Parties Battle For Senate Seats In Top Elections

Though GOP has high hopes in campaign, Democrats are presenting a stiff challenge

REPUBLICANS enter the fall campaign for the United States Senate with high hopes, while Democrats are fighting to retain their 55-to-45 margin. Experts say the GOP could gain as many as three seats, but Democrats are challenging at least two Republican incumbents. Analysts give this rundown of the top races: Hawaii

When Sen. Spark Matsunaga (D) of Hawaii died last spring, the GOP suddenly found itself with its best opportunity of 1990. US Rep. Daniel Akaka (D) was appointed to fill the seat until November, but he is being seriously challenged by Hawaii's other member of the House, Republican Patricia Saiki.

Mrs. Saiki has outpaced Mr. Akaka in fund-raising, and has cut into Democrats' traditional strength with Japanese-Americans. She also runs very strongly with Caucasians, and in Honolulu, which she represents.

Akaka's greatest support comes from voters of Hawaiian heritage, and from those living outside Honolulu. Some analysts call this race dead even, but others give Saiki the edge.

Rhode Island

Widely regarded as the GOP's second-best opportunity this year, the nation's smallest state must decide whether to oust 30-year Democratic incumbent Claiborne Pell. His Republican opponent, US Rep. Claudine Schneider, is also well known, but must convince voters it is time to ``fire'' Mr. Pell. The senator is best known for launching the Pell grant program for students.

Pell ran a 10-kilometer race in June to show voters he is still vigorous. Ms. Schneider, an environmental activist, would be a mixed blessing in the Senate for the White House. In 1987, she opposed President Reagan's policies in the House more often than any other Republican, according to Congressional Quarterly.

Iowa

Also a prime GOP target, Iowa remains too close to call. Local experts caution that Republican Tom Tauke has failed to convince many swing voters that incumbent Democrat Tom Harkin should be kicked out. They say Mr. Tauke will have to get tougher and sharpen his TV ads to win.

Nebraska

Democrat Jim Exon is being threatened by Republican Hal Daub, who, like Tauke in Iowa, has spent prodigious amounts of time and energy setting up a county-by-county organization. That thorough groundwork could pay off. Campaigns & Elections magazine calls this the GOP's best chance for a pickup, though others insist Hawaii, Rhode Island, and Iowa are better prospects.

Illinois

Republican Lynn Martin gave up a safe House seat to challenge Democratic incumbent Paul Simon. But Illinois is a huge state that requires a vault full of cash to win. Mrs. Martin still has a chance, but she needs money. One concern: She got off to a slow start that may have cost her $1 million in contributions.

Michigan

Experts once rated this a top GOP prospect, but that is not heard any more. Democratic incumbent Carl Levin, like Senator Simon in Illinois, is benefiting from increased exposure as a Senate expert on foreign and military affairs during the current Gulf crisis. GOP challenger William Schuette trails badly in fund-raising. Some analysts are puzzled by Mr. Schuette's strategy, which they say fails to exploit Senator Levin's liberal record.

Montana

This is another state where GOP hopes once soared. But Democratic Sen. Max Baucus has a big treasury, and Republican Allen Kolstad does not. Republicans note they were once behind 34 points, and now they say it is a 14-point race, so they insist victory is still possible.

Kentucky

Democrats call Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell weak, despite a $2.6 million bankroll. GOPers admit the state is normally Democratic, but say Senator McConnell is ``very tough.'' If Democrats are going to pull an upset, this may be the place. Campaigns & Elections magazine gives this race to Democrat Harvey Sloane by two points.

North Carolina

Another Democratic wishing well in 1990. Democrats go after Republican Jesse Helms every six years. This time they insist the Tarheel State is weary of Helmsian politics, and will replace him with former Charlotte mayor Harvey Gantt. But the senator is tenacious and a skilled fund-raiser. Larry Harrington, a Democratic strategist, calls the race 45 to 45, with 10 percent undecided.

Colorado

Democrats might have a chance to take this seat away from the GOP after Republican William Armstrong retires at the end of the year. But Republican Hank Brown currently is favored to prevail against Democrat Josephine Heath. C&E gives it to the GOP by 19 points.

Indiana

Could this be a Democratic upset? Some analysts, such as Charles Cook Jr., say it could be one of big surprises of 1990. Republican Dan Coats replaced Vice President Dan Quayle in the Senate, but the new senator hasn't been tested in a statewide contest. The biggest obstacle for Democrat Baron Hill is that he may unable to muster enough money.

Louisiana

This could be the year's biggest sleeper. Ordinarily, Sen. J. Bennett Johnston (D) would breeze back into office. He has plenty of campaign funds and can boast of important positions on the appropriations and energy committees, where he can help his state. But Mr. Johnston is being challenged in a five-way primary that includes controversial state Rep. David Duke. To the chagrin of Johnston, Mr. Duke has raised more than $1 million, and may make it to a November runoff.

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