The election-year arithmetic in U.S. Senate races is growing increasingly complicated for Republicans, diminishing the party’s prospects of winning a majority that earlier this year was seen as within its grasp.
The first blow for Republicans came in February, when Maine’s Olympia Snowe announced her retirement. In May six-term Indiana Republican Senator Richard Lugar lost to Tea Party backed primary challenger Richard Mourdock, who said this week that pregnancy caused by rape was something “God intended” and doesn’t justify abortion. Also, Missouri Republican Todd Akin insisted on staying in the Senate race after saying on Aug. 19 that “legitimate rape” rarely causes pregnancy.
As a result Maine Independent Angus King, who is expected to caucus with Democrats, is predicted to win what was a safe Republican-held seat. Missouri’s Claire McCaskill, once considered the most vulnerable Democratic incumbent in the Senate, is running ahead in the polls. The Indiana race, in which Lugar was favored, is rated a toss-up.
Jennifer Duffy, who tracks Senate races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, cited those developments as reasons why she would “put a thumb on the scale for Democrats” narrowly keeping their majority on Nov. 6.
“We’re not looking at the same election we were looking at 12 months ago, that’s for sure,” Duffy said, predicting that Republicans could gain between one and four seats. “Whoever wins the Senate, I would be surprised if anybody had more than a 51-seat majority. Fifty-two seats would be a stellar night.”
Defending 10 Seats
The Senate electoral landscape was supposed to favor Republicans, who are defending 10 seats, compared with 23 for Democrats. Democrats now control the Senate 53-47. Republicans must hold all of their seats and pick up four to gain control if President Barack Obama wins a second term. They would need a net three seats if Republican nominee Mitt Romney wins because the vice president casts tie-breaking votes.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said at an Aug. 30 Politico breakfast that Republicans had “enough places on the board to piece together a majority.” The executive director of Senate Republicans’ campaign organization, Rob Jesmer, e-mailed a fundraising appeal Oct. 23 asking party members to “help give us a final push” to win a majority.
Twenty-one percent of Americans approved of Congress in October, among the lowest ratings in the final month before a presidential election, according to a Gallup poll released yesterday. In the House, Democrats probably will gain four to 10 seats -- far short of the 25 they need to take a majority of the 435 seats, according to the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report in Washington.
For Senate Republicans, “the easiest path to the majority starts with keeping the seats they already have and then working from there,” said Nathan Gonzales, political analyst for the non-partisan Rothenberg Political Report in Washington. That means returning incumbents in Massachusetts and Nevada where they face strong Democratic challenges, and holding seats in Arizona and Indiana. The odds that Republicans will keep all of those seats are looking slim.
In Massachusetts, Republican Senator Scott Brown is in a battle for re-election to the post he won in a January 2010 special election that deprived Senate Democrats of the 60-seat majority they won a year earlier.
Brown’s opponent, Democrat Elizabeth Warren, gained star status in her party by attacking Wall Street. Democrats gave her a prime-time speaking slot at the Democratic National Convention. Warren had an advantage in 10 of the past 13 polls, taken since the beginning of September. Two of them showed her with a six-point lead. RealClearPolitics gives her a 1.7-point average lead, while still calling the race a tossup.
In Arizona, six-term U.S. Representative Jeff Flake is trying to keep retiring Senator Jon Kyl’s seat in the Republicans’ column. He is in a close race with Democrat Richard Carmona, who served as U.S. surgeon general during the George W. Bush administration.
After a barrage of Republican criticism, Carmona apologized Oct. 19 for joking during a debate earlier in the week that the male moderator was “prettier” than CNN’s Candy Crowley, who hosted the second presidential debate in Hempstead, New York.
Incumbent Nevada Senator Dean Heller, appointed in 2011 to fill a seat left open by Republican John Ensign’s resignation, is running neck-and-neck with Democratic U.S. Representative Shelley Berkley in one of the few competitive Senate contests unfolding in a presidential battleground.
Virginia is another battleground state with a Senate race between two well-known state figures: former Republican senator and Governor George Allen and former governor and Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine. Duffy said the outcome of the Virginia race may be an early indicator of which way other close congressional races will break on Nov. 6.
