Senate Races Shifting

September is bringing a detectable change among the nation’s 37 Senate races.  Heretofore, conventional wisdom promulgated that the Republicans could not possibly gain the Senate majority.  Having to protect 18 of the in-cycle seats meant that Republicans would have to win almost half of the contests just to keep control of their 41 seats in the chamber, and there was nothing they could do to change that equation.  After seeing the results of late August and early September polling, it appears that Republican chances of going all the way to majority status in 2010 are at least coming into the realm of possibility, though still a great long shot even under the most favorable GOP circumstances.

Here’s where we stand:  Right now, 21 seats can be considered safe, likely, or lean Republican as compared to just eight in the commensurate positions on the Democratic side of the ledger.  The GOP number includes the Democratic states of North Dakota, now in the safe GOP column thanks to Gov. John Hoeven’s virtually unopposed run to replace the retiring Sen. Byron Dorgan (D); At-Large Rep. Mike Castle filling the open void in Delaware to assume the seat Joe Biden vacated to become Vice-President; and former Sen. Dan Coats (R) apparently on the threshold of reclaiming the seat of retiring Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh.  Recently, key open seats in Florida, Kentucky, Missouri, and New Hampshire have turned in some much stronger polling numbers, and each now sees the Republican nominee beyond the margin of error in individual races with their respective Democratic opponents.  Of the competitive open GOP seats, only Ohio remains in the toss-up column, but even there, former Bush Budget Director and Congressman Rob Portman seems to have a slight upper hand against Democratic Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher as the campaigns begin to apply overdrive to their political efforts.  Winning all of these races brings the GOP Senate total to 43; still eight away from their magic number of 51.

Eight states remain in the toss-up column.  California (Barbara Boxer), Washington (Patty Murray), and Wisconsin (Russ Feingold) are all new entries to this uncertain list.  Boxer has been polling virtually even with former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina for quite some time.  The volume and reliability of these surveys definitely suggest that this race is unquestionably too close to call and that Fiorina is a viable contender.  Sen. Murray’s finish in Washington’s jungle primary also shows vulnerability.  In the Evergreen State, all candidates are placed on the same primary ballot regardless of political party.  Thus, their primary then becomes almost a dress rehearsal for the general election since each voter can only choose one candidate per race.  The fact that the Senator received only 46.2 percent means that a majority of the people participating in the primary vote supported a different candidate.  This could be a sign of a candidacy in trouble.  The Wisconsin polling between Sen. Feingold and GOP businessman Ron Johnson has been close for quite some time.  Feingold has not broken 50 percent in any research study this year, and normally finds himself in a dead heat with his Republican opponent.  Looking at the success of non-politician candidates throughout the country during the primary election season suggests that Johnson may be in good position to score a 2010 upset win in the Badger State.  Like Michigan, Wisconsin seems prone for a Republican sweep this year, yet another potential factor that will not help Feingold.


The other toss-up campaigns are the ones that have resided in this column for most of the election cycle: Colorado (appointed Sen. Michael Bennet), Nevada (Majority Leader Harry Reid), Pennsylvania (open seat after the primary defeat of Sen. Arlen Specter), and the open Illinois seat (Roland Burris), the very position that President Obama himself held before winning his national election.  Again, in order to attain what is still an elusive majority, the Republicans would have to win all of these races, and then some.  If Republicans wins all seven of the toss-up Democratic seats, they are still not done.  Doing so would yield them only an even 50-50 split, and with Vice-President Biden empowered to break any tie in the Senate, the Democrats would retain majority powers.

Beyond this, the Republican Party would have to score at least one more upset victory in a lean Democrat state, even if the aforementioned scenario unfolds precisely according to their plan.  Professional wrestling executive Linda McMahon would have to defeat Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, or frequent Republican candidate John Raese would have to knock off Gov. Joe Manchin in West Virginia, though that race is already much closer than originally expected.  Or, perhaps the longest shot of all, Sen. Ron Wyden in Oregon would have to fall to former law school dean Jim Huffman.  Assuming a Republican sweep in the toss-up column, the only way in which these three final races come into play, the party would have to win one of these final races to actually replace the Democrats as the Senate’s majority party.


Though accomplishing all of this is still quite a feat—for few things ever go completely right for one party in all elections during a voting year—there is a visible path to accomplishing the task.  On November 3—the day after the election—still expect the Senate Democrats to remain in charge, but they are now beginning to fight the urge to look over their shoulder.

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