From Akaka to Macaca: The Battle for the Senate

George Allen button

Before measuring the White House drapes, Allen realizes he now has a fight on his hands for his Senate seat. hide caption

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Dan Akaka button

The 82-year-old Hawaii senator faces tough primary on Saturday. hide caption

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Katherine Harris button

A Republican hero no longer. hide caption

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There's no mystery in the numbers. There are 33 Senate seats up for grabs this year — 17 currently held by the Democrats, 15 by the Republicans, and 1 by an independent. With the GOP currently holding 55 seats, Democrats need a net gain of six to win control for the first time since 1994. Later in this column, a complete listing of the candidates and a quick word or two as to where each race stands. But first, some questions on specific races that have been piling up in our virtual mailbag:

Q: A recent poll showed Democrat Jim Webb holding a slight lead over Sen. George Allen in Virginia. Any chance you might make Virginia a "key" Senate race on your interactive election map? — Previn Witana, Riverside, Calif.

A: The Virginia Senate race has indeed become competitive, something I would have bet against just a few months ago. For the longest time, it seemed to be shaping up as a cakewalk for Allen, who was clearly looking ahead towards the Republican presidential nomination for 2008. Webb, the Democratic nominee, seemed a less-than-inspiring candidate, while Allen, a former governor (and, briefly, a congressman), has been riding high since ousting Sen. Chuck Robb (D) six years ago.

The race has become a nail biter not because of anything Webb has done — though he has gained support for his strong stance against the war in Iraq. It really stems from a comment Allen made at an August campaign rally in which he singled out S.R. Sidarth, a student working for the Webb campaign who was taping Allen's appearance. Allen addressed Sidarth, an Indian American and a person of color, as a "macaca"... as in, "Let's give a welcome to macaca here. Welcome to America and the real world of Virginia." An immediate outcry led to constant Allen apologies, insisting that he was not using a racial slur. His campaign has never been the same since.

The question is how badly has Allen been damaged. One thing to keep in mind is that Virginia is no longer the reliably "red" state it once was. It does have a Republican state legislature, two Republican senators, and eight (of 11) Republican members of the House. But it also has elected Democrats to the governorship twice in a row. And while President Bush carried every Southern state in his 2004 re-election bid, no state was more tepid than Virginia, which gave Bush just 50.7 percent of its vote.

Am I ready to say that Webb wins this? No. I still think Allen takes it. But the race is no longer the slam-dunk that it appeared to be just a couple of months ago.

Q: With Sen. Allen facing a tougher-than-expected re-election fight en route to a presumed run for president in 2008, can you think of another would-be presidential candidate (who was taken as seriously as Allen has been) who was ousted from office before he had the chance to seek the White House? — Mark Z. Barabek, Political Writer, Los Angeles Times

A: There are some lawmakers I can think of whose visions of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. were interrupted by election defeats, but none whose chances were rated on a par with Allen's. Senate Minority Leader Bill Knowland (R-CA) wanted to be seen as President Eisenhower's heir apparent for 1960, when Ike would have to step down, and knew that it would be difficult to move up with Vice President Richard Nixon in his way. Knowland thought one way to do it was to instead run for governor, which would give him a better national platform, in 1958. He managed to muscle incumbent Gov. Goodwin Knight out of a re-election race (Knight instead ran for Knowland's Senate seat). But Knowland's strategy was all for naught, as both he and Knight were defeated and his presidential ambitions gone forever.

Another president wannabe to fit this category was another Senate minority leader: Tom Daschle of South Dakota. He briefly considered seeking the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004, but figured he had a better shot at '08. Meanwhile, he lost his Senate seat to John Thune. He still has dreams about the White House, but that's all they are.

The name of Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes (D) had been bandied about as a possible candidate for president one day, but he was defeated for re-election in 2002. Same with Sen. John Ashcroft (R-MO), who was beaten in 2000.

And while no one was pushing Jeb Bush for president prior to his election as governor of Florida, many feel that the reason why it was George W. and not Jeb who became the Republican frontrunner in 2000 was because Jeb lost his first run for governor in 1994 while brother George was winning that year in Texas.

