Open-Seat Season in the Senate

EIGHT seems to be Senate Democrats' unlucky number these days. After losing eight seats plus their majority status in the 1994 election, another eight of their incumbents up for reelection in 1996 opted to step down. The stream of retirement announcements - Paul Simon, Howell Heflin, Bennett Johnston, Jim Exon, David Pryor, Bill Bradley, Claiborne Pell, and Sam Nunn - on the heels of Ben Nighthorse Campbell's switch to the Republican Party, has sent the rest of the caucus reeling.

Compounding Democrats' problem, two of their incumbents, Max Baucus of Montana and Paul Wellstone of Minnesota, are facing formidable reelection challenges, and a third, Carl Levin of Michigan, could also have aggressive opposition.

During this period, only one Senate Republican, Colorado's Hank Brown, has announced retirement, and another, Bob Packwood of Oregon, resigned after an internal investigation of sexual harassment. Two more Republicans, Nancy Kassebaum of Kansas and Mark Hatfield of Oregon, are expected to retire, while Wyoming's Alan Simpson is rumored to be contemplating an exit. Still, Republicans are favored to retain the seat in Colorado and would likely hold onto open seats in Kansas and Wyoming, leaving only Oregon's seats in jeopardy.

Since open seats are almost always harder for a party to retain than occupied ones, the conventional wisdom is that Democrats will find it impossible to net the four seats they need to retake control of the Senate if President Clinton is reelected, and five if he is not (in which case there wouldn't be a Democratic vice president around to break a tie). Republicans will likely net the six seats needed to reach the magic filibuster-proof total of 60.

Although things do look ominous, Senate Democrats might not be in quite as bad shape as is widely perceived. A few bright spots have appeared on their horizon. First was Nebraska Gov. Ben Nelson's decision to run for Exon's open seat. Polls give Nelson a 30-to-40 point lead over his Republican rivals. Such a huge lead probably won't hold up, but Democrats start out favored in a state they could have written off had Nelson not run. Second, the party's front-runner to replace Sam Nunn is Secretary of State Max Cleland, who lost both legs while serving in Vietnam, and who directed the Veterans Administration under President Carter. Georgia is increasingly Republican, but Cleland is reputed to be the highest vote-getter in the state, and he gives Democrats a solid chance of retaining yet another seat they otherwise would have lost.

Democrats' open seats in Alabama, Louisiana, and, to a slightly lesser extent, Arkansas present them with tougher obstacles, whereas neither party has a real advantage in Illinois or New Jersey. A competitive race is expected in Rhode Island, but Democrats are generally given an edge there.

Democrats aren't fighting an entirely defensive battle, however. Polling shows Republican incumbent Larry Pressler of South Dakota running even, at best, with his likely rival, and GOP retention of Packwood's open seat in Oregon's January special election is about a 50-50 proposition. In Virginia, a conservative challenge to incumbent John Warner has so split the party that Warner may not be renominated, offering Democrats another potential pickup. They also seem positioned to wage a spirited attack against their arch enemy in North Carolina, Jesse Helms, and numbers hint that South Carolina's Strom Thurmond could also be in trouble.

Today, the likeliest outcome is that Senate Republicans gain another two to four seats, increasing their ranks to around 56 to 58, with anything above that constituting a truly impressive showing and anything less, a moral victory for Democrats.

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