By Alexander Bolton - 05/07/12 09:00 AM EDT
The 2012 battle for control of the Senate, once considered a foregone conclusion, has turned into a cliffhanger.
The probable defeat of six-term Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) Tuesday is being cheered by Democrats, who think it will boost their chances of taking the seat and holding onto a slim majority in 2013.
Mourdock may be no Christine O’Donnell (the GOP nominee whose hapless 2010 campaign in Delaware included the need to assert she was not a witch), but Democrats hope he will prove a weaker general election foe than Lugar. They think Lugar’s ouster may give them a chance.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Early in the 2012 election cycle, no one gave the Democrats a chance, given that they were defending 23 seats, the Republicans only 10.
But the Democrats have recruited strong candidates, and been handed gifts such as Sen. Olympia Snowe’s (R) retirement in Maine. It has left Democrats and Republicans alike wondering if the GOP is again going to snatch defeat from the yawning jaws of victory.
Republicans still have formidable advantages. Third-party groups, unfettered by the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. FEC, are on track to spend millions of dollars more to help Republican candidates than liberal groups will spend to help Democrats.
And while Republicans are worried about losing two or three seats they now hold, Democrats are scrambling to hold onto at least seven seats.
Republicans need to win four seats to gain a majority if President Obama wins reelection, and only three seats if Mitt Romney wins, since his vice president would cast the tie-breaking vote.
Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor at The Cook Political Report who specializes in Senate races, says a razor-tight battle can be expected.
“I don’t think either party has an edge. I view it as a complete jump ball,” she said.
Republicans consider Nebraska, North Dakota, Missouri and Montana as their four most likely pick-up opportunities.
Nebraska and North Dakota are safely in Romney’s column and both states will turn out crowds of anti-Obama voters.
Former Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.) trails three Republican candidates by double digits and the GOP believes he will have a tough time convincing Nebraskans that he still shares their values after spending the last decade in New York.
But in the other three races, Democrats have some reason for hope.
Former state Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp (D) has exceeded expectations in North Dakota. A recent Democratic poll showed her with a 5-point lead over Rep. Rick Berg (R-N.D.). The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee made its first independent expenditure of the 2012 cycle in North Dakota.
Sens. Jon Tester (Mont.) and Claire McCaskill (Mo.) match up well against their Republican challengers.
In Montana, Rep. Denny Rehberg, the GOP candidate, has to contend with charges that he’s spent too much time in Washington and must defend a controversial bill he co-sponsored to expand the Department of Homeland Security’s authority over Montana lands.
But Rehberg represents the entire state and won more votes than Tester in their most recent elections. That gives Tester the difficult task of persuading thousands of voters to switch allegiances.
The Republican effort in Missouri has been hamstrung by a crowded primary field and McCaskill remains close in the polls despite a deluge of outside spending.
Steven Smith, a political science professor at Washington University in St. Louis, notes Obama’s political numbers are improving in Missouri and expects McCaskill to run “4 to 5 points” ahead of Obama.
“If he makes a contested race in Missouri, then I think her chances are improving,” he said.
That said, third-party groups aligned with the GOP are out-spending McCaskill and her supporters by a 4-1 margin.
The next three states Republicans hope to pick up are Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin.
In Ohio, Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown and his allies are being outspent 10-1, but the incumbent retains a healthy lead in the polls over the relatively inexperienced Josh Mandel, who has had to fend off charges of cronyism. Mandel, the state treasurer, has also faced criticism for skipping meetings of the state Board of Deposit.
Republican strategists say the Ohio race will tighten but union strategists plan to spend millions and wage an aggressive get-out-the-vote campaign to defend Brown, according to one labor official.
Party strategists think Virginia’s Senate race will be extremely close and heavily influenced by the presidential race.
“It’s hard to envision the profile of an Obama-Allen voter,” said a senior GOP aide in reference to former Sen. George Allen (R-Va.), who is running against former Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine.
Democrats are planning some of their own offense. Democratic leaders are counting Maine as a pick-up with the retirement of Snowe and feel confident the front-runner, former Gov. Angus King, an independent, will caucus with them in January.
Republican and Democratic strategists see Massachusetts as pivotal in the battle for Senate control. If Democrats defeat Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) and capture the Maine seat, it would make the Republican road to a majority much tougher.
To keep his job, Brown will need to win independents by 20 points or more, estimates David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center, which has conducted polling of the race.
Democrats expect as many as 800,000 more people to vote this November than in the special election Brown won in January of 2010.
“Turnout will increase dramatically. That’s his biggest challenge,” said Peter Ubertaccio, director of the Martin Institute at Stonehill College.
Democrats think they can knock off Sen. Dean Heller (R) in Nevada by relying on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) formidable field operation. Heller has the advantage of having run statewide before while his opponent, Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.) is viewed as distinctly of Las Vegas.
“Berkley has zero name recognition outside of Clark County,” said Jon Ralston, a political columnist for The Las Vegas Sun, who says the race “leans slightly to Heller.”
And Democrats see another ray of hope in Indiana, where they hope Mourdock will be a little too conservative for the state.
Democrats think their candidate, Rep. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.), has cross-over appeal and are prepared to unleash a barrage of attacks casting light on Mourdock’s past controversial statements.