Q: I hear that Sen. Daniel Akaka is an upset possibility in [Saturday's] Democratic primary in Hawaii, mainly because of his advancing years. I haven't heard much about this race, but with control of the Senate an especially live issue this year, it might be worth looking into. — Mark Richard, Columbus, Ohio

A: The last poll I saw showed Akaka, who is 82 years old, substantially up over Ed Case, the young (54 next week), ambitious congressman whose decision to challenge Akaka was less ideological and more generational. Akaka has the party establishment behind him, including his fellow octogenarian senator Daniel Inouye. But Case is well funded, and has promised a furious, final ad blitz in the closing days of the race. Case says Akaka is ineffective, and argues that the combination of his own youth and Inouye's seniority would serve the state well. For the record, polls are not especially reliable in Hawaii, where voters historically are late in making up their minds.

While everyone in the party is not pleased that Case went ahead with his challenge, it does make sense. Akaka and Inouye are not going to be around forever, and if God intervened before a primary did, GOP Gov. Linda Lingle would be in position to name a Republican to the Senate.

Still, no matter who wins the primary on Saturday, the seat is all but assured of remaining in Democratic hands.

Hawaii trivia: No incumbent member of Congress from the state has ever lost re-election in the primary or the general election.

Q: If Rep. Ben Cardin (D-MD) wins the state's open Senate seat, he would join that chamber after 20 years' service in the House. I know Jim Broyhill (R-NC) was appointed to the Senate in July of 1986 after more than 23 years in the House, but he lost the general election that year. Would Cardin hold the record for the longest House tenure before winning election to the Senate? — David Mark, Bethesda, Md.

A: Every now and then there's a question that intrigues me but that I have no idea where to go to find the answer. This is one of them. Can anyone think of a House member with 20 years or more in the House who later was elected to the Senate?

By the way, David is the author of Going Dirty: The Art of Negative Campaigning (Rowman & Littlefield). The book, which came out earlier this year, is a disturbing but essential history of negative campaigning in American politics, and how candidates use the technique, with varying degrees of success.

Q: I love reading all the scenarios you've printed in your column about Joe Lieberman and his role should he win as an independent — and especially if he becomes the deciding vote as to who controls the Senate. What do you think of the idea that Lieberman wins, but before the new Senate is sworn in, Bush appoints him to be Secretary of Defense, and then Connecticut Gov. Jodi Rell (R) names another Republican to replace him? — Gabriel Baty, El Cerrito, Calif.

A: Lieberman, in his new incarnation as an independent candidate for the Senate, has become a fierce critic of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. There are no indications at all that Rumsfeld's days are numbered; if they were, Bush would have made the move well before now, not with just some six-plus weeks to go before the election. But if Rumsfeld were to jump or be pushed, Bush wouldn't replace him with a critic. And as critical as he has become of many of his former Senate Dem pals, Lieberman would not let himself become the instrument by which the Republicans maintained control of the Senate this year by one vote. On the contrary, if Lieberman became the deciding factor regarding the balance of the power, he would appreciate the irony more than anyone and relish every second of the attention, before ultimately voting to organize with the Democrats.

Q: As fascinating as the Connecticut race is, you need to remember there is life of political significance elsewhere. For the past year, our local pundits have claimed the Senate race between Republican incumbent Jim Talent and Democratic challenger Claire McCaskill is of national significance. Yet not a word about the Missouri race appears in your column. — Sharon Summers, St. Louis, Mo.

A: You are right, though we have talked about the race many times in our political podcast. Stick around for next week's column, where McCaskill is the scheduled "Meet the Challenger" candidate.

Q: The other day I heard your segment on Talk of the Nation (I love it and try not to miss it even if I have to sit in the car somewhere until it's over). You were talking about vulnerable candidates for the House and Senate in 2006. You mentioned a chart on the NPR web site; I've tried to find it but I can't. Also, what's going on with Katherine Harris in Florida? I remember that she ran afoul of the Republicans by running for the Senate when they didn't want her to. How is she doing? — Dianne Taylor, Poquoson, Va.

