Dems see slight edge in race for Senate

Democrats are favored to keep control of the Senate despite a tough slate of races, an outcome that looked unlikely at the start of the campaign.

They are defending twice as many seats as Republicans, and a number of those contests are in red states. But the recruitment of strong candidates and self-inflicted wounds by their GOP counterparts have given Democrats the advantage.

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The biggest question heading into Election Day is which polls are right. Republican polling shows the party’s candidates in a much better position than public polls do. Much of that disparity is due to Republican predictions that the electorate will be older and whiter than in 2008; Democrats and most public pollsters disagree.

If the public polls are correct, Democrats are likely to win an open seat in Maine and are favored to pick up seats in deep-blue Massachusetts and ruby-red Indiana. If they win all three, Republicans will have to win six other seats — seven if President Obama is reelected and Vice President Biden remains the tie-breaking Senate vote. The GOP standing in other races makes that appear unlikely.

Indiana and Missouri are Republicans’ biggest headaches this cycle. 

In Missouri, Rep. Todd Akin’s (R) infamous comments on “legitimate rape” triggered a national backlash that led to GOP leaders’ asking him to drop out, and refusing to help his campaign when he didn’t. Recent polls have shown Akin bouncing back against Sen. Claire McCaskill (D), and Republican groups dumped a large chunk of money into the race in its final week. But McCaskill remains the favorite in a race many initially expected her to lose: She leads Akin by more than 6 points in the RealClearPolitics polling average of the race.

Indiana has been a more recent problem. GOP nominee Richard Mourdock already had been struggling because of comments that he opposed bipartisanship — and then he offered his controversial explanation about why he opposes abortion in cases of rape: “Even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that … is something God intended to happen.”

A recent poll for Howey Politics Indiana found Rep. Joe Donnelly (D) leading Mourdock by double digits, while a poll for the conservative Rasmussen Reports found him leading by 3 points, a swing from a 5-point Mourdock lead before the comment. Republicans think Mourdock still has a chance, but many privately concede he’s the underdog.

Three of the closest Senate races, according to polls and early-voting trends, are in Montana, Nevada and Wisconsin.

In Wisconsin, former Gov. Tommy Thompson (R) has started to come back after early stumbles against Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D) that cost him his lead in the polls. He remains the underdog, however. Thompson finished his tough August primary broke and exhausted, and as he took a break from the trail, Baldwin and Democratic groups flooded the airwaves with ads criticizing his time working for Washington, D.C.-based pharmaceutical groups after he stepped down as Health and Human Services secretary. 

The attacks worked: In a month, Thompson went from a comfortable high-single-digit lead in public polls to trailing by the same margin. While conservative groups are now spending heavily in his defense, attacking Baldwin as an uncompromising liberal, she’s running even in the polls with Obama in the state, which might be enough for a win. The RealClearPolitics poll average has her leading by 2.2 percentage points.

Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) has been able to keep his image as an independent farmer intact enough to stay competitive in the conservative state — he and Rep. Denny Rehberg (R) have been neck-and-neck in nearly every poll in the past year. The RealClearPolitics poll average for the state has Rehberg leading by 0.4 percent, and strategists on both sides of the aisle are predicting a photo finish.

Nevada’s Senate race is also down to the wire. Heller has led in nearly every public poll of the race as a House Ethics Committee investigation of Rep. Shelley Berkley (D) has hurt her chances. But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s Democratic machine might be the best of any in the country: Early voting in the state has skewed heavily Democratic, and Obama appears to be the likely victor in Nevada. The bigger his win, the less likely Heller is to hold on.

Heller, however, leads by 3.5 points in the RealClearPolitics poll average, although polling in the state is notoriously inaccurate. Nevada political guru Jon Ralston predicted a 1-point Heller win in a Sunday column.

Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) and North Dakota Democrat Heidi Heitkamp are strong candidates who look unlikely to overcome the drag of their respective parties on Election Day. 

In Massachusetts, the question is whether Democrat Elizabeth Warren has succeeded in tying herself to Obama, who is popular in the state, and linking Brown to a Republican-controlled Senate. If she has, the party’s overall unpopularity in the state should drag Brown down as Obama buoys Warren. But that’s still, on Election Day, a solid “if” — three of the five polls released in the past week have shown the race statistically tied.

In North Dakota, Heitkamp has worked to avoid her party label by touting her support for Republican pet projects, such as the Keystone XL pipeline, while attacking Rep. Rick Berg (R-N.D.) for congressional inaction on the farm bill. Polling of the state has been sparse, but it’s hard to see enough North Dakotans splitting their ticket to back both Heitkamp and Mitt Romney, who holds a double-digit lead there and just cut an ad supporting Berg.

In Virginia, a majority of the polls have put Democrat Tim Kaine ahead of Republican George Allen, but the RealClearPolitics average gives Kaine less than a 2-percentage-point lead, indicating this race could go either way.

Polling favors Democratic candidates in Connecticut, Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania, as well as Independent Angus King in Maine, who is expected to caucus with Democrats if he wins.

And despite a strong Democratic recruit in Richard Carmona in Arizona and a last-minute surge from Democrat Bob Kerrey in Nebraska, Republicans look poised to win those contests, holding onto Arizona and flipping Nebraska.