Senate hinges on New England

The battle for control of the Senate could come down to New England, a region where the GOP brand was seen as defunct a few years ago.

A best-case scenario for Republicans would allow the party to retain Senate seats in Massachusetts and Maine while picking up a seat in Connecticut. Coupled with gains in other parts of the county, it would likely be enough to make Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) the majority leader.

But to do so, the GOP will have to beat history. No Republican has been elected to the Senate from Connecticut since 1982, while Sen. Scott Brown (Mass.) — who is in a tight race to retain his seat — was the first Republican senator elected from Massachusetts since Edward Brooke in 1972.

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President Obama is an overwhelming favorite to win all three states, meaning Republicans will have to convince voters to split their ballots.

And Mitt Romney’s poor performance in the Senate battlegrounds indicates the headwinds facing the GOP. He trails Obama by an average of 14 points in Connecticut, 15 points in Maine and 23 points in Massachusetts.

A Republican strategist conceded it would be difficult for the party to win back the upper chamber if it lost races in those three states.

“If we lose both Maine and Massachusetts, the map gets more difficult,” the source said.

Still, Republican candidates have made gains in recent weeks, and strategists say whether they win or lose will depend on the quality of their campaigns, not on the presidential race or the national political environment.

“I’m not sure there’s a broad thing you can say about all of them,” Rich Galen, a GOP strategist, said of the New England Senate races. “These are individual races. It’s very difficult to make Senate races part of a national campaign.”

The National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) in recent weeks has spent more time and effort touting its three promising candidates in New England as races in more conservative parts of the country have not played out as expected.

The committee has spent $300,000 to extend its ad buy in Maine for another week, bringing the total spent to nearly $1 million.

The contest between Harvard Professor Elizabeth Warren and Brown was always anticipated to be close.

The bigger surprises have been in Connecticut and Maine, where attacks on the front-runners — and stumbling responses — have created opportunities for Republicans.

In May, Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), the Senate Democrats’ chief political strategist, called Maine the only surefire Democratic pickup on the map. He remains convinced that former Gov. Angus King, an Independent, will win and then caucus with Democrats.

But King’s big lead has withered as the NRSC has hammered his work in wind energy, specifically a project to build turbines along a scenic ridge. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce blasted him for leaving the governor’s office with a $1 billion budget shortfall.

A party committee ad accused King of getting a “sweetheart deal” from the turbines. Another GOP ad criticizes King for using political connections to get a federal loan guarantee for a wind farm.

King’s campaign has called the ad a lie and threatened legal action if Maine television stations did not pull it from the air.

While King’s status as a non-affiliated candidate helps him with independent voters, the lack of support from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee makes it difficult for him to fend off attacks.

New polls by Rasmussen Reports and PPP show King with a 12- and 8-point lead over Republican opponent Charlie Summers in a three-way race. But King has dropped 5 to 10 points since polls conducted in June.

“The fact that the NRSC upped its buy suggests it’s getting good numbers back,” said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “Look at the movement. [King] went from 55 to 44 points between June and September with about $600,000 worth of ads.”

In Connecticut, a Quinnipiac poll published in late August showed millionaire professional wrestling organizer Linda McMahon, the Republican, with a 3-point lead over Rep. Chris Murphy (Conn.), the Democratic Senate candidate.

McMahon gained ground by bashing Murphy for being late in paying for missing mortgage and rent payments. Murphy has also had to fend off questions about whether he received a special deal on a second mortgage while serving as a member of the House Financial Services Committee.

Murphy’s campaign said he straightened out the missing mortgage payments once he learned of them and Webster Bank has denied special treatment. But political experts have not been impressed with Murphy’s response.

“For the first two or three attacks, he seemed oddly unprepared,” said Duffy. “Democrats should be concerned” in Connecticut because “Murphy isn’t running the campaign he needs to run.”

Murphy has called on McMahon to focus on policy issues. He gained some ammo recently when it was revealed that McMahon was late in paying property taxes on her Greenwich home.

Unlike in Maine, the DSCC has mounted an attack against McMahon. A source who tracks media buys said the DSCC is on track to spend over $1 million advertising in Connecticut by the end of the month.

A Hartford Courant/University of Connecticut poll showed Murphy up by 4 points in mid-September.

Democrats hope Romney drags down Senate GOP candidates in New England, and political experts say that is happening in Massachusetts, where Warren has opened up a 4- to 5-point lead over Brown, according to polls by Suffolk University and WBUR.

“Romney’s poor performance in Massachusetts is starting to have an impact down-ballot,” said Peter Ubertaccio, chairman of the department of political science and international studies at Stonehill College.

Political analysts estimate Brown must convince roughly 20 percent of registered Democratic voters to back him over Warren.

Ubertaccio said Romney is now in “Bob Dole territory”, making reference to the 1996 GOP presidential nominee. He said Dole’s poor showing that year “made it impossible” for former Republican Gov. Bill Weld to beat Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in the 1996 Senate race.

Brown and McMahon both criticized Romney’s remarks from a May fundraiser where he described 47 percent of voters as “victims” who do not pay an income tax and are dependent on government.