By Michael Davis
Tennessee could be a key battleground state in helping Democrats retake the U.S. Senate, political analysts say.
Republicans have a 55-44 seat advantage in the U.S. Senate, with one independent. Democrats need to take six GOP-held seats and retain seats they now hold to regain a majority in the Senate.
Jennifer Duffy, editor of the nonpartisan, Washington, D.C.-based Cook Political Report, said six GOP-held seats being targeted by Democrats are in Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Montana, Ohio, Missouri and Tennessee.
Three major Republicans and one major Democrat are running to fill the seat held by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., who is not seeking re-election. Incumbent Republicans are vying for re-election in the other five targeted states.
The Volunteer State is "the firewall," Ms. Duffy said.
"Tennessee may become the state that stands between Democrats and the Senate majority," she said.
Democrats last controlled the Senate in 2002.
Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, said in their quest to regain a Senate majority, the likely sixth seat that Democrats need to retake the chamber is in either Tennessee or Arizona.
He said he believes both of those seats are leaning Republican right now, and a political revolution could take longer than one election cycle.
"Democrats won't admit it publicly, but privately - absent a tsunami - they see retaking the Senate a two-cycle event," Dr. Sabato said.
There are 33 U.S. Senate seats up for election this fall. Republicans hold 15, Democrats hold 17 and independent Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont, who caucuses with Democrats, holds the other.
Dan Ronayne, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said Democrats have more seats to defend in the upcoming election. He said it is far-fetched to think Democrats could win the majority in 2006.
"If the Democrats are betting on winning Tennessee, they may be better off running up to Pimlico for the Preakness (Stakes horse race) " and trying to guess a trifecta of other crazy long shots," Mr. Ronayne said.
Mr. Ronayne said the race is a stretch for Democrats largely because of their candidate, U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Jr., who he said is out of touch with mainstream Tennessee values.
While Democrats have lost many Southern Senate seats in recent years, discontent with the Bush administration and Republican leadership may be enough to prevail past that trend in the fall, said Phil Singer, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
"I think we're going to see history made this year, he said. "The main reason for that is Harold Ford."
Rep. Ford, of Memphis, was first elected to the 9th Congressional District in 1996. He is a member of the Blue Dog Coalition, a group of moderate to conservative Democratic U.S. House members, and belongs to the New Democrat Coalition of moderate congressmen.
Former U.S. Reps. Ed Bryant and Van Hilleary, both R-Tenn., and former Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker are running in the Aug. 3 Republican primary that will determine who wins the GOP nomination.
Bob Davis, chairman of the Tennessee Republican Party, said he is confident in how all three Republican Senate candidates would stack up against Rep. Ford in November.
A Democrat has not been elected to the U.S. Senate in Tennessee since 1990, when Al Gore won his second Senate term. And the Volunteer State voted for the Republican candidate in the last two presidential elections, including in 2000, when then-Vice President Gore lost his native Tennessee.
Republicans now hold a 30-seat advantage over Democrats in the House, and Republicans have had control of the White House since President Bush was elected in 2000.
But the president's approval rating is 33 percent, according to an Associated Press/Ipsos poll conducted last week.
Dr. Sabato said in order for Democrats to win in the South today, they generally have to align with the center. This breed of Democrat needs to be pro-military and fiscally conservative but also can favor abortion rights, he said.
"It's not Republican-lite as some people accuse it of being," Dr. Sabato said. "It's a unique hybrid. It's the Prius of American politics."
Mr. Singer, with the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said the speculation bubbling from political analysts that a political transformation could take place is good news to Democrats.
"Obviously we have to run the table, but we're in as good a position to do so as we've ever been," he said.
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SENATORS RECENTLY ELECTED IN TENNESSEE
Year Senator elected Sitting president
1984 Al Gore Jr. (D) Ronald Reagan (R)
1988 Jim Sasser (D) Ronald Reagan (R)
1990 Al Gore Jr. (D) George H.W. Bush (R)
1994 Bill Frist (R) Bill Clinton (D)
1994 * Fred Thompson (R) Bill Clinton (D)
1996 Fred Thompson (R) Bill Clinton (D)
2000 Bill Frist (R) Bill Clinton (D)
2002 Lamar Alexander (R) George W. Bush (R)
* Elected to serve the remainder of Al Gore?s term
IMPORTANCE OF MAJORITY
The majority party sets the agenda by having its members as chairmen of the chamber's standing committees and controlling the agenda of those committees, said Bruce Oppenheimer, a Vanderbilt University political science professor. The majority party also can call for investigations, he said.