If pundits began the year predicting that Republicans would tout a top-tier recruit in Hawaii but have difficulty recruiting in more conservative states such as Nebraska and Missouri, they would have been laughed out of the room. Yet, in the Aloha State, Republicans persuaded former Gov. Linda Lingle to run, giving them an excellent chance at competing in one of the most Democratic states in the country; meanwhile, party officials scramble to find credible nominees against some of the Senate’s most vulnerable Democrats.
Those developments say everything about the unpredictable nature of this year’s Senate campaign landscape. Republicans, knowing that most of the seats up for grabs are in Democratic hands, have been bullish about their prospects of winning control of the chamber. Factor in a spate of Democratic retirements in battleground states and President Obama’s sinking approval ratings, and conventional wisdom holds that the GOP just about has the Senate in the bag.
However, that narrative was written prematurely. Republicans are still in good position to win the three or four seats necessary to flip the Senate, thanks to favorable fundamentals. Democrats are defending 23 seats to the GOP’s 10, many of which are in such solidly Republican states as Montana, Nebraska, and North Dakota. In addition to Hawaii, Republicans have also landed good candidates in Democratic-leaning Michigan and New Mexico.
But Republicans are saddled with lackluster recruits in races against several of the most vulnerable Democratic senators—Missouri’s Claire McCaskill, Nebraska’s Ben Nelson, and Florida’s Bill Nelson. Those face-offs will indicate whether voters decide to use their Senate votes to send a message to Obama, or if the perilously positioned Democrats can convince voters that they’re independent operators. The president is deeply unpopular in those three states and is already a drag on his fellow Democrats’ prospects. On the other hand, the GOP cast of candidates challenging them hardly appears ready for prime time.
In Missouri, McCaskill is seeking reelection in the one battleground state that didn’t vote for Obama in 2008, making her record of public support for the president politically problematic. Her decision to skip an Obama fundraiser in St. Louis this month underscores her difficult situation.
But what’s remarkable, given McCaskill’s vulnerability, is that Republicans are still scrambling to find a nominee who can take advantage of the favorable political environment.
Former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman, once viewed as an insurgent tea party ally in the mold of Sarah Palin, has fallen as fast as the former vice presidential nominee. She brought in less than $100,000 in the third quarter, and her campaign’s overall struggles prompted Rep. Todd Akin to enter the race in May.
But Akin has been unable to capitalize on Steelman’s struggles: He drew unwanted publicity when he apologized for saying that the “heart of liberalism is a hatred for God” on a national conservative radio show. Now Republicans are looking at wealthy businessman John Brunner to save the day, but he’s hardly a proven commodity. His ability to self-finance—as much as his political skills—is driving his appeal.
Meanwhile, McCaskill raised $1.2 million last quarter and has a $2.5 million cash-on-hand advantage over her closest competitor, Akin.
In Nebraska, Nelson’s third-quarter fundraising was dismal, and he’s trying to balance his party affiliation with the difficulty of supporting Obama on any issue in the Cornhusker State. But Nelson’s Republican opponents aren’t exactly putting the race away. The front-runner, Attorney General Jon Bruning, has stumbled on the campaign trail and been accused of ethical improprieties. He also shook up his campaign team, a sign that all is not well. And indicating that Democrats aren’t writing off the race, the state party spent $600,000 on ads—funded with national committee money—promoting Nelson’s record.
Down in Florida, the other Nelson—Bill Nelson—is already putting distance between himself and Obama, telling reporters last month that the president has “made some mistakes.” Obama has a dismal 39-percent approval rating in Florida, according to a Quinnipiac poll conducted last month, as lackluster a showing as in any battleground state. But Nelson has been bolstered by the weakness of the GOP field.
George LeMieux looks good on paper, given that he served in the Senate after former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist appointed him in 2009. But with Crist now one of the most unpopular politicos among Republicans, that experience is bound to be a liability—at least in the primary. And former state House Majority Leader Adam Hasner, emerging as the conservative alternative, is languishing in primary polls. Neither has raised enough cash to compete in such an expensive state, and both significantly trail Nelson’s impressive $2 million third-quarter haul.
Follow these three races through Election Day to get a sense of who will be in control of the Senate in 2013. If Republicans sweep these contests, they have effectively convinced voters that backing a Democrat is akin to supporting Obama’s agenda. But if even a couple of these battle-tested incumbents hold on, Democrats have a fighting chance of keeping the majority.
This article appears in the Oct. 19, 2011, edition of National Journal Daily.