Republicans once seemed poised to take control of the U.S. Senate, but now face an uphill battle after nominating several controversial candidates, while some Democratic contenders have run stronger than expected campaigns.
The razor-thin race for the White House has overshadowed the fight for control of Congress. But the stakes are high in the Senate contests.
With Republicans expected to retain control of the House of Representatives, a Republican Senate would give the party full control of the U.S. government if Mitt Romney wins the presidency. If President Barack Obama is re-elected, he hopes to have a Democratic-controlled Senate to counteract the Republican House, advance his agenda and defend his signature legislative victory, his health care overhaul, which Republicans have vowed to repeal.
Voters will decide on a third of the Senate’s 100 seats on Nov. 6. Democrats hold a 53-47 advantage, counting two independents who caucus with them, and must defend 23 seats, including several gained during a Democratic wave in 2006. To win a majority, Republicans need a net pickup of four seats if Obama is re-elected, or three if Romney prevails. The vice president casts a tie-breaking vote in an evenly divided Senate.
Analysts predict the Democrats will hold the Senate by a narrow margin.
The retirement of several Democratic senators, frustration with the Democrats’ handling of the struggling economy and lingering concerns over Obama’s health care overhaul once seemed to have created an opening for big Republican gains. But in several states, the Republicans who won the primary elections were candidates backed by the party’s conservative grassroots base rather than the Republican establishment. Their views made them less appealing to the centrist voters who often decide general elections.
Republicans are likely to pick up a seat held by a retiring Democrat in Nebraska, but even in that race recent polls show the race tightening with former Democratic Sen. Bob Kerrey gaining ground. Other races once seen as almost-certain wins by Republicans have become less clear. In two cases, Republican prospects have been hurt by their candidates’ comments about rape and abortion.
In Missouri, U.S. Rep. Todd Akin was deserted by the Republican establishment after he remarked in August that women’s bodies have ways of avoiding pregnancy in cases of what he called “legitimate rape.” He has fallen behind Sen. Claire McCaskill, who had been considered the most vulnerable Democratic incumbent.
In Indiana, moderate veteran senator Richard Lugar was expected to easily win re-election, but he lost a primary to Richard Mourdock, a favorite of the small-government, anti-tax tea party movement. Mourdock has come under intense criticism after saying in a debate that when pregnancy results from rape, it is “something God intended.”
Two Republican retirements have also hurt the party’s prospects. In Maine, the surprise retirement of Sen. Olympia Snowe, one of the last moderate Republican senators, has opened the way for Angus King, an independent former governor who is expected to win and vote with Senate Democrats. Republicans are expected to hold onto their seat in Arizona, though their candidate, congressman Jeff Flake, has faced a tough challenge from Democrat Richard Carmona, who served as surgeon general in President George W. Bush’s administration.
In addition to Nebraska, three other Democratic retirements offer opportunities for Republican gains. The strongest prospect seems to be conservative North Dakota, though the Democratic candidate, former state attorney general Heidi Heitkamp, has run a strong campaign against U.S. Rep. Rick Berg and has a narrow lead in some polls.
The other two races are very close. In Wisconsin, Democratic Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin has kept the race close with four-term former Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson. In Virginia, former Republican Sen. George Allen is facing former Democratic governor and national party chairman Tim Kaine.
Republicans face longer odds in trying to capture the Connecticut seat of another retiring incumbent, Joe Lieberman, an independent who has sided with the Democrats. Republican Linda MacMahon, a former professional wrestling executive who has spent more than $40 million in her bid to turn back Democratic Rep. Chris Murphy.
Among Democratic incumbents, the most vulnerable may be Jon Tester in the conservative western state of Montana, who is in a tight race with Republican congressman Denny Rehberg.
Republicans have two vulnerable incumbents. In the liberal state of Massachusetts, recent polls show Scott Brown trailing Elizabeth Warren, who set up Obama’s Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. In Nevada, Democratic Congresswoman Shelley Berkley has made a strong run for the seat held by Dean Heller, who was appointed last year to replace a senator who had resigned in a sex scandal.
The 2010 health care law has been a major issue in several close Senate races, as Republicans saturate the airwaves with political ads attacking what they depict as government overreach. In conservative-leaning states like Arizona, Montana, North Dakota and Indiana, Democrats have countered by portraying their candidates as independent-minded, while Republicans have done their best to link them to Obama and his health care law.
While Obama would have a difficult time moving any big pieces of legislation through a divided Congress in a second term, Democratic control of the Senate would provide a firewall against Republican attempts to overturn his health care law before it is fully implemented in 2014. If Republicans manage to gain the Senate, they have promised to repeal the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare.
Obama, if re-elected, would veto any repeal. Romney would support it. Still, even if the Republicans control the Senate and the White House, they may have difficulty reversing the law entirely because they would lack a supermajority of 60 votes in the Senate to pass a full repeal.
In the House, all 435 seats are at stake, but incumbents tend to get re-elected. Democrats could make some gains, but seem unlikely to pick up the 25 seats they need to take control.
Among the House races getting attention is one in Utah, where Mia Love is in a close race to unseat a Democratic incumbent and become the first black Republican woman elected to Congress.