Senate races fill Election Day with GOP hope, Democratic intrigue

Alexis Levinson | Political Reporter

Elections in a handful of states Tuesday will determine which party controls the Senate — whether Nevada Sen. Harry Reid will retain his position as Majority Leader, or a Republican, likely Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell will wrest it away from him. Here’s a rundown of some of the states in play that could give one party or the other its critical 51st vote.


In the Nutmeg State, Democratic Rep. Chris Murphy faces off against Linda McMahon, the former wrestling mogul and co-founder of World Wrestling Entertainment, to replace the retiring Sen. Joe Lieberman. Murphy is favored, leading McMahon by several points in all but one poll taken over the past month.

McMahon lost to Richard Blumenthal by twelve points in 2010. But this year she put up a real fight, leveraging her personal fortune in August and September to put millions of dollars behind television ads defining Murphy before the not particularly well-known congressman could define himself. When Murphy raised enough money to buy TV ads himself, however, the scales began to tip back in his favor. Still, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has had to spend a fair amount of money in the state, something the party probably hadn’t planned to do.

In a state that President Barack Obama is expected to win by a wide margin, both candidates are cozying up to him. McMahon has endorsed Romney, but is running ads encouraging voters to split their ticket, even putting door-hangers on the doors of Obama voters encouraging them to vote for her and the president.

Murphy got some help from Obama last week when the president cut an ad for him — the only such ad he made for a 2012 senate candidate. Republicans called that a sign of desperation for a candidate who is under-performing in a Democratic state. Democrats called it “lights out for McMahon.”


Independent former Gov. Angus King is expected to coast to an easy victory Tuesday evening in a Senate race brought on when Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe abruptly announced her retirement this spring.

The three-way race also includes Republican Charlie Summers and Democrat Cynthia Dill.

King is widely expected to caucus with Democrats if he is elected — he has refused to say so specifically — and his entrance into the race deterred some stronger Democratic candidates from running. As a result, Democrats never endorsed Dill on a national level, and spent most of the cycle ignoring her candidacy altogether in a tacit nod of support for King.

The race briefly looked to be tightening in September when a poll showed Summers a mere eight points behind King. In the aftermath, the National Republican Senatorial Committee and Crossroads GPS’s super PAC went up on the air supporting Summers. The DSCC countered with an unexpected run of ads attacking Summers, putting the party in the awkward position of playing in a race where it refused to acknowledge its own nominee.

But both parties pulled their ads off the air in October, as poll after poll showed King back in the lead by a wide margin.


Indiana is a red state, but Republican treasurer Richard Mourdock is running slightly behind Democratic Rep. Joe Donnelly in recent polls. Mourdock will get a push from the rest of his ticket including presidential GOP hopeful Mitt Romney and Rep. Mike Pence, the favorite for governor. But it’s not clear how much of a push he will need.

Mourdock has run almost dead even with Donnelly for most of the race. But the two polls taken since the final debate, when Mourdock made a now-infamous comment about abortion in rape cases, have shown him trailing — suggesting that the constant pounding he has taken from Democrats since making that comment might be working.

The Mourdock campaign released internal poll data over the weekend showing him ahead by two points, and remains adamant that he is going to win on Tuesday.


In another typically red state where polls have been surprisingly tight, Republican Rep. Jeff Flake is facing off against Democrat Richard Carmona, who served as President George W. Bush’s surgeon general. The Carmona campaign attributes the tight race to the Carmona’s “unique” profile as an Hispanic, a veteran, and a candidate with clear bipartisan tendencies.

Flake has hit Carmona hard, running a scathing ad featuring Carmona’s former boss, a woman who accused him of pounding on her door in the middle of the night, implying that he has chronic problems working with women. Carmona made a serious unforced error last month when he told a male debate moderator that he was “prettier” than CNN anchor Candy Crowley, a comment that only made the ads’ description seem more plausible.

In recent weeks, Arizona Senators John McCain and Jon Kyl have come out aggressively for Flake, pushing back hard on an ad that featured the two of them praising Carmona during Senate hearings for his nomination as surgeon general.


