GWEN IFILL: South Dakota's is one of several pivotal Senate races that could tip the balance in the closely-divided Senate. Republicans now control the Senate, 51-48. It would take a net shift of only two of the thirty-four Senate seats up for grabs this year to change that equation.
Here to help us sort through this congressional battlefield are: Thomas Mann, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution; and Michelle Swers, an assistant professor of American government at Georgetown University.
Tom Mann, let's start with South Dakota since we just heard about it. How critical is it in the big picture that Tom Daschle either keep his seat, or how difficult would it be now for the Democrats to hold on to the Senate if he loses... I'm sorry, the Democrats do not have control of the Senate. I just
TOM MANN: But to win control there, they would have virtually no chance of winning control if they can't hold Daschle's seat. This is one of the critical seats. It's the only Democratic incumbent who is threatened in this election. The other at-risk seats are in the South, open seats where Democrats retired. Tom Daschle is a very important figure to the Democratic Party.
He is their leader, in some ways their inspiration. He runs in a very tough state, in a tough year, a presidential year. But they are counting on him to hold on by his fingernails.
GWEN IFILL: Michelle Swers, maybe you can help me. Why is it after three terms, being the Democratic leader of the Senate, at one point, the majority leader of the Senate, is he having such a tough time?
MICHELLE SWERS: Well, I think the difficulty comes from the fact that in Congress they talk about Tip O'Neill used to say, "all politics is local." So it's the tension between local issues and national issues.
So South Dakota has trended Republican and Tom Daschle is a Democrat, and he holds this leadership position. Normally the people who take leadership positions are more safe in their seats, and he has been safe for a long time. But in this case, where the country has become so polarized between Republicans and Democrats, now this race has taken on national significance.
So for Tom Daschle, what he wants to do is keep it to the issues of the local issues-the drought relief, the ranchers, what they need, the farmers-- and then showing what he in his position of power has done and can do for those people, as opposed to focusing on national Republican versus national Democrat issues.
GWEN IFILL: There are about half dozen very critical seats which are up that could tip the balance in the Senate, not only South Dakota.
Let's start with North Carolina where we have Erskine Bowles, the former White House chief of staff, running against Richard Berg, who is a congressman from North Carolina, for John Edwards' seat.
TOM MANN: Exactly. Bowles ran the last time for Senate and lost to Elizabeth Dole quite handily was her victory. Bowles has done much better. He has become more of a genuine politician. He is not as stiff. He has raised a lot of money, and he led this race for month after month after month, but in the last couple of weeks, it's tightened up.
And I would say it is one of the races where the presidential contest makes a difference, that if John Kerry and John Edwards can keep that presidential race close, then Bowles has a chance of winning that seat.
GWEN IFILL: Michelle, what are the issues in North Carolina that make this such a toss-up?
MICHELLE SWERS: Well, I think the North Carolina race is one of these things where we see that the Republican candidate is really trying to tie himself to President Bush and tie Bowles, who was Clinton's former chief of staff, to the Clinton administration, that was not popular in North Carolina. But this race also shows us something about the consequences for governing.
Since this is such a tight, close Senate, in this case, one of the big issues is a local issue, is tobacco, and in North Carolina, they were very interested in seeing a tobacco buyout, and recently the Congress came together in a conference committee and at the last minute inserted this tobacco buyout, and there was a concern about whether the tobacco buyout would be linked to FDA regulation, which is what Democrats want.
Now, Richard Burr was on the conference committee and was able to take credit for the tobacco buyout going through, but Erskine Bowles also played a role. Here is a guy who was not even in the Senate but he went to the Democratic Conference and said to them even though the FDA regulation is not linked, he lobbied them to accept the tobacco buyout for the consequences in the race in North Carolina.
GWEN IFILL: To South Carolina, not very far away, Inez Tenenbaum, currently the state superintendent of education of schools, and Jim DeMint, congressman from South Carolina, both competing for Fritz Hollings' Democratic seat.
TOM MANN: Again, Gwen, this points out a problem Democrats have. They're fighting on Republican territory. South Carolina is a very Republican state. It's true Fritz Hollings held that for five terms, but that goes back to when it was very Democratic, in the old days.
Now Inez Tenenbaum, in order to have a chance of winning, has to separate herself from the national ticket and to find issues that show her to be as conservative as South Carolinians. She supports the war in Iraq, and now she has found a new issue because her opponent has become a champion of tax reform. That means doing away with the income tax, the payroll tax, estate tax, and substituting a sales tax.
