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Parties Plot Path to 51 With Senate Field Set

Tom Williams/Roll Call
West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin (left), seen at an event Wednesday with Virginia Sens. Mark Warner (center) and Jim Webb, is the favorite to win the Senate race in November.

With the Senate playing field set after Tuesday’s primaries, operatives in both parties spent much of Wednesday taking stock of the landscape and adjusting their strategy accordingly for the last 47 days of the campaign.

Tuesday’s shocking result in Delaware, where GOP favorite Rep. Mike Castle was upset by Christine O’Donnell, makes the path to netting a 10-seat gain in November more difficult for Republicans. Party operatives Wednesday downplayed Delaware as the race that would be the difference between being the majority or minority party next year. Strategists argued they were facing long odds in winning all of this cycle’s competitive races even before the tea party-backed conservative O’Donnell won.

Democrats said the Delaware result further proves that even in a wave election year, Senate races must be looked at in a race-by-race manner. They argued the GOP would need to win states such as Connecticut and West Virginia — seats Democrats are favored to hold — to have a shot at taking control of the chamber.

While their path to 51 seats took a hit, GOP strategists said they are still confident about making major gains.

Republicans are favored to win at least three Democratic-held seats: those of Sen. Blanche Lincoln (Ark.) and retiring Sens. Evan Bayh (Ind.) and Byron Dorgan (N.D.). The Delaware seat would have been included in that list had Castle won Tuesday’s primary, and his upset pushes the party’s spotlight to more challenging races.

According to recent polling, Republicans have at least an even chance of winning the open seats in Illinois and Pennsylvania, as well as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s seat in Nevada and Sen. Michael Bennet’s seat in Colorado. Those races, along with those in California, Washington and Wisconsin — three states where Democratic incumbents are vulnerable — mean that Republicans still have a path to netting 10 seats, even if it is an uphill climb.

Republicans are keeping their eyes on two more states that could be game-changers: the Connecticut race between Democrat Richard Blumenthal and Republican Linda McMahon, and the special election in West Virginia, where Democratic Gov. Joe Manchin is favored over Republican businessman John Raese. Both GOP candidates have the ability to self-fund, which could make the races interesting down the stretch.

As for Republicans, they have three open seats considered to be in jeopardy, and the loss of any one would pretty much ensure Democrats hold the Senate. In Missouri, Democrats think Secretary of State Robin Carnahan has a serious shot against Rep. Roy Blunt. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee went up with another TV ad there Wednesday, pushing the theme that Blunt has gone Washington.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee launched its first TV ad of the cycle in Kentucky on Tuesday to help Rand Paul, who ousted establishment favorite Trey Grayson in the primary. Paul is fighting a close race against Democrat Jack Conway.

Florida is one of the biggest unknowns, as Gov. Charlie Crist left the GOP to run as an Independent against Republican Marco Rubio and Democratic Rep. Kendrick Meek.

Ohio and New Hampshire are also open GOP seats, but neither is viewed as as competitive as the other three.

Alaska is another race where Democrats might look to make things interesting. But that all depends on whether Sen. Lisa Murkowski, defeated in last month’s GOP primary, decides to run as a write-in candidate.

A GOP operative noted that in January 2009, when there had been a string of Republican retirements in competitive states, it looked like Democrats could increase their majority even more. But a year later, the landscape had changed dramatically and the Jan. 19 special-election win by Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) brought home the reality of the political environment for Democrats.

Privately, Democrats say they do not see losing the majority as a likely scenario but concede anything is possible given the turbulent cycle and angry mood of many voters.

DSCC Chairman Bob Menendez said Republican primary miscues — including in Delaware, Florida, Kentucky and Nevada, among others — have helped keep a difficult environment for Democrats from getting worse.

“Republicans have chosen extremists to be their nominees, and this has changed the political map for the cycle,” the New Jersey Democrat said. “We are demonstrably more competitive in a handful of states because they have selected to run extremists instead of mainstream candidates. These are candidates who are much more focused on adopting a strict social doctrine than the economic challenges facing working people.”

NRSC Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) has said that winning a majority is a more likely prospect in 2012. Still, Republicans have put enough seats in play to do it this year.

That’s thanks to an expansion of the playing field that has allowed the GOP to compete in states that haven’t elected a Republican to the Senate in years: California (1988), Connecticut (1982), Washington (1994) and Wisconsin (1986).

Connecticut is seen as the longest shot among those four states, and a loss there on election night would probably mean Democrats’ hold on the majority is in dire shape, operatives said. Polling has shown the race tightening over the past few months; a Quinnipiac University poll released Tuesday found Blumenthal, the state attorney general, leading McMahon, the former CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment, 51 percent to 45 percent.

But Democrats argue Blumenthal’s lead is much larger, and the DSCC released an internal poll this week that showed Blumenthal up 15 points.

Still, McMahon’s personal wealth has allowed her to run TV ads and introduce herself to voters, and it will let the NRSC allocate its finite resources elsewhere, said Quinnipiac University polling director Douglas Schwartz.

“The seat was considered a safe seat for Democrats when Blumenthal got in, but Republicans have to be pretty happy because now it’s a competitive race,” he said.

Similar to Connecticut, Republicans have a candidate who can self-fund in Wisconsin, where Republican Ron Johnson is challenging Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold. The NRSC has so far reserved $500,000 worth of TV time in the state.

Along with Missouri, Democrats are already on the air in Pennsylvania and Colorado, two states in which the NRSC has reserved time in October.

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