By Ian Swanson and Ben Geman - 05/22/10 10:23 PM EDT
Stunning developments in Connecticut and Kentucky this week showed neither party can take anything for granted in the 2010 race for the Senate.
Republicans expect to gain seats next fall – their candidates are favored to win open seats in North Dakota, Delaware, Indiana and Illinois.
But a lot would have to go right for the GOP to reclaim the chamber. The party must pick up 10 seats without losing any of their own.
Blumenthal, the state’s attorney general, was seen as a strong bet to retain retiring Sen. Chris Dodd’s (D) seat, but the controversy could immediately give Republicans hope for an upset win in the generally Democratic state.
A Rasmussen Reports poll conducted Tuesday showed Blumenthal with just a three point edge over pro wrestling executive Linda McMahon, a far smaller margin than earlier surveys.
And that was before the damage from stories over Blumenthal’s past statements suggested he served time in Vietnam. Blumenthal, who served the military stateside, acknowledged this week he had misspoken.
If Republicans were enjoying some good news at the beginning of the week, however, they got some bad news by the end of the week when controversial statements by a GOP-candidate in a seemingly safe race raised questions.
Rand Paul on Tuesday beat an establishment candidate in solidly Republican Kentucky to become the GOP nominee in the race to replace retiring Sen. Jim Bunning (R). But he quickly found himself on the defensive over his views about civil rights.
Paul backtracked from comments in which he questioned whether the government should be allowed to block racial discrimination by private businesses.
And later in the week, he said that White House criticism of oil giant BP “sounds really un-American.”
While Paul’s controversial comments might not allow Democrat Jack Conway to win in a state that leans Republican, it certainly gave Democrats some hope, just as Blumenthal gave Democrats hope in a state won by President Barack Obama in 2008 with 61 percent of the vote.
“If they could tape Rand Paul’s mouth shut, it would automatically be a Republican hold, but I don’t think they make tape that strong,” said Larry Sabato, who heads the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.
Sabato still sees the race leaning toward the GOP, but notes that Paul’s mouth is a wildcard.
Another wildcard: Pennsylvania.
A poll surprisingly showed Democrat Joe Sestak defeating Republican former Rep. Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania after Sestak knocked off incumbent Sen. Arlen Specter (D) in a primary Tuesday.
The Rasmussen Reports poll taken the day after Sestak’s win gave him a four point lead over Toomey – breaking with many earlier surveys that showed Toomey in front, albeit by slim margins much of the time.
The new GOP uncertainties in Kentucky and especially Pennsylvania may not dampen GOP enthusiasm too much.
Party officials are, to be sure, hopeful about several races in seats held by Democrats. The GOP has an excellent chance of knocking off Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D) in Arkansas, and could get its grand prize by defeating Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in Nevada. Polls show Lincoln and Reid trailing their GOP counterparts.
But even if Republicans knock off Lincoln, Reid and claim open seats in North Dakota, Delaware, Indiana and Illinois, it would give them only 47 seats. They would need to win four more to take a majority in the Senate, because Vice President Joe Biden could break a 50-50 tie in favor of Democrats.
They also need to pick up some combination of Pennsylvania, Colorado, California and Connecticut while not losing seats in New Hampshire, Ohio, North Carolina, Florida and even Iowa, where Sen. Charles Grassley’s eye-grabbing vote for Democratic Wall Street reform legislation may be reflective of the worries many incumbents have.
Sabato, for his part, points out that the surprising twists in several states this week are, in a broader sense, quite predictable.
“It is what normally happens as we move through the primary process,” he said. “The odds get re-scrambled.”