Cover Story

Highway hopefuls

Republicans are one seat shy of reclaiming control of the U.S. Senate. A good November drive along Highway 65 would take them where they want to go

Issue: "Highway 65 hopefuls," April 20, 2002

Americans watching November's historic Senate elections will be flooded with figures during the coming months: Poll numbers. Fundraising reports. Party registration percentages. Past margins of victory. Odds from Las Vegas bookmakers. Does it really take an accounting degree to figure out which party has the advantage?

If you want to predict the outcome without the aid of a graphing calculator, remember just one number: 65. That's Highway 65, the north-south roadway that runs through Minnesota, Iowa, and Missouri, the major geographic focus for the GOP this year. Almost every place it touches has a hot Senate race. It may lack the glamor of Route 66, but this year, at least, Highway 65 is America's unofficial political barometer.

There will be other close races, of course. The Senate contests in New Hampshire, Tennessee, Georgia, and South Dakota are all looking like squeakers. But Republicans need to pick up just one Democratic seat to regain control of the Senate, and no other part of the country boasts a greater concentration of vulnerable Democrats than this northern part of the Highway 65 corridor. Both national parties are putting millions of dollars behind their candidates, and voters in all three states have already seen a flurry of expensive TV ads more than eight months before Election Day. In addition, President Bush and some of his top aides are making the region a kind of second home.

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But how is it all playing out on the ground? Are voters paying attention? Do they really care who controls the Senate in far-off Washington? Are they more focused on national issues like terrorism, or statewide concerns like education and unemployment? A week-long drive along Highway 65 provided some answers.

For much of its long run through Minnesota, 65 is just a narrow state road wending its way through vast stretches of pine forest. The highway originates at the Canadian border near International Falls, the city that holds the dubious distinction of being the coldest spot in the United States during much of the winter. Because Minnesota was in the throes of a spring blizzard when I arrived, I started my trek several hundred miles to the south, in the northern suburbs of Minneapolis-St. Paul.

With 54 percent of the state's population, the Twin Cities wield inordinate political clout. It's nearly impossible to gain statewide office without a solid political base among the quirky, reform-minded voters of Minneapolis. That's why Republicans are so excited about their prospects this year. After heavy recruiting by the Bush administration, St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman threw his hat into the ring, scaring off any potential GOP rivals. He's a former Democrat with a face made for television and a record that appeals to independents. (This is the state, remember, where Jesse Ventura came out of nowhere to beat both a Republican and a Democrat in the governor's race.)

Mr. Coleman's rival is Paul Wellstone, one of the most liberal lawmakers in Washington. Winding up his second term in the Senate, he broke his earlier term-limits promise and announced he wanted another six years. That has even many of his former backers, like Bill Anderson, wondering if they'll vote for him again.

Mr. Anderson and his wife both voted for Mr. Wellstone in 1996, but are reconsidering this year. "I'm not a Coleman fan, but he has some good ideas. He's done a pretty good job over in St. Paul," says Mr. Anderson as he sits in the parking lot of the Fridley VFW post. It's one hour until the Saturday afternoon meat raffle, and the low, red-brick building is getting crowded. Politics isn't the first topic of conversation, but Minnesotans are famous for being informed on the issues. One question is likely to yield 15 minutes of political opinions.

Veterans' issues top Mr. Anderson's list of concerns, and he thinks President Bush is doing a fine job as commander in chief. The president's sky-high approval numbers may not help with loyal Democrats, but independent voters are skeptical of lawmakers like Sen. Wellstone who oppose Mr. Bush on almost every issue. "He's way out in left field," Mr. Anderson says. "We need someone new altogether. I'm not sure Coleman is the best guy, but he may be better than what we have now."

Down the road at the Columbia Golf Course, the glass-and-steel skyline of Minneapolis provides a dramatic backdrop to the gentle hills that seem ready-made for sledding. Jeff Johnson, a 17-year veteran of the Minneapolis Police Department's narcotics squad, is keeping a watchful eye on three young children. He doesn't consider himself a Republican: "I don't care for either party. I vote on the person who's running." But this year the choice is easy: "Anybody but Wellstone. He needs to go. He's been an embarrassment from day one. Enough of his giveaway policies-letting all the refugees in here, all his welfare stuff. I was taught, you don't work, you don't eat."

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