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Election Focus 2004
Congressional, State Election Contests Begin to Heat Up
Southern states seen key in winning control of Senate
With so much media coverage focusing on the presidential election this year, it is easy to forget that in November there are elections for 34 Senate seats and all 435 seats of the House of Representatives, as well as hundreds of state and local leaders.

The Senate races -- along with the presidential race -- appear to be heating up throughout the country. The battleground states in the 2004 Senate races will most likely be in the South. "There are five Democratic seats that are up for grabs in southern states that prefer Republicans, including North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida and Louisiana," says Gary Nordlinger, a Washington political consultant. "The odds favor the Senate staying in Republican control."

President Bush won all of these southern states in the 2000 presidential election and in three of them -- South Carolina, Georgia, and North Carolina -- won by 10 percentage points or more. For this reason, many commentators argue that the Republican Party will maintain its majority in the Senate and may even gain seats. Republicans currently hold 51 seats against the Democrats' 48. One Senator is an independent.

As for the Democrats, there are Republican-controlled Senate seats in Illinois and Alaska that Democrats believe they have a reasonable chance of picking up, Nordlinger said. "But what you will see coming out of these races is a closely divided Senate regardless of who's in control," he added.

As in the presidential race, Senate contests often involve a primary process in which parties select their candidate from several contenders.

In Pennsylvania, for example, there was an unusually strong primary challenge to Republican incumbent Arlen Specter by conservative Congressman Patrick Toomey, who claimed that Specter's liberal stances on such issues as reproductive rights, affirmative action and labor were not representative of the party's philosophy.

Although the two disagree on a number of issues, President Bush campaigned in support of Specter. It was generally believed that Specter was more likely to win against the Democratic challenger in November. On April 27, Specter won a narrow victory over Toomey to become the Republican candidate.

Every two years, all 435 members of the House of Representatives are up for re-election, unlike senators, who serve six-year terms. The Republicans have had control of the House for the last 10 years and currently have 228 seats to the Democrats' 205. Most analysts agree that the 2004 election will not result in a drastic change in the composition of the House.

"Barring a catastrophe the House is certain to remain Republican," Nordlinger said. "They may even pick up seats."

According to Congressional Quarterly, the Democratic Party would need to maintain each of its vulnerable seats and win almost all of the competitive seats held by Republicans in order to gain a majority.

Having control of the Senate or the House brings significant political advantage. The majority party controls the legislative agenda in large measure through the power of its committee chairs. Winning the Senate or House is a major priority for both parties, second only in importance to winning the White House.

In addition to the national races in 2004, 11 states will hold races for governor, with eight incumbents running for re-election and three states holding open elections as a result of retirements. A number of state legislators are up for re-election as well. Finally, there are elections scheduled in most of the approximately 88,000 local government units across the United States such as cities, towns, municipalities, counties, townships, villages, school districts and special districts.

Local government is the most direct form of government in the United States and party affiliation at that level often melts away in favor of a candidate's ability to perform the practical duties of local government. From mayors of cities to town and village council members, these local elected officials directly serve the needs of their constituencies by providing services such as police and fire protection, education, housing and public transportation.

In an election year voters in local elections get to evaluate the performance of these officials. If local needs are not being met -- a voter can easily look at the conditions of the roads in their towns or the quality of the schools and decide -- the official may not be re-elected.

Election Focus, April 28. 2004 pdf document