GOP sowing seeds of hope

SUN JOURNAL

Senators: In the Grain Belt, three incumbent Democrats are fighting to keep their seats - and to keep their party in control of the Senate.

October 11, 2002|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa - Like combines rumbling through the cornfields these golden autumn days, Republican challengers are aiming to cut down three Democratic senators from the Grain Belt in next month's elections.

In the fight for control of the Senate, no part of America is more important than the Upper Midwest. The Senate contests in Iowa, Minnesota and South Dakota feature the most endangered Democratic incumbents seeking re-election this fall.

Republicans, who have poured millions into their drive to restore what they call "a Bush majority," will likely need to harvest at least one of those vulnerable Democratic seats to reach that goal. President Bush has campaigned in all three states and is expected to return to all three before Nov. 5.

Bush's strong showing in rural areas in the presidential election has encouraged Republican strategists to think that their candidates can win here, though Bush narrowly lost Minnesota and Iowa to Al Gore. The outcome could be equally close in the Senate races.

In Minnesota, Democratic Sen. Paul Wellstone is in a close contest with Republican Norm Coleman. In South Dakota, Sen. Tim Johnson and Republican Rep. John Thune have been running neck and neck.

In Iowa, veteran Sen. Tom Harkin, who has a way of getting just enough votes to be re-elected every time, appears to be holding off Republican Rep. Greg Ganske. Recent polls show Harkin with a significant lead.

Harkin, who styles himself as a proud liberal in the Hubert H. Humphrey mold, is campaigning with populist fervor as he rallies Democrats in a state divided evenly between the parties. At a recent Democratic dinner in Des Moines, the senator bragged about his latest poll numbers, then warned supporters of the special interests arrayed against him. "The forces of greed, the forces of power, are not giving up," Harkin thundered. "They're coming!"

As it turns out, the most powerful force in the Senate race is the senator himself. What's happening here is an illustration of how tough it is to beat an incumbent, particularly a shrewd, bare-knuckled battler like Harkin, and especially in a year when neither party has been able to gain a clear advantage.

Ganske, a congressman from Des Moines, is hoping history will repeat itself in Iowa this fall. In 1994, as a novice candidate, he scored one of the biggest upsets in the country by defeating a 36-year Democratic incumbent he successfully portrayed as out of touch with his district.

In much the same way, Ganske said in an interview, Harkin "has moved away from Iowa" and slipped "out of synch" with his home state after 28 years in Washington.

But the anti-incumbent gale that leveled the Democratic majority in the House in 1994 and made Newt Gingrich the speaker isn't blowing this year, polls show. A national survey, released yesterday by the Pew Research Center, found that support for incumbent members of Congress is running significantly higher now than in 1994.

Harkin, meantime, is playing up his influence as chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee and his co-authorship of the new farm subsidy law, which is quite generous to Iowa farmers. The Democrat has leveraged his Senate power into a big edge in campaign money (the overwhelming majority of it from out of state) and an endorsement from the conservative Iowa Farm Bureau, which usually backs Republicans.

The senator has used his money advantage to direct a relentless negative ad barrage against the challenger. Those attack ads, says his Republican rival, explain why nearly half the voters with an opinion about Ganske viewed him unfavorably in a recent poll.

Last month, at a private campaign event in Des Moines, the challenger pleaded for more money from Republican donors so he could launch a "mind-blowing" attack of his own, the likes of which, he said, Harkin has never seen.

When an audio tape of the meeting - made by a former Harkin staffer - wound up in the hands of an Iowa reporter, the Ganske campaign thought it had found what it badly needed to change the direction of the race: a scandal - the most reliable tool for ousting an incumbent in today's politics.

As a result of the tape affair, Harkin's campaign manager and a junior aide who was said to be involved in the taping resigned, and the senator was forced to make a public apology. Questions remain about exactly what happened, but local and federal authorities announced this week that no criminal charges would be filed.

Harkin, who came to Congress in the Democrats' post-Watergate landslide of 1974, plays down the case as "shenanigans." The challenger, who has likened the senator to Richard Nixon, said he sees "a pattern of dirty tricks" by the incumbent over the years.

After a debate in Cedar Rapids on Sunday night, Harkin, who had been keeping his distance from the press, told reporters that Ganske's attacks on his integrity were little more than "a smokescreen" by his "desperate" opponent.

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