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Numbers Favor Republicans But Path To Senate Majority Is Still Iffy

Two years ago, I asked Texas Sen. John Cornyn, then (and still) the chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), if the GOP was going to win enough seats to take back the majority it lost in 2006. He said he always saw it as a two-cycle process: win some seats in 2010 — and they did, in Arkansas (with John Boozman), Illinois (Mark Kirk), Indiana (Dan Coats), North Dakota (John Hoeven), Pennsylvania (Pat Toomey) and Wisconsin (Ron Johnson) — and then finish the job in 2012, when the numbers would be far more hospitable.

Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) and Linda McMahon (R-CT) are running surprisingly better than anticipated.
/ Ken Rudin collection
Ken Rudin collection
Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) and Linda McMahon (R-CT) are running surprisingly better than anticipated.

And if there's one thing you could say about this year's Senate races, it's that the landscape clearly favors the Republicans. Of the 33 Senate seats up for grabs, 23 are currently held by Democrats or Democratic-leaning independents. Only ten are held by Republicans. And with Democrats currently holding a 53-47 advantage, the GOP would need four seats to take control — or three, if Mitt Romney won the White House (and Vice President Paul Ryan would break a 50-50 tie).

It's not working out the way Republicans expected.

Part of it is that some of their candidates are under-performing. In North Dakota, where Democrat Kent Conrad is retiring, Rep. Rick Berg (R) was initially seen as the odds-on favorite to win the seat. But Heidi Heitkamp, the former state attorney general — last seen losing the 2000 gubernatorial race by ten points — has run a so-far impressive race, and most observers see it as very close. My gut tells me Berg still wins it. But right now it has to be considered a tossup.

Another open seat is New Mexico, where Jeff Bingaman (D) is leaving after five terms. Heather Wilson, a moderate Republican and former House member, was seen as the ideal candidate for the state. I suspect the turn in this race is less about her capabilities and more about the shifting demographics. In the state with the highest percentage of Latinos (about 35 percent), President Obama seems to have turned what was pretty much a swing state into one that is comfortably blue, at least this year. (Susana Martinez's victory in the gov. race was so 2010.) And that momentum may carry Rep. Martin Heinrich, the Democratic Senate candidate, to victory as well. As polls have shown Heinrich pulling away, national Republicans say they have canceled a multimillion-dollar ad buy, essentially abandoning this race. My last Senate ratings — see July 30 Political Junkie — had this as a tossup. I'm moving it to the Democratic column.

Democrats are also touting the chances of Richard Carmona in Arizona. The former surgeon general is of Puerto Rican heritage, speaks Spanish fluently, and his campaign is touting a poll that shows the race essentially tied. Arizona, with a sizable Latino population, has never elected a Hispanic senator. Obama personally recruited him to run. This has the potential to be a sleeper, but for now I'm sticking with GOP Rep. Jeff Flake to keep this seat, being vacated by Jon Kyl, in Republican hands.

As for Hawaii, friends there tell me that it's misguided for me to call the race a tossup, that it's going to be difficult for Linda Lingle, the former governor and GOP nominee, to succeed in a state where no Republican has won a Senate seat since 1970. And this is, Donald Trump notwithstanding, Obama's birth state. I'm going to keep this as a tossup for now, but I'm aware the odds don't favor Lingle in her battle with Rep. Mazie Hirono. Next month's debates could be crucial.

With Dick Lugar running in Indiana, it was never a question of whether he would win; it was by how much. After a relatively close re-election fight in 1982, Lugar won subsequent terms with 68, 67 and 67 percent. His last time out, in 2006, Democrats didn't even put up an opponent. But for Tea Party conservatives, that wasn't the point. They weren't happy with his willingness to work with Obama and the Democrats, if necessary, and they made their displeasure known by ousting him in the May primary by a landslide. Since then, Richard Mourdock, the state treasurer, has found himself in an unexpected battle to keep the seat away from Democrat Joe Donnelly. I still say Mourdock wins, but this could prove to be a nail-biter.

And yikes, what to make of Missouri! If there was ever a Democratic incumbent ripe for the taking, it was Claire McCaskill. Her numbers were tanking in a state that voted for John McCain four years ago and will vote for Romney by an even greater margin this year. I don't have to remind you what the Republican nominee, Rep. Todd Akin, said in regards to "legitimate rape" and pregnancy. It has so shifted the race that the NRSC has determined Akin is a lost cause and has pulled out of the state, as has Karl Rove's American Crossroads. Nearly every national Republican of note has pleaded with Akin to get out but he says he won't; he says God and his faith are keeping him in the race, and he insists the decision is up to the people of Missouri, not the "Washington bosses." I know some polls have this close, but I wonder if that's just Democratic mischief intended to keep Akin as the GOP nominee (he has until Sept. 25 to petition the courts to withdraw). Akin may be the Republicans' 2012 version of Christine O'Donnell (Del.) or Sharron Angle (Nev.) — two instances where the GOP coulda/shoulda won two years ago if they had better candidates. This goes from tossup to Democrat favored.

