With four months to go until Election Day, the odds the Democratic Party will regain control of the Senate remain doubtful.
But things are getting interesting. Some races that three months ago looked out of reach are now toss-ups. Others have Democrats in striking distance.
It's enough to make some pundits take a second look at the map, and take into consideration the possibility that a larger than previously expected number of Democrats may be motivated to vote this November, while a larger than previously expected number of Republicans either switch loyalties or stay home.
Republicans currently have a 55-44-1 advantage in the Senate, so only a fantastic day by the Democrats will allow them to regain control. But support for the party has been waning, in part because support for President Bush and Vice President Cheney has been historically poor
, Republicans have unsuccessfully substituted name-calling
for policy in dealing with the increasingly unpopular Iraq War, and well-publicized negatives like the Jack Abramoff scandal
have been tied to the GOP.
At the same time, a wide array of other negatives -- continued instability in the Middle East, the recent missile testing by the North Koreans, record-high gas prices, well-publicized layoffs announced by Ford and Disney -- lead some pundits to think voters are getting the "six-year itch," and will want to remove the Republicans from leadership in this, the sixth year of the Bush presidency.
A lot can change in the 115 or so days left until Election Day, but for Democrats who wish to remain optimistic, here's a roadmap for how the party is making things interesting.DEMOCRATS LEAD
, Democrat Bob Casey Jr. leads incumbent Republican Rick Santroum by a 52-37 margin, according to the most recent Rasmussen Reports poll. That's actually an improvement from the 23-point deficit Santorum faced last month
, Democrat Jon Tester leads
incumbent Republican Conrad Burns 50% to 43%, according to the most recent Rasmussen Reports poll. Tester, president of the Montana State Senate, has gained on Burns the last two months -- erasing a four-point lead -- as Burns' ties to the Abramoff scandal have eroded support.DEMOCRATS IN DEAD HEATS
In Rhode Island
, incumbent Republican Lincoln Chafee is struggling
to defeat his primary opponent, Cranston Mayor Steve Laffey. If Laffey wins, polls suggest the Democrats' nominee, former Attorney General Sheldon Whitehouse, would win easily. If Chafee holds on, the race is seen as a dead heat.
Although Chafee remains personally popular in his home state, Whitehouse has gained a foothold by asking the state's traditional Democrat base to consider the issue of Senate control.
, State Auditor Claire McCaskill is in a dead heat with Republican incumbent Jim Talent, erasing a three-point lead in last month’s polls
. McCaskill has taken advantage of recent polls showing
Bush's approval rating down to 39%; other Republicans in the state have also seen their popularity wane
, Democratic Congressman Sherrod Brown has been trading leads with incumbent Republican Mike DeWine. The most recent polls has DeWine holding a slight lead. DeWine has been hurt by being in the same party as extremely unpopular
outgoing governor Bob Taft. (In the race for Governor, Democrat Ted Strickland leads Republican Ken Blackwell handily
.) But DeWine has also been in trouble with local conservatives for opposing legislation to protect gun manufacturers from liability suits. Brown would be helped by better name recognition; 17% of voters are unfamiliar with him, according to Rasmussen Reports.UPHILL BATTLES
, Democratic Congressman Harold Ford trails three potential Republican opponents in polls
, as he tries to fill the seat of departing Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist. The most recent poll shows Republicans holding a four-point to nine-point lead -- not insurmountable, but Ford has not shown any improvement as the year goes on.
, former Navy Secretary James Webb has shown surprising strength against incumbent Republican George Allen. Allen, who at one point was considered such a shoo-in that he could begin concentrating on a likely 2008 run for president, leads Webb 51-41 in the most recent poll, compared with an April poll
showing Allen up by 20.
Webb is a former Republican who actually endorsed Allen in 2000, but defected from the party because of the Iraq War. He would also benefit from better name recognition; 17% of voters have no opinion of him. Helping Webb is the popularity of current Democratic Governor Tim Kaine, and former Democratic Governor Mark Warner.
, Democratic state chairman Jim Pederson trails
incumbent Republican Jon Kyl, 43-29. In April, polls had Kyl leading 42-31. The good news is many voters haven't made up their minds, and support below 50% for Kyl, like Ohio's DeWine, is not a show of strength. Pederson is spending
millions of his money, and benefits from the popularity
of Democratic Governor Janet Napolitano.
The bad news is Pederson -- like other Democrats looking to unseat incumbents -- is running out of time to sway voters.
Can things break for the Democrats? A gain of six seats seems unlikely. Analysts like the University of Virginia's Larry Sabato think two or three seats
is more probable.
But six months ago, the only Republican who looked to be in serious jeopardy was Santorum. Four months from now, we may witness a shake-up not seen since the "Gingrich Revolution
" of 1994.