Donald Lambro

WASHINGTON -- Forecasts that the Democrats are going to cut deeply into the Republican majority in Congress are a little premature at this point in the 2006 midterm election season. True, several Republican-held Senate seats look vulnerable right now, including Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, who is running 10 points behind his Democratic challenger, state treasurer Robert P. Casey Jr.

Election trackers also point to Rhode Island Sen. Lincoln Chafee, the liberal Republican renegade who faces a dangerous primary challenge by his party's conservatives that could lead to a Democratic turnover there.

And Republican Sen. Mike DeWine is on the endangered species list in Ohio where the GOP's hugely unpopular Gov. Bob Taft (with a 15 percent approval rating), who pleaded guilty to four misdemeanor ethics charges last year, has damaged the party's statewide standing.

But that's only one side of this year's political ledger in an election that could produce some surprising GOP turnovers in heavily Democratic states. Like New Jersey, Minnesota and Maryland of all places. Let's take them one at a time. New Jersey: It's not being picked up by most political radars, but this may be the GOP's best opportunity to pick up another Senate seat.

After Democratic Sen. Jon Corzine's easy election as governor last year, it was a virtual foregone conclusion that his party would hold on to his seat. But the entry of a popular Republican name in the Senate race and Corzine's unpopular decision to appoint a Democrat associated with the state's seamy political bosses has changed the entire scenario.

Right now, in fact, polls show Republican state Sen. Thomas H. Kean Jr., son of the popular former governor, with a 13-point lead over Robert Menendez, the Democratic congressman Corzine named to fill the rest of his unexpired term. Other Democrats are about to jump in the race, raising the likelihood of a divisive party primary, while Republicans are energized and united behind Kean's candidacy.

Kean is helped by his father's good name along with his own squeaky-clean political reputation as a reformer. Hurting the Democrats this year is their sordid record of corruption and convictions.

"New Jersey suddenly becomes the Republicans' best Senate takeover opportunity -- yes, probably better than Minnesota," says veteran elections tracker Stuart Rothenberg.

In Minnesota, Republican Rep. Mark Kennedy is widely considered the GOP's best hope to win the seat being vacated by Democratic Sen. Mark Dayton.

Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.