But there has been some encouraging news for the Republicans as well. Tea Party Conservatives may not have been thrilled with the results of the Wisconsin GOP primary, in which former four-term Gov. Tommy Thompson emerged victorious in the race to succeed retiring Democrat Herb Kohl. But he has opened up a lead against Rep. Tammy Baldwin, the Democratic nominee. And having Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin congressman, on the presidential ticket doesn't hurt either. After Nebraska, this could be the Republicans' best shot at a pickup.

And how to you explain what's going on in Connecticut? Two years ago, in a huge Republican year, Linda McMahon, the former World Wrestling Entertainment executive and GOP nominee, got clobbered in her bid to win the seat being vacated by retiring Chris Dodd. She spent $50 million of her own money in the process, but came away with a 12-point defeat and awful approval ratings. Fast forward to 2012. She's running again, this time for the seat of retiring independent Joe Lieberman. Facing Rep. Chris Murphy (D), she is somehow running even or slightly ahead in the latest polls. There are several explanations here (maybe): She has softened her image. Murphy doesn't have a statewide presence, unlike her 2010 opponent, then-Attorney General Richard Blumenthal. And there have been several media reports about Murphy home foreclosure and late rent payments. I still can't imagine Murphy losing, and thus I'm still listing him as the favorite. But if it remains close, both sides will flood the state with money. Wow.

And talk about under-performing: Neutral observers in Massachusetts, while acknowledging the race is a true tossup, say that incumbent Republican Scott Brown is running a much smoother campaign than Democratic challenger Elizabeth Warren, looking far more relaxed in the process. This, in a state where Obama is light years ahead of Romney.

Here are my ratings:

SAFE DEMOCRATIC (9): California (Dianne Feinstein), Delaware (Tom Carper), Maryland (Ben Cardin), Minnesota (Amy Klobuchar), New York (Kirsten Gillibrand), Rhode Island (Sheldon Whitehouse), Vermont (Bernie Sanders (I)), Washington (Maria Cantwell), West Virginia (Joe Manchin).

DEMOCRAT FAVORED (8): Connecticut (open seat — Joe Lieberman (I) retiring), Florida (Bill Nelson), Michigan (Debbie Stabenow), Missouri (Claire McCaskill), New Jersey (Bob Menendez), New Mexico (open seat — Jeff Bingaman retiring), Ohio (Sherrod Brown), Pennsylvania (Bob Casey).

TOSSUP DEM SEATS (4): Hawaii (open seat — Daniel Akaka retiring), Montana (Jon Tester), North Dakota (open seat — Kent Conrad retiring), Virginia (open seat — Jim Webb retiring).

EXPECTED DEM LOSSES/GOP PICKUPS (2): Nebraska (open seat — Ben Nelson retiring), Wisconsin (open seat — Herb Kohl retiring).

EXPECTED GOP LOSSES/DEM PICKUPS (1): Maine (open seat — Olympia Snowe retiring).*

TOSSUP GOP SEATS (1): Massachusetts (Scott Brown).

REPUBLICAN FAVORED (3): Arizona (open seat — Jon Kyl retiring), Indiana (open seat — Dick Lugar defeated in primary), Nevada (Dean Heller) .

SAFE REPUBLICAN (5): Mississippi (Roger Wicker), Tennessee (Bob Corker), Texas (open seat — Kay Bailey Hutchison retiring), Utah (Orrin Hatch), Wyoming (John Barrasso).

*Winner likely to be an independent who is expected to caucus with Democrats.

Political Updates. I post periodic political updates during the week on Twitter. You can follow me at @kenrudin. Time for some readers' questions:

Q: What do you think of this scenario? President Obama is re-elected. In Massachusetts, Sen. Scott Brown is also re-elected. Obama appoints Sen. John Kerry to replace Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State. In turn, Mass. Gov. Deval Patrick appoints Elizabeth Warren to replace Kerry in the Senate. — James McKinstra, Hibbing, Minn.

A: Here's what we know. Hillary Clinton has said she will leave the administration after the completion of the first term. And there seems to be little doubt that Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, badly wants to succeed her. His speech at the Democratic National Convention earlier this month, where he dismissed Mitt Romney as "out of touch at home, out of his depth abroad and out of the mainstream," was widely seen as a "tryout." Kerry was also quite visible in the push back to Romney's jump-the-gun comments about the violence at the U.S. consulate in Libya.

First of all, there's no guarantee Obama will select Kerry. Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, wants it too, among others. But let's say it's Kerry. I wonder how Republicans in the Senate will react to Kerry's bashing of Romney during the campaign. They could very well decide to hold up the nomination (or, if they take control of the Senate, try to defeat him).

(And don't think that just because Kerry is one of them he would be assured of confirmation. See: Tower, John, 1989.)

In any case, I don't think Gov. Patrick would pick someone who was just rejected by the voters. Besides, state law mandates the governor can only name an interim senator who would serve only until a special election. That's what happened in the aftermath of the death of Sen. Ted Kennedy. Patrick named Paul Kirk as the temporary senator; he didn't run in the special election, where Republican Scott Brown (R) upset Martha Coakley (D). If Warren is defeated in this year's race, I would suspect her better path to the Senate would come by running again in another election and not by appointment.

