Democrats believe they can hold the Senate even after Romney debate win

Democrats’ prospects for holding onto the Senate are improving even though Mitt Romney’s poll numbers have jumped in the presidential race.

The latest race to break the Democrats’ way is Virginia, where former Gov. Tim Kaine (D) has opened up a lead on former Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) in recent polls.

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Democrats are increasingly bullish about picking off an open seat in Arizona, where both sides have begun to spend in earnest, and in Wisconsin, Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D) has surged past former Gov. Tommy Thompson (R) in recent polls after trailing shortly after the primary.

Democrats emphasize plenty can change in a month but say they’re cautiously optimistic about holding onto the Senate. Republicans point to their own bright spots in Maine and Connecticut, and argue that while they’d slipped during Romney’s post-convention struggles, his debate win helped right the ship for many of their races as well. 

Romney’s post-debate surge has yet to fully play out in the polling, and Republicans could be right that things are improving for their candidates in some states. But Republicans are now spending money to defend as many seats as they are playing offense in, and aren’t nearly as optimistic as they were a few months ago about winning the net of four seats necessary to recapture control of the Senate, with only Nebraska looking like a sure pickup and Arizona and Indiana joining Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada as seats they’re fighting to hold onto.

In Virginia, Kaine has built a small but steady lead over Allen in polling, even as the presidential race has tightened. He hasn’t trailed in a public poll in the last month, and had a 7-point lead over Allen in two polls conducted after the Romney-Obama debate that showed Romney surging in the state. 

Democrats and most nonpartisan observers have long believed Kaine would run a few points ahead of Obama, and while strategists on both sides say Kaine’s lead in private polling is closer to 3 or 4 points than the 7-point lead in those two polls, there are signs his lead might be solidifying: Minority voters who were already backing Obama in the polls are now also saying they’ll vote for Kaine, and he’s continued to run slightly ahead of Obama with independent voters.

There are signs Allen has recognized the need to appeal more to independents, though his campaign denies any change in strategy. In their most recent debate, on Monday, Allen charged that Kaine had abandoned the state by taking the job as Democratic National Committee chairman while governor rather than repeating earlier charges that Kaine was Obama’s “hand-picked chairman.” 

The race will likely remain close until the end, but unless Romney ends up providing Allen some coattails it’s hard to see how he wins the race in a state National Republican Senatorial Committee Executive Director Rob Jesmer described in early August as “very pivotal” to Senate control.

In Arizona, both sides are now spending heavily on a race once thought to be a long shot for Democrats. Public polling has shown former U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona (D) tied with Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), and while the state’s GOP leanings still make Flake the favorite, the fact that Republicans are spending at all there is a big shift from where they expected to be months ago.

While Republicans still have the edge in Arizona, the state’s growing Hispanic population is proving problematic. Romney has trailed Obama by historically large margins nationwide with Latino voters, and the state’s controversial immigration law has polarized and fired up Latino voters. A recent Latino Decisions poll shows Obama leading Romney by 80 to 14 percent with Hispanic voters, an even larger lead than he has nationwide, and Carmona led Flake by 75 to 12 percent in the poll. Home-state Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) won 41 percent of the state’s Hispanic vote four years ago.

In Wisconsin, Baldwin and her allies had the airwaves largely to themselves after Thompson’s mid-August primary win, and used that time to attack him for the millions he made at a Washington law firm after he left the public sector. Thompson and GOP outside groups have begun hitting back hard, slamming Baldwin as “too extreme for Wisconsin,” and believe they are making up ground — but he squandered an early lead in the polls and is now trying to claw back in a slightly Democratic-leaning state.

Democrats have also kept things tight in Indiana and North Dakota, two conservative states, despite a barrage of negative ads from the GOP seeking to tie Rep. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) and former North Dakota Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp (D) to President Obama and his policies.

On the other hand, Republicans can crow about Maine and Connecticut, two states where few expected them to have any hope. In Maine, Sen. Olympia Snowe’s (R) decision to retire left them with a tough-to-defend open seat, and when former Gov. Angus King (I) jumped in, most observers believed the race was over.

But outside groups including the Chamber of Commerce have pummeled King on the airwaves, and his once-gargantuan lead in the polls has largely evaporated. Democrats are now on the air defending him with attacks against Republican nominee Charlie Summers, and Republicans admit the race remains an uphill battle, but believe they can pull it off.

In Connecticut, former World Wrestling Entertainment CEO Linda McMahon (R) is running a much better campaign than she did two years ago, when she lost an open-seat race by 12 points. Democrats privately admit Rep. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) has run a lackluster campaign. The DSCC sent its deputy political director to the state a few weeks ago to help Murphy get his house in order after it became clear McMahon had pulled even in the race — and they and Democratic outside groups have been forced to spend more than $3 million defending a seat they once considered safe. 

Democrats believe those attacks and a steady debate performance from Murphy this week have helped him reassert a narrow lead, though Republicans believe McMahon still has a narrow edge and say her personal fortune can help her pull out a win. Public polling has been mixed, though it’s moved a bit in his favor in recent days.

Republicans are also feeling increasing confident about Rep. Denny Rehberg’s (R-Mont.) chances. Rehberg and Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) have been in a nip-and-tuck race for the entire year, but Rehberg has maintained a small lead in most public polls.