of the seats that are up for grabs, have a big class of 16 freshmen to defend. Elected during the 1980 Reagan landslide, these newcomers now face reelection on their own. At least five are rated vulnerable by analysts on both sides. One freshman, Sen. John East of North Carolina, has announced he won't run for health reasons.
``I think the current wave favors the Democrats,'' says Vince Breglio, president of Decision-Making Information, a Republican polling firm. ``If I were running the DCC [Democratic Campaign Committee], I'd be trying to conceal a smile.''
The Democratic outlook is favorable in terms of early data on the races, the quality of candidates, and the weaknesses of some GOP incumbents, says Mr. Breglio. GOP Sen. Paul Laxalt's decision to retire gives the Democrats a shot at his Nevada seat and possibly Senate control, according to the GOP consultant.
Few independent observers are predicting that Democrats will gain the four seats they need to capture the upper house. ``Right now, I'd say it's uphill,'' says Democratic consultant Greg Schneiders of Hamilton & Staff. ``The important thing is that it's do-able.''
Breglio, while spotting some advantages for Democrats, says that he's optimistic ``that the GOP will be up to the challenge.'' He cites polls for the past 11 months showing steady gains for the GOP. ``The Republican Party identification in states with key races is now virtually at parity,'' he says.
Tom Griscom, executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, says of the economic picture, ``If things are like they are now, that's good for us.'' A downturn would almost certainly help the Democratic cause.
Democrats are mounting their strongest challenges in these states:
South Dakota. In 1980, Sen. James Abdnor defeated Sen. George McGovern, a former Democratic presidential nominee. Now Senator Abdnor, whose state is hard hit by the farm crisis, faces two threats. His Democratic opponent, Rep. Thomas A. Daschle, is in the forefront on farm problems. Abdnor is also under attack from the flamboyant GOP Gov. William Janklow, who could overturn or weaken him in a primary.