Washington — 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.
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.
Idaho. Steven D. Symms, one of the most reliable members of the Senate's Republican right wing, won against liberal Democratic Sen. Frank Church in 1980. Senator Symms now faces a challenge from popular Gov. John V. Evans, a conservative Democrat. Governors have had difficulty winning senate races recently, but according to Hickman-Maslin Research, a Democratic firm, 1986 may provide exceptions to that rule.
Florida. Democratic Gov. Bob Graham is running against Republican Sen. Paula Hawkins in what could be one of the costliest contests of '86. Early polls show Governor Graham ahead, but the freshman senator has built a reputation as a scrapper. Mr. Griscom of the GOP campaign committee says Graham's campaign is ``stalling.''
Nevada. The state moves into the tossup category with the retirement of GOP Sen. Paul Laxalt. Republican consultant Breglio calls the Democratic candidate, Rep. Harry Reid, a ``tough, savvy campaigner'' who'll be hard to beat. So far Republicans have no clear candidate; some pin hopes on James Santini, a former congressman who switched parties but has not entered the race.
North Carolina. Democrats have not settled on a candidate for this open seat, but they are taking cheer from a division in the Republican camp. Right-wing GOP Sen. Jesse Helms is backing David Funderburk, a political science professor. But Rep. James T. Broyhill, a moderate Republican, has entered the contest.
Still other Republican seats could be at high risk if certain events occur:
Maryland. Veteran GOP Sen. Charles McC. Mathias Jr. has his party officials hanging on tenterhooks while he decides whether to run or retire. Without Senator Mathias in that very Democratic state, Republicans would have difficulty keeping the seat.
North Dakota. Democratic officials have a similar problem with at-large Rep. Byron Dorgan, whose popularity has been rated far above freshman Sen. Mark Andrews, a Republican. So far Mr. Dorgan has declined to throw in his hat.
Pennsylvania. Sen. Arlen Specter, one of the few moderate Republicans elected in 1980, faces a possible challenge from his own party's right flank by Gov. Richard L. Thornburgh. Democrats have candidates lining up for the race but there is no clear favorite.
Democrats could also have trouble keeping three of their seats:
Louisiana. With the retirement of Sen. Russell B. Long (D), two congressmen, Rep. Henson W. Moore (R) and Rep. John B. Breaux (D), are the top contenders to take the seat. The race will highlight the GOP effort to make inroads in the once-solid Demoratic South.
Missouri. Lt. Gov. Harriett Woods, a Democrat, faces former GOP Gov. Christopher Bond. An early poll shows her ahead, but the Republicans can breathe easier knowing that they will not have a primary fight now that Rep. Thomas E. Coleman dropped out. The seat is currently held by the retiring Sen. Thomas Eagleton (D).
Colorado. The big questionmark is whether Sen. Gary Hart (D) will run again. He says he has not made up his mind, but he advised Rep. Timothy E. Wirth (D) to begin raising funds. Rep. Ken Kramer is among the possible Republican candidates, but he has competition within his party.