RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Senators wrap up business today and begin their summer recess. Of course, it won't be a vacation for those facing reelection. November's midterms may be rough for some incumbents who would normally be safe bets on election night.
The first test comes on Tuesday when Democrat Joe Lieberman faces a strong challenge in Connecticut. The latest poll shows Lieberman trailing challenger Ned Lamont by double digits. And there are other Senate races and primaries that could determine control of Congress this fall.
For some analysis, we turn to NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson, and political editor Ken Rudin. Good morning.
LIASSON: Good morning, Renee.
RUDIN: Good morning.
MONTAGNE: Why don't we start with that Connecticut primary. Is Joe Lieberman in any serious danger of being defeated?
LIASSON: Yes, I could think it would be fair to say. He has a very, very tough challenge. This race has really roiled the Democratic Party. He's got an anti-war candidate running against him. This is going to be a test of the strength of the anti-war sentiment in the party's base, and it's possible he could lose.
Now in the last couple of weeks he's really stepped up his efforts. He's brought in some pretty powerful surrogates, like Bill Clinton, to campaign for him. The question is, does that matter at this point?
RUDIN: I mean the point that Mara's making is exactly right. The anger in the Democratic Party on the war. There is no better race. It's like Eugene McCarthy vs. Lyndon Johnson. Talk about a collision between two ideologies. And it's not that Lieberman is fighting a pro-war campaign, but there's so much anger about him. The fact that he stood by the vote, his vote on the war, and stood by the president, President Bush, far longer than most Democrats. A matter of fact, a lot of Democrats feel that he's defended the president and criticized Democrats when he shouldn't have.
MONTAGNE: Now there is at least Senate incumbent who is potentially vulnerable to a primary challenge this year, and that's Rhode Island's Lincoln Chafee. Let's talk about him and any other vulnerable candidates.
LIASSON: Well, Linc Chafee is a very moderate - you could even says he's a liberal Republican - in a blue state - Rhode Island - but he's got a challenge. In this case, he's got a conservative Republican, Steve Laffey, who's running against him in a primary. And I think it would be fair to say that the body language of the Chafee camp is not confident, even though the public polls have shown that he has a lead.
But there, you know, this is a Republican senator who did not even vote for George Bush's reelection. He wrote in the name of his father.
RUDIN: Not only did he not vote for President Bush, he also was the only Republican senator to vote against he Alito Supreme Court decision. He voted against all tax cuts. What's different about Rhode Island than Connecticut is - no matter who wins in Connecticut, either Lieberman or Lamont, Democrats will hold onto their seat.
What's fascinating and crucial about the September 12 primary in Rhode Island is that if Lincoln Chafee loses, it's almost a guaranteed pickup for the Democratic Party in November. National Republicans really want Chafee to win, because if he can win the primary, they think he could hold onto the seat in November, and Laffey can't.
MONTAGNE: In Rhode Island, though, is the White House intervening at all in…
LIASSON: Yes, for Chafee…
MONTAGNE: Order to not lose the Republican seat
LIASSON: Absolutely. They have backed the most iconoclastic Republican in the Senate. Linc Chafee is not a friend of theirs on many, many issues. But, yes, they have really given him money, support. They think he is the best chance in a general election, as Ken said, to hold that seat in a blue state.
MONTAGNE: Now one race that doesn't seem tight at all is in Florida where challenger Katherine Harris is having setback after setback, I guess…
RUDIN: A bad year?
MONTAGNE: Against Democrat Bill Nelson.
LIASSON: The latest piece of Katherine Harris news - and, of course, there seems to be one of these almost every month - is it came to light that there was a letter written on May 7, from the Florida Republican Party to Katherine Harris, saying she wouldn't win and the party was not going to support her.
Now she went ahead and filed anyway, but it just is another example of how much the Republican Party in Florida has distanced itself from Katherine Harris's bid to unseat what should've been a vulnerable Democratic incumbent, Bill Nelson, but now, of course, looks very safe.
I think that Jeb Bush, the governor there, has said on many occasions he doesn't think she can win. He wished she would've dropped out. They worked very hard to find somebody else to run, but they failed.
RUDIN: What's interesting about Katherine Harris is that you think the Republican base would love her. She was the one who, after all, rescued the Bush campaign as secretary of state of Florida during the recount of November of 2000. She was part of the organization - she along with Governor Jeb Bush - that basically declared George Bush the winner, and thus, the president of the United States.
MONTAGNE: Given all of this, what are the chances of the Democrats taking over the Senate?
LIASSON: Well, the Democrats need six net seats to pick up, and that's a high number in the Senate. But there are a number of races that seem to be trending in their direction. The number one Senate race in the country is in Pennsylvania, where Rick Santorum, who is the Republican incumbent - he's the number three in the Senate leadership - has been trailing his Democratic opponent, Bob Casey Jr., for a very long time.
And I think the expectation was that by now, the polls would've started to close because Rick Santorum is a very aggressive and able campaigner, but they haven't. I think Casey still has a double-digit lead.
RUDIN: Very few senators in the history of the Senate have come back from double-digit leads, with just two or three months to go, and it's a really tall order for Rick Santorum.
MONTAGNE: There are other states where Republican incumbents are in trouble. Mike DeWine, who's the Republican incumbent senator in Ohio, he is getting a challenge from a Democrat, Sherrod Brown…
RUDIN: Conrad Burns in…
MONTAGNE: Conrad Burns.
RUDIN: In Montana. Conrad Burns took more money from Jack Abramoff from any other member of Congress. And we talk about the culture of corruption, the Republican culture of corruption, whether that plays as a national issue or not, it may very well play in Montana this year.
MONTAGNE: So what about Democrats? Are there any endangered Democrats?
LIASSON: Well, I would say probably the number one Democratic incumbent who's vulnerable is Maria Cantwell in Washington. Although, the latest polls show that she still has a lead over her opponent. Now there is another incumbent, who's a brand new incumbent - Bob Menendez in New Jersey - he's only been in there a couple of months.
RUDIN: Right. Appointed by Jon Corzine, the governor, who was a very unpopular governor. Republicans haven't won a Senate race in New Jersey since 1972, and the numbers are still against the Republicans. But Menendez, under the sponsorship of Jon Corzine, might be in some trouble. Republicans are hoping so much for Washington State and New Jersey to blunt losses elsewhere.
LIASSON: Yeah. And I think it's fair to say that the Republicans are prepared the lose seats. The big question is can the Democrats pick up a net six to actually change control.
MONTAGNE: So, Ken, Mara, predictions. Do the Democrats take the Senate?
LIASSON: I hate making predictions, but I would say they'll come very close but not get six.
RUDIN: Let me point out - something I say over and over again - is that three weeks before the Iowa caucuses in 2004, Howard Dean had a double digit lead and he wound up finishing third. So here we are three months advance, let alone three weeks. But having said that, I agree. I think the Democrats clearly pick up seats, but I think the Democrats have to - everything has to fall in line for them. They can do it, but I don't think they do. I think they come just short. I think they have a better chance to win the House than they do the Senate.
MONTAGNE: Thank you both very much.
LIASSON: Thank you, Renee.
RUDIN: Thank you.
MONTAGNE: NPR's national political correspondent, Mara Liasson, and political editor, Ken Rudin.
If you just can't enough politics or Ken Rudin, tune into NPR's weekly Podcast, It's All Politics. You'll find it at npr.org/politics.
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