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Mid-August Check on the Senate Races

With most of the primary elections for down-ticket races all but over, it is time to take stock of the Senate races and possible control of the upper chamber. First, let’s dispense with some of the obvious races although they may change by the time November rolls around albeit the chances of that happening are quite low. For the Democratic Party, they will likely win in California (Diane Feinstein), Maryland (Ben Cardin), Bernie Sanders (Vermont), Delaware (Tom Carper) and Rhode Island (Sheldon Whitehouse). If there is any chance of a Republican making one of these races interesting, it may be in Rhode Island which I believe may be closer than most pundits currently have it. Whitehouse is perhaps one of the most liberal members of the Senate (he runs neck and neck with Sherrod Brown of Ohio for that dubious honor). That uber-liberalism coupled with low favorability ratings in his home state may open an opportunity for the GOP here. The obvious Republican seat victories are: Roger Wicker in Mississipi, Tom Barrasso in Wyoming, Bob Corker in Tennessee, and Orrin Hatch in Utah. No Democrat threatens these seats.

In Maine, it will be a three-horse race between Democrat Cynthia Dill, Republican Charles Summers and independent Angus King, the former Governor. Most polls have King ahead at this point and he has sent signals that he will likely caucus with the Democrats. This is an open Republican seat due to the surprise retirement of Olympia Snowe. But before anyone get their hopes down, in a three-horse race the result will obviously be a plurality Senator with no one getting more than 50% of the vote. When this happens, anything can happen. If King and Dill somehow split votes that would normally go to a Democrat while Republicans stick to their guns, Summers could sneak in there as that plurality winner. Early prediction: Angus King (Independent-caucus with Democrats)

In Connecticut, an open “Democratic seat” is up for grabs. Chris Murphy, the 5th District Congressman, won his primary for the Democrats while Linda McMahon will take another run for the Senate having lost in 2010. Murphy has been groomed for this job for some time now. While Chris Shays may have been a better GOP fit for Connecticut, Linda McMahon made no race of the primary and won never looking back. No one doubts her financial advantage. But, looking at the race realistically, Murphy is somewhat positioned as a non-ideologue Democrat. Meanwhile, McMahon lost by over 11 percentage points in 2010 despite outspending her opponent by over a 6:1 margin. McMahon’s candidacy in 2010 is proof that the candidate that spends more is not guaranteed a victory- a poster child in support of Citizen’s United. This fact, coupled with the fact that 2010 was a more favorable year for the GOP overall, would indicate that McMahon is headed for another defeat. Early Prediction: Chris Murphy (Democrat)

The Massachusetts race is vitally important if the Republicans are to have a shot at the Senate. A King or Dill victory in Maine and a Brown loss in Massachusetts would really make it more difficult to take control of the Senate. Scott Brown is perhaps the prototypical Republican fit for a blue state like Massachusetts. The question now is whether his opponent, Elizabeth Warren, is too liberal in this political environment for the state. The fact that this is Massachusetts, this is the seat formerly held by Ted Kennedy and this race is essentially tied at this point with a slight edge to Brown would indicate that Elizabeth Warren may be retired to the more friendly confines of academia come November. Unless there is a monumental shift in public opinion, I would give this race to Brown. Early Prediction: Scott Brown (Republican)

Despite low favorability ratings in his home state, Robert Menendez will likely retain his Senate seat in New Jersey. Republican Joe Kyrillos, basically Christie’s choice, will run a quixotic campaign. Instead, the better chance for a GOP pick up will be in 2014 when the aged Frank Lautenberg’s seat is up for grabs and a more formidable Republican (Scott Garrett, Leonard Lance, or even Anna Little or Chris Christie) is available. Early Prediction: Robert Menendez (Democrat)

