The GOP's Power Runners for the Senate


By Alexandra Starr When Senator George Allen (R-Va.) introduced some of the Republican Party's most competitive senate candidates at a press event on Aug. 31, he sometimes seemed to be playing football coach. Primaries were labeled "intra-squad scrimmages." With Election Day just about two months off, Allen saw the beginning of the "fourth quarter" in sight. As he introduced his candidates, he added: "I can't imagine a better lineup."

It's fitting that Allen -- whose father coached the National Football League's Washington Redskins -- laces his speech with gridiron metaphors: He's a competitive politician, and he has victory on his mind. Chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, Allen is determined not just to stave off Democratic attempts to retake the Senate but also to increase the GOP's 51-seate majority.

TOUGH TO BEAT. The numbers favor his cause. Democrats would have to win at least six of the eight tight races this cycle to reclaim the majority. And Republicans are fielding some candidates who'll be tough to beat.

Four of those standard bearers -- Pete Coors of Colorado, former Representative John Thune of South Dakota, Representative Jim DeMint of South Carolina, and Representative Johnny Isakson of Georgia (who's essentially assured of victory because he's running against a black female Democrat) -- joined Allen at the press event. The Republicans' newly minted nominee in Florida, former Housing & Urban Development Secretary Mel Martinez, and former Representative Tom Coburn in Oklahoma -- who weren't in New York -- are both given good odds of winning their respective races.

Two other candidates, California's former Secretary of State Bill Jones and Washington Representative George Nethercutt, can't be completely counted out, but they're less likely to defeat their states' sitting female Democratic senators, Barbara Boxer and Patty Murray, respectively.

EMBRACE OF DEATH? Allen was at pains to point out that each of these candidates was eager to run with President Bush. He contrasted their ties to the national ticket with the Democrats running in conservative states like South Carolina and Oklahoma, who avoided Boston during their party's convention. "I would pay to have [Senator John] Kerry put his arms around his nominee in South Carolina, Georgia, Alaska, and South Dakota," Allen declared.

Certainly, the Kerry campaign could be a drag on many of the Democratic Senate hopefuls -- the eight most competitive matchups are all in states that President Bush won in 2000.

One race Allen was particularly passionate about was South Dakota, where Thune is challenging Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle. "Defeating Tom Daschle is like picking up three seats in itself," Allen said. Many Republican delegates seem to agree with that sentiment. On Tuesday, a Thune fund-raiser was sold out at Manhattan's Chelsea Piers entertainment complex on the Hudson River. The candidate had raised about $6 million for his bid by the end of June, roughly the same amount he spent during his entire 2002 campaign, when he unsuccessfully tried to depose Daschle's protégé, Senator Tim Johnson. That election was decided by less than 600 votes.

REAGAN'S COMMANDMENT. Pete Coors was the sole candidate on stage with Allen who has never run for office. He's the scion of the Coors (RKY) beer fortune, a lineage of political gold in Colorado. Coors likened his new pursuit to his day job heading his family's corporation. "It's just not that different from selling beer," he said with a genial smile.

One race Allen wasn't too keen to focus on was Florida, where former Housing & Urban Development Secretary Mel Martinez ran strikingly negative ads against his closest opponent in the Republican primary, former Representative Bill McCollum. Martinez accused McCollum of favoring the "radical homosexual lobby" by co-sponsoring hate crimes legislation when he was the House. The ads prompted the St. Petersburg Times to withdraw its endorsement of Martinez.

Even though Martinez prevailed over McCollum when Florida voters went to the polls on Aug. 31, Allen was obviously no fan of the victor's tactics. "I wish some people would remember Ronald Reagan's 11th commandment," he sighed. "Thou shall not speak badly of fellow Republicans." Starr is a correspondent in BusinessWeek's Washington bureau


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