ALISON STEWART, host:
With all of the talk about the historic presidential race, one might lose sight of the important congressional races that will be on the ballots on Tuesday. NPR political editor Ken Rudin is here to guide us to where we should look when we're not looking at the Obama-McCain extravaganza. Hi, Ken.
KEN RUDIN: Good morning, Alison.
STEWART: So what's at stake in the Senate and the House?
RUDIN: Well, 35 seats in the Senate, and bad news for the Republicans because 23 of them are held by the Republican Party, only 12 by the Democrats. More importantly, perhaps up to a dozen of the Republican seats are considered vulnerable whereas there's only one Democrat with any kind of a close re-election battle, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, and she's expected to survive.
STEWART: The Republican strongholds are up for grabs, ones that have been Republicans strongholds for decades.
RUDIN: Well, a good example is Virginia, where John Warner, who was first elected in 1978, is retiring. Mark Warner - no relation - as a Democrat will pick it up. In New Mexico, Pete Domenici was first elected in 1972. Democrat Tom Udall, a congressman there, is likely to win that one.
The biggest change, I guess, is Ted Stevens, the longest-serving Republican senator in the history of the Senate. He was appointed in 1968 but since last week's conviction on seven felony counts, he's in big trouble. Mark Begich, the mayor of Anchorage, is favored to win that seat. No Democrat has won a Senate seat in Alaska since 1974. That shows how the political climate has changed in states like Alaska.
STEWART: There are three Senate races I want to talk about specifically: Oregon, Minnesota and North Carolina. Let's start from west and come east. In Oregon, the incumbent is in big trouble.
RUDIN: Gordon Smith, who was first elected to the Senate as a strong conservative, has taken many anti-Bush, anti-war positions. There is a conservative third-party candidate in that race who is siphoning perhaps four or five percent. In a close race, that could hurt Gordon Smith.
STEWART: Let's talk about Minnesota. They could make a senator who was a comic.
RUDIN: This is a professional comedian, Al Franken, who's the Democratic nominee. Norm Coleman was elected six years ago following the death of Paul Wellstone. In the beginning everybody thought that the attention will be on his association with Bush and his vote for the war. Then it switched to Al Franken. Al Franken has had this very controversial rhetoric. They laugh at his jokes. The question is, whom do Minnesota voters like the least or whom do Minnesota voters dislike the least? Is it Norm Coleman or Al Franken?
STEWART: We're finally going to talk about North Carolina, and we have a little audio help for people so they can understand about how ugly things are getting in North Carolina right now. Senator Elizabeth Dole's campaign has been running this controversial ad that accuses her opponent, state Senator Kay Hagan, of being...
RUDIN: Backed by Godless elements of the Democratic Party.
STEWART: There you go. Let's listen to the ad.
(Soundbite of Elizabeth Dole 2008 campaign ad)
A leader of the Godless Americans PAC recently held a secret fundraiser in Kay Hagan's honor. Godless Americans and Kay Hagan. She hid from cameras, took Godless money. What did Hagan promised in return?
Unidentified Woman: There is no God.
STEWART: We should point out that final voice is not Kay Hagan's, correct?
RUDIN: That's correct.
STEWART: The ad doesn't say that, though. Now Senator Hagan - state Senator Hagan has responded in two ways. She filed a defamation suit against Senator Dole and her campaign has been airing this ad.
(Soundbite of Kay Hagan 2008 campaign ad)
Senator KAY HAGAN (Democrat, North Carolina): I'm Kay Hagan, and Elizabeth Dole's attacks on my Christian faith are offensive. She even faked my voice in her TV ad to make you think I don't believe in God. Well, I believe in God. I taught Sunday school. My faith guides my life. And Senator Dole knows it.
STEWART: How has this ad reflected back on each candidate?
RUDIN: Elizabeth Dole was not supposed to be in this situation and she was clearly favored. The Democrats' first four choices for the Democratic nomination all turned it down. But one, there's an anti-Republican mood in North Carolina. Two, there's a serious African-American turnout, which could be jeopardizing Elizabeth Dole. Three, Republicans feel that she's been an invisible senator, that she's been out of the state so long. And the fourth thing is that Elizabeth Dole serves on the Senate Banking Committee, and there's a lot of reaction to the bailout/rescue vote, and Elizabeth Dole is paying the price for that, as well.
STEWART: Ken Rudin, NPR's political editor. Thanks for joining us.
RUDIN: Thanks, Alison.
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