A: All of the key races for the Senate, House and governor are profiled in our interactive election map.

As for Katherine Harris, it is an understatement to say she is not doing too well in her effort to unseat Sen. Bill Nelson (D). Everything that could go wrong has gone wrong with the Harris campaign, from staff turnover to damaging comments by Harris herself to ethics questions about her funding to entreaties from top Republicans that she get out of the race.

It's been a long nosedive for Harris, who was a national GOP favorite when, as Florida's secretary of state, she certified the Bush victory in the 2000 presidential contest. She was still a major figure when she ran for Congress in 2002 in a safe district centered in Sarasota. The problem other Republicans had about her is that while she retained star power within the party, she was seen as a divisive figure who could never win statewide, and that if anything, her presence on the ballot would bring out a huge Democratic vote. So when she talked about running for the Senate seat Bob Graham (D) was vacating in 2004, party leaders told her not to do it, promising their support for another race at another time. For Harris, that other time was 2006, when she decided to take on Nelson. Republicans from Gov. Jeb Bush on down told her she didn't have a prayer in the world of beating him. But one, she refused to listen, and two, no other leading Republican got in the race.

It has been quite astonishing to watch Katherine Harris go from Republican hero to late night Jon Stewart punch line. And with that introduction, let me tell you that Harris will be our special guest on next Wednesday's "Political Junkie" segment on NPR's Talk of the Nation.

Q: I am an under-represented liberal in Texas. Barbara Ann Radnofsky, a lawyer and mediator in Houston, is the Democratic nominee against Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R). I am excited, but am I just deluding myself? Is there any possible way that Radnofsky can win? — Lane Jaeckle Santos, Irving, Texas

A: I just don't see it. Even if the numbers become even bleaker for the GOP nationwide than they already are, I can't see this race as part of the mix. I would be very surprised if Radnofsky came within single digits.

Q: Were any Republican incumbents in the House or Senate defeated during the GOP sweep of 1994? — Harold Walters, London, England

A: Not a one, and no governors either. Some were defeated in attempts for other office — such as Rep. Michael Huffington (CA), who lost in a bid for the Senate. But no Republican was defeated by a Democrat in November of that year.

A quick look at another midterm tsunami, 1974 — where Democrats made major gains — shows that four Dem incumbents in the House nonetheless went down to defeat that year: Frank Clark (PA), Frank Denholm (SD), Peter Kyros (ME) and Tom Luken (OH).

2006 SENATE SCORECARD: Below is a thumbnail sketch of the 33 Senate races up this year, and where they stand as of now (incumbent in BOLD). Of course, all ratings are subject to change. For more detailed information, go to the NPR interactive map:

ARIZONA: Jon Kyl (R) vs. Jim Pederson — REPUBLICAN FAVORED

CALIFORNIA: Dianne Feinstein (D) vs. Richard Mountjoy — SAFE DEMOCRATIC

CONNECTICUT: Joe Lieberman (I) vs. Ned Lamont (D) vs. Alan Schlesinger (R) — SAFE DEMOCRATIC (leans Lieberman)

DELAWARE: Tom Carper (D) vs. Jan Ting (R) — SAFE DEMOCRATIC

FLORIDA: Bill Nelson (D) vs. Katherine Harris (R) — SAFE DEMOCRATIC

HAWAII: Daniel Akaka (D) or Ed Case (D) vs. Republican nominee TBD 9/23 — SAFE DEMOCRATIC

INDIANA: Richard Lugar (R) unopposed — SAFE REPUBLICAN

MAINE: Olympia Snowe (R) vs. Jean Hay Bright (D) — SAFE REPUBLICAN

MARYLAND: Ben Cardin (D) vs. Michael Steele (R) — LEANS DEMOCRATIC (Paul Sarbanes (D) is retiring)

MASSACHUSETTS: Edward Kennedy (D) vs. Ken Chase (R) — SAFE DEMOCRATIC

MICHIGAN: Debbie Stabenow (D) vs. Mike Bouchard (R) — DEMOCRAT FAVORED

MINNESOTA: Amy Klobuchar (D) vs. Mark Kennedy (R) — TOSSUP (Mark Dayton (D) is retiring)

