Meanwhile, in North Dakota, a contest once viewed as a shoo-in now looks like a surprisingly competitive race between Berg and former state Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp. The latest independent poll from Mason Dixon, conducted in June, shows Heitkamp leading Berg, 47 percent to 46 percent, a result consistent with internal polling on both sides. Crossroads GPS has spent nearly $1 million to bolster Berg’s campaign in a race it hadn’t expected to focus on.
Republicans credit the closeness of the contest to Heitkamp’s personal likability and are optimistic that Berg will ultimately prevail once voters learn more about her views. But North Dakota is a famously close-knit state where voters know their representatives well and support their preferred candidate over straight-ticket voting. For many years, until 2008, the state boasted an all-Democratic congressional delegation even as it handily supported Republicans at the presidential level.
Like Mandel, Berg has taken heat for angling for a promotion so quickly after winning the House seat. His unfavorable ratings are unusually high for a first-term representative, in part because he’s had trouble connecting with voters – a “grocery-store problem,” as one Democratic strategist working on the race put it. His support of the budget proposal from Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin could hurt him in a state with one of the highest concentration of senior citizens in the country. All told, the race is closer than anyone expected it to be.
Finally, Michigan and Pennsylvania were never considered first-tier opportunities for the GOP, but if there was a year to defeat Democratic Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Bob Casey, this would be it. Both are saddled with politically unpopular votes on health care and energy policy, and both states are chock full of white, blue-collar voters disillusioned with President Obama. Romney could win both states. But Stabenow and Casey remain in solid shape, thanks to their opponents’ lackluster campaigns.
In Michigan, former Rep. Pete Hoekstra kicked off his campaign on a down note, airing a Super Bowl ad attacking Stabenow on spending that was widely panned for being racially insensitive – and his campaign has struggled to regain its footing since. A June EPIC/MRA poll showed Obama and Romney in a dead heat, but with Stabenow leading Hoekstra by 12 percentage points, 49 percent to 37 percent. He also faces a competitive primary against Clark Durant, who has a fighting chance at an upset, and could make a better general election candidate.
In Pennsylvania, Casey still holds solid favorable ratings, but the political terrain seems welcoming for a credible GOP challenger who could exploit Obama’s weaknesses. The party’s nominee, Tom Smith, has the ability to self-finance to the tune of millions of dollars but has done little advertising, and he doesn’t have the political skill set that, say, a Rep. Pat Meehan would bring to the table.
Even with these limitations, Republicans still have even odds to retake control because Democrats are defending more seats, with many races taking place in conservative states. The GOP is favored to pick up seats in Nebraska and Missouri, and has advantages in Montana and North Dakota, thanks to the states’ Republican leanings. There are a sufficient number of open-seat races to tip the balance in Republicans' favor. That could be all that’s necessary to win a Senate majority if Romney wins and the party manages to hold onto nearly all of its own seats. But it’s an awfully narrow margin for error, which could have been prevented with a few good candidates to run against vulnerable Democratic senators.