GOP Still Sees Gains in November Despite Tightening Races

The midterm Senate polls show several races tightening, with Democrats making key gains in the most decisive races. Factors in the individual states are responsible for these changes, but the passage of the health care bill is probably playing a role as well.

The media’s attention is no longer solely focused on this losing issue for Democrats, which amounted to a 24-7 free negative advertisement that benefited Republicans. However, at the same time, it is quite possible that the polls are underestimating turnout by Republicans and fiscally conservative independents, making a number of contests turn into dramatic horse races at this time.

The GOP currently has 41 seats, so a pickup of 10 seats are needed for the Senate to flip. To take the Senate, the Republicans will almost certainly have to hold all of their current seats. If they do not, then it is a sign that the predicted conservative tidal wave has been greatly exaggerated. Of these, the Democrats will focus on two races: Kentucky and Ohio -- the latter of which will be a real fight. The controversy over Rand Paul’s comments on civil rights has caused some hope for the Democrats in Kentucky. One poll has Paul up by only three points, but this appears to be an outlier as the survey was sponsored by the Daily Kos. Kentucky is a solid GOP state, so this one can still be considered safe.

There are currently three tiers of races that get progressively more difficult for the GOP to win. The easy races in the first tier are in Delaware, Arkansas, North Dakota, and Indiana. It is highly unlikely that the GOP will walk away from the November elections without 44 seats at the very least.

The second tier races have been favorable for the Republicans, although they have tightened -- in some cases, dramatically. The Republicans can be most optimistic about Illinois, where Mark Kirk seems to have established a solid lead of an average of five points, although revelations about "misstating" his military record may change that. But the Democrats have surged in Nevada, Colorado, and Pennsylvania after sizable Republican leads have disappeared. In a stunning comeback, Harry Reid is now statistically tied with the Republican candidates in one poll. It remains to be seen if this was a fluke.

Colorado was considered safe, but Jane Norton is only ahead of Michael Bennett by an average of one point (and losing slightly in some polls) and polls show Ken Buck would lose if he were the nominee. In Pennsylvania, Republican Pat Toomey had a secure, growing lead as the Democratic primary fight waged, but has begun losing ground to Joe Sestak. The key question is whether Sestak's victory bounce will dissipate. In Ohio, Democrat Lee Fisher has held a small but consistent lead over GOP nominee Rob Portman since April.

This means that according to the RealClearPolitics poll averages, if all the Senate elections were held today, the Republicans would gain seven seats for a total of 48. This is still a victory for the GOP, but it is not the takeover that is very much within reach. With expectations so high for the opposition, such a result would actually be a morale boost for the DNC.

Should the Republicans manage to hold onto all of their seats and win all of the first and second tier races, they will have 49 seats. This means they have to win two of the races in the third tier, or only one if Independent Senator Joe Lieberman caucuses with the Republicans. If there is a 50-50 split, he gets to decide which party controls the Senate.

To be safe, the Republicans must defeat two of the following five Democratic senators (in order of difficulty): Russ Feingold in Wisconsin, Patty Murray in Washington, Barbara Boxer in California, Richard Blumenthal in Connecticut, and Kirsten Gillibrand in New York.

The Republicans would be wise to shift their resources away from New York and Connecticut. George Pataki’s decision not to run against Gillibrand took away a probable Republican pickup, and she is ahead of her challengers by an average of 23 points. In Connecticut, one Rasmussen poll showed Linda McMahon within striking distance of Blumenthal following the New York Times report on his lying about serving in Vietnam, but this gap will widen as the media moves onto other stories, McMahon is consistently attacked, and the Democratic Party registration advantage kicks in as the race closes. At any rate, two polls showed Blumenthal still leading by 19 to 25 points after the scandal broke. Forget these two.

The decision by Tommy Thompson not to challenge Feingold makes things more difficult for the GOP in Wisconsin, but the latest Rasmussen poll finds Rob Johnson behind by only two points and his name recognition is still substantially below that of Feingold. In Washington, Murray is ahead of Dino Rossi by an average of three points. In California, Boxer is ahead of Tom Campbell by 5.2 points, Carly Fiorina by 7 points, and Chuck DeVore by 8. The GOP can smile at these polls, but they need to remember that the Democrats far outnumber the Republicans in these states. Generally, as races close, the party with the ID advantage sees a surge as their ranks come together.

Democrats have good reason to believe they’ll hold onto the Senate now that the upward trend of the Republican candidates has stalled, but they must face the fact that they may face greater turnout than these polls consider. The Republicans can appreciate that a number of races have become very competitive, some of which were nearly written off a year ago. However, they must recognize that their momentum couldn’t continue forever. This is going to be a nail-biter for everyone.