Earlier this year, the Senate seat currently held by Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill was seen as an almost sure pick up for Republicans. But then came Republican Rep. Todd Akin’s “legitimate rape” gaffe, giving Democrats a ready-made attack ad and leading some national Republicans to pull their resources out of the state and leave the seat for lost.

The race remains tight and Akin could still pull it off, but McCaskill has held a single-digit lead in every poll conducted during October and November. She has also enjoyed a large financial advantage over Akin.


Democratic Sen. Bob Casey was expected to coast to re-election on Nov. 6 until polls in September started showing Republican businessman Tom Smith creeping up. It remains to be seen if Republicans have successfully put the state in play.

Polls from the final pre-election week showed a conflicting picture, with a Susquehanna poll showing a dead heat — Casey was ahead by only one percentage point — and polls from Public Policy Polling and the Allentown Morning Call determining that Casey led by eight and six points, respectively.


The Florida U.S. Senate race between Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson and Republican Rep. Connie Mack has remained largely under the national media’s radar. Nelson has led in every poll taken in this race since October, except for one poll that shows a tie, but the Mack campaign is adamant that Mack will win it, and has said their internal polls show “the race closing.”

New Mexico

Democratic Rep. Martin Heinrich is the favorite in this race against Republican former Rep. Heather Wilson. He has led in every poll and is ahead of Wilson by an average of 10.6 percentage points according to RealClearPolitics.

But Wilson’s campaign points to her reputation as a good campaigner, and notes that she has a history of coming back from polling deficits to win elections. The Wilson campaign released an internal poll Friday showing the race in a dead heat, 46 percent to 46 percent.


Rep. Tammy Baldwin and former Gov. Timmy Thompson are facing off in the Badger State on Tuesday. Wisconsin is a state that is also being contested on a presidential level, but it is also a state where voters are willing to split their ticket — so the presidential candidate that gets Wisconsin’s 10 electoral votes and the next senator from that state could be from different parties. Recent polls have given Baldwin a narrow one- to three-point advantage, but the race remains a dead heat. A few weeks ago, the race turned its focus to the Sept. 11 attacks, with Thompson hitting Baldwin for a vote against a resolution commemorating the fifth anniversary of the attacks and several defense authorization bills that would have provided equipment for troops. Baldwin hit back accusing Thompson of profiting off the attacks — by winning a contract for a company he ran to provide health care for the victims of the attacks. If elected, Baldwin would be the first openly gay senator.


Montana’s lone congressman Denny Rehberg is challenging Democratic Sen. Jon Tester. The race is locked in a dead heat. The wild card in this race could turn out to be Libertarian candidate Dan Cox, who, if he pulls a couple percentage points of the vote from Rehberg, could hand a victory to Tester.


Democrat Elizabeth Warren’s campaign got off to a rough start, as she struggled through bad press over her claims of a Native American heritage. But several recent polls suggest she might have turned the corner, showing her with a single digit lead over Republican Sen. Scott Brown. Brown, a Republican running in a blue state has painted himself as an independent and a moderate. But Warren holds an inherent advantage as a Democrat.


Former Republican Gov. George Allen and former Gov. and DNC Chair Tim Kaine are locked in a tight race, though recent polls have shown Kaine ahead by a slim margin. Virginia is a swing state that is also a crucial pick up in the presidential election, and voters have been barraged by an unending stream of ads. The Senate race alone is one of the most expensive races this cycle.


Polls show Sen. Sherrod Brown with the upper hand over tea party favorite Josh Mandel, the treasurer of the state.


Sen. Dean Heller and Rep. Shelley Berkley square off in the western swing state. Recent polls give Heller the edge, but in a state where polls will be tight at the presidential level as well, Heller acknowledged Monday that he will need some “crossover voters” — Democrats splitting their ticket between him and Obama in order to pull off a win.

North Dakota

Democrat Hedi Heitkamp and Republican Rep. Rick Berg face off in another surprisingly close race in a Republican leaning state. Heitkamp has run as a moderate — distancing herself from President Obama and the Democratic Party — and her retail politics skills have helped her keep the race close. Berg has the edge in recent polls — but it’s a slim one, as evidenced by the fact that he was one of the four Senate candidates that Mitt Romney, who is expected to easily win North Dakota, cut an ad for.

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