6 Races That Will Decide Who Controls the Senate
On the eve of the election, most attention is focused on the battle for the presidency. It’s important to remember, though, that control of the Senate also hangs in the balance on Tuesday. Democrats currently hold a 53-47 edge in the upper house, including two independents who caucus with them. A loss of f0ur seats (or three, if Romney wins the presidency) would flip control to Republicans.
Democrats are considered favorites to retain 19 seats they currently control, and former Gov. Angus King of Maine, an independent, is expected to win and caucus with the Democrats, flipping a seat to their control. Republicans are also expected to win a Democratic-held seat in Nebraska, and to hold onto seven others they currently hold.
That would give Democrats a 49-45 lead on seats that lean toward them — meaning six seats up for election tomorrow will decide whether Mitch McConnell becomes majority leader, or whether Harry Reid retains his position. Here’s a look at these six races, from east to west.
Massachusetts: Elizabeth Warren (D) vs. Sen. Scott Brown (R)
The senate seat in the Bay State has been one of the marquee match-ups in the 2012 election for some time. Elizabeth Warren helped design the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau for President Barack Obama, and has been a leading advocate for a more egalitarian society. Brown, meanwhile, is a moderate Republican who surprised Washington by winning the seat held by the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, briefly threatening to derail health care reform.
Democrats targeted Brown’s seat in deep-blue Massachusetts as a likely pick-up opportunity, and the battle for the seat has been ferocious, with the Brown campaign attacking Warren over her claimed Native American ancestry, and Warren attacking Brown for being too beholden to the Republican leadership.
For Democrats, the polling in Massachusetts has been generally positive. Warren holds a 3.5 point edge in the RealClearPolitics average of polls, and Nate Silver gives Warren a prohibitive 94 percent chance of winning. Still, a University of Massachusetts/Boston Herald poll gave Brown a bare 49-48 edge, and given the importance of the race, this is one that Democrats can’t count on until the ballots are counted.
Virginia: Former Gov. Tim Kaine (D) vs. Former Sen. George Allen (R) (Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., retiring)
Virginia represented one of the two best Republican pick-up opportunities among the seven closest states. Jim Webb had narrowly defeated George Allen in the 2006 Democratic wave election, and with Webb retiring, the seat was seen as ripe for the GOP, especially after the 2010 Republican sweep.
It hasn’t quite turned out that way. Former Democratic National Committee chair Tim Kaine has run a tough race, and holds a narrow lead in the RealClearPolitics average.
Kaine is considered the odds-on favorite at this point, but the race is still close enough to give Republicans hope. It seems unlikely, but this seat would seem to be a must-win if Republicans hope to wrest control of the Senate from Democrats.
Indiana: Rep. Joe Donnelly (D) vs. State Treasurer Richard Mourdock (R) vs. Andrew Horning (Lib.) (Sen. Dick Lugar, R-Ind., lost in primary)
This race was not on anyone’s radar when people first started looking at the map last year. That’s because it was considered a lock for Dick Lugar, who had been first elected to the Senate in 1976.
Lugar had a reputation as a tough-but-fair conservative who was willing to cross the aisle to get things done. In 2012, among Republicans, that represented a serious liability. Challenged from the right by State Treasurer Richard Mourdock, Lugar ended up losing his seat in the primary, opening up an opportunity for a Democratic pick-up.
Blue Dog Democrat Joe Donnelly traded leads with Mourdock in the polls throughout September and October with Mourdock holding the slight edge. The race took a sharp turn in late October, when Mourdock, during a debate, defended his opposition to abortion even in cases of rape and incest.
Saying that rape was “horrible,” Mourdock nonetheless added that when a woman beomes pregnant as a result of rape, that is “something God intended to happen.”
The comment was reminiscent of Todd Akin’s “legitimate rape” statement, and instantly hurt Mourdock. Donnelly, who is pro-life, but favors exceptions for rape and incest, has led by between 3 and 11 percent in polls taken since. Polling is complicated somewhat by Libertarian Party challenger Andrew Horning, who has polled as high as 6 percent.
Needless to say, it becomes difficult for Republicans to retake the Senate should Mourdock lose. If so, this will represent yet another senate seat that Republicans sacrificed in a bid for ideological purity.
Wisconsin: Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D) vs. Former Gov. Tommy Thompson (R) (Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis., retiring)
Republicans have a chance to pick up a seat in Wisconsin, where popular Sen. Herb Kohl is retiring after four terms. Republicans in the state actually steered clear of hard-right candidates, instead turning to a reasonably popular former governor, Tommy Thompson. Democrats nominated Rep. Tammy Baldwin, who has represented a deep blue district since 1999.
Given the convulsive political landscape in Wisconsin, it was hard to know just how the race would play out, but Democrats, stung by recent victories by Republicans in the state, had to be nervous.
Well, the race is still close — within 2.2 points, according to the RealClearPolitics average. But Baldwin has opened up a steady-if-narrow lead over Thompson, who has been hamstrung by statements made during the primary.
If Baldwin manages to win, it will represent not just an important hold for Democrats, but an important civil rights milestone: Baldwin would become the first openly gay senator elected to the body.
North Dakota: Former State A.G. Heidi Heitkamp (D) vs. Rep. Rick Berg (R) (Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., retiring)
When Kent Conrad announced his retirement from the Senate, most prognosticators simply moved the race into the “likely Republican” column without much thought. The Dakotas have been moving steadily right, and few thought that the race would be very competitive.
Well, the seat may still go to the Republicans, but it won’t be for lack of trying. Former State Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp has run a surprisingly tough race, forcing Republicans to contest a seat they expected to win easily. While most polls still give Rick Berg the edge, Heitkamp has been as close as two points in recent polling. Given the relative paucity of polling in the state, it’s possible that Heitkamp could be a surprise on Tuesday. Even if she isn’t, she’s managed to help Democrats across the country, simply by drawing resources from the GOP.
Montana: Sen. John Tester (D) vs. Rep. Denny Rehberg (R)
Montana has developed into an extremely close race between incumbent Sen. John Tester and the state’s at-large congressman, Denny Rehberg. This is likely to be the race that goes deepest into the night; in polls since June, neither candidate has led by more than 4 points, and the current RealClearPolitics average gives Rehberg an insignificant 0.2 percent advantage. Notably, however, the conservative-skewing Rasmussen poll has shown Tester leading, 49-48.
The race comes down to Montana’s natural red skew versus Rehberg’s unpopularity. In a Public Policy Polling poll, Rehberg had only a 37 percent approval rating, versus 54 percent of Montanans who disapproved of him. Nevertheless, in a Republican state like Montana, Rehberg has enough residual support to have a good chance.
Republicans certainly have to hope so. It’s very hard to see them taking control of the Senate without picking up Tester’s seat.
Of course, while these seats are the closest, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t other competitive races. In Missouri, Sen. Claire McCaskill has held a steady lead over Republican challenger Todd Akin, but it’s still barely possible that Akin could pull an upset. In Connecticut, Linda McMahon at one point was close to Democratic Rep. Chris Murphy in the polls, though she’s faded somewhat in recent weeks. Arizona, meanwhile, represents a chance for a surprise pick-up by the Democrats; Rep. Jeff Flake has generally held a lead over former Surgeon General Richard Carmona, but a few polls have shown Carmona ahead.
Regardless, Republicans face an uphill battle. Unless they can surprise in Missouri or Connecticut, they need to run the table in the rest of the races if they hope to win control of the Senate. If Democrats win even one or two of these six races to watch, they maintain control of the body, and the ability to support Barack Obama’s agenda — or oppose Mitt Romney’s, depending.
Image Credit: Donkey Hotey