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The State of the Senate Races

This year, there are 33 Senate seats up for election with 23 of them currently held by Democrats or independents who caucus with Democrats (Lieberman in Connecticut and Sanders in Vermont). Currently, the Democrats control the Senate by a 53-47 margin. Of the 23 Democratic seats, seven incumbents are not running while of the ten Republican held seats, four incumbents are not running. One of those four lost their primary bid to a challenger (Lugar in Indiana). Of the four open Republican seats, two of them could be considered in jeopardy to some degree- Indiana and Maine. Conversely, six of seven open Democratic seats are in jeopardy of reverting to Republican control to some degree. Only two of six incumbent Republicans face any challenge while 4 of 16 Democratic incumbents face a challenge.

The safe Democratic incumbents are Diane Feinstein in California, Tom Carper in Delaware, Ben Cardin in Maryland, Debbie Stabenow in Michigan, Amy Klobuchar in Minnesota, Robert Menendez in New Jersey, Kirsten Gillibrand in New York, Bob Casey in Pennsylvania, Sheldon Whitehouse in Rhode Island, Bernie Sanders in Vermont, Maria Cantwell in Washington and Joe Manchin in West Virginia. If ever there was a possibility for a real surprise from among this group, it would be Sheldon Whitehouse in Rhode Island who remains somewhat unpopular there. Whether that is enough to create that surprise remains to be seen. The safe Republicans are Roger Wicker in Mississippi, Tom Corker in Tennessee, Orrin Hatch in Utah, and Tom Barrasso in Wyoming.

Looking first at the vulnerable, seriously challenged Democrats, they include Bill Nelson in Florida, Jon Tester in Montana, Claire McCaskill in Missouri and Sherrod Brown in Ohio. Since the beginning of 2012, of 18 polls, Connie Mack IV has led Bill Nelson in only three (two by the conservative-leaning Rasmussen service). Overall, Nelson averages a 4 point advantage which is dangerously close to the margin of error. However, the five most recent polls put Nelson up an average 6.4 points which indicates that any momentum enjoyed by Mack has dissipated. Although many will disagree, I would give this race to Nelson at this time. In Missouri, a sure fire GOP victory is now in question because of a stupid statement by Todd Akin. Before the infamous remark, Akin led by an average of 5.1 points- a healthy victory over an incumbent. Since then, it has turned into an average 6.7 advantage for McCaskill. Still, a concerted advertisement blitz by Akin has somewhat blunted the McCaskill surge of late. Although this should have been a slam dunk for Republicans (any viable Republican would have beaten McCaskill), the job will be more difficult, but Akin should prevail.

In Montana, Jon Tester would likely lose if the election were held today. Of only six polls thus far, Tester has led in only one. Still, Rehberg’s advantage over Tester is not that great (within the margin of error) at an overall 2.5%. A lot will depend on turnout and there are some conservative hot button issues on the Montana ballot to possibly give Rehberg that push over Tester. Hence, I would project a Republican pick-up here. Finally, there is Ohio. Here, we have a very large sample of polls since it became apparent early Josh Mandel would be the opponent. Of 18 polls, Mandel has led in none and has managed a tie in only three. Prior to August, Brown led by an average 7.8 points; since, he leads by an average of 5 points indicating momentum for Mandel. Still, at this point I would give this race to Brown.

The vulnerable Republican seats are those of Scott Brown in Massachusetts and Dean Heller in Nevada. Although most pundits classify this latter race as a toss up, I would put it more firmly in the Republican victory column at this point. Berkeley, his challenger, has failed to lead in any poll in 2012 and although they are generally overall close, Heller maintains the lead consistently indicating no momentum for Berkeley. All Heller has to do is avoid pulling an Akin and the race is his. In Massachusetts, this race has been all over the polling map. Of 16 polls, Brown has led in seven, Elizabeth Warren in seven and two were tied. In the end, Brown has probably positioned himself, ideologically, sufficiently moderate to pull out a victory over the uber-liberal, gaffe-prone, part-Cherokee Elizabeth Warren in a very blue state.

