One of the great joys of covering Senate races is their sheer unpredictability. In a presidential race, even the strongest nominees are only competitive in a narrow band of battleground states—with the outcome in the others ordained well before the election. In the myriad House races, it’s often unusual for voters to know much about the candidates on the ballot unless they’re deluged with millions of dollars in advertising. But in this year’s closely watched battle for the Senate, the one thing that’s been proven is that candidates still matter—a whole lot.
The conventional wisdom holds that voters are increasingly casting ballots in parliamentary fashion, supporting straight-party tickets more and more. This year, however, what’s keeping both Democrats and Republicans in contention for the Senate majority is that a significant number of their races aren’t following form. Over the past month, three Republican-favored seats have suddenly turned the Democrats’ way, while three seats in deep-blue territory look much more favorable for the GOP. It’s becoming harder to ordain the winners from the political composition of the states the candidates are running in.
Republicans are now on the defensive in three critical states that once were squarely in their corner: Missouri, North Dakota, and Indiana. In Missouri, what once looked like a gimme seat for any Republican against Sen. Claire McCaskill has turned into a GOP nightmare as a weakened Rep. Todd Akin pledges to stay in the race. In North Dakota, Democrat Heidi Heitkamp is running neck-and-neck with Republican Rep. Rick Berg thanks to an effective campaign that has emphasized her independence and personal likability. In Indiana, the GOP's Richard Mourdock hasn’t been able to pivot from a tea party-fueled primary upset over Sen. Richard Lugar into an effective general election against Democratic Rep. Joe Donnelly.
All three states are well out of the president’s reach, but are filled with a significant number of crossover voters who will be backing Republican Mitt Romney and the Democratic Senate nominees. At last week’s Democratic National Convention, Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray of Washington advanced a partisan argument against Romney and Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget to make the case for her Senate nominees. But the reality is that voters in these states are looking for candidates in the center-right sweet spot, and these Democrats are effectively distancing themselves from President Obama to fill that role. Donnelly, in an effective new television spot, even portrays Ryan in a bipartisan light as he casts Mourdock as to the right of Romney’s running mate.
The Democratic momentum in those states isn’t attributable to any wave; it’s thanks to weak Republican candidates and their own campaign blunders. Because at the same time, Republicans are showing surprising strength in three Democratic bastions: Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Wisconsin. The National Republican Senatorial Committee is even spending money in Maine, hoping to boost nominee Charlie Summers in a three-way race where independent Angus King is favored and is likely to caucus with Democrats.
The most significant surprise comes from the Connecticut race, where longtime WWE executive Linda McMahon, a Republican who lost badly in her first run for Senate, is showing she has momentum against an unexpectedly flat Democratic challenger, Rep. Chris Murphy. McMahon, despite ending 2010 with underwater approval ratings, has seen her favorability rebound significantly since then and leads Murphy by three points in an August Quinnipiac poll.
Since the poll was conducted, Murphy has faced a string of unflattering headlines surrounding his past struggles to pay off a mortgage and a favorable loan that he received after being elected to Congress. Those were the types of issues that forced former Sen. Chris Dodd to prematurely retire in the wake of bad numbers, and it’s become more than a nuisance for the Murphy campaign. Democratic operatives monitoring the race are also privately concerned about the campaign’s financial disadvantage.
Connecticut is also a state filled with workers in the financial-services sector, where the president’s populist, anti-Wall Street rhetoric hasn’t been received warmly. Democrats are prepared to pour money to raise McMahon’s negatives back up—the DSCC is going up with a $320,000 ad buy against her—but she looks like she’ll have more staying power this time around with more money to spend down the home stretch.
Heitkamp’s success story in North Dakota is the Democrats’ mirror image of McMahon’s against-the-odds campaign. Indeed, both McMahon and Heitkamp are challenging sitting members of Congress, giving them plenty of fodder against their opponents. Heitkamp, already a popular former attorney general, didn’t dodge her vulnerabilities, proclaiming support for elements of Obama’s (unpopular) health care law, while attacking Berg for supporting cuts to Medicare. It’s the Romney-Ryan jujitsu Medicare strategy in reverse: She didn’t run away from her weakness on health care, instead taking the Medicare attack to her opponent.
North Dakota, despite supporting Republican presidential candidates, has a long history of supporting downballot Democrats with longstanding ties to the state—and that pattern may be returning to form in 2012. Republicans, in their advertising campaigns, have relentlessly tried to tie her to Obama, but there are signs that the connection isn’t sticking. The most recent independent poll, conducted in June, shows Heitkamp leading by 1 percentage point; a Democratic-sponsored poll in July showed her lead even wider.
The list of candidates defying the partisan leanings of their states goes on: Elizabeth Warren was a star at her party’s convention, but she continues to struggle with working-class Democratic voters back home. Republican Sen. Scott Brown’s caricature of her as an ivory-tower academic has stuck. She could end up being more like the much-maligned Martha Coakley, who didn’t have the benefit of presidential coattails, than a credible 2016 presidential candidate.
Akin is showing no signs of leaving the Missouri race voluntarily, making McCaskill the prohibitive favorite despite weak approval ratings. Republicans are becoming resigned to Akin’s decision, sounding more optimistic about their chances elsewhere.
And Republicans in Wisconsin caught a break after former Gov. Tommy Thompson won the party's closely contested nomination in August, and looks poised to benefit from the GOP energy in the state since Ryan’s ascension to the national ticket and Gov. Scott Walker’s cult-hero status within the Republican base. Democrats rallied behind Rep. Tammy Baldwin early, but her outspoken liberalism makes it tough for her to make inroads with independents, particularly those who remember Thompson’s gubernatorial tenure fondly.
It’s the Democrats’ surprising tenacity in conservative states that have revived their prospects for holding onto the Senate. And if Republicans win back the majority, it’s probably going to mean they achieved an upset of their own, in a Democratic stronghold like Connecticut.
The notion that Republicans would be most bullish about Wisconsin and Massachusetts, while Democrats would be crowing about Missouri and North Dakota, would have been unthinkable several months ago. But as Senate races prove again and again, all politics is still local.