Late surges shake fight for Senate

Late surges for Republican candidates in Pennsylvania and Ohio, and for the Democrat in Nebraska, have taken Senate races that seemed to be foregone conclusions and turned them into cliffhangers.

Attacks ads that have blanketed the Nebraska airwaves for months might finally be helping Democrat Bob Kerrey and forcing Republicans to spend money to shore up support for their candidate, Deb Fischer.

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And weakening support for President Obama in Ohio and Pennsylvania might be eroding the leads enjoyed by Democratic Senate candidates. Republicans Josh Mandel (Ohio) and Tom Smith (Pa.) could get a chance to pull ahead in the final days.

Fischer has been a strong favorite from the outset in Nebraska. She has identified Kerrey with Obama, who has long trailed Mitt Romney by a wide margin and lost the state by nearly 15 points in 2008.

There has been little public polling of the Senate race, but on Tuesday, a survey came out that found that Kerry trailed Fisher by only 46 percent to 49 among likely voters. That is within the poll’s margin of error and sharply closer than was suggested by the 16-point advantage for Fischer among likely voters in the previous poll, in mid-September.

About a week ago, Kerrey’s campaign launched advertisements attacking Fischer’s involvement in a land deal with her neighbors. This appears to have contributed to a 12-point increase in Fischer’s unfavorable rating since September, to 33 percent, which is close to the 38 percent who view Kerrey unfavorably.

“Nebraskans knew virtually nothing about Deb Fischer, and the more voters learn, the more they are rejecting her. Bob Kerrey has closed this race and that is why you are seeing Karl Rove and super-PACs begin to panic,” said Guy Cecil, executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Republicans privately say they’re not concerned about the race, and expect Fischer to win on Nov. 6, but Karl Rove’s American Crossroads just bought $420,000 of advertising time in the final week of the campaign, and billionaire Joe Ricketts invested $400,000 in the race last week to help the Republican.

Fischer’s campaign says attacks on the land deal would work against Kerrey. “Negative campaigning has a history of backfiring in Nebraska, and our data show that Kerrey’s ads have increased his unfavorability rating and damaged his image,” said campaign manager Aaron Trost.

In Pennsylvania, Sen. Bob Casey Jr. (D) has led Republican challenger Smith in every poll, but the margin has shrunk in the past month. Smith, who is wealthy, spent large sums early in the campaign in the expensive Philadelphia market to define himself and Casey.

Casey retains a 7-percentage-point lead in the latest Philadelphia Inquirer poll, but he’s below 50 percent and the recent shift in the presidential race could boost the Republican on Election Day.

Sensing an opportunity, Restore Our Future and Americans for Job Prosperity, which are Republican organizations, have pumped over $3.2 million into the state in recent days.  Romney’s campaign announced a buy for Nov. 5 and 6, perhaps indicating that it thinks the state is in play and could be won with a late spending surge.

Smith’s campaign believes that could boost its candidate ahead of Casey. “In any close election, which is what we’re looking at right now, turnout is a significant factor, and turnout can be affected by the presidential race,” said Smith spokesman Jim Conroy.

Another GOP operative said, “Can that additional spending at the presidential level pull out, maybe, the 2010 voters there? ... It’s still viable, and given the changing dynamic of the presidential race, how that’s a tight race, the Senate race could shift.”

Obama is nearly 5 points ahead of Romney in the RealClearPolitics average of polls in Pennsylvania, and Democrats say privately that they don’t expect the president to do poorly enough to drag Casey down. Casey won the state by 17 points over Sen. Rick Santorum (R) in 2006.

While both parties privately admit they don’t expect upsets in Pennsylvania or Nebraska, Ohio remains a true toss-up, with movement in the presidential race in recent days making all the difference.

A spate of recent polls have shown Romney close to or tied with the president, and even ahead by 2 percentage points in a Rasmussen survey of Oct. 28.

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D) has consistently polled more favorably than Obama, by 1 or 2 percentage points in most internal polls, but his challenger, Josh Mandel, and more than $15.8 million in Republican ad spending, have managed to narrow the race.

Brown won by 12 points in 2006. Outside groups have spent nearly $11.6 million backing Brown, according to data collected by the Campaign Finance Institute.

With both sides spending furiously, the Senate seat in Ohio could be decided mostly by presidential coattails.

National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman Brian Walsh agreed that Republicans will be waiting to see what happens to the top of their ticket on Election Day.

“There was a marked swing for Democrats in early to mid-September, and a clear swing back in favor of Republicans post-first debate, and the question is: Does the Romney momentum continue, or has it plateaued?” he said.