The Race for the Senate: Who Will Come Out on Top?
For all the intense focus on the nail-biting presidential campaign, the upper chamber of Congress also has several races coming down to the wire that could possibly shift the legislative balance of power.
Like the presidential race, both the National Republican Senatorial Committee, helmed by Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, currently chaired by Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), are expressing confidence for a strong showing going into Tuesday. Both are begging for last-minute cash from donors. And both are taking 11th-hour stabs at muddying the challengers.
Predictions are a best educated guess minus favoritism. So let's take a look at the toss-up races -- and add your own predictions in the comments section.
Virginia: I've been saying that this is a race that could actually drive more voters to the polls than the presidential contest here because of the strong partisans running and the strong partisan rivalry they evoke; I see more yard signs and bumperstickers for the Senate race than for POTUS. Former DNC chairman and Gov. Tim Kaine is running against former GOP Sen. George Allen to claim the seat being vacated by retiring Sen. Jim Webb (D). Both men have extensive records in the state that have provided plenty of fodder for targeted advertising that has spared no blows (except, well, reliving the "macaca" moment -- haven't seen an ad with that). The Real Clear Politics polling average has Kaine at one point over Allen. This includes a Washington Post poll last week that gave Kaine a 7-point advantage and a Rasmussen Report favoring Kaine by one. Many point to Gov. Bob McDonnell's popularity, as Kaine's successor, and wide margin of victory over state Sen. Creigh Deeds in 2009 -- along with Allen's very narrow loss to Webb six years ago -- as proof that Allen can slide to victory. But in the political world, Webb is no Kaine, as Allen is no McDonald. I give the edge here to Kaine.
Arizona: Too late now to wonder if Sen. Jon Kyl decided to retire in hopes of picking up a VP nod, as was suspected by many. But the race to succeed the three-term Republican is rated a toss-up between Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and former Surgeon General Richard Carmona. This is both Goldwater country and Gabby Giffords country. Flake, an anti-pork crusader who regularly sends out punny comparisons of the national debt (i.e. “It's par for the course for Congress to keep spending, but eventually we are going to end up in the rough"), has outspent Carmona and accused his challenger of having "issues with anger, with ethics, and with women." Carmona ran an ad suggesting Kyl and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) like him better (they don't) and the DSCC ran an ad with a breast cancer survivor accusing Flake of voting against cancer patients. This race hasn't shown the best side of anyone. Though Carmona has caught up to Flake in the last month of the race, I think Flake will pull out the win on this one.
Massachusetts: Oh, what a contest this has been. With a few well-placed references to Consumer Financial Protection Bureau founder Elizabeth Warren's claims of Cherokee heritage, Brown kept himself fairly competitive in the race. But Warren, who got a nice spotlight at the Democratic National Convention, has kept a 4.5 point average advantage over GOP Sen. Scott Brown this month. Brown shocked Washington -- yes, even more than with his collegiate Cosmo centerfold shoot -- by winning the seat left vacant by late Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.). But my guess is that Sen. Brown will have to pack up his D.C. office after Tuesday.
Montana: It's a tight race up in Big Sky Country in Rep. Denny Rehberg's quest to oust Democratic incumbent Sen. Jon Tester. Both are rough and tumble ranch guys who like to stress their guns and freedom messages. Montana is a state that likes its union Democrats but it doesn't like President Obama -- only 40 percent approval for POTUS here. Tester has only a 42 percent approval rating and Rehberg's is at 41 percent. Libertarian Dan Cox has been chipping away at vote totals, garnering 8 percent in the latest Public Policy Polling survey of the race. And while it will be very close, I think Rehberg can win this one.
Connecticut: The last communique from the NRSC on this race to fill the seat of retiring Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) was at the end of September. "This one has Democrats scrambling… Republican candidate Linda McMahon just keeps on moving up in the polls against liberal Congressman Chris Murphy, to the point where this is now a dead heat," it said. "Linda McMahon needs to become the next Republican Senator from Connecticut in an upset victory." The professional wrestling magnate tried for the Senate in 2010 but lost to Richard Blumenthal (D) by 12 percent. This time it's closer as she faces Murphy, and she's even run an ad in which black supporters tell voters it's OK to vote for both McMahon and Obama. But the moderate Republican stance may still not be enough. Murphy has led by a 4-point average in the polls this month. I give the edge to Murphy on this race, but leave room for a possible -- not probable -- McMahon upset.
Nevada: Dean Heller was plucked from the lower chamber to fill the seat vacated by scandalous Sen. John Ensign, who resigned mid-term. Now Heller is running to keep that seat, and is being challenged by longtime Vegas Rep. Shelley Berkley. Berkely is the target of an ethics probe delving into whether she pushed for policy that would mean financial gain for her family, particularly centering around her husband's medical practice. Still, she's stayed on Heller's heels in this tight race. Much of this will come down to whether voters think a political appointee has delivered enough to be elected in his own right. I think Heller will pull this off.
Missouri: I'm assuming we don't need to relive Rep. Todd Akin's August "legitimate rape" and pregnancy doc comments here. Republicans ran from the congressman, the NRSC and the RNC pulled funding, and a dogpile of partisans urged him to drop out of the race because beating Sen. Claire McCaskill was the first priority. Akin stubbornly refused to drop out and pulled conservatives Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), Mike Huckabee, and Newt Gingrich to his side. And he hasn't run from his own comments: Akin's new ad features a rape survivor explaining why she's voting for him, and McCaskill's new ad features Mitt Romney denouncing him. McCaskill leads by a 5-point average, and just suffered a personal tragedy that could turn voters sympathetic in this nasty campaign. She canceled campaign events last week before her mother, Betty Anne McCaskill, passed away. The first women elected to the Columbia, Mo., City Council, the elder McCaskill may help evoke some Democratic dynasty feelings around the senator's campaign. I think in the end this race will go to the incumbent.
Indiana: This race moved from a safe GOP seat to the toss-up category with the defeat of longtime Sen. Richard Lugar in the primary. Rep. Joe Donnelly (D) is an anti-abortion Blue Dog Democrat. State treasurer Richard Mourdock is a conservative backed by the Tea Party who wants to mix things up in Washington. Internal polling by the Dems shows Donnelly up by 9 points, and internal GOP polling shows a dead heat. In a televised debate on Oct. 23, Mourdock said he believes "even if life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen." Dems pounced and Mourdock ably explained his pro-life convictions. Unlike Akin, there was no throwing under the bus and NRSC chairman John Cornyn (R-Texas) put out a statement supporting Mourdock. I think this one will be tight, perhaps recount-tight. Mourdock will likely edge out Donnelly, who doesn't have the same grass-roots mobilization in a state that leans Republican. I won't be surprised if the race does fall Dem, though.
North Dakota: GOP Rep. Rick Berg is challenging former Attorney General Heidi Heitekamp for the seat being vacated by retiring Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.). The state had the same Democratic senators for many years: Conrad and Byron Dorgan. Then in 2010, former Gov. John Hoeven, a Republican, replaced the retiring Dorgan. Berg has been one of the House Republicans in the forefront of drawing attention to the wildly successful fracking boom in his state's Bakken oil fields. With such benefits reaped from an operation so supported by Republicans, it's hard to see this race going to the Dems. Heitkamp has been hanging in there in the polls, but I'd call this one for Berg.
Ohio: I saw many tweets last night hoping that the senator caught up in the sex scandal allegations would be incumbent Democrat Sherrod Brown, who is being challenged by state treasurer Josh Mandel. Brown is liberal. Mandel is conservative. The state is moderate -- that's why it's the coveted be-all, end-all swing state. Presidential turnout is definitely going to influence this race, where Brown now has a 5.5 point polling average on his young challenger. The GOP has been pouring money into this race to take out Brown. But I predict Brown will hold on to his seat.
Wisconsin: Here's another tight race, this one for retiring Sen. Herb Kohl's (D) seat. It's Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D) versus former Gov. Tommy Thompson, a popular Republican and former Health and Human Services secretary. Obama stomped Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) here in 2008, but GOP Gov. Scott Walker's survival against a union-led recall effort and a thinner poll margin favoring Obama suggest that "too liberal" is not in. This is probably one of the better pickup opportunities for the GOP, and I'm going to predict Thompson can pull it off.
Florida: GOP Rep. Connie Mack has been a strong foe of tyrants such as Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro, and Mack has been courting the same Cuban voters who helped Marco Rubio ascend to the Senate. Not to mention, Mack and Mary Bono (R-Calif.) are the cutest couple in the House. However, Mack's never been quite able to catch up to incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson (D). I think Nelson will keep his seat.
Nebraska: Former governor and Sen. Bob Kerrey (D) is aiming to be the comeback kid here in a quest to fill the seat being vacated by retiring Sen. Ben Nelson, a conservative Dem who found it was time to retire after giving in as the deciding vote for ObamaCare. Kerrey just won the endorsement of Chuck Hagel, a two-term former GOP senator from the state. The numbers are in favor of state senator Deb Fischer, who's getting a hand from McCain and conservative groups. Fischer should win this race. If there's going to be a "who says you can't go back" upset on election night, though, it would probably be here with a Kerrey win.
Pennsylvania: Sen. Bob Casey (D), son of the state's late former governor, is being challenged by GOP CEO Tom Smith, who rounds out the trifecta of candidates who have gotten into hot water over comments concerning rape this election cycle. Republican campaign officials have shown great interest in a possible upset here. Recent polls have showed Smith gaining ground on Casey, who had a comfortable lead for most of the race (and thus probably forgot to, like, campaign). Pennsylvania elected a Republican in 2010, Sen. Pat Toomey, who edged out a Democrat who wasn't a good campaigner, Rep. Joe Sestak. But I'm guessing that Casey got his wake-up call and this seat will stay blue.