MISSISSIPPI: Trent Lott (R) vs. Erik Fleming (D) — SAFE REPUBLICAN

MISSOURI: Jim Talent (R) vs. Claire McCaskill (D) — TOSSUP

MONTANA: Conrad Burns (R) vs. Jon Tester (D) — TOSSUP

NEBRASKA: Ben Nelson (D) vs. Pete Ricketts (R) — LEANS DEMOCRATIC

NEVADA: John Ensign (R) vs. Jack Carter (D) — REPUBLICAN FAVORED

NEW JERSEY: Bob Menendez (D) vs. Tom Kean Jr. (R) — TOSSUP

NEW MEXICO: Jeff Bingaman (D) vs. Allen McCulloch (R) — SAFE DEMOCRATIC

NEW YORK: Hillary Clinton (D) vs. John Spencer (R) — SAFE DEMOCRATIC

NORTH DAKOTA: Kent Conrad (D) vs. Dwight Grotberg (R) — SAFE DEMOCRATIC

OHIO: Mike DeWine (R) vs. Sherrod Brown (D) — TOSSUP

PENNSYLVANIA: Rick Santorum (R) vs. Bob Casey Jr. (D) — LEANS DEMOCRATIC

RHODE ISLAND: Lincoln Chafee (R) vs. Sheldon Whitehouse (D) — TOSSUP

TENNESSEE: Bob Corker (R) vs. Harold Ford Jr. (D) — LEANS REPUBLICAN (Bill Frist (R) is retiring)

TEXAS: Kay Bailey Hutchison (R) vs. Barbara Ann Radnofsky (D) — SAFE REPUBLICAN

UTAH: Orrin Hatch (R) vs. Pete Ashdown (D) — SAFE REPUBLICAN

VERMONT: Bernie Sanders (I) vs. Rich Tarrant (R) — SAFE INDEPENDENT (Jim Jeffords (I) is retiring)

VIRGINIA: George Allen (R) vs. Jim Webb (D) — LEANS REPUBLICAN

WASHINGTON: Maria Cantwell (D) vs. Mike McGavick (R) — LEANS DEMOCRATIC

WEST VIRGINIA: Robert Byrd (D) vs. John Raese (R) — SAFE DEMOCRATIC

WISCONSIN: Herb Kohl (D) vs. Robert Lorge (R) — SAFE DEMOCRATIC

WYOMING: Craig Thomas (R) vs. Dale Groutage (D) — SAFE REPUBLICAN

EXPANDED JUNKIE: Got a lovely note the other day from Jack Fisher, who said from now on I should "insist on a full hour" for the Junkie segment on Talk of the Nation. (Now that is a true junkie!) Maybe not an hour, but this week's segment ran 45 minutes — starting at 2 p.m. Eastern — starting with a recap of the Massachusetts and Washington primaries, a look ahead to Hawaii on Saturday, and an overview of the November general election. Remember, we're on the air every Wednesday on TOTN.

Also... check out NPR's interactive election map, highlighting every Senate, gubernatorial and key House race in the country, with early projections.

THE PODCAST TRUTH: For those of you who enjoy our weekly political podcast, "It's All Politics," and want to know what goes on behind the scenes, you might want to send a note to the podcast editor, Beth Donovan, and the producer, Muthoni Muturi. Ask them about the stuff we say that they make sure never gets included in the version that gets uploaded. And then you'll realize the important role Beth and Muthoni play in how Ron Elving and I manage to keep our jobs. A new edition of the podcast goes up every Thursday at noon. Check out the podcast page on the NPR Web site for more details.

Please... If you are sending in a question to be used in this column, don't forget to include your city and state.

This day in campaign history: Daniel Akaka, a Hawaii Democrat who resigned from the House in May after being appointed to the Senate to fill the seat of the late Spark Matsunaga (D), easily wins the Democratic nomination to run in the special election. He will square off with — and ultimately defeat — GOP Rep. Patricia Saiki (Sept. 22, 1990).

Got a question? Ask Ken Rudin: politicaljunkie@npr.org

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