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Roll Call

Delaware Aside, Shifts in Senate Field Favor GOP

Senate Democrats certainly got a boost this week with Rep. Michael N. Castle's stunning defeat in Delaware's GOP primary. But once the party's euphoria wears off in the First State, Democrats still have to face the reality that the national political environment is still tilted decidedly against them and several races around the country continue to shift in favor of Republicans.

After moving the rating of the Delaware contest to reflect Democrats' much improved prospects of holding the Senate seat, CQ Politics is moving the race ratings in a handful of other Senate contests in favor of the GOP. Three races -- in Florida, Kentucky and New Hampshire -- are being moved from Tossup to Leans Republican. The Arkansas Senate contest is being moved from Leans Republican to the less competitive category of Likely Republican and the West Virginia race is moving from Likely Democratic to the more competitive category of Leans Democratic.

Florida's race rating had been considered a Tossup due to what appeared to be the unexpected strength of Florida Gov. Charlie Crist's Independent bid over the summer.

But following the state's Aug. 24 primaries, public polls have shown former state House Speaker Marco Rubio (R) steadily pulling away from Crist and Rep. Kendrick Meek (D).

The governor has near universal name recognition in the state, while Rubio and Meek are less well known. Crist has made no secret that he's looking to take votes from both Democrats and Republicans, but it increasingly looks unlikely that he can carve out enough votes in the center to win the three-way race. Republicans have focused most of their attention on painting the governor as a liberal in disguise. Meek, meanwhile, is touting himself as the only real Democrat in the race in an effort to prevent Crist from eating too far into the Democratic vote and becoming viewed as the de facto Democrat in the race. What appears likely is that Rubio will capture the lion's share of the Republican vote and also a portion of GOP-leaning independents. Meek will get the Democratic base vote and Crist will get more middle-of-the-road and Democratic-leaning Independents. That math adds up to a Rubio victory, which is what is being reflected in current polls.

Meanwhile, in Kentucky, even Democratic polls are starting to show Republican Rand Paul pulling away from Democrat Jack Conway.

Public Policy Polling, a North Carolina-based firm with a stable of Democratic clients, released a survey last week that showed Paul up 7 points over Conway. Republicans are certainly sensing a growing opportunity in the Commonwealth and the National Republican Senatorial Committee targeted Conway in their first ad of the general election. Democrats argue that the NRSC's decision to go up early in Kentucky is a sign that they are concerned about holding the seat of retiring Sen. Jim Bunning (R).

The conservative nature of Kentucky and favorable environment certainly give Republicans inherent advantages this cycle, but the race bears watching as Paul's propensity for making controversial statements could still cause a late shift in this contest.

We waited until after Tuesday's primary to change our rating of the New Hampshire contest, where Republican Kelly Ayotte is squaring off against Rep. Paul W. Hodes (D). Ayotte is the candidate national Republicans recruited into the race and, despite her narrow primary victory over tea party conservative Ovide Lamontagne, she is the party's strongest possible nominee.

Recent polls have consistently shown Ayotte as the frontrunner in head-to-head matchups against Hodes. One of them -- which gave Ayotte a 47 percent to 43 percent lead among likely voters -- was conducted by the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling. Another produced by Rasmussen Reports and released two days after the primary gave Ayotte held a 7-point lead over Hodes, 51 percent to 44 percent.

Rasmussen noted that most GOP primary voters appear to be putting the primary behind them: The poll showed 92 percent of Republicans now back Ayotte, while Hodes drew support from 83 percent of Democrats. Among independents, Ayotte held a 19-point lead. That number will be the key to victory in November and it was a factor in moving the race in her favor.

It remains to be seen whether any of the bitter attacks in the primary will come back to haunt her. Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's endorsement might offer another potential stumbling block for Ayotte, given that Palin's is largely unpopular in New Hampshire. Still, it hard not to see her as the favorite to hold retiring Sen. Judd Gregg's (R-N.H.) seat.

In Arkansas, it's getting hard to see how Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D) will be able to hold on against Rep. John Boozman (R). An expensive and high profile primary and primary runoff did little to build confidence that the Democratic base will come out in droves for Lincoln in November. And while some Democrats in states like Florida and Kentucky can help reach out to moderates by playing up their Republican opponents' ties to the tea party movement, Lincoln doesn't have that luxury. Boozman is a five-term Congressman who is as much a political insider as Lincoln is.

In a testament to just how steep the Democratic Senator's path to victory is, a poll released this week that showed a 17 point difference is actually the closest she's come to Boozman in months. Several public polls from over the summer put the Congressman up anywhere from 19 to 31 points.

Finally, we continue to believe the West Virginia race is one that has the potential to get a lot more interesting between now and Election Day.

Popular Gov. Joe Manchin III began the contest as the prohibitive frontrunner against wealthy businessman John Raese. But the most recent Rasmussen Report poll showed Manchin ahead 50 percent to 45 percent and the race has earned a spot on the competitive playing field of races with about six weeks to go before the midterms. Granted many observers view Rasmussen polls as controversial and skewed toward Republicans, but it's clear that operatives in both parties see this race as an emerging battleground.

Raese, who has run twice unsuccessfully for Senate before, has aired ads tying Manchin to President Barack Obama, who is not popular in the state.

West Virginia has trended increasingly Republican in recent national elections, with George W. Bush carrying the state twice and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) winning easily there in 2008. But Democrats still dominate politics at the state and local levels.

This should be a fun race to watch, especially since it remains to be seen just how deep into his own pocket Raese is willing to dip to fuel his bid.

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