Republican Tom Smith will take on incumbent Democrat Bob Casey in Pennsylvania. Smith is a generally good guy and good candidate, but this is simply not his year and Casey is not exactly a good target. Early Prediction: Bob Casey (Democrat). Conservatives and Republicans are hopeful about taking down liberal Democrat Sherrod Brown in Ohio and their man is Josh Mandel. Despite the most recent poll having the race tied, overall polling shows a Brown victory. I believe a large portion of the outcome of this race will be based on the top of the ticket Presidential race. Brown is up an average 7.7 points in all the polls conducted since the beginning of this year with Mandel showing steady improvement as the race wears on. Only three polls of 15 conducted have Mandel either tied or within the margin of error. With the caveat that a lot can change in a short time in Ohio- Early Prediction: Sherrod Brown (Democrat).

In neighboring Indiana, only half the battle of the more conservative Republicans is won by discarding Lugar in favor of Richard Mourdock. Polling here is sparse and if one goes solely by that, it would predict a close race. In the end, I do not believe it will be that close as Mourdock, who is running a decent campaign thus far and has not hurt relations with the Republican establishment in the wake of his primary victory, will prevail. Early Prediction: Richard Mourdock (Republican)

Missouri barely went to McCain in 2008. That is not happening again this year. Outside the urban areas, this is a conservative state. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Senate race where the incumbent Democrat Claire McCaskill faces the battle of her political life against Todd Akin. Akin survived a three-person primary of equally qualified conservative choices. Even before the primary, all three led McCaskill which illustrates how precarious her incumbency is in Missouri. There will be a lot of money spent in this state as McCaskill has been identified as a vulnerable Democrat since 2010 even though she is trying to position herself as a centrist. Early Prediction: Todd Akin (Republican)

After 23 polls by a variety of sources, the race is tied in Virginia between Tim Kaine and George Allen…as in zero. Like Ohio, I think the outcome here will be predicated upon the outcome of the Presidential race, although it will be close at the end. The good news is that I am predicting a Romney victory in Virginia at this point, thus an Allen victory on his coat tails. Early Prediction: George Allen (Republican)

In Florida, Connie Mack IV has emerged as the best opponent for incumbent Democrat Bill Nelson. Like Virginia, this will be a close race. Unlike Virginia, it is not an open race and Nelson starts out with an advantage of incumbency, money, and in the polls. It will likely be closer at the end than the current 3.8 polling average is for Nelson. This race will be determined by momentum going into November. And although I believe Romney will win this state, his coat tails may not extend to Mack like they will to Allen in Virginia. Like Ohio, there may be changes, but at this point: Early Prediction- Bill Nelson (Democrat).

In Michigan, Republican challenger Pete Hoekstra’s candidacy against Debbie Stabenow has been punctuated by miscues early. It would have been interesting to see a more conservative choice to take on Stabenow given the fact she would win regardless, but it is what it is. Early Prediction: Debbie Stabenow (Democrat). Now, in neighboring Wisconsin, the story is a little different. There was much discussion on these pages and others about Mark Neumann or Tommy Thompson to take on Tammy Baldwin for an open Democratic seat. Given recent events in Wisconsin, mainly the recall effort, it is obvious that Baldwin is too liberal for that state. Conversely, it is Wisconsin and Neumann may have been too conservative. Hence, in choosing Thompson, the voters of Wisconsin did right. Early Prediction- Tommy Thompson (Republican).

Amy Klobuchar should defeat Tea Party-backed Kurt Bills in Minnesota. The GOP had nothing to lose here by choosing Bills and the best hope is that he makes the race interesting and diverts some DNC funds to defend this seat. Early prediction- Amy Klobuchar (Democrat)

In North Dakota, an open Democratic seat is up for grabs. Although the Dems think they have their person in Heidi Heitkamp, it is hard to see, given the economy in that state under Republican leadership, the Democrats keeping this seat. If for no other reason than his association with the GOP, the Republican Party will pick up a seat here. Early Prediction- Rick Berg (Republican). In Montana, the race is a little different as incumbent Democrat Jon Tester faces a tough battle against Denny Rehberg. Although polling indicates a close race, we do not see that back-and-forth evident in Massachusetts and Virginia as Rehberg has been consistently ahead. This would indicate a safe campaign thus far. Ultimately, the Democrats will throw a lot of money into Montana to save this seat. Given the current controversy in Montana regarding the influence of outside money, that may backfire on the Democrats. This is Rehberg’s race to lose. Early prediction: Denny Rehberg (Republican).

