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The emergence of Arizona and Connecticut as competitive Senate battlegrounds has reinforced one of the most important themes of this cycle: In a neutral political environment, candidates matter more than ever.
Both open-seat races share similarities that extend beyond the fact that each party was favored to hold one seat until recently. The contests are the latest surprises on the 2012 Senate map, following the open seats in Indiana, North Dakota and Maine — all of which turned into more competitive contests than were originally expected.
Republicans are defending the Arizona seat while Democrats are defending the seat in Connecticut. The parallels are striking, if reversed. A House Member was the early favorite to win the Senate race in a state that leans in favor of his party. But the other party’s candidate has some unique quality that has been able to put this seat in play.
In Democratic Connecticut, former WWE CEO Linda McMahon (R) is over-performing in polls against Rep. Christopher Murphy (D). In Arizona, it is former Surgeon General Richard Carmona (D) gaining on Rep. Jeff Flake (R) in a GOP-leaning state.
“Broadly what you’re seeing in races across the country, it’s hand-to-hand combat. It’s trench fighting,” one national GOP strategist said.
Flake and Murphy have a fundamental hurdle that nearly every ambitious House Member faces in a Senate run: building statewide name identification.
While each are known commodities in Washington, D.C., Flake and Murphy represent a fraction of their states and have had to boost their images. At the same time, their opponents bring unique assets to their campaigns.
For McMahon, the assets are literal. She has deep pockets and made it known in her failed 2010 Senate run that she wasn’t afraid to spend whatever it takes to win. She spent about $47 million on that campaign — giving her residual high name identification — and she is currently up in the expensive New York City television market to sell her message.
Estimates vary on how much McMahon has spent in personal funds this time around, but it is enough that the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and other outside groups are having to spend to help Murphy.
Likewise, the National Republican Senatorial Committee is making TV reservations in Arizona to counter Carmona’s strength: his biography. The Bush-era surgeon general has a decorated background of military and intellectual achievement.
Carmona was unopposed in the Democratic primary and spent the spring and summer stockpiling his war chest. He just announced raising $2.2 million in the third quarter.