Q: When Joe Lieberman was running for vice president, he was also allowed to also run for his Connecticut Senate seat simultaneously. Is Paul Ryan allowed to run for his House seat while running for vice president? — Michael Casavant, Southwick, Mass. (Similarly, Kathy Peterson of Rochester, Minn.)

A: He is allowed to and is doing so. Some states allow dual candidacies, some don't. When Rep. Geraldine Ferraro (D-NY) was named Walter Mondale's running mate in 1984, she had to end her congressional campaign because New York election law doesn't permit candidates to run for more than one office. The last previous House candidate on the ticket, New York's William Miller (R-1964), was already retiring when Barry Goldwater selected him for V.P. And, for the record, Goldwater could have run for Senate re-election AND president in '64, but he decided to give up his Senate seat.

The example most people refer to is Lyndon Johnson. In 1959, when it seemed clear LBJ was looking at a presidential bid, the Texas legislature passed a bill allowing anyone (read: Sen. Johnson) to run for national office as well as federal. Johnson's presidential hopes, of course, were dashed, but John F. Kennedy picked him as his number two. So Johnson ran for both vice president (he won) and re-election to the Senate (he won that too, beating a Republican by the name of John Tower). After the election, he resigned his Senate seat.

Bentsen sought national office in 1976 and 1988, even as he ran for re-election to the Senate.
/ Ken Rudin collection
Ken Rudin collection
Bentsen sought national office in 1976 and 1988, even as he ran for re-election to the Senate.

That so-called "LBJ Law" was used by another Texan, Lloyd Bentsen, who came to the Senate in 1971. Bentsen's Senate seat was up in 1976, the same year he made a bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. The presidential effort went nowhere, but he could have run for both had he been nominated. Twelve years later, he was the Democratic vice-presidential nominee at the same time he sought a fourth Senate term. The national Democratic ticket (led by Michael Dukakis) lost but Bentsen was re-elected to the Senate.

Joe Lieberman, as you correctly point out, was permitted by Connecticut law to run for both VP and the Senate in 2000, where he batted .500.

And Joe Biden, in 2008, was re-elected to the Senate from Delaware at the same time he was elected vice president.

As for Ryan, he is a prohibitive favorite to win an eighth term in his southeast Wisconsin House district; his Democratic opponent is Rob Zerban, a businessman.

Political Junkie segment on Talk of the Nation. Each Wednesday at 2 p.m. ET, the Political Junkie segment appears on Talk of the Nation (NPR's call-in program), hosted by Neal Conan with me adding color commentary, where you can, sometimes, hear interesting conversation, useless trivia questions and sparkling jokes. Last week's segment, with special guests Vin Weber (R) and Anna Greenberg (D), discussed what's next for Obama and Romney with the conventions behind them.

Sept. 12 Junkie segment on TOTN

I also had a chat with Linda Wertheimer on NPR's Weekend Edition on Sunday, talking about the Latino vote. You can hear that masterpiece here as well.

Importance of Latino vote

Podcast. There's also a new episode of our weekly podcast, "It's All Politics," up every Thursday. It's hosted by my partner in crime, Ron Elving, and me.

And Don't Forget ScuttleButton. ScuttleButton, America's favorite waste-of-time button puzzle, can usually be found in this spot every Monday or Tuesday. A randomly selected winner will be announced every Wednesday during the Political Junkie segment on NPR's Talk of the Nation. You still have time to submit your answer to last week's contest, which you can see here. Not only is there incredible joy in deciphering the answer, but the winner gets a TOTN T-shirt! (T-Shirt update: They're coming, really and truly, and within a month! Drop me an email if you want to see the new design.)

Most recent winner: Kim Wright of Goshen, Ind.


Oct. 3 — First presidential debate, University of Denver. Also: TOTN's Political Junkie segment from St. Louis.

Oct. 10 — TOTN's Political Junkie segment from Columbus, Ohio.

Oct. 11 -- Vice Presidential debate, Centre College in Danville, Ky.

Oct. 16 — Second presidential debate, Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y.

Oct. 22 — Third presidential debate, Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla.

Nov. 6 — ELECTION DAY. Also: Louisiana primary.

Mailing list. To receive a weekly email alert about the new column and ScuttleButton puzzle, contact me at politicaljunkie@npr.org.

******* Don't Forget: If you are sending in a question to be used in this column, please include your city and state. *********

/ Ken Rudin collection
Ken Rudin collection

This day in campaign history: Campaigning in New Orleans with South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond — who switched to the GOP the day before — Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater attacked his opponent, President Lyndon Johnson, for what he called the "Whitewash House." Goldwater said the Johnson administration is using "delay, postponement, concealment and whitewash" to keep the facts about the Bobby Baker and Billy Sol Estes cases from the public (Sept. 17, 1964).

Baker was a longtime LBJ crony and schemer who was under investigation for influence peddling, finally resigning as Secretary of the Senate in 1963. Estes was a Johnson business associate who was convicted on fraud charges and sentenced to 24 years in prison. His conviction was later overturned but Estes was convicted of other fraud charges in 1979 and served four more years.

Got a question? Ask Ken Rudin: politicaljunkie@npr.org

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