In our last column, we promised to put the presidential campaign on the back burner and take a look at some of the key House and Senate races likely to decide control of the 107th Congress, as well some of the competitive gubernatorial contests.

Instead of attempting to cover the entire country in one column (a feat exhausting for both reader and columnist), we will begin this week with the Pacific region and move on in subsequent columns through other areas of the country.

Alaska: Our tour begins in the natural splendor of Alaska, a heavily Republican state home to a number of big deal environmental issues, including the current red hot topic of oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

There is only one statewide election in the Land of the Midnight Sun this year and it is for Rep. Don Young‘s seat. Young, of course, isn’t going anywhere and is not likely to draw significant opposition.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

On the presidential level, Alaska is one 16 states to vote Republican in the last three elections and no one thinks it will do anything different this time around.

Hawaii: The other non-contiguous state, Hawaii, is the partisan analogue to Alaska. Democrats rarely lose here and this year should be no different, although Rep. Neil Abercrombie usually has to at least break a sweat to win reelection. Sen. Daniel Akaka is also up but should face little, if any, opposition.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Washington: Things get far more interesting when we hit the mainland in Washington state, once a Democratic bastion but now home to some of the nation’s best political campaigns following the Republican invasion of 1994 in which the GOP took seven of the state’s nine House seats.

The hottest race in Washington this year is shaping up in the northeastern district being vacated by Republican Rep. Jack Metcalf.

Democrats, who need a net gain of just six seats to retake the House, are fired up about this race and think they have the ideal candidate in Snohomish city council member Rick Larsen, who has raised a lot cash and will have the full weight of the national party behind him.

Republicans, meanwhile, have a nasty primary to get through before they can rally behind a candidate to take on Larsen. The GOP battle pits a moderate, former state Rep. Barry Sehlin, against a conservative, state Rep. John Koster. Since the primary doesn’t come around until September, the ultimate GOP nominee will have very little time to heal party wounds before the general election.

In other Washington races, Rep. Jay Inslee (D) will get a stiff challenge from state Senate Minority Leader Dan McDonald (R), and Rep. Adam Smith (D) will have to work hard to beat back King County Councilor Chris Vance (R).

Sen. Slade Gorton (R), a regular foe of enviros, will not have an easy time of it either, although a competitive Democratic primary could help him. Former Rep. Maria Cantwell — who made a bundle of cash in the software industry and has signed up top talent for her recently announced campaign — should pose a serious threat to state Insurance Commissioner Deborah Senn, who has been in the race for a year.

Washington could be competitive on the presidential level as well, even though it has gone Democratic three times in row. Aides to Texas Gov. George W. Bush were heartened by their candidate’s performance in the state’s presidential primary and they may at least try to make Vice President Al Gore work to win the state.

Oregon: Oregon should be the sleepiest of the three West Coast states this year, with only first-term Democratic Rep. David Wu in much danger.

California: Dianne Feinstein, once considered among the nation’s most vulnerable Democratic senators, now appears in fairly solid shape for reelection, though she will have to spend heavily to fend off Rep. Tom Campbell (R), who ironically has been one of enviros’ Republican allies in the House.

At the presidential level, almost no serious observers think it would take anything less than a miracle for Bush to win California. Bush can’t concede the state outright, however, and will have to mount at least a token effort.

Most of the action in the state will take place at the House level. The race for the seat Campbell is vacating to mount his Senate campaign should be among the best in California, as Assemblyman Jim Cunneen, a moderate Republican who already represents more than half the district in the state house, squares off against Democratic Assemblyman Mike Honda. There is no early favorite for this Silicon Valley district that flipped into the GOP column in a 1995 special election.

Further south, another battle royal will take place in the Los Angeles district currently occupied by James Rogan, a House manager in the Senate trial of President Clinton. Democrats recruited a top-tier candidate in state Sen. Adam Schiff and there should be nothing short of full-scale thermonuclear war between the parties for this seat.

A similar fight will take place in another L.A. district, this one along the beaches of Venice and Marina Del Rey, where former Democratic Rep. Jane Harman will try and get back the seat she gave up to mount a monumentally unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign in 1998. Freshman Rep. Steve Kuykendall is by no means dead in the water in this race, but he faces a tough fight.

Other vulnerable incumbents in California include Reps. Ellen Tauscher (D), Lois Capps (D), and Brian Bilbray (R).

Phew! Take a deep breath. Next time we dig into the Intermountain West.

Tree-Hugging Pose?

On a far lighter note, we pass along this sighting of EPA chief Carol Browner mellowing out at the Willow Street Yoga Center in Takoma Park, Md., a mega-crunchy ‘burb of Washington.

An alert, and anonymous, Muck reader passes along this assessment of Browner’s performance: “She’s apparently been taking classes there for a while, as she shows up in the Level 3 sessions. Not much to report except that one of her shoulders is much more flexible than the other (too much phone time, perhaps?) and she tends to grunt (as do many students) while in her backbends.”

Perhaps she grunts because she’s thinking of all those pesky enviros who criticized Al Gore’s record during the primary?

Lame Prize Department

The American Forest and Paper Association is apparently looking to score some green points by sponsoring a project in which elementary school students in Los Angeles will decorate grocery bags with “environmental messages” that will then be used by Ralph’s grocery stores in the city on Earth Day. Every school that participates will be eligible for a May 1 drawing.

The prize? “A recycled plastic bench, worth about $400,” according a press release. Wow, a plastic bench. Maybe they can repopulate some forests with plastic trees.

The Club with No Members

What do you do when your members start to drop like flies? Well, if you are the Global Climate Coalition, you simply change the rules for membership.

Corporations that once belonged to the group — which opposes the Kyoto Protocol and has long denied the seriousness of climate change — have quit en masse in recent months. So the GCC recently announced it was undergoing a “strategic restructuring designed to streamline coalition operations and bring the focus of the climate debate back to the real issues.”

Um, right. So what exactly does that mean?

“Only trade asso
ciations will be eligible for membership in the coalition, effective immediately,” according to the group’s press release.

Brandon MacGillis at Ozone Action describes the GCC shift thusly: “It’s kind of like that Animal House line when the house was being pushed off-campus because of failing grades and they responded with, ‘We’re really hoping our mid-term exams will pull up our averages.'”

War and Greenpeace

We spent quite a bit of time chronicling the nasty internal squabbles at Greenpeace USA under the (some say tyrannical) reign of Executive Director Kristen Engberg (check out installments one, two, and three). Well, all those who called and emailed with Greenpeace USA war stories can breathe a sigh of relief. Engberg resigned last week citing “personal reasons.”