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Fight for Senate Hinges on Six White House Battlegrounds

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With 11 months to go until the 2012 elections, the fight for control of the Senate already seems to boil down to a dozen states.

If, as many believe, we have entered a new era of parliamentary-type voting, when ticket-splitting becomes increasingly rare and the top of the ticket defines downballot choices for most voters, six of those 12 contests start to take on a more partisan tinge.

President Barack Obama is likely to carry Hawaii and Massachusetts comfortably, giving a leg up for his party’s Senate nominees in each state — Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts and probably Rep. Mazie Hirono (but possibly ex-Rep. Ed Case) in Hawaii.

On the other hand, the president’s weakness in a number of other states presumably would give an advantage to the likely Republican Senate nominees in Missouri, Montana, Nebraska and North Dakota.

Yes, I know, none of this is certain. Voters still know how to split their tickets, and if Massachusetts voters simply never warm to Warren or Democratic incumbents in Missouri, Montana and Nebraska succeed in localizing their races, Obama’s standing in any of these states may not determine who will win the Senate contest.

It is at least worth noting, however, that Democrats make the partisanship argument when they are handicapping their chances of winning the Hawaii and Massachusetts Senate contests, and Republicans make the exact same argument when handicapping Senate races in states that the president is likely to lose badly.

Adding up the gains and losses from the six states with a clear bent in the presidential contest would give Senate Republicans a net gain of three seats, enough to win control if the GOP presidential nominee wins next year as well, but a seat shy of a clear majority, and control, if Obama wins a second term.

So, the battle for the Senate could well boil down to six states which are also at ground zero in the 2012 presidential race: Florida, Nevada, New Mexico, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin.

Five of those Senate seats, all but Nevada, are currently held by Democrats. At this point, Democrats seem to have an edge in three of those contests.

In Florida, a crowded GOP race won’t be thinned out until the Aug. 14 primary. That will give the GOP nominee less than three months to replenish his or her war chest and focus sights entirely on Sen. Bill Nelson (D).

In New Mexico, another Republican primary awaits. But this one is scheduled for June 5, giving the eventual Republican nominee more of an opportunity to ramp up for the general election. And Democrats have their own potentially divisive primary in the state. While the Land of Enchantment tilts Democratic, the 2012 Senate race could well go down to the wire.

The third Senate race where Democrats should have an edge is Ohio, where Sen. Sherrod Brown (D) will face state Treasurer Josh Mandel (R).

A veteran of two tours of duty with the Marines in Iraq, Mandel served first as a city councilman near Cleveland and then in the state Legislature before being elected treasurer in 2010. A conservative Republican from liberal Cuyahoga County, Mandel is a fundraising machine and an aggressive campaigner. But Brown knows the state well and has proved to be a strong vote-getter over the years. Whether Brown’s liberalism will be a problem in 2012 is an open question.

The one race where the Republican should have the edge is Virginia.

Republican George Allen lost re-election in 2006 in a perfect storm of bad news and bad circumstances. Not only was President George W. Bush and the GOP Congress unpopular, but Allen shot himself in the foot by referring to a Democratic video tracker as “macaca,” a term that proved to be not merely unflattering but offensive. Allen’s Democratic challenger in that race was a former Republican who lacked a legislative record and ran on a message of change.

But with Sen. Jim Webb (D) not seeking re-election, Democrats have turned to former Gov. Tim Kaine to hold the open seat. Kaine was at one time a popular governor with a reputation for moderation. But his standing with voters fell toward the end of his term as the economy dipped, and his role as chairman of the Democratic National Committee (from 2009 to the spring of 2011) makes it all but impossible for him to separate himself from the president.

The very different environments of 2006 and 2012, to say nothing of the candidates, should improve Republican prospects in Virginia, and the elections of 2009 and 2010 in the commonwealth have proved that there is still plenty of Republican firepower in the state, including in the northern suburbs.

Two states remain: Nevada and Wisconsin.

Nevada will see Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley face off against appointed Sen. Dean Heller (R). A Berkley win in a GOP-held seat would be a huge development, affecting the net change of the election.

Polling shows the race even, and the outcome could well turn on the size of Hispanic turnout, Berkley’s ability to sell outside her Las Vegas base and the extent to which voters, angry at the national and local economic downturn — and particularly the state’s dismal real estate market — choose to send a message of dissatisfaction to Obama and candidates from his party.

Finally, Wisconsin looks like something of a head-scratcher. Neither of the two current leaders in the GOP race, former Gov. Tommy Thompson and former Rep. Mark Neumann, has knock-your-socks-off appeal, while Democratic Rep. Tammy Baldwin has put together a record that only residents of Madison may truly love.

With the state torn apart by partisanship and anger, tight presidential and Senate contests are expected next year.

Democratic control of the Senate after next year’s elections is very much in doubt. In fact, Republicans have better than a coin flip chance of getting to 51 seats. But much depends on the presidential race, including who gets the GOP’s nomination, and the six states where the fight for the White House and the fight for the Senate overlap.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

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