Another state where Democrats believe they have their man is Nebraska in the form of former Senator Bob Kerrey. However, Republican Deb Fischer is consistently way ahead in the polls. This is a very red state and unless Fischer makes some very serious miscues and allows Kerrey to sneak back in, there is a very large conservative shoe on his neck right now in a race for an open Democratic seat. Early prediction- Deb Fischer (Republican) Texas is a no-brainer given the disarray for the Democrats and the emergence of Ted Cruz for the GOP. Early prediction: Ted Cruz (Republican) in a cake walk.

Despite believing they have a good candidate in Shelley Berkeley in Nevada, the Democrats face an uphill battle to wrest control of this seat from incumbent Republican Dean Heller. In polling, he leads anywhere from two to as many as 11 points. In the end, the voters of Nevada will likely vote Heller in. Early prediction: Dean Heller (Republican)

John Kyl’s open Republican seat is up for grabs in neighboring Arizona. Although the Democratic opponent is pretty much set, Arizona’s primary will be held on August 28th with Jeff Flake the likely winner. Flake is a good replacement for Kyl and it is hard to see him losing this race. Early prediction- Jeff Flake (Republican)

Jeff Bingaman’s Democratic seat in New Mexico is up for grabs and will feature Martin Heinrich for the Democrats and former House member Heather Wilson for the GOP. Although we may hear murmurs of “RINO” in reference to Wilson, she is the most formidable Republican candidate in an increasingly blue New Mexico. If there is to be a surprise Republican pick-up, it would be here. However, Early Prediction- Martin Heinrich (Democrat)

Up in Washington, Democratic incumbent Maria Cantwell will take on GOP candidate Michael Baumgartner. Although Cantwell currently leads in polls by double digits, that may very well change by November. In 2010, Patty Murray was considered a more vulnerable Democratic incumbent than Cantwell in 2012. I think that given one more month in 2010, Murray would have lost. That should give Baumgartner some hope. Quite frankly, he may be a more qualified candidate than Dino Rossi was against Murray in 2010 running against a more formidable candidate in 2012. Early prediction- Maria Cantwell (Democrat).

Finally, the retirement of Democrat Daniel Akaka in Hawaii creates a strange opening for Republicans. Linda Lingle prevailed in the primary for the GOP nod in what was not even a close race at the end. Mazie Hirono will be the Democratic candidate. Lingle is the former Republican Governor of Hawaii and left office due to term limits a somewhat popular figure (for Hawaii). What makes this race interesting is that it is a seat that the Democrats take for granted and with Lingle in the race, it diverts limited resources into a state where they did not anticipate resources being spent at the beginning of this election cycle. It would be a stretch to say that Lingle will ultimately prevail here in November, but her candidacy certainly changes the money numbers game. Early prediction: Mazie Hirono (Democrat).

The final tally is a net Republican pick up of five seats (wins in MO, VA, WI, ND, MT and NE minus a loss in ME). The GOP needs a net total of four seats to take control of the Senate. They make it under this scenario with one seat to spare. Last minute victories in close states like Florida or Ohio, or even New Mexico would only strengthen that majority. Before we debate the conservative credentials of Republicans and throw around charges of RINO, we need to work together to win the Senate with as many victories as possible. That may mean biting the bullet and supporting a Heather Wilson or even Linda Lingle. The more the merrier. Later, we can work on their conservative credentials hopefully with a new Majority Leader as Mitch McConnell is eased out of that position. As Minority Leader he may be “OK,” but not as Majority Leader. That is: out with old, in with the new!

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