GOP Senate Prospects Still Lagging

At the start of the year, conservatives opposed to ObamaCare believed there were two realistic paths to overturning the administration’s signature piece of legislation from the president’s first term. The first was a decision by the Supreme Court to invalidate the legislation. The other was for the GOP to retain control of the House in the 2012 election, take back control of the Senate,  win the White House, and then use the budget reconciliation process in 2013 to undo much of the law. It now appears that for a brief period in the spring the Supreme Court was ready to rule the bill unconstitutional, until Chief Justice Roberts flipped his vote to preserve the law.

The remaining electoral path does not, at the moment, appear promising.

Early in 2012,  the Republicans seemed to have a good chance of holding the House and winning back control of the Senate. Taking back the White House was  always a tougher challenge, running against a well-funded, personally popular incumbent. Now, less than four weeks from Election Day, the GOP appears to be in good shape in terms of maintaining its majority in the House, even if Republicans lose a few seats from the current majority, most likely in Illinois, New York, Florida, and California. Mitt Romney has mounted a strong comeback after a tough September and pulled about even in the presidential race, after a wipeout of the president in their initial head-to-head debate in Denver. But the Romney comeback has not been matched by any apparent improvement in the chances for several GOP Senate contenders who have slipped badly in recent months.

Starting with Scott Brown’s upset victory in the special election in Massachusetts, the Republicans went on to gain seven Senate seats in the 2010 cycle to get to 47. Some of the gains were in blue states such as Illinois and Pennsylvania. Three more winnable seats — in Delaware, Nevada, and Colorado —  were  lost due to weaker candidates winning Republican primaries and then losing in the general election. The worst of the blown opportunities were  in Delaware and Nevada.

To win a Senate majority, the Republicans started the year needing to win a net of three seats, assuming a Republican won the White House (with the VP breaking a 50-50 tie), or four if Obama held on and won re-election. With 33 Senate seats being contested, 23 of them held by Democrats, it appeared that 2012 was a target-rich environment for Republicans.

Only two Republican-held seats appeared to be in serious jeopardy: Dean Heller (an appointed senator) in Nevada and Scott Brown in very Democratic Massachusetts. Then Olympia Snowe, Maine’s popular Republican senator, announced she would not run for re-election and former Governor Angus King entered the race as an independent (but one likely to caucus with Democrats if he wins). Maine is a state where independents  run very well, and King shot out to a big lead. While Republican Charlie Summers has run a good campaign, he  trails by over 10 points, as Democrats in the state have abandoned their own nominee, Cynthia Dill, and moved to support King to prevent a GOP victory.

Two other GOP-held seats that seemed safe in the spring, in Indiana and Arizona, are now very competitive. The GOP nominees — Richard Mourdock in Indiana (who took down longtime Senator Richard Lugar in a bitter primary battle) and Jeff Flake in Arizona — are each very narrowly ahead. Mourdock appears slightly  more at risk running against Congressman Joe Donnelly, as many former Lugar backers have refused to move to Mourdock.

In Arizona, the Democrats nominated Richard Carmona, a Puerto Rican, to run in a 30% Latino state. As a former surgeon general in the Bush White House,  he has crossover appeal running against Flake, a staunch conservative on the budget. Big money is pouring into both races from each party’s Senate campaign committee and outside groups. Mitt Romney may win each state by 10 or more points, which may be the best thing going for both Mourdock and Flake, though so far the Romney coattails are not helping much.

In the two states where the GOP expected a challenge, Heller is doing better in Nevada (a few points up on Congresswoman Shelley Berkley) than Scott Brown is doing in Massachusetts (a few points down to Harvard Law professor Elizabeth Warren). Brown’s biggest problem is that most Massachusetts voters want the Democrats to retain control of the Senate, though voters seem to like Brown much better than Warren, a candidate tarnished by lies about her alleged Native American ancestry (“Fauxcahontas,” as Warren was named by Mark Steyn).

The GOP will almost certainly win the Nebraska seat now held by retiring Democrat Ben Nelson. Deb Fischer is well ahead of Bob Kerrey, the former senator and governor. Two other seats that seemed like easy pickups for the Republicans a few months back are now more problematic. Republican Congressman Rick Berg is only slightly ahead in Republican-leaning North Dakota in an open-seat race against Heidi Heitkamp. In Missouri, Democrat Senator Claire McCaskill appeared to be the most vulnerable Democrat running for re-election this cycle until  an anti-abortion crusader, Congressman Todd Akin, won a three-way GOP primary.

Within days of his primary victory,  Akin put his foot deep into his mouth with inane comments about forcible rape and how women’s bodies respond to rape. After McCaskill took a solid lead,  the national Republican Party tried to convince Akin to drop out so that a candidate who would have a much better chance of winning could be selected to replace him and pick up the seat. Akin, bolstered by Mike Huckabee and other social conservatives, decided to stay in the race. At the moment, Akin is  trailing by  several points and is being badly outspent. There is a chance Akin can win if Romney wins big in Missouri and if some voters are lying to pollsters, perhaps too embarrassed to admit they are for Akin.

The GOP has a decent shot at picking up the Montana seat held by Jon Tester. Congressman Denny Rehberg has a small lead in a state where Romney is doing very well. Two other open-seat races that looked like tossups a few months back are now leaning to the Democrats. The biggest surprise is in Wisconsin , where a left-wing congresswoman, Tammy Baldwin, has opened up a lead over former Governor Tommy Thompson. So, too, in Virginia, former Governor Tim Kaine is running a few points ahead of former Republican Senator and Governor George Allen. For some former supporters, both Thompson and  Allen  seem to have passed their sell-by date.

The GOP came up with good candidates in two heavily Democratic states — Heather Wilson in New Mexico and Governor Linda Lingle in Hawaii — but both are well behind (10 points or more) their Democratic opponents in open-seat races. Florida seemed a good pickup opportunity, but Republican Congressman Connie Mack has been behind Senator Bill Nelson for months. Mitt Romney has opened up a lead in Florida and could give a bit of a boost to Mack down the stretch, but Mack still trails Nelson by high single digits.

In three other races, GOP contenders are making a spirited fight and one might spring an upset. State Treasurer Josh Mandel is a few points behind Democrat Senator Sherrod Brown in Ohio, but the gap has narrowed recently as Romney has gained in the state after the debate. In neighboring Pennsylvania, Democrat Bob Casey has a shrinking lead over challenger Tom Smith in a race that few thought would be competitive a few months back. Finally in Connecticut, Democrat Congressman Chris Smith has opened up a small lead over Republican Linda McMahon, the World Wrestling Federation executive, in a state where Barack Obama is underperforming this year, winning by a much smaller margin than in 2008.

The best bet is that the GOP will wind up with 48 seats, picking up Nebraska, North Dakota, and Montana, and losing Maine and Massachusetts. This assumes Republicans hold Nevada, Indiana, and Arizona — all a bit shaky at the moment. The GOP could do better than 48, and the best chance for that is for Scott Brown to hold onto his seat in Massachusetts. Additional gains  could come from Wisconsin, Virginia, Missouri, Ohio, and Connecticut — all states where the Democrat is now ahead. The GOP range at the end of the day could be 43 to 54, but more likely 46 to 51 . The possibility that the GOP could lose seats this cycle did not seem likely a few months back, but now it is as likely as getting a majority.