Tough Fights for Senate GOP Freshmen
By Helen Dewar
The bus, Abraham told reporters during a stop at a local school, helps him get noticed.
It may be curious that a big-state member of the Senate's majority party has to scramble so hard so early to summon a flicker of attention from the people who sent him to Washington.
But Abraham's story of how he spent his summer vacation and why he had to spend a large part of it jumping in and out of a bus that looked like a giant cucumber on wheels helps explain the early volatility of the 2000 Senate races and the perils faced by the Republican Party as it struggles to prevent erosion of its 10-seat majority.
The 47-year-old Abraham, best known in Washington for his pro-immigration causes, holds one of about 10 GOP seats that appear to be in varying degrees of jeopardy, more than twice the number on the Democrats' endangered list. This means an earlier start for many campaigns, even if few voters are paying attention.
Half of the shaky GOP seats are held by first-termers like Abraham, who has not made a big splash back home and needs a head start to raise both cash and his own profile. This is a common problem for junior senators, but it seems especially acute for Abraham, according to observers in Michigan and Washington.
Abraham has made a good start with money, having raised $4.7 million toward a target of $9 million, with $3 million cash on hand. But his profile remains low. Earnest and serious-minded, he is a former behind-the-scenes political operative who is far more engaging in small groups than he is before a crowd. Although he insists he has spent a lot of time in Michigan over the past five years, he has somehow left the impression that he hasn't been there. Hence the big, hard-to-miss bus with his name on it.
Abraham is also faced with what Democrats describe as one of their most energetic and charismatic challengers. Lansing-area Rep. Debbie Stabenow, 49, is within a few percentage points of Abraham in polls, trailing only slightly in name recognition and favorability ratings. Stabenow, who defeated a Republican House incumbent in 1996, is regarded in both parties as a strong campaigner and fund-raiser, with a more outgoing personality than Abraham's. She has raised about $1.3 million and contends she will be adequately funded, although less well so than Abraham.
The race, said Craig Ruff, a Lansing consultant, is going to be a "humdinger."
Unlike the House, where Democrats could regain control, the Senate appears likely to remain in GOP hands. Early Democratic hopes of picking up enough seats to take back the Senate faded with retirement of proven vote-getters in three swing states and the party's inability to recruit strong challengers in several others.
Senate Democratic Campaign Committee Chairman Robert G. Torricelli (D-N.J.) says Democrats could gain three or four seats as of now, "within range of a majority" but not there yet.
Republicans say that their goal is to keep the majority and that they are confident of doing so. The problem is that Senate Republican leaders can ill afford any losses in light of their narrow margin, defections by moderates on some key issues and the fact that any slippage puts the GOP further from its goal of the 60 votes needed to break Democratic filibusters.
As of now, with filing deadlines still far off and many possible challengers still deciding whether to run, it appears that about 15 of the 33 Senate seats up for election next year could be seriously contested, with the rest firmly in the hands of incumbents. Both parties agree the presidential race could affect their prospects, possibly including races that are not now regarded as competitive.
For the first time in years, Republicans will be defending more seats (19) than the Democrats (14), and many of these seats are held by those who were first elected when a strong anti-Democratic tide put the GOP in control of both houses of Congress in 1994.
The problem for Democrats is they probably have the single most vulnerable incumbent Sen. Charles S. Robb (Va.), who trails former governor George F. Allen (R) in early polls and do not have anything approaching a lock on seats held by retiring Democrats Daniel Patrick Moynihan (N.Y.), Frank R. Lautenberg (N.J.) and Richard H. Bryan (Nev.).
The Nevada race seems to be tipping toward former representative John Ensign (R), who came within a hair of defeating Senate Democratic Whip Harry Reid last year. Republicans have a good chance in New Jersey, where Gov. Christine Todd Whitman (R) will face the victor of what is shaping up as a bruising Democratic primary, and in New York, where New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton are expected to fight it out in one of the most closely scrutinized Senate races in history.
The problem for the GOP is that all the other seriously endangered incumbents -- eight or nine of them -- are Republicans. And the seats now held by retiring Republicans John H. Chafee (R.I.) and Connie Mack (Fla.) are good prospects for the Democrats. Rhode Island is largely Democratic, although the popular Chafee's son, Warwick Mayor Lincoln Chafee, could make it a close race. Florida leans Republican, but polls give State Insurance Commissioner Bill Nelson (D) an early lead.
First-term Republican incumbents who are regarded as being in varying degrees of jeopardy include Sens. John Ashcroft (Mo.), Rod Grams (Minn.), Rick Santorum (Pa.) and possibly Bill Frist (Tenn.), as well as Abraham. Abraham and Ashcroft, who faces strong opposition from Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan (D), are seen as being in the most trouble.
Grams may be saved by the lack of strong opposition, and others who are seeking reelection for the first time, such as Ohio's Mike DeWine (R), already seem to have avoided a tough challenge. Conversely, Santorum could be saved by too many Democrats battling each other to oppose him, leaving little opportunity for any of them to gain early prominence.
Among more senior lawmakers, Sen. Slade Gorton (R-Wash.) always has tough campaigns and probably will again. Democrats are also targeting Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.). Sen. James M. Jeffords (R-Vt.) will likely have a tough fight if Rep. Bernard Sanders, an independent, decides to challenge him. Similarly, Sen. William V. Roth (R-Del.) could be in for a rough time if Democratic Gov. Thomas R. Carper, who cannot seek reelection because of term limits, decides to run for the Senate.
No big-name opponents have surfaced yet to challenge some of the Senate's most prominent figures, including Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), although Plymouth County District Attorney Michael Sullivan said last week he may try to run a "David vs. Goliath" campaign against Kennedy. Rumors persist that Lott might not run again, but they are categorically denied by his staff.
In most states, Republicans have a clear advantage in early fund-raising and cash on hand for the rest of the campaign. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.) has raised by far the most ($6 million) and in the process scared off any serious challengers.
Most Democratic incumbents also have intimidating bankrolls, including Sens. Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.), Bob Kerrey (Neb.) and Kennedy. But, in Virginia, Republican Allen has banked more than twice as much as Robb.
As of the end of June, nine candidates seven Republicans and two Democrats had more than $2 million in reserve.
In Michigan, the campaign appears likely to take a familiar form, with Abraham targeting Stabenow as too liberal, Stabenow describing Abraham as inattentive to the needs of average Michigan voters and both trying to occupy the political center. Abraham's voting record ranks high with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, just as Stabenow's scores big with the AFL-CIO. But Abraham also touts the federal largess he has brought to Michigan, including more road money, while Stabenow makes a major point of her sponsorship of property tax relief while she was a state legislator.
The big question for now is what is described as Abraham's "wallflower" problem by Ed Sarpolus, vice president of the Lansing-based EPIC/MRA polling firm. Sarpolus concludes from surveys over the past two months that 40 percent of those polled either did not recognize Abraham's name or had no opinion about him.
"People do not seem to feel they have a need to remember who he is," Sarpolus said. Abraham is not known for constituent work and "the impression is that he hasn't been around much," whether that is true or not, he added.
Abraham insists that such assessments are wrong, that he pays great attention to Michigan and its issues and that the real importance of early polls is that they show very few people with an unfavorable view of him. "I've tried to work hard for things that matter to the state and, as the campaign unfolds, people will become more familiar with what I've done," he said.
Stabenow is also making sure that Michigan is familiar with her. She, too, is on a statewide swing but without a bus.
© 1999 The Washington Post Company