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Mitch McConnell Picks Top Races in Majority Quest

Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said it won’t be easy for Republicans to take control of the Senate, predicting months of “shin-kicking” ahead of the elections.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell isn’t willing to wager on whether Republicans will take control of the chamber after this fall’s elections. But he knows the battle for 51 seats over the next five months is going to be ugly.

“I’m not going to make a prediction other than this: I think the Senate is going to be close, one way or the other,” he said. “It’s going to be an eye-gouging, shin-kicking contest all the way to the finish line.”

In an interview with Roll Call last week in his Capitol office, the man who could be Majority Leader in the 113th Congress outlined the races pivotal to control and discussed candidate recruitment, the role of outside forces on GOP primaries and the effect of White House nominee Mitt Romney on Senate races.

The Senator said he sees three different levels of competitiveness in 2012 races where his party could add seats. The races that represent the best chance for GOP pickups are the open seat in North Dakota, Sen. Jon Tester’s (D) very competitive race in Montana, the open seat in Nebraska, Sen. Claire McCaskill’s (D) uphill re-election bid in Missouri and the marquee matchup between former Govs. Tim Kaine (D) and George Allen (R) in Virginia.

McConnell’s “tier two” races include Sen. Sherrod Brown’s re-election effort in Ohio and the open seats in Wisconsin, New Mexico and Hawaii.

Then there are states less likely to lead to GOP pickups this cycle.

“Maine, Pennsylvania, Florida are examples of ones you take a look at later,” said McConnell, who was chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee in the 1998 and 2000 cycles. “Sorta see what develops.”

The party must also hold its own seats, particularly in Massachusetts, Nevada and Maine. Asked how much of a blow the retirement of Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe (Maine) is to GOP efforts to take the Senate, McConnell said it was “not helpful.”

It didn’t sound as if he sees Maine being a state that might come into serious play.

“We think it’s certainly a lean-blue state. Whether it’s a completely deep blue state, I don’t know,” the Senator said, noting there are a large number of independent voters there. He said the GOP would assess the race after the June 12 primary.

As for frontrunner Angus King (I), the state’s former governor who has not said with whom he would caucus should he be elected to the Senate, McConnell all but wrote him off.

“He is kind of the de facto Democratic candidate,” the Minority Leader said. “It looks to me like they’ve adopted him.”

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