After congressional Democrats suffered what President Obama characterised as a “shellacking” in the 2010 midterm elections — forcing Rep. Nancy Pelosi to relinquish the speaker’s gavel — it appeared that Democratic erosion in the Senate might turn the upper chamber over to Republicans in two years’ time.But political climates often shift and candidates are unpredictable — as Missouri Republican Todd Akin proved with his infamous “legitimate rape” comment. Just that quickly, once bright outlooks can turn cloudy.
With their prospects for taking control of the Senate now up in the air, Republicans insist that doing so was always going to be tough fight. “There have only been two occasions in the past 40 years where either party has won five or more Senate seats: That was Reagan 1980, and in 2008 with Obama,” said one Republican strategist familiar with this year’s races.
“In early and mid-September, broadly, we were not in a good place as a party,” the strategist noted, referring to President Obama’s post-convention bounce. But after Mitt Romney’s surge following the first presidential debate, “we’ve definitely seen a swing back to where things were.”
Still, with less than two weeks to go until Election Day, Republicans face an uphill climb in claiming the majority. Of the 33 Senate races across the country, 10 are truly competitive. Democrats have 23 seats to defend. Republicans have 10 of their own to protect, but have to gain four additional seats — three if Romney is elected — to gain the upper hand. With Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson’s retirement, Nebraska is likely to turn red. But Republicans hold four of the tossup seats – two of which are in states where the president could help down-ballot candidates.
“Democrats are cautiously optimistic we will hold the majority,” said Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Communications Director Matt Canter. That majority, though, may be slim, given the number of tight races. “A year and a half ago the pundits wrote us off. But we continue to play offence every day, we recruited strong candidates and put the Republican seats in play,” he said.
The reason for this turnaround? One possible explanation is that national Democrats intervened in party primaries, while Republicans, with the Tea Party-charged midterms still fresh in their minds, took a hands-off approach — a strategy that some analysts say could backfire. On the other hand, Republicans have put Democrats on defence in places like Connecticut, Wisconsin and Virginia.
The landscape has shifted in odd ways: Democrats see opportunity in states Obama is nearly certain to lose, while Republicans find hope in places where Romney trails. Control of the upper chamber, then, could hinge on whether enough voters are willing to split their tickets in a presidential year.
States like Massachusetts, which the president is expected to win easily, remind Republicans just how difficult that can be. There, Scott Brown has had to work tirelessly to defend his seat.
The GOP senator made headlines in a 2010 special election when he won the Bay State seat held for decades by Ted Kennedy. Now Brown faces a much more difficult re-election to a full term, as Obama’s coattails appear long enough to carry Democrat Elizabeth Warren over the finish line. Brown has sought to use his everyman appeal to attract independents and Democrats, but he isn’t garnering enough of them, according to recent surveys. RCP’s polling average in Massachusetts finds Warren, a Harvard law professor who helped establish the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, leading Brown by 4.7 percentage points. Though the race is tight, the challenger has been gaining ground and “has a bit of an edge,” said the Republican strategist.
About two hours south of Boston, the GOP has another opportunity. In Connecticut, former Worldwide Wrestling Entertainment CEO Linda McMahon has donated millions of dollars from her own fortune to her second Senate bid and is posing a credible challenge to three-term Democratic Rep. Chris Murphy. McMahon (pictured, with Murphy) took to the airwaves early and unopposed, and sought to revamp her image after a 12-point loss two years ago to now-Sen. Richard Blumenthal in a tough and nasty race. Murphy got off to a rocky start, faced with a large financial disadvantage and controversy surrounding his home mortgage payments. National Democrats have been forced to spend millions on this contest, but Murphy is gaining ground. The RCP Average shows him edging McMahon by 3.1 percentage points.
While New England offers opportunities for Republicans, it is also the region where their uphill climb to the majority has steepened. Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe, a well-respected moderate Republican nearly guaranteed re-election, announced her retirement in February, opening a door to Democrats. Former Gov. Angus King is running as an independent, though he is bound to caucus with the Democrats and appears poised to win the seat. Republicans are backing Charlie Summers, Maine’s secretary of state. The National Democratic Senatorial Committee is running ads against Summers in the state, painting him to the right of his constituents. Notably, however, the group tasked with getting Democrats elected to the Senate is not backing its own candidate, Cynthia Dill, hoping instead that a King win will be good enough.
While Snowe’s departure made things difficult, it was Akin’s gaffe — in which he told a local television station that “legitimate rape” does not result in pregnancy because women have a biological way “to shut the whole thing down” — that altered the landscape in Missouri. Republicans once saw a likely pickup opportunity in a state trending more conservatively and where incumbent Claire McCaskill was perhaps the most vulnerable Senate Democrat in the country. Instead, the NRSC and Crossroads GPS, a super PAC run by Karl Rove that’s playing a significant role in upper chamber races this cycle, withdrew funds from the Show-Me State. Several Republicans, such as South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint and erstwhile presidential candidates Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, got behind Akin financially. But the national committee remains financially absent (though it did circulate an anti-McCaskill memo).
