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Hotline's Latest Edition / On the Trail

The Yawning Senate Gulf

Both parties thought they'd have their Senate races locked up by now. Good thing political strategists aren't weather forecasters.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

photo of Reid Wilson
October 27, 2010

Two months ago, according to both Democrats and Republicans, a number of House and Senate contests were but a killer advertisement away from being put out of reach.

Democrats were going to disqualify Republicans by characterizing them as out of touch and out of the mainstream. Republicans were planning on nailing Democrats with charges of Obama-backing, Pelosi-voting rubber stamp-ism.

But a funny thing happened on the way to locking in races, particularly those that will determine control of the Senate: Neither strategy worked.


With less than a week to go before Election Day, the number of Senate races that remain up for grabs creates a yawning chasm of possible outcomes, rather than a narrow range.

There are as many as a dozen seats at least marginally in play, but neither side has an insurmountable advantage in most of those contests. Surveys, both public and private, show Republicans are likely to pick up seats in Arkansas, North Dakota, and Indiana. Democratic Attorney General Richard Blumenthal has opened a sizable lead in Connecticut, saving that seat for his party. Around the rest of the landscape, the picture is much more confusing.

Democrats face long odds in Wisconsin and Kentucky, two states in which winnable races appear to be slipping away. Wisconsin voters seem to be finished with Sen. Russell Feingold (D); in a year in which anger at Washington is the main focus, Feingold has demonstrated his independence only a handful of times, and never on the pocketbook issues that are preoccupying voters this year. Businessman Ron Johnson (R) is running one of the smarter campaigns in the country, and internal Republican polls show him well ahead and above 50 percent of the vote.

The current majority has precious few offensive targets. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has spent no money in New Hampshire and has pulled out of Missouri, leaving Kentucky as virtually the only state left in which to try and pick off a seat. But the Democratic attacks on ophthalmologist Rand Paul (R) have mostly fallen flat; Democrats' efforts to portray Paul as different and out of touch haven’t persuaded voters, and Attorney General Jack Conway’s attack on Paul for college antics appears to have backfired. Surveys show independents are breaking toward the first-time candidate over the seasoned Democrat.

Sens. Patty Murray and Barbara Boxer, both Democrats, hold leads in internal surveys in Washington state and California, respectively.

But Republicans are optimistic that former state Sen. Dino Rossi, in the Evergreen State, and one-time Hewlett Packard executive Carly Fiorina, in the Golden State, can pull off wins. Rossi is from the right part of Washington state: King County, home of Seattle and a huge portion of the state's votes. Republicans typically need to win at least 40 percent of the vote there to be competitive statewide. Fiorina, meanwhile, is running one of the more conservative campaigns in recent memory in California. She's counting on a big Republican turnout from the Central Valley, Orange County, and San Diego to overcome Boxer's margins in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Both races will be turnout battles, albeit ones in which incumbent Democrats have a decided leg up, thanks to the Left Coast states’ blue tint.

Democrats also have an advantage in West Virginia, where Gov. Joe Manchin (D) has distanced himself from President Obama. Manchin's small but significant lead is thanks in part to a gaffe by the National Republican Senatorial Committee -- an ad that appeared to label West Virginians "hicky." But it's notable that Manchin will run 15 to 20 points behind his still-high favorable rating, thanks to the unpopularity of Democrats and, especially, President Obama, in the Mountaineer State.

Both public and private polls show races in Illinois and Pennsylvania statistically tied. In Illinois, Democrats have a weak general election candidate in Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, but although Republicans have attacked Giannoulias for his connection to a failed family bank, they now say the most effective closing argument will be to focus on the state's struggling economy. Rep. Mark Kirk (R) is polling far ahead on those issues, and he'll need a big turnout from downstate to overcome a still-active, if weakened, machine in the Chicagoland area.

Republicans thought they had Pennsylvania in the bag. A month ago, former GOP Rep. Pat Toomey's lead hovered in the high single digits, and Rep. Joe Sestak (D) was spinning his wheels. But Sestak has a habit of coming back from deficits, and in recent weeks the race has tightened appreciably. Sestak began running ads highlighting Toomey's conservative record in Democratic-heavy Philadelphia while accusing the Republican of wanting to export jobs to China in the rest of the state. Now, both Republican and Democratic tracking polls have the race within the margin of error; Democratic polls show Sestak leading narrowly, while Republican polls have Toomey slightly ahead.

If any Democrats would actually benefit from facing extreme challengers, it would be Sens. Harry Reid and Michael Bennet, in Nevada and Colorado. Reid's opponent, former Assemblywoman Sharron Angle, has made enough controversial statements that the Reid campaign has debuted a new one in a harsh ad virtually every week since Angle won the GOP primary. And Bennet's rival, Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck, has made controversial statements on the environment and climate change in a state in which environmental issues matter more than most.

But both races remain tight. Outside conservative groups see Reid's seat as a trophy, and Angle's own strong fundraising has put them on even footing. Reid is deeply unpopular; his efforts to make Angle more so have worked, but only enough to make this race a pure toss-up in which a final error by either of the two contenders could prove fatal. Most Nevadans will vote early, and Democrats' superior organization could be worth a few percentage points for Reid.

Both Bennet and Buck have net-unfavorable ratings as well, and outside groups are dumping money into Colorado at extraordinary rates. Buck is diving to his right in an apparent attempt to turn out the GOP base, but his comments questioning climate science and whether or not homosexuality is a choice have only given Bennet fresh fodder. In truth, neither side feels bullish about the race. Other Republican candidates, like Fiorina and Toomey, have avoided talking about social issues; Buck has not, and it has hurt.

Republicans will have a positive night in the Senate, but rumors of their ability to win back the majority have been greatly exaggerated. Even NRSC Chair John Cornyn has maintained, from the first day of the cycle, that the majority is a two-cycle process.

While the GOP is likely to win four seats, in North Dakota, Indiana, Arkansas and Wisconsin, they would have to run the table in Washington, California, West Virginia, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Colorado and Nevada -- all of which present significant challenges.

In wave elections, as we face in 2010, marginal Senate seats tend to break overwhelmingly for the party that rides the crest. If that's the case, Republicans have a good chance to win most of the toss-up contests. But with a week to go, Democrats are finally using their campaign money in an attempt to put races away, while outside organizations and the NRSC bolster their own contenders.

Both sides had better hope their forecasts for next week are more accurate than the ones they made in September.

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