Economy Puts Democrats’ Senate Majority in Play: Albert R. Hunt

Forget conventional wisdom: Republicans have a real shot at taking control of the Senate, as well as the House, in the U.S. midterm elections.

“This is going to be a massive election like 1974, except it will happen to the Democrats this time,” says Bill McInturff, a leading Republican pollster, alluding to the Democratic landslide more than three-and-a-half decades ago. “The Senate is in play.”

The economy is killing Democrats even in states doing comparatively well. The economic stimulus and bailout of the auto companies -- successes in the eyes of most detached analysts -- are unpopular.

Most unpopular was the Wall Street rescue, whatever disaster it may have averted.

Most Democratic candidates voted for these measures, a reason the party may lose 10 seats and control of the Senate. A look at five Senate races, where, under ordinary circumstances, the Democrats would be favored, is telling.

COLORADO: In one of the half-dozen genuinely purple states, the incumbent Democrat, Michael Bennet, 45, appointed when Ken Salazar was tapped to be President Barack Obama’s Interior secretary, was a successful businessman and head of the Denver school system. He wins praise as one of the most thoughtful new senators, and defeated a challenger from the left in a primary.

Tea Party Favorite

The Republican nominee, Ken Buck, was reprimanded for ethics violations while an assistant U.S. attorney, and as county prosecutor conducted a raid on illegal immigrants that was deemed unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court. A Tea Party favorite, he defeated the establishment-endorsed candidate, Jane Norton, in the primary, calling on Colorado Republicans to vote for him because he didn’t “wear high heels.”

Colorado, with an 8 percent jobless rate, is doing better than most of the country. Still, the Washington tag has stuck to Bennet after only a year-and-a-half, and he’s trailing.

WASHINGTON: In 1992, Patty Murray ran as the classic outsider, “a mom in tennis shoes.” Now fourth-ranking among Senate Democratic leaders, the three-term incumbent is a senior appropriator who boasts of the benefits she brings to her state, the antitheses of the person first elected.

Her opponent, the 50-year-old Dino Rossi, was a state lawmaker and two-time loser for governor. He has called for total repeal of the financial-regulation bill passed this year.

However unpopular that position, if Murray is perceived on Nov. 2 as a Washington insider, she’s a goner.

Maverick Feingold

WISCONSIN: The 57-year-old Russ Feingold, like Murray, is a three-term senator; unlike his Washington colleague, he hasn’t been an inside player; he’s viewed by Democrats and Republicans as one of the few real mavericks in the Senate. He cast the only vote against the Patriot Act in 2001 and was the sole Democrat to oppose the July 15 financial-regulatory legislation, which he thought wasn’t strong enough.

His Republican opponent, the wealthy businessman and political novice Ron Johnson, 55, has gained traction assailing Feingold’s vote for the economic-stimulus package. Wisconsin’s 7.8 percent jobless rate is well below the national average and estimates are the stimulus has created or saved more than 60,000 jobs in the state, with more projects in the works.

Nevertheless, Feingold is on the defensive on the issue. Democratic strategists in Washington have put him on the danger list.

California Gains

CALIFORNIA: There are few more blue, or Democratic, states than California, which hasn’t sent a Republican to the U.S. Senate since 1988. To win the Republican primary, Carly Fiorina, who was fired as Hewlett-Packard Co.’s chief executive officer, moved right on the issues of abortion and the environment. In the past, that has been red meat for the three-time Democratic incumbent Barbara Boxer, 69.

The race is even today as Fiorina, 55, stresses the economy, more relevant to California voters in 2010. The state’s unemployment rate is 12.3 percent, the third-highest in the country.

This is one state where the president is more popular than the Democratic candidate. Painting her opponent as one of the virulent anti-Obama Republicans may be the only way Boxer can survive in race that wasn’t even on the radar screen six months ago.

PENNSYLVANIA: If this contest were about biography, it would be a TKO. In the Democratic primary last spring, Joe Sestak, 55, beat Arlen Specter, who switched to the Democratic Party last year; six years ago, Pat Toomey, the 48-year-old Republican candidate, lost to Specter, before he changed parties. While Sestak was defending his country as a naval officer, rising to admiral, Toomey was a Wall Street derivatives salesman.

Toomey Advantage

A Franklin and Marshall College poll this week shows Toomey with a clear advantage among likely voters, with one-quarter of the electorate undecided. “The economy by far is the dominant issue,” says Terry Madonna, who conducts the survey; the Keystone State’s jobless rate was 9.3 percent last month.

Toomey has kept his opponent on the defensive, starting with attacks on his vote for rescuing the financial system. The former executive, who supported financial deregulation when in Congress, says he would have let the big banks collapse and market forces create new companies. Former Republican Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke claim that would have resulted in a worldwide depression; today it appeals to both suburban and blue-collar voters in Pennsylvania.

Bush-Era Policies

The national Democratic Party hopes to come to the rescue of the out-resourced Sestak in the final month with an assault on Toomey’s Wall Street ties and support for the policies of President George W. Bush.

In Pennsylvania and these other contested races one asset for Democrats is the continuing unpopularity of the Republican Party and Bush. In 2006, when the Democrats regained control of the House, Republicans couldn’t scare voters with the specter of returning to the days of the Bill Clinton presidency.

Even with that card it’s an uphill struggle to match the Republicans’ anger and energy, as evidenced by the higher turnouts in primaries around the country. Of the Republicans’ advantage, pollster McInturff says, “The intensity gap is the biggest I’ve seen in 30 years.”

(Albert R. Hunt is the executive editor for Washington at Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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