Race is tight for control of U.S. Senate

Rural support in key states may give GOP edge, polls show

Maryland Votes 2006

13 Days Until Nov. 7

October 25, 2006|By Paul West | Paul West,Sun Reporter

WASHINGTON -- Less than two weeks before the midterm elections, the Republican majority in the Senate is very much in jeopardy but new polling suggests that Democrats may fall just short of gaining control.

A new series of polls in five battleground states, conducted for the Los Angeles Times and Bloomberg News, shows that strong support from rural voters has put Republicans in a slightly better position to win two of three Southern or border states - Virginia, Tennessee and Missouri - where the fight for the Senate could well be decided.

Many analysts and politicians are predicting that, if the election were held today, Democrats would gain enough seats to take over the House of Representatives. But the competition for the Senate, where elections are more likely to be influenced by national trends, is much tighter.

Charles Cook, an independent analyst of congressional races, told a Washington forum yesterday that the Senate is close to the "tipping point" between remaining Republican or going Democratic.

He predicted that Democrats would pick up five or six seats overall. If the gain is five, it would mean an even 50-50 split and allow Vice President Dick Cheney to cast the tiebreaking vote that would keep the Senate in Republican hands. A six-seat gain would switch control of the chamber - what Cook termed a Category Five storm for Republicans.

"It's a Hurricane 4.5," he said. "Right now, it's at the cusp between a four and five" storm.

He emphasized that the outcome could easily change, depending on events over the final 13 days of the campaign. However, the new state polls appear to support his analysis.

In Tennessee, Republican Senate candidate Bob Corker leads Democratic Rep. Harold E. Ford Jr. by 5 percentage points, 49 to 44, among likely voters, according to the Times/Bloomberg survey. The margin of possible sampling error in that state poll is 4 points.

In Missouri, another closely fought contest, Republican Sen. Jim Talent leads Democratic challenger Claire McCaskill, 48 percent to 45 percent, a statistical tie, because it is within the poll's 3-point margin of error.

The survey was conducted as McCaskill was launching a new ad that features actor Michael J. Fox, who suffers from Parkinson's disease and is critical of the Republican senator's opposition to embryonic stem cell research. Fox, who is scheduled to make campaign stops in Illinois and New Jersey, is appearing in a similar ad for Democratic Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin in the Maryland Senate race, assailing Republican Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele for wanting to limit stem cell research.

The poll found that Missouri voters favor, by 58 percent to 35 percent, a measure on the Missouri ballot that would prevent the state legislature from blocking stem cell research.

In Virginia's Senate race, the poll showed a statistical dead heat, though it is the first independent survey this fall to show Democratic challenger Jim Webb ahead of Republican Sen. George Allen. Webb had 47 percent to Allen's 44 percent, which is within the poll's 5-point margin of error for that state.

Republicans held lopsided leads among rural voters in all three states, the poll found. In Virginia, Allen led Webb among those voters, 60 percent to 33 percent. In Missouri, Talent held a 56 percent to 37 percent advantage over McCaskill. And in Tennessee, Corker swamped Ford, 62 percent to 27 percent.

Independent analysts say Democrats need to win at least two of those three contests to have a shot at picking up the six seats they need to retake the Senate. But Merle Black, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta, said he thinks Republicans are likely to hold the two southern seats.

Allen's stumbles during the Virginia campaign might yet cost him re-election, Black said. "But in the end, I think he'll wrap himself around John Warner," his homestate Republican colleague in the Senate, who is appearing in endorsement ads on TV, and eke out a victory.

In Tennessee, he said, Democrat Ford, seeking to become the first African-American elected to the Senate from the South, will have to get about 40 percent of the white vote to prevail. Black predicted that white voters "are going to move away from Ford" after viewing new Republican attack ads that feature black and white Tennesseans criticizing the Democrat, who grew up in Washington, D.C., for lacking genuine home-state roots.

That analysis might have been reflected in the Times/Bloomberg polling, conducted Oct. 20-23, which showed Ford's numbers slipping steadily over the period, when the new ad was airing.

Ford also might have hurt his chances by crashing a Corker news conference Friday to protest the Republican's latest attack on the ethical problems that have dogged Ford's family, which Emory's Black called "very bad politics" on the Democrat's part.

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