Senate Elections: A National Survey

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Michele Norris talks with Jennifer Duffy, editor of the Cook Political Report, about how the national landscape of Senate races is shaping up.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

The Montana race is just one piece of the Senate puzzle in the upcoming elections. Both parties are dealing with surprises in some races. And recent polls are reshaping and redefining others.

Republicans want to protect their 55-seat majority, but for Democrats to seize control, they must win almost every competitive Senate seat this fall and avoid losing any now held by Democrats. That's a tall order.

For some analysis, we turn to Jennifer Duffy. She's the editor of the Cook Political Report. She joins us here in our studios. Jennifer, so glad you're here.

Ms. JENNIFER DUFFY (Cook Political Report): Thanks for having me.

NORRIS: Give us, if you could, to start this off, the lay of the land.

Ms. DUFFY: The lay of the land is this focus on the six seats Democrats need to take the majority. Today, I think there are six Senate races out there that are too close to call that are held by Republicans. By contrast, Democrats only have one seat that they are in real danger of losing.

You know, it's not hard for me to see how Democrats get three seats, four seats, five seats. That sixth seat will be a little harder. They need almost everything to go right for them on election night.

NORRIS: Tick through the six seats for us.

Ms. DUFFY: Conrad Burns in Montana. That's what we just heard. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, Mike Dewine in Ohio, Lincoln Chafee in Rhode Island, Jim Talent in Missouri and then the open seat in Tennessee, where Bill Frist is retiring.

For Democrats, their one real endangered seat, believe it or not, is in the very blue state of New Jersey.

NORRIS: Bob Menendez is now under investigation, running against a candidate with a quite familiar name in that region.

Ms. DUFFY: That's right. You know, Menendez was appointed to the Senate in December by Jon Corzine, who won the governor's race. Tom Kean, Jr. is the Republican. He's a state senator obviously. His father was a very, very popular governor. His most recent position was co-chair of the 9/11 Commission.

Now, the Kean name carries a great deal of cache. And Menendez, as you noted, has some of his own problems. Not only is he under investigation, but scandal seems to be kicking up in other places around the state.

NORRIS: That's what I wondered. I wondered if voters there might be feeling a bit of scandal fatigue. The former governor, Jim McGreevy, is out right now hawking his book.

Ms. DUFFY: That's right. There was a state senator who pleaded guilty a couple of weeks ago to corruption. There are rumors of more indictments. Even in New Jersey, they might hit scandal fatigue. But I have to tell you, New Jersey's very blue state and Republicans have struggled there in good political environments for them. This is not a good environment.

But looking at the data, you know, consistently over the last three or four months, Tom Kean is more than holding his own here.

NORRIS: Let's go to Tennessee now. Open seat to succeed retiring Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist. Democratic Congressman Harold Ford running against Republican Bob Corker. Now Corker came out of the primaries in a comfort zone. All that has changed in the last eight weeks. This is a case where Corker's past seems to have caught up with him. A controversy over his handling of the 911 system when he was mayor of Chattanooga. Is that correct?

MS. DUFFY: That is correct. He comes right out of the primary and there were two stories that appeared right away. One had to do with his business as a developer and whether or not they essentially paved over environmentally sensitive land to build an access road for a Wal-Mart.

The second was this 911 controversy where many calls didn't get answered. Meanwhile, I think a lot of people ignored the work that Congressman Ford has been doing for the last 14, 15 months. Traveling the state, he's inoculated himself as best he can against two issues that he will face in this race.

NORRIS: Those two issues being?

MS. DUFFY: The first is that if Harold Ford is elected to the Senate, he will be the first African American from a Southern state to go to the Senate since Reconstruction. The second is his rather notorious family. You know, his father held the House seat he now sits in, he's had uncles who have served in the state legislature, and one of them faces trial on corruption charges early next year.

Ford has tried very hard to deal with this issue. He essentially says, you know, nothing's going to make me stop loving my family. But if they did something wrong, they need to pay the price.

NORRIS: Now easy to understand why the family baggage would be an issue but why would his position as the first black senator from the South be an issue, an impediment?

MS. DUFFY: Well, here we are in 2006 and that no southern state has sent an African-American to the Senate I think tells us that it's still very hard to get elected as an African-American there. One of the things that helps Ford is that his record is more moderate than most Democrats in the House.

NORRIS: Jennifer, thanks so much.

MS. DUFFY: Thank you.

NORRIS: Jennifer Duffy, she's the editor of The Cook Political Report.

7-Eleven drops longtime partner Citgo. That story, and Bob Mondello's review of the new film, The Last King of Scotland, just ahead on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

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