Well, Tenenbaum has gotten some policy analysis studies that shows, gee, that could mean a 23 percent sales tax for everyone, and it could mean that most Americans who now pay little in the way of income tax would end up in the state of South Carolina paying more taxes, not less. It's a big issue.
GWEN IFILL: Let's move south from there to Florida, where the former Housing Secretary, Mel Martinez, a Republican picked from the White House, is running for Bob Graham's Democratic seat against the former education commissioner, Betty Castor. What do you make of that one?
MICHELLE SWERS: This is a tight, tossup race because the other states in the South are clearly Republican, George Bush states. But Florida is a total tossup in the presidential race. If Kerry does well, Castor does well, and if Bush does well, Martinez does well.
But Bush is counting on Martinez to help in the Cuban community. If he wins, he is first Cuban in Congress, the first Hispanic since the 1970s.
GWEN IFILL: And the drama involving Florida and the election campaign filters down to the Senate as well.
MICHELLE SWERS: Exactly. All of the polls thus far are too close to call. And you have an additional factor of the four hurricanes that hit Florida very recently, and so the Florida voters haven't been paying as close attention as maybe some of the other states.
We don't know how that is going to break and the hurricane- affected polling stations, and there is a whole set of issues that you just don't know what is going to happen there. In the Florida race, they have been debating and so the most recent debates that were held on television has started to draw the attention to the race, and you have certain issues there with McCollum being the former president of USF -- University of South Florida in addition to the Florida education commissioner, and an issue with her support of a terrorist that they were concerned about that she didn't fire him quickly enough. That's been an issue in the campaign.
GWEN IFILL: Oklahoma, Tom Mann, we have former Rep. Tom Coburn and Representative Brad Carson, who's a Democrat, taking Don Nichols' Republican seat.
TOM MANN: A very Republican state that would have easily stayed in the Republican column. Then Brad Carson comes up, wins the Democratic primary. He's a Native American. He's a very conservative Democratic member of the House.
But Tom Coburn, his opponent, who left voluntarily from the House because of self-imposed term limits, who is also a physician, is extremely conservative, and has gotten embroiled in controversies about whether he involuntarily sterilized young women, and he has taken a tremendous hit, and yet in spite of it, the race remains very close.
GWEN IFILL: Alaska: Sen. Lisa Murkowski who inherited the seat vacated by her father, Frank Murkowski, who became governor, running against Tony Knowles, the Democrat. She is trying to win outright election to her seat -- very tight.
MICHELLE SWERS: And here's one where you expect national trends. Alaska is not on the map for the national candidates. President Bush is very heavily favored in Alaska and it normally goes to Republicans. But have you a situation where Lisa Murkowski not only faces Tony Knowles in the general election but she had a difficult primary battle as well.
Because so many Republicans in Alaska were concerned about the nepotism issue, that she was appointed by her father, the governor. And she has not run state-wide so she is the incumbent, but she hasn't won a state-wide race. She was in the state legislature, whereas the Democratic opponent the Democrats were able to recruit is a former governor of Alaska.
So he is a Democrat, he's won state- wide, he's very conservative, equal with her in the support of drilling in Alaska and all those sorts of issues that you would normally point to Democrats on that would be a negative.
GWEN IFILL: Colorado: Pete Coors, the beer magnet, running against Ken Salazar, the attorney general.
TOM MANN: A fascinating race; if Salazar is successful, I predict he will join Barack Obama, who will certainly be elected to the Senate from Illinois as one of the two stars, new stars on the Democratic horizon. Salazar is a Latino. He is a state-wide elected official. His roots are in the rural parts of the state of Colorado. In some ways he runs to the right of Mr. Coors who is naturally more socially tolerant and liberal let's say than the Republican Party.
At least his company is, because in the process of selling beer, they have found it useful to be more socially tolerant and liberal. Coors is very wealthy. He may in the end put a lot of money into this race. It's competitive in the presidential contest, unexpectedly so. It could go either way. I actually think Salazar has the advantage right now.
GWEN IFILL: Okay, well, there are other surprises we will all be watching for on election night. Thank you very much for helping us tonight.
TOM MANN: Thanks.
MICHELLE SWERS: Thank you.