In Indiana, Republicans are still sour over Lugar’s ouster and wary of Mourdock’s Tea Party affiliations. This week, Mourdock drew heavy criticism from Democrats for his comment about pregnancy caused by rape. Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul said he disagreed with the remark though he still supports Mourdock.
Indiana experts say Democrat Joe Donnelly, a three-term congressman, stands a good chance of winning.
Donnelly issued a statement calling his opponent’s comments “shocking” and saying, “It is stunning that he would be so disrespectful to survivors of rape.”
Other Republican Senate candidates distanced themselves from Mourdock’s comments. Heller “does not share these views,” the Las Vegas Review-Journal quoted Heller campaign spokeswoman Chandler Smith as saying. Brown said yesterday at a campaign event that he too disagreed with Mourdock, according to MassLive.com.
“I’m a pro-choice Republican and that’s not what I believe,” the website quoted Brown as saying.
Also struggling in his campaign is Akin, whose comments on rape boosted McCaskill’s chances of a second turn.
“That’s a seat that was probably their single best opportunity, and he pretty much took it off the board,” said Duffy of the Cook Political Report.
Following Akin’s comments, party leaders, including Romney, urged the six-term congressman to leave the race. The National Republican Senatorial Committee and Crossroads GPS, a nonprofit group co-founded by former Bush political adviser Karl Rove, said they wouldn’t spend money on the race.
Akin refused to step aside and has since won the backing of some in the party’s small-government wing, including Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina and former presidential candidates Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum.
Republican Deb Fischer is rated by Cook and others as likely to win retiring Democrat Ben Nelson’s seat in Nebraska, while King, a former Maine governor, is running ahead of the Republican and Democratic nominees for Snowe’s seat.
That means to win the Senate majority, Republicans would need to win four of the five Democratic-held remaining seats Cook rates as tossups, Duffy said. They are in Montana, North Dakota, Virginia, Connecticut and Wisconsin.
“Republicans need almost a sweep of the most competitive races,” Gonzales said.
In Montana, Republicans felt confident early on that they could defeat the Democratic incumbent, first-term Senator Jon Tester. As in Missouri, Obama trails Romney in Montana by a large margin in most polls. Yet polls indicate the race between Tester and U.S. Representative Denny Rehberg is close.
“I think this race is remarkable in its lack of movement,” Gonzales said, adding that the contest probably will remain “a tossup through Election Day.”
In North Dakota, another state that Romney probably will easily win, the Democratic candidate is outperforming expectations. Former state Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp was tied with freshman Republican Representative Rick Berg in a Mason-Dixon poll conducted Oct. 3-5.
In Connecticut, a state Obama is projected to win, Democratic Representative Chris Murphy pulled ahead of Republican Linda McMahon, the former CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment Inc., by 49 to 43 percent among likely voters in a Quinnipiac University poll released yesterday. A week earlier, Quinnipiac had McMahon at 48 percent and Murphy at 47 percent.
McMahon and Murphy are running to replace retiring Senator Joseph Lieberman, an independent who caucuses with Democrats.
The Wisconsin Senate race is a dead heat, according to an Oct. 17 Marquette Law School Poll of likely voters, with Republican former Governor Tommy Thompson at 46 percent and Democratic U.S. Representative Tammy Baldwin at 45 percent.
In a poll conducted two weeks earlier, Baldwin held a four-percentage-point lead over Thompson. The two are vying to succeed retiring Democratic Senator Herb Kohl.
Thompson’s climb in the polls mirrors gains by Romney, who was 1 point behind Obama, 49 percent to 48 percent, in the Marquette poll. While Wisconsin voters elected Republican Senator Ron Johnson over Democratic incumbent Russ Feingold in 2010, they haven’t backed a Republican presidential candidate since Ronald Reagan in 1984.
Another Senate race playing out in a presidential battleground state is in Florida, where Senator Bill Nelson, 70, is seeking his third term.
Nelson, Florida’s only Democratic statewide elected official, is facing Republican U.S. Representative Connie Mack IV, 45, who has a recognized name because of his father’s 12 years in the Senate and his great-grandfather’s storied baseball career.
Rothenberg rated the race as a tossup last year and shows Nelson with an advantage. Outside groups have spent $11 million against him, more than any Democratic Senate candidate has faced other than Kaine in Virginia, according to the Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics.