Rep. Chip Pickering says he expects the 2004 elections to reflect an “evenly divided” electorate with close races to determine the presidency and control of the House and Senate. Speaking at the Mid-South Farm and Gin Show in Memphis, Tenn., the Mississippi Republican gave an assessment of what may happen when voters go to the polls in November.

“Of the 34 Senate seats that are up for a vote, 19 are held by Democrats and 15 by Republicans,” he said. “Of those, the most critical are the open seats with the greatest possibility for change. Seven seats — five Democrats and two Republicans — are open.”

The location is also important, he noted. “In the South, since 1994, the trend is going to the Republican and conservative side. North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida and Louisiana have open seats now held by Democrats, members who are retiring.

The open seats held by Republicans are in Oklahoma where Sen. Don Nickles is stepping down and in Illinois. “The best chance for the Democrats to pick up a seat is Illinois,” he said. “Oklahoma will be a tossup.

Two seats held by incumbents are also viewed as tossups, one in Alaska, held by a Republican, and in South Dakota, where former Congressman John Thune is challenging Minority Leader Tom Daschle.

“The Senate race in South Dakota could help determine whether the Senate passes the energy bill,” said Pickering. “The question may be how much pressure Sen. Daschle is willing put on fellow Democrats to allow the energy bill to pass and win re-election.”

Of the 435 seats in the House, less than 10 percent are expected to be seriously contested. “Only 28 House seats are rated as competitive,” said Pickering, “and redistricting in states like Texas could have an impact on those races.”

The formerly mostly Democratic House delegation from Texas is now evenly divided. Partly as a result of last year's highly publicized redistricting fight, Republicans expect to go from 16 to 20 seats in November.

Pickering and others expect the House to remain Republican and for Republicans to pick up a few more seats beyond their current 228-205 majority. Republicans also believe they can win three or four more seats in the Senate.

“That will not be enough seats to stop the filibusters that Democratic senators have used to stop legislation such as the energy bill that failed to pass the Senate in December,” he noted.

Pickering also anticipates President Bush will be in “a very competitive” race for re-election, one in which redistricting will also play a role. “Mississippi lost a seat in Congress and will have six electoral votes in 2004. Georgia and Texas, on the other hand, are adding seats.

“It will be interesting to see how the Democratic frontrunner, Sen. John Kerry's very liberal voting record will play in the South,” he said. “If he can't make inroads in the South, that will give President Bush a base of 168 electoral votes to start from.”

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