Early polls suggest Dems can take many GOP Senate seats

A flood of recent polls supports Democratic arguments that the party will win a larger majority in the Senate in the next election.

Democrats have now polled ahead or within the margin of error in 11 Republican-held seats, as polls conducted in recent weeks show openings in second-tier targets including Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina and Texas.

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There are 23 Republican seats up for grabs this election cycle — including five open seats. Democrats have only 12 members up for reelection and no open seats.

The only Democratic-held seat that is polling close is in Louisiana, where Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) and state Treasurer John Kennedy (R) will face each other. The majority of races that are polling close are in Republican-held seats.

Whether the polls illustrate reality or simply create perception, both sides are taking notice.

While the results have provided liberal bloggers and Democratic operatives with cause for enthusiasm, Republicans and some experts urge caution at taking the polls — many of them automated — at face value.

The most recent numbers, released Tuesday by independent Rasmussen Reports, showed businessman Bruce Lunsford (D) leading Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) 49-44 in the race for McConnell’s Kentucky seat.

That immediately prompted McConnell’s campaign to release its own polling data within a few hours. The Voter Consumer Research poll showed the incumbent leading 50-39.

“National Journal refuses to print Rasmussen polls, yet Democrat leaders will trumpet bogus polls like this one in a futile effort to create a false sense of momentum for the hand-picked candidate of New York Sen. Chuck Schumer and the DSCC,” McConnell spokesman Justin Brasell said, referring to the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Lunsford’s campaign sent the results around in an e-mail, proclaiming Rasmussen a “respected, independent organization.”

“This confirms what we’ve felt all along,” said Lunsford spokeswoman Allison Haley.

Whatever the validity of an individual poll, races that were borderline targets with, in some cases, lesser-known candidates are already looking more and more attractive to Democrats.

DSCC spokesman Matthew Miller said you can’t read too much into automated polls like Rasmussen’s. Automated polls use machines to make the phone calls, while traditional polling methods use people.

But whatever the individual flaws of the polls, combined, they show a general election trending heavily towards Democrats, Miller said.

“I don’t know whether to put too much stock or too little into one given poll; each poll is a piece of data,” Miller said. “But those certainly aren’t the only polls that show these incumbents in trouble.”

Jennifer Duffy, a Senate race analyst with The Cook Political Report who doesn’t use Rasmussen’s automated polling, noted that Lunsford likely benefited in the Rasmussen poll from his primary win less than one week prior.

A Lexington Herald-Leader poll from before Lunsford’s victory showed McConnell leading 48-36.

Nonetheless, Duffy said the polls provide a “warning flag.”

“Take all of them collectively, and what this does show is that the environment is as bad for Republicans today as it was in November 2006, with no sign of improvement,” Duffy said.

A similar situation is also playing out in North Carolina, where state Sen. Kay Hagan has polled within five points of Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.) in four polls in the aftermath of Hagan’s May 6 primary win. The most recent came last week, when the local John W. Pope Civitas Institute polled Dole ahead 45-43.

Dole’s campaign attacked the automated polls earlier this month and noted that one of them was from a Democratic-leaning firm. The Civitas poll is not automated and it is from a GOP-leaning firm.

Kentucky and North Carolina are two races Democrats hope to make competitive but in which they had missed out on big-time recruits.

The same goes for Texas, where state Rep. Rick Noriega (D) has polled four points behind Sen. John Cornyn (R) by both Rasmussen and Research 2000, which is not automated.

Republicans noted that the Rasmussen poll had Noriega’s name recognition at 85 percent — an unlikely figure at this stage in the campaign.

Rasmussen CEO Scott Rasmussen said his polling is a convenient punching bag.

“Whenever a campaign doesn’t like the results, it happens,” Rasmussen said, adding that excluding automated polling is “a nice inside-the-Beltway methodology.”

Democrats do have a well-known candidate in Mississippi, where recent statewide polling from Research 2000 and the DSCC shows appointed Sen. Roger Wicker (R) could be in trouble against former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove (D).

The DSCC poll, conducted by Hamilton Campaigns in mid-May, showed Musgrove leading by eight points. The Research 2000 poll from last week had Wicker up four.

Wickers’s conservative former House district flipped Democratic in a big special-election upset two weeks ago.

Musgrove benefits by higher name recognition thanks to his term in the governor’s office, which ended in 2004, but the results have been enough to convince Duffy to move the poll into the “tossup” column.

Rebecca Fisher, a spokeswoman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), emphasized that polls mean little at this stage.

“Over the next few months there will be hundreds of polls saying different things, and we believe all of our candidates are succeeding in getting their message to the voters, and they are responding positively to that message,” Fisher said.

Democrats have also polled ahead in at least some of the polling in Alaska, Colorado, New Hampshire, New Mexico and Virginia, polling substantial leads in the latter three. They have also been within the margin of error in Minnesota and Oregon.

Though it hasn’t polled close yet, the party is also banking on Rep. Tom Allen (Maine) closing the gap in his race against Sen. Susan Collins (R). Other potential targets include Georgia, Kansas and Nebraska, where the Democrats trail by double digits.