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Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., on Aug. 16, 2010, in Seattle. (Associated Press)

The Battle For The Senate: A GOP Majority Is Within Reach

Sep 7, 2010

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It's been just about two months since my last review of the 37* Senate contests at stake in November, and if anything, the situation has gotten more dire for the Democrats.

At least four Democratic-held seats are in danger of being lost to the Republicans. Last time, I put three such seats in that category — Indiana's been added to the list. And there are some seven more Democratic seats that, while currently rated as tossups, could easily go GOP should current trends continue. Last time, there were six.

The math is troubling for Democrats: The party currently controls (with the help of two independents), 59 of the Senate's 100 seats. There are now 11 races in my "expected Dem losses" or "tossup Dem seats" categories. There are no "expected GOP losses/Dem pickups."

The story line has long been that the Democrats' control of the House is extremely tenuous but that their majority in the Senate, while certain to be diminished, is not in jeopardy.

That's no longer the case.

Today's front page of the Washington Post reiterates what we've been hearing for weeks: Republicans are surging, Democrats are in a free fall. A Post poll, conducted with ABC News, reports nothing you haven't heard before: that Americans "are increasingly frustrated by a lack of economic progress, deeply dissatisfied with the federal government and critical of President Obama's leadership." Among likely voters, 53 percent say they would back the Republican candidate in their congressional district, while 40 percent would vote for the Democrat:

For the first time in more than four years, Republicans run about evenly with Democrats on the basic question of which party they trust to handle the nation's biggest problems. Among registered voters, 40 percent say they have more confidence in Democrats and 38 percent say they have more trust in Republicans. Three months ago, Democrats had a 12-point advantage.

President Obama is not helping, the poll shows:

On two big issues, disapproval of the president's performance has reached new highs: Fifty-seven percent now disapprove of his handling of the economy and 58 percent give him low marks on dealing with the deficit.

There is one caveat:

The principal obstacles to GOP electoral hopes continue to be doubts that Republicans have a clear plan for the country should they win control of the House or Senate in November. But overall, the poll shows that the party has made big gains in the public's estimation since earlier this year.

I'll be focusing on the House pretty soon. But for now, let's focus on the Senate. And there, the numbers are becoming more and more hopeful for the GOP, with the magic number of 51 clearly within reach.

Here are some changes to report since my last Senate ratings on July 9:

Indiana: There were some questions about former Sen. Dan Coats' staying power following his showing in the May 4 GOP primary. But he has opened up a sizable lead against Rep. Brad Ellsworth (D) in the fight for the seat being vacated by Democrat Evan Bayh. This goes from Tossup to a likely Republican pickup.

In addition, three open GOP seats — in Kentucky (Jim Bunning retiring), Missouri (Kit Bond) and New Hampshire (Judd Gregg) — are being moved from Tossup to Republican Favored. The results of the Sept. 14 primary in N.H. have the potential to move it back to Tossup, however. A fourth state, Ohio (George Voinovich retiring), is trending Republican but I'm keeping it as a Tossup at the moment.

Similarly, in Pennsylvania, Republican Pat Toomey has a consistent, if narrow, lead over Democrat Joe Sestak for the Arlen Specter (D) seat. Still Tossup, for now, but also subject to change.

Three other GOP states — Arizona (John McCain), Georgia (Johnny Isakson) and Iowa (Charles Grassley) — move from Republican Favored to Safe Republican.

In Washington, there are two ways to look at the Aug. 17 primary results, where all candidates, regardless of party, ran on the same ballot. Sen. Patty Murray, the three-term Democratic incumbent, clearly outpolled Dino Rossi, the former two-time gubernatorial nominee, 46-34 percent. From that alone, it's hard to see how Murray is vulnerable, despite voter concerns over the economy. But in looking at the total vote, Republicans tallied more than the Democrats — not a good sign for Murray in November. And the polls show Murray and Rossi running evenly, one reason why Obama has been out campaigning for her. I'm moving this from Democrat Favored to Tossup.

And another seat where the Democratic incumbent was not supposed to be in any kind of trouble and now finds himself in the fight of his life is in Wisconsin. Sen. Russ Feingold's (D) race against GOP challenger Ron Johnson, a millionaire plastics executive who is a favorite of the Tea Party, is also going from Democrat Favored to Tossup. I think it's fair to say that if Murray and Feingold lose, the Democrats are not going to retain control of the Senate.

Here are the latest ratings on all 37 Senate seats up in 2010:

SAFE DEMOCRATIC (6): Hawaii (Daniel Inouye), Maryland (Barbara Mikulski), New York (Charles Schumer), New York special (Kirsten Gillibrand), Oregon (Ron Wyden), Vermont (Patrick Leahy).

DEMOCRAT FAVORED (2): Connecticut (open seat - Chris Dodd retiring), West Virginia (open seat — Carte Goodwin will not run).

TOSSUP DEM SEATS (7): California (Barbara Boxer), Colorado (Michael Bennet), Illinois (open seat - Roland Burris will not run),Nevada (Harry Reid), Pennsylvania (open seat - Arlen Specter lost primary), Washington (Patty Murray), Wisconsin (Russ Feingold).

EXPECTED DEM LOSSES/GOP PICKUPS (4): Arkansas (Blanche Lincoln), Delaware special (open seat - Ted Kaufman will not run), Indiana (open seat - Evan Bayh retiring), North Dakota (open seat - Byron Dorgan retiring).

EXPECTED GOP LOSSES/DEM PICKUPS (0): None at the moment.

TOSSUP GOP SEATS (2): Florida** (open seat - George LeMieux will not run),Ohio (open seat - George Voinovich retiring).

REPUBLICAN FAVORED (5): Kentucky (open seat - Jim Bunning retiring), Missouri (open seat - Kit Bond retiring), New Hampshire (open seat - Judd Gregg retiring), Louisiana (David Vitter), North Carolina (Richard Burr).

SAFE REPUBLICAN (11): Alabama (Richard Shelby), Alaska (open seat — Lisa Murkowski lost primary), Arizona (John McCain), Georgia (Johnny Isakson), Idaho (Mike Crapo), Iowa (Charles Grassley), Kansas (open seat — Sam Brownback retiring), Oklahoma (Tom Coburn), South Carolina (Jim DeMint), South Dakota (John Thune), Utah (open seat - Bob Bennett denied renomination).

*Actually, my last review was prior to the death of Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va. So in July, I was looking at 36 seats.

**Florida is considered a Tossup between the Republican and independent candidates; the Democratic candidate is expected to finish third.

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