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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.

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Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

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.

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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.

Don't Miss Today's Top Stories

Chock full of usable information on today's issues."

Michael, Executive Director

Concise coverage of everything I wish I had hours to read about."

Chuck, Graduate Student

The day's action in one quick read."

Stacy, Director of Communications

Great way to keep up with Washington"

Ray, Professor of Economics

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