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Senate Control May Hinge on Presidential Race

President Barack Obama waves to supporters as he hugs Massachusetts senatorial candidate Elizabeth Warren before addressing supporters during a campaign fundraiser at Symphony Hall in Boston, Monday, June 25, 2012. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)

photo of Josh Kraushaar
October 24, 2012

The presidential election isn’t the only contest that’s going down to the wire in November. The battle for the Senate is remarkably close, and control could end up being determined by the outcome of the presidential contest. As things stand today, Republicans look reasonably positioned to net two to three seats in the upper chamber. Two is sufficient for Democrats to retain their majority, by the slimmest of margins. Three is enough for Mitch McConnell to become Senate majority leader, if Mitt Romney wins the presidency.

But if Barack Obama wins, Republicans would need to net four seats for a majority. Given the narrowing Senate map, that’s looking almost impossible.

The best news for Democrats over the last few weeks is that Elizabeth Warren looks to have emerged with a small but significant lead in Massachusetts, and that the Florida, Maine, and Missouri Senate races have all but fallen off the map for the Republicans. The most encouraging news for Republicans is that Romney’s post-debate bounce in the polls has benefited their struggling candidates in Republican-friendly states, reducing the likelihood that they will lose more than two GOP-held seats. And Romney’s improved standing has given underdog challengers in Ohio and Pennsylvania at least a fighting chance against vulnerable Democratic incumbents.


The biggest relief for Republicans is that the bottom didn’t drop out for them, given how bleak things looked in late September. Now, Republicans are cautiously optimistic that they will pick up seats in Nebraska, North Dakota, and Montana, even though the latter two are still very competitive. And they think that Romney’s margins will be large enough in Indiana and Arizona to pull struggling Republican nominees over the top.

In North Dakota, Republicans believe the conservative nature of the state is asserting itself and giving Rep. Rick Berg a small advantage despite being outmaneuvered by former state Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp. A poll conducted last week for Fargo-based Forum Communications showed Berg with a 10-point lead, 50 percent to 40 percent. Neither campaign believes the margin is that large, but Berg has recovered from summer doldrums by aggressively tying the Democrat to President Obama’s national agenda. Sen. John Hoeven, who won a whopping 76 percent of the vote in 2010, recently cut an important endorsement ad for Berg, which could make the difference in a close race. 

Facing a tough race against GOP Rep. Denny Rehberg, Sen. Jon Tester of Montana could well become the only Democratic senator to lose reelection – a sign of the Democrats’ improved fortunes since 2010. Polls show the race deadlocked, but with the issue matrix favoring the challenger. In the final weeks, Rehberg has aggressively hit Tester over his support for Obama’s environmental regulations in an energy-producing state. That was an issue that created major problems for Democratic Senate candidates two years ago, and could be the difference in a close race this time.

The Romney bounce has also solidified the standing of two Republican candidates who looked to be in tough shape several weeks ago: state Treasurer Richard Mourdock in Indiana and Rep. Jeff Flake in Arizona. Romney even cut an ad for Mourdock, his only Senate ad this cycle, a sign of improving fortunes for both candidates. 

On the flip side, Democrats are showing momentum in several solidly Democratic states that Republicans were recently optimistic about: Massachusetts, Maine, and Connecticut. Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts is now consistently trailing Warren in polls, coming up just short of winning over the 20 percent of Democrats he needs during a presidential election year. Within Republican circles, there’s an increasing sense of resignation that Brown did everything he needed to do, but is having trouble overcoming the overwhelming Democratic nature of the state in a presidential year.

Republicans also invested resources in Maine, hoping to take advantage of the three-way race to boost Republican Charlie Summers. But independent Angus King has remained resilient, and Democratic voters are flocking to his camp instead of supporting the party nominee, Cynthia Dill. King is likely to caucus with Democrats if elected, and would give them an important pickup.

In Connecticut, the race is still neck-and-neck, but Democratic Rep. Chris Murphy has gained ground in polls over Republican Linda McMahon after getting off to a slow start. A newly released Quinnipiac survey shows Murphy leading McMahon, 49 percent to 43 percent. Murphy has made inroads by accusing McMahon in ads of wanting to cut Social Security and Medicare benefits. Polls show the race is still very tight, but like in Montana, expect the state’s natural Democratic tendencies to give him a late boost.

That leaves a narrow band of Senate races where the presidential contest will have a significant impact: Nevada, Wisconsin, Virginia, and Ohio. If the partisan nature of the other states holds, Republicans need to win three of these four battlegrounds—and hope Romney wins the presidential race—to take control of the Senate.

Of the four, Nevada is looking the most favorable for Republicans, but the Democratic party’s strong turnout machine and Obama’s resilient standing in the economically battered state is keeping Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley in the game against GOP Sen. Dean Heller. Looming ethics problems make it likely Berkley will run several points behind Obama, but early voting numbers are encouraging for Democrats. If Berkley wins, Democrats will have hit the jackpot—it should be enough for them to hold the majority.

In Wisconsin, Gov. Tommy Thompson is running slightly ahead of Romney in polling, and has recovered from a tough post-primary stretch during which he was outspent by Democratic Rep. Tammy Baldwin. Polls show that the race is a statistical dead heat. If Romney wins Wisconsin, he’ll probably bring Thompson along with him.

Democrats think they hold a very narrow edge in Virginia, thanks to a small number of Romney supporters also casting their lot with Democrat Tim Kaine. Romney looks like he’s inching ahead of Obama in the state. To win, Republican George Allen needs Romney’s margin to be comfortable enough to pull him across the finish line.

Ohio looks promising for Democratic incumbent Sherrod Brown, but both parties are miles apart in assessing this race. Democrats claim that their polling shows Brown topping the 50 percent mark, with GOP state Treasurer Josh Mandel weighed down by high unfavorables and a lackluster campaign. Republicans concede Brown has an edge, but believe the race is much closer since Romney closed his once-sizable gap with the president.  

The Senate majority could very well be decided by who wins the presidential election, but not because of any notable coattail effect. Rather, the battle for the Senate is so close, it could come down to the party affiliation of the next tie-breaking vice president.

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