The battle for control of the United States Senate now gets underway in earnest from coast to coast. This week's Senate primaries -- highlighted by a double victory for women in Maryland -- nearly completed the cast of characters for the autumn races. The stage now is set for extremely close contests in as many as a dozen states.
Even the Maryland Senate race, once considered a shoo-in for the Democrats, appears to be tightening. The Democratic nominee, feminist US Rep. Barbara Mikulski of Baltimore, still is favored; but Republican Linda Chavez promises an all-out attack, saying:
``We are as different as two people can be. Barbara Mikulski is a San Francisco-style Democrat. People are going to reject her brand of liberalism.''
A political insider says:
``Mikulski is the one Democrat who gives the Republicans hope for winning. . . . Her life style, her conduct with the staff is very much on the order of Bella Abzug. That's not going to go very far with Roman Catholics and some other Maryland voters.''
There were few major surprises in Tuesday's primary voting in nine states.
In New York, voters picked Democrat Mark Green, a consumer lawyer once associated with Ralph Nader, to oppose Republican US Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato, who is a heavy favorite.
In Wisconsin, the Democratic Senate primary was won by Ed Garvey, a former director of the National Football League Players' Association. He will face Republican Sen. Bob Kasten, who sported a 12-point lead in a poll this summer.
In New Hampshire, former Massachusetts Gov. Endicott Peabody won the Democratic Senate nomination to oppose incumbent Republican Warren Rudman. Private polls show Senator Rudman 40 points ahead.
In Vermont, former Republican Gov. Richard Snelling won the right to challenge Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy. A Republican poll in July put the Democrat 17 points ahead.
With only a few primaries and runoffs left, national attention now swings back to the dozen Senate races considered crucial by the experts. The GOP currently has a 53-47 margin in the Senate, so the loss of just four seats would turn the Upper Chamber over to the Democrats.
However, Horace Busby, a political analyst who once worked in the White House under Lyndon B. Johnson, now says: ``The likelihood of the Republicans losing the Senate is diminishing. . . . Back in June, [Democrats] were saying they were ahead in six states, which they were. But now the Republican position has strengthened in Louisiana, Colorado, and Missouri. Democrats continue to say they are ahead in North Carolina, but that's not realistic.''
Several factors now come into play which should strengthen the Republican hand.
First, there is money. The Republican Party is awash with cash and will pour millions into crucial races where a few more TV ads, or a few more direct mail appeals, could tip contests toward the GOP.
Second, there is the President. Mr. Reagan has promised his staff that he will campaign in close Senate races one day a week in September, two days a week in October. That's the heaviest schedule ever undertaken by a president, and it has Democrats worried.
Finally, there is the economy. Although it has been lackluster in recent months, it is strong enough to hold the unemployment rate below 7 percent nationally. Inflation remains low. Although there are pockets of trouble, Republicans aren't battling a serious nationwide recession, as they were in 1982.
Among the closest races are those in the present Republican states of Idaho, Nevada, North Dakota, South Dakota, North Carolina, Alabama, Pennsylvania, and Florida. Democratic states with close races include California, Colorado, Louisiana, and Missouri.