Six years ago Tim Johnson (D) ousted an incumbent Republican senator by just 8,500 votes. This year, the GOP thinks it can return the favor. Mr. Johnson's challenger, Rep. John Thune, is known (and liked) statewide and has the strong backing of President Bush, who beat Al Gore by a landslide here in 2000. South Dakotans have a history of replacing their Senator with their lone House member, so Democrats are running scared. A crippling drought is the wildcard in this race, and any last-minute drought relief announced by the White House could be the final nail in Mr. Johnson's political coffin.
Incumbent Democrat Paul Wellstone is in a neck-and-neck race with Republican Norm Coleman, the former mayor of St. Paul. (See p. 16.)
Sen. Tom Harkin (D) was looking like a shoo-in for a fourth term until one of his aides was caught secretly taping a Republican strategy meeting. Iowans take their politics seriously, and the scandal gave some much-needed traction to Mr. Harkin's opponent, Rep. Greg Ganske. Although Mr. Harkin now finds himself on the defensive, he still leads in the polls and in the fundraising contest. The GOP could still pick up Iowa, but it's not where they're pinning their hopes.
Sen. Bob Smith (R) may have come back to his party after an ill-conceived independent presidential bid, but the party didn't come back to him. His ouster in the GOP primary left this an open seat, and many strategists think that's a good thing for the Republicans. Polls consistently showed Democratic Gov. Jeanne Shaheen leading Mr. Smith, but not so his replacement on the Republican ticket. Rep. John Sununu, also a reliable conservative, is tied in some polls, slightly ahead in others. One big worry: Mr. Smith, long known for his pride as much as his policies, has done nothing to prevent a write-in effort on his behalf. Conservative votes siphoned away from the GOP nominee could spell disaster for the Republican agenda nationwide.
Sen. Jean Carnahan (D) is an incumbent, but this is the first year her name has appeared on the ballot. Voters two years ago elected her just-deceased husband by the narrowest of margins, and she went to Washington in his stead. To get elected in her own right, she'll have to beat former Rep. Jim Talent, who established his statewide name recognition with a gubernatorial bid in 2000. A political novice, Mrs. Carnahan has been relatively quiet in Washington and has proven to be a somewhat erratic campaigner back home. A Zogby poll in mid-October showed Mr. Talent with a 6-point lead, and even Democrats concede they've lost momentum. If Republicans hope to oust an incumbent anywhere in the country, this may be their best bet.
Republican challenger Saxby Chambliss is gaining ground on Democrat Max Cleland. Homeland security is a big issue in this race. (See p. 10.)
Tim Hutchinson (R) has been a staunch defender of family values during his one term in the Senate, but conservatives have been cool to his reelection bid. A messy divorce and quick remarriage to a former staffer turned off his most ardent supporters, exposing him to a strong challenge by Attorney Gen. Mark Pryor, son of a popular ex-governor. Mr. Pryor himself talks like a social conservative, frustrating GOP efforts to tie him to Tom Daschle and Ted Kennedy. An Oct. 12 poll shows the race tied at 45 percent each, although Mr. Hutchinson has more money in the bank for a last-minute ad blitz.
The retirement of Sen. Phil Gramm (R) set off a tough battle to keep President Bush's home state in Republican hands. Democrats nominated Ron Kirk, the black mayor of Dallas, who has a magnetic personality and a reputation for bipartisanship. He's managed to keep neck-and-neck with Attorney Gen. John Cornyn, despite the Republican's close ties to the popular president. Democratic strategists are counting on a Hispanic gubernatorial candidate to boost turnout among that group, which would likely boost other Democrats up and down the ballot. In fact, their models show them winning if they can capture just 35 percent of the white vote. Still, Mr. Cornyn has a narrow lead in the polls, and a cash-on-hand advantage of nearly 7 to 1. That could help him open up a lead in the homestretch.
Vying for an open seat in 1996, Republican Wayne Allard beat Tom Strickland, a millionaire lawyer, by just 5 percentage points. This year's rematch could be even closer. Polls show the two men in a statistical dead heat, and a barrage of negative advertising has done little to help either one. The state leans Republican-36 percent to 30 among registered voters-but the 34 percent who register independent are keeping both parties on edge.