Senate Races to Watch Tuesday

Photograph by Jeff Roberson/AP Photo

Sen. Claire McCaskill steps off her campaign bus to speak to the media outside Bayless Elementary School, on Oct. 31, 2012, in St. Louis County, Mo.

With Greg Giroux and Emma Fidel

President Barack Obama put it succinctly in 2010: the Democrats suffered a “shellacking” in the mid-terms, and he took the blame.

Republicans won a net gain of 63 seats in the House, their biggest since 1938. The Republican Party is expected to keep control of the House this cycle, with analysts predicting Democrats will end up short of a majority by at least a dozen seats (they would need a net gain of 25 seats to reach a 218-seat majority).

But what about the Senate?

Republicans picked up a net gain of six seats in 2010′s smack-down, which led to great optimism about their chances to take back control of the chamber in this cycle. After all, on Nov. 6 Democrats have to defend 23 of the 33 seats up for grabs. But then 2012 happened. Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine said she’d had enough. Sen. Dick Lugar lost in his primary to Indiana’s Richard Mourdock. Then Mourdock joined Rep. Todd Akin of Missouri by jumping head first into controversy with his comments about rape. Just a few of the simple reminders that you don’t count your chickens before they’ve hatched.

Democrats now control 53 seats. Republicans need a net gain of four to take control of the Senate if Obama wins re-election, three if Republican Mitt Romney is elected – since his vice president would break any ties. Take a look at the key Senate races to watch on Tuesday – and just how close several of them are – and decide for yourself who is likely to control the Senate after Nov. 6.

1. Arizona, Carmona v. Flake

Republican Jeff Flake, a six-term congressman and reformer from the 6th district, is facing Democrat Richard Carmona, a former U.S. Surgeon General under President George W. Bush and a decorated Vietnam War vet. The increasingly bitter race – with numerous ads each side has dismissed as false – is over the open seat of retiring Republican Sen. Jon Kyl. One recent poll has shown Flake leading, while others show Carmona in the lead, resulting in pundits predicting it may be the closest Senate race the state has seen in decades. Even support from heavy-hitters – Romney and Sens .John McCain and Kyl for Flake, and Bill Clinton and Robert Redford for Carmona – hasn’t translated into a definitive lead for either candidate. Throw in a possible spoiler, Libertarian Marc Victor, and the race remains too close to call.

2. Connecticut, McMahon v. Murphy

Connecticut hasn’t chosen a Republican senator in more than 30 years, and has never had a female senator. With former World Wrestling Entertainment CEO Linda McMahon inching closer to Democratic Rep. Chris Murphy in the polls, the battle for Sen. Joseph Lieberman’s seat has become another race to watch. As if that weren’t dramatic enough, Murphy is hitting McMahon by painting her as someone who “demeaned women” at WWE and sides “with the most extreme Republicans to deny women health care.” McMahon, who lost her first Senate bid in 2010, has called Murphy’s accusations “totally false” and “pretty desperate,” and defended WWE’s health policies. The state recently moved into the “tossup” column from “leans blue” on Cook Political Report.

3. Indiana, Donnelly v. Mourdock

Indiana is a Republican-leaning state where the unexpectedly close Senate race is giving party strategists some heartburn. Sen. Richard Lugar would have been a near-prohibitive favorite over Democratic Rep. Joe Donnelly, who was given the gift of a Lugar loss to state Treasurer Richard Mourdock in the spring primary. Then during an Oct. 23 televised debate, Mourdock created a controversy as well as an unexpected opening for Donnelly, saying a pregnancy as a result of rape is “something God intended.” Days before, Romney had cut a television ad for Mourdock; he has stood by his support for the candidate. With Obama likely to lose Indiana, Democrats are arguing Mourdock’s views are out of step with the state while Republicans are doing everything they can to tie Donnelly to the administration.

4. Maine, Dill v. King v. Summers

Republican Olympia Snowe’s unexpected retirement announcement in February spawned a competitive race with three candidates. The favorite is Angus King, the state’s independent governor from 1995 to 2003, who bemoans partisan strife in today’s Senate. Republican groups backing Maine Secretary of State Charlie Summers have attacked King, a sign that they expect him to caucus with Senate Democrats if he wins. A Republican super-PAC has even run ads praising the Democratic nominee, state Sen. Cynthia Dill, who’s running a distant third in polls that show most Democrats backing King. Republicans want enough Democrats to shift to Dill from King to allow Summers to win with a plurality. According to Real Clear Politics (RCP) polling average, King is maintaining a comfortable lead in polls.

5. Massachusetts, Brown v. Warren

Character attacks and race-fueled controversies are defining this closely-followed and unusually expensive Massachusetts race. Republican incumbent Scott Brown is up against Democrat Elizabeth Warren for the late Sen.Ted Kennedy’s seat. Brown, a former state lawmaker, has questioned Warren’s claims of Native American heritage and consumer advocacy, saying she was a “hired gun” for corporations. Warren, a Harvard Law professor, has defended her background and fired back at Brown, arguing that his record does not support his claims of bipartisanism. While Brown led in polls through the summer, the state is now leaning toward Warren by a few points in most polls.