Missouri remains a tossup, with the RCP Average showing McCaskill ahead by five percentage points. But Republicans have virtually written off the state, and sources say there is no GOP path there given Akin’s repeated missteps. Over the weekend, for example, he compared McCaskill to a dog playing “fetch” for the way she “goes to Washington, D.C., and gets all of these taxes and red tape and bureaucracy” and brings them back to Missouri.
The situation there puts more pressure on Republicans out west, where four races are among the most competitive in the country.
Three of them are taking place in red states that will likely vote for Romney and where the Republican challenger is a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. When Democratic Budget Chairman Kent Conrad announced his retirement in 2011, his seat in North Dakota was considered an easy win for the GOP. But former Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp has posed a more credible and competitive campaign against first-term Republican Rep. Rick Berg than many expected. Obama is expected to lose North Dakota, but the state’s thriving economy — unemployment stands at just 3 per cent — makes it difficult to run against the president there. Heitkamp is tying Berg to an unpopular Congress and an important farming bill stalled there. Berg has linked Heitkamp to the president’s health care law, which she originally supported and which is unpopular in the state. John Hoeven, the popular former governor and current senator, is appearing in ads supporting Berg. Berg leads by five percentage points in the RCP Average, but operatives on both sides see this as a closer race.
A similar scenario is taking place in Montana, where Democratic Sen. Jon Tester, who won his Senate seat in 2006 by just a few thousand votes, is facing another difficult challenge. Republican Denny Rehberg, who has been the state’s lone congressman for 12 years, is doing his best to pin Tester to Obama, particularly on health care. But Democrats say the similarities between the president and the Big Sky Country rancher are sometimes difficult to see. Like North Dakota, Montana voters sometimes have a soft spot for local Democrats, including Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who is popular there.
Arizona, meanwhile, isn’t as friendly to Democrats. But the party still sees an opportunity in the state, where former Surgeon General Richard Carmona is running just 0.8 percentage points behind conservative Rep. Jeff Flake in the RCP Average. The state’s red tilt might ultimately give Flake the advantage, but Carmona is running as an independent Democrat hoping to gain crossover appeal, and traction, through the state’s growing Hispanic population. The race has become particularly nasty: Flake launched a television ad recently in which a former colleague of Carmona’s accuses him of having anger issues regarding women. Carmona, who earned two Purple Hearts for serving in Vietnam, ran an ad accusing Flake of not supporting veterans.
Two other competitive battleground races, in Nevada and Virginia, are among the contests most likely to be impacted by the presidential race. In the former, incumbent Sen. Dean Heller leads Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkeley by 4.8 percentage points. Berkeley is the subject of a House ethics investigation into whether she used her congressional position to benefit her physician husband’s practice. But Democrats have an extensive ground operation in the state, and Obama is expected to do well there despite Nevada having the highest unemployment rate in the country. Berkeley has attached herself to the president, hoping to catch enough of his coattails to prevail over Heller.
The Virginia race is a clash between two heavyweights, and remains close. The RCP Average finds former DNC Chairman Tim Kaine leading Republican former Sen. George Allen by just one percentage point. Both are former governors and have been running even for more than a year. The presidential race, which is tied in the Old Dominion, could well determine the down-ballot winner. However, analysts say that if Romney wins by just a couple of points, Kaine might have enough crossover appeal to edge Allen, who depends on longer coattails.
Finally, the outcome of a pair of races in the Midwest could also help determine the balance of power in the Senate. Conservative Republican Richard Mourdock ousted longtime Indiana Sen. Dick Lugar in a nationally watched Republican primary. But Rep. Joe Donnelly is posing a surprisingly viable challenge to Mourdock by running as an independent Democrat. Obama won the Hoosier State by just a few thousand votes four years ago, but most likely won’t repeat that victory. Donnelly trailed Mourdock by five points in a recent Rasmussen Reports poll. Mitt Romney this week cut an ad for Mourdock, and the presidential race here could ultimately tilt the Senate contest to the Republican.
Meanwhile, in Wisconsin, Democratic Rep. Tammy Baldwin is edging Republican former Gov. Tommy Thompson here by 0.8 percentage points in the RCP Average. The presidential race there remains close, with Obama leading by just under three points, and Republicans hope to make gains in the state with native son Paul Ryan as the vice presidential nominee. National Republicans say Thompson can win here even if Romney doesn’t, but Democrats insist their party stands a good chance at sweeping the top and bottom of the ticket.
This story was originally published by RealClearPolitics.
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