Among the open Republican seats, Maine is perhaps the most problematic with the surprise retirement of Olympia Snowe. The result is that an independent- Angus King- will likely win and caucus with the Democrats creating a de facto Democratic pick up thus negating a win in Montana or Missouri. The best hope for Republicans here is that the vote will be so split that the Republican will emerge a narrow plurality victor, but the chances of that are slim as King polls consistently over 50%. Conversely, Republican chances in Indiana are better since this state is more generally conservative than Maine. There is little polling out of Indiana, but everything points to a Mourdock victory. The happenings in Maine point to the problem of insisting on ideological purity in the Republican Party. Snowe and Collins are usually held up to scorn within the GOP, yet Scott Brown is not, although Brown is more ideologically similar to Snowe and Collins than he is to a Jim DeMint. In short, be careful what you wish for when that wish involves ideological purity.

The other two open Republican seats are in Arizona where Jeff Flake looks like he should easily defeat Rick Carmona, the Democratic challenger. Also, Ted Cruz should easily defeat the Democratic challenger Paul Sadler in Texas. Given the disarray among Texas Democrats, this is no race.

Of the open Democratic seats, only Daniel Akaka’s seat in Hawaii appears safe although Linda Lingle should, by all rights, finish a lot closer on election day than current polls indicate. If anything, it diverts Democratic funds into a state they always take for granted. The most recent two polls out of Connecticut indicate that Chris Murphy’s ascendancy to the Senate for the Democrats will not be as easy as originally envisioned. Linda McMahon certainly has the funds to put up a good fight. But, if she could not prevail despite heavy spending in 2010- a wave election year favorable to Republicans- it is hard to see her winning in 2012. Like Hawaii, it does, however, force Democratic funds into a state they once considered a slam dunk. But, don’t expect a Senator McMahon.

In Nebraska, a reliably red state, Democrats originally conceded this state to the Republicans with the retirement of Ben Nelson. Then, they believed they got their man in former Senator Bob Kerrey. Boy, were they wrong. The fact is that Kerrey has come no closer than a 10 point deficit in any poll and trails badly at this point. Hence, Debra Fischer is the next Senator from Nebraska and Kerrey could move back out of the state. Meanwhile, many considered North Dakota a GOP pick up this year in the Senate. Then, as in Nebraska, the Democrats thought they found their person in Heidi Heitkamp. Granted, North Dakota is not as conservative as Nebraska, but it is hard to see how a state with perhaps the best economy in the Nation headed by Republicans will send a Democrat to the Senate in 2012. All Heitkamp does is make the race closer than it would ordinarily be which is good since it keeps Rick Berg on his toes. Count North Dakota as a Republican pick-up also.

In Wisconsin, voters chose former Governor Tommy Thompson to run against Tammy Baldwin. Given recent events in Wisconsin, especially the recall victory of Scott Walker, and given the fact that Thompson is sufficiently moderate to appeal to independents while Baldwin is too liberal, Thompson appears poised to win. Of 12 polls thus far, Baldwin has led in only two (by PPP, of course) while one was a tie. Regardless, everything points to a Thompson victory and a GOP pick up in Wisconsin.

Of all the western states not on the Left Coast, New Mexico has probably drifted the most into the Democratic column of late. Here, Martin Heinrich will square off against moderate former GOP Representative Heather Wilson. OK- Wilson has not led in any of the seven major polls thus far and trails by an average of 5.1 points overall. The most recent poll puts her down by seven points. However, if ever there was chance for a Republican surprise victory, it is here in New Mexico. Considering that she is sufficiently moderate for a Republican in a light blue state, has name recognition, and the backing of popular Republican Governor Susanna Martinez, I am going to go out on a huge limb and predict an equally huge surprising victory for Wilson in New Mexico.

That leaves what can only be described as a barn burner of a race in Virginia between Tim Kaine and George Allen. Of 23 polls conducted thus far, this race is a dead heat as in ZERO difference between either candidate. Although it will be close at the end, I firmly believe that a down-ticket effect will prevail here. While Howard Dean can smugly predict an Obama victory in Virginia, I think Romney will sweep the south including Virginia. That should translate into enough votes to push Allen over the top on Election Day.

To conclude, the Republican Party picks up seats in Montana, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Virginia, New Mexico and Wisconsin- seven in all, while losing a seat in Maine for a net total of a six-seat pick up and control of the Senate 53-47. That gives them a two seat margin of error at this point. As in past analysis, the main goal of the GOP going forward is whether Mitch McConnell is the right man to be Majority Leader.

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