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Shrinking Senate Hopes

A GOP takeover is looking more difficult.

Feb 20, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 22 • By FRED BARNES
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A year ago, Republican capture of the Senate in the 2012 election was regarded as close to a sure thing. The political direction of the country had shifted in favor of Republicans. Democrats faced the unenviable task of defending 23 seats, Republicans only 10. And 8 of the GOP seats were safely in Republican hands.

Cartoon of the GOP elephant

Now Republican prospects are not as rosy. The odds on a Republican Senate are no worse than 50-50, maybe better. But the effort to oust Democrats, who currently control the Senate 53-47, looks more difficult than it did.

What has changed? Most significant may be President Obama’s improved chances of reelection. He has enormous liabilities, but he has managed to alter the political environment enough to make Republicans and the rich a live issue in the campaign. Before, his record in the White House, especially on the economy, was the lone issue.

Pollster Scott Rasmussen says how Obama fares will affect Senate races.  The relationship is pretty simple. If Obama is reelected, Democrats are likely to hold the Senate. If the Republican nominee wins, Republicans are odds-on to take over the Senate, while retaining the House.

Jennifer Duffy of the Cook Political Report, a savvy analyst of congressional races, says the outcome of four Senate races may depend on Obama’s fate: Virginia, Montana, Massachusetts, and Nevada. Notice that two of those states have Republican incumbents, Scott Brown of Massachusetts and Dean Heller of Nevada. Republicans can lose one of those seats and still take the Senate, but probably not both.

Another impediment to a Repub-lican Senate is Democratic success in recruiting strong candidates. North Dakota was considered a certain GOP takeover for Rick Berg, a House Republican freshman, until Heidi Heitkamp, a former state attorney general, jumped into the race. Democrats are talking up a poll that shows her leading Berg, but Heitkamp has striking vulnerabilities—like her strong support of the president and Obamacare. The betting is still on Berg.

In the open Democratic seat in Virginia, Democrats got their best possible candidate, former governor Tim Kaine. That he was Obama’s first Democratic national chairman won’t help him, but he is a clever politician and a strong campaigner. Last week, for instance, he sided with the Catholic church in its battle against Obama’s Department of Health and Human Services—and made sure his criticism got reported in the press. “I think the White House made a good decision in including a mandate for contraception coverage in the Affordable Care Act insurance policy,” Kaine said, “but I think they made a bad decision in not allowing a broad enough religious employer exemption.” Republican George Allen, seeking reelection after losing his Senate seat in 2006, will have his hands full (in the likely event he defeats Tea Party candidate Jamie Radtke for the nomination).

Republicans were relieved when former Democratic senator Bob Kerrey declined to run in Nebraska, where Democrat Ben Nelson is retiring. They shouldn’t have felt threatened. “Nebraska has changed,” Duffy says, since Kerrey left the Senate in 2001. Nebraska is now a GOP slam dunk.

There’s one other obstacle confronting Republicans. They may need a five-seat pickup to be assured of a working majority in the Senate. If Obama is reelected and Republicans win three Senate seats, ties will be broken by Obama’s vice president. Result: a Democratic Senate. If they gain four seats in this circumstance but lose one—Scott Brown’s, for instance—the veep will also be the decider. The upshot: At least five pickups could be required. 

But let’s not be gloomy about Republican chances. In Ohio, Republican state treasurer Josh Mandel was languishing in his bid to unseat Democratic senator Sherrod Brown. Mandel, who is 34 but looks younger, is the boy wonder of Ohio politics. Now he’s getting traction. In a Rasmussen poll last week, he trailed Brown just 44 percent to 40 percent, with 12 percent undecided.

In New Mexico, former congresswoman Heather Wilson will get a clear shot at the open Democratic seat. Her chief Republican rival, Lieutenant Governor John Sanchez, dropped out of the race last week. Wilson, a moderate, is considered the strongest GOP candidate.

And in Florida, Republican representative Connie Mack IV has emerged as the likely opponent of Democratic senator Bill Nelson. Mack is nearly even with Nelson in at least one poll. A Mack-Nelson race would be competitive. But Mack must first defeat George LeMieux, who served as an appointed senator from 2009 to 2011. LeMieux’s ties to ex-governor Charlie Crist have severely weakened his candidacy.

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