6. Missouri, Akin v. McCaskill

Two words effectively scuttled Akin’s campaign to unseat Sen. Claire McCaskill, who had been one of the most vulnerable senators seeking re-election this year. Akin told a Missouri television interviewer in August that “legitimate rape” rarely leads to pregnancy, igniting a storm of criticism and making him a pariah to high-profile party leaders, as well as national Republican groups like the National Republican Senatorial Committee and Karl Rove’s Crossroads groups, which then declined to spend any money on his behalf. However, the source of a several hundred thousand dollar, last-minute ad buy in the state benefitting Akin hasn’t been disclosed. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has called on the NRSC to disclose if they funded the ads.

Akin may keep it close, given Missouri’s Republican lean in presidential elections, though it’s hard to see a path to victory for him with McCaskill now favored to keep the seat. But her campaign isn’t taking any chances, airing television ads and releasing statements attacking Akin for some of his more controversial votes.

7. Montana, Rehberg v. Tester

Jon Tester is the most vulnerable Democratic senator, partly because he’s sharing a ballot in a year when Obama is likely to lose Montana. Tester also has an experienced and determined Republican opponent in Denny Rehberg, who’s represented Montana’s at-large district for a dozen years and was lieutenant governor and a Senate candidate before that. Rehberg has regularly attacked Tester for siding too frequently with Obama administration initiatives, including on the 2010 health-care law. Tester says Rehberg backs a “voucher” system to overhaul Medicare. The candidates and outside groups have aired ads tens of thousands of times in Montana, where it isn’t prohibitively expensive to campaign. RCP polling average has the two men virtually tied.

8. Nevada, Berkley v. Heller

In one of the most contentious races this year, Dean Heller and allied Republican groups have attacked Shelly Berkley’s ethical behavior and her vote for the 2010 health-care overhaul, while the congresswoman has been critical of the senator’s votes for a budget blueprint proposed by Republican vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan that would overhaul Medicare. Heller and Berkley, who served together in the House, are competing for the attention of voters bombarded from messages from Obama and Romney, who are campaigning full-bore in the this swing state. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who’s built up a formidable political network in Nevada over the past few decades, has an interest in helping Berkley win that is both parochial and political, as the outcome will help determine whether he keeps his title as the top-ranking senator.

9. North Dakota, Berg v. Heitkamp

That Democrats have a 50-50 shot of keeping retiring Democrat Kent Conrad’s seat in North Dakota, a state likely to vote Republican for president for the 12th straight election, is testimony to how candidate quality matters. Even Republican strategists acknowledge that Heidi Heitkamp, the state’s former Attorney General and a breast cancer survivor, is a popular figure in North Dakota, and she’s currently leading in polls by a few points. She’s run ads emphasizing her independence, saying she breaks with Obama to support a balanced-budget amendment and the Keystone XL oil pipeline and to oppose a cap-and-trade system to curb carbon emissions. The Republican nominee, one-term at-large Representative Rick Berg, is trying to link her to Obama and his 2010 health-care overhaul.

10. Ohio, Brown v. Mandel

Ohio is once again in the national spotlight as a swing state, and probable decider in the presidential race – and is inundated with television ads by as many as 89 outside groups, including many that hide the identities of their donors. Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown is the overwhelming target, being accused in many of those ads of joining Obama in waging a “war on coal.” This spending has helped to give a boost to Brown’s opponent, State Treasurer Josh Mandel, who has raised $14.5 million to Brown’s $20.5 million, but outside spending has favored Mandel about 4 to 1. Most polls, though, show an edge for Brown in the race.

11. Virginia, Allen v. Kaine

In this battle between former governors, Democrat Tim Kaine and Republican George Allen are running an unusual race. The two Virginians both left office with high approval ratings, both have messages on the economy and government that are almost identical to their parties’ presidential candidates’ and both had polled at about 46 percent – that is, until Kaine jumped up to 53 percent last month, according to a Washington Post poll. However, like the presidential race, the polls have tightened recently to within a point, according to the latest RealClearPolitics average. The Virginia Senate seat may be decided by a small percentage of independent voters and by Republicans’ ability to win over female voters, again mirroring the presidential race in the state.

12. Wisconsin, Baldwin v. Thompson

A generation separates Tommy Thompson, who turns 71 on Nov. 19, from Rep. Tammy Baldwin, 50. Thompson is one of Wisconsin’s most enduring politicians, with political service dating to the mid-1960s and including a 14-year run as governor. Yet he hasn’t appeared on a Wisconsin ballot since 1998, when Baldwin was first elected to Congress, and he made a short-lived bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008. Democrats have attacked Thompson’s work as a lobbyist since leaving political life. Republicans say Baldwin’s voting record is too party-line even for Wisconsin. Polls have Baldwin up by a few points, and if she wins, she would become the first lesbian ever elected to the Senate.

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