Closely Divided Senate a Pundit’s Nightmare as Election Day Looms

October 30, 2002 4 min read
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Elections 2002

The conventional wisdom on what the Nov. 5 elections will mean for the Senate can be summed up in three keystrokes: ???

The death in a plane crash on Oct. 25 of Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., added more complexity and uncertainty. Sen. Wellstone and former St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman had been involved in one of a handful of tight races that make next week’s outcomes particularly tough to predict.

Congressional and election analysts say control of the narrowly divided Senate is just too close to call. Meanwhile, the elections involve a few prominent education policymakers on the endangered-senators list.

Currently, the chamber’s party breakdown is 50 Democrats, 49 Republicans, and one Independent who typically votes with the Democrats.

“With a one-seat majority, it could go either way,” said Thomas E. Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.

Of the 34 Senate seats on the ballot—a third of the 100-member body is elected in each even-numbered year—a majority are considered safely in the hands of incumbents. That said, more than a dozen races are deemed “in play,” based on a recent analysis by The Cook Political Report, an independent newsletter published in Washington.

The Cook analysis has identified seven races as “tossups,” with three of those currently seats held by Democrats and four by Republicans. In addition, four others lean Democratic and four lean Republican, according to the newsletter. Assuming that all the races said to be leaning or solidly in the columns of the two parties go the expected way, the GOP would have to win five of the seven tossup races to take control of the Senate. Republicans lost control of the chamber last year when Sen. James M. Jeffords of Vermont declared his independence.

Sen. Wellstone had been deemed among the most vulnerable, although the latest polling had indicated that he had a slight lead over Mr. Coleman, the Republican. Then the senator, his wife, and six others died in the crash of a small private plane in northern Minnesota.

Minnesota law allows political parties to change their nominee in such cases until up to four days before the election, giving the Democrats until Oct. 31 to replace Sen. Wellstone on the ballot. Immediate speculation centered on former Vice President Walter F. Mondale.

If Mr. Mondale does run in what would become a weeklong campaign, his stature and the outpouring of grief over Mr. Wellstone’s death could redound to the Democrat’s benefit in the Senate fight.

Sen. Wellstone, one of the chamber’s staunchest liberals, was active in the debate last year over the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001. Ultimately, he was one of just 10 senators to vote no. Mr. Wellstone criticized the law’s new testing requirements, and argued that Congress did not provide enough money to accomplish the act’s ambitious demands for higher student performance.

He was among three Democrats up for re-election who serve on the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. While Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island is considered safe in his seat, the race in Iowa, where Sen. Tom Harkin is vying for a fourth term, has attracted national attention.

The Iowa Democrat, the chairman of the appropriations subcommittee that oversees the Department of Education’s budget, is facing a potential threat from Rep. Greg Ganske, a four-term Republican. The Cook Political Report says the race is leaning Democratic, however. Sen. Harkin has long been a leading advocate of generous spending increases for education.

Another vulnerable Democrat who has been especially vocal on education is Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana. In fact, her race could create uncertainty about who controls the Senate beyond Nov. 5. If she does not win at least 50 percent of the vote on Election Day, Louisiana law would force her into a runoff with her closest challenger.

On the Republican side of the aisle, four members of the Senate education committee—Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Mike Enzi of Wyoming, Jeff Sessions of Alabama, and John Warner of Virginia—are considered safe, according to the Cook report.

Another Republican incumbent on the committee, Sen. Tim Hutchinson of Arkansas, may be in trouble, though. His race against the state’s Democratic attorney general, Mark Pryor, is considered a tossup.

Sen. Hutchinson has been a strong supporter of President Bush’s education agenda, especially efforts to expand school choice—including private school vouchers—and provide additional flexibility to states and districts in spending federal aid.

The president has visited Arkansas repeatedly to help the freshman Republican get re-elected. During a fund-raising dinner for the Arkansan in August, Mr. Bush emphasized Sen. Hutchinson’s education credentials in working on the No Child Left Behind Act.

“He has a good vision for education,” the president said. “We passed a good piece of legislation out of Washington for education. It’s one that Tim had a lot to do with. He worked hard on that legislation.”

Meanwhile, another Republican to watch is former Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander, who is going head to head with Democratic Rep. Bob Clement for Tennessee’s open Senate seat. Recent polls give Mr. Alexander a modest lead. If elected to the Senate, the former secretary said in an interview this past summer, he will ask to serve on the education committee. (“Former Education Secretary Makes Run for U.S. Senate,” July 10, 2002.)


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