US Senate race preview

2012-10-10 15:34
Todd Akin (File, AP)

Todd Akin (File, AP)

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New York - The US Senate is one of the important legislative arms in the US government – each state elects two members who serve six-year terms, so there are 100 seats available in the body. The terms are staggered, however, so that every two years around one-third of the Senators are up for election.
A year ago, Republicans were smacking their lips at control of the Senate being wrested from the Democrats. This was going be an easy win – of the 33 Senate seats at stake in the 100 member body, 21 are held by Democrats (due to a sweeping success in the 2006 midterms as America railed against George W Bush), two by Democrat-leaning independents and only 10 by Republicans.

With only four seats required for a Republican majority – that's four from the 21 at stake for Democrats – Republicans were likely going to control the House of Representatives and the Senate, no matter who won the presidential election.
Harold Wilson, of British Labour Prime Ministerial fame, once said "A week is a long time in politics", – well a year, unsurprisingly, is even longer. Far from being in a position to take over the Senate in the general election on 6 November, Republicans need to pull a rabbit out of the hat to even maintain their 47-seat share of the body. While Democrats only have 51 seats, both independent senators from Vermont and Connecticut caucus with Democrats, essentially giving them 53 votes.
Of the 33 seats, only 11 are really competitive (Connecticut, Florida, Indiana, Massachusetts, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, Ohio, Virginia, Wisconsin) although there is the genuinely surprising seat in conservative Arizona up for grabs by Democrats.
Democrats had a few strikes of luck. Republican senator from the moderate state of Maine, Olympia Snowe, decided not to run for re-election this year and the favourite to replace her is former governor Angus King who is standing as an independent who is likely to caucus with the Democratic Party.

'Legitimate rape'

In Missouri, Todd Akin won the Republican nomination in a hotly contested primary against staunch Obama ally Claire McCaskill, who was in line to take a smashing in the election after being down in polls for months.

Things changed, however, when Akin decided to tell the world that the female body doesn't get pregnant when it is legitimately raped, making it clear his anti-abortion politics (hardly uncommon in Republican circles) were based in fantastical pseudo-science – ie the point he was making was that women who get pregnant after being raped shouldn't be allowed to abort the foetus because the rape wasn't legitimate.

McCaskill is up in polls for the first time in a long time, and looks set to retain her seat until 2018. This is a serious turnaround – in 2006 while Democrats were smashing up senate elections around the country, McCaskill only scraped a win by 2.3 percentage points.
In Connecticut (contesting a seat held by retiring independent Joe Lieberman) Democrats look to have beaten back a surge by Republican candidate Linda McMahon (who you may know as the former CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment) in a fairly blue state.

McMahon has dotted the airwaves with a plethora of advertising, which brought her level in polls as recently as mid-September, but her opponent, Democrat Chris Murphy is now 3.5 percentage points ahead, and nearing the 50% mark.

In Virginia, two former governors are slugging it out with Democrat Time Kaine claiming momentum against George Allen, likely due to Allen's stuttering when it comes to policies relating to women.

Not all plain sailing

Virginia's current governor Bob McDonnell has passed and signed blatant legislation restricting abortion, making attacks from Democrats pretty easy in a state that is becoming more Democrat as Washington DC extends into Virginia from the north.

In Ohio and Florida, both incumbent Democrats (Sherrod Brown and Bill Nelson) are pulling away from their Republican opponents.
It isn't all plain sailing, however.

In Nevada Democrat Shelley Berkely is in a seemingly tight race against incumbent Republican Dean Heller, but Heller has maintained a small poll lead the beginning of the year. In fact the only recent poll that has Berkely up is by Public Policy Polling, a Democrat polling firm.

What could also give Nevada Republicans a small boost is the fact that the Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, is a Mormon, and Nevada is one of the few states in which the Mormon population is significant enough to help out in an election: Romney will be in the Republican column on the same ballot as Heller (although, to be fair, there is as strong an argument against this).

Uncompromising right-winger

In North Dakota, although Democrat Heidi Heitkamp is putting up a fight against Republican Rick Berg with moderate stances on Obama policies, she is doing so on strong Republican turf.

She is, however, maintaining Democrat stances that kept the current holder of this seat, retiring Kent Conrad, such as stances against Wall Street and the national debt. This race certainly leans Republican.

In Indiana, the stage is similar with moderate Democrat Joe Donnely in Republican Indiana. What works in his favour though is that his opponent, the Tea party-backed Richard Mourdock has been quite happy to advertise himself as an uncompromising right-winger.

The seat the pair are fighting for belonged to Richard Lugar, a vastly experienced and popular politician who was known to reach across the aisle to compromise effectively as a conservative. Like Missouri candidate Todd Akin, Mourdock has the potential to say something utterly ridiculous before election day and flip this marginal race.
Three more seats could go either way. In Massachusetts, Democrat Elizabeth Warren and incumbent Republican Scott Brown have been trading polls successes for months, in a race that was expected to be an easy pickup for Democrats.

In Wisconsin Democrat Tammy Baldwin is a few points up against former governor Tommy Thompson, who also worked in George W Bush's first term cabinet, and dwarfs him in terms of fundraising.

Changing demographics

Two debates between the candidates remain, and it would still be significant for a state to elect an openly gay Senator, of which Baldwin would be the first if she won.

In Montana, incumbent Democrat Jon Tester is level in polls and recent fundraising with Republican Denny Rehberg. Although the state is generally Republican territory, Tester's approval ratings are higher than Rehberg's.
By far the most surprising seat in play is in the thoroughly conservative state of Arizona – remember former presidential candidate John McCain occupies the other Senate Arizona seat.

Although this is a strongly red state, changing demographics and expanding urban centres mean the electorate is drifting, albeit very slowly, toward Democrats, which means Republican candidate Jeff Flake's awfully conservative voting record could alienate some voters.

It would be a serious upset if Democrats, through candidate Richard Carmona, pinched this seat, but there isn't enough polling to be able to determine momentum either way. Two recent polls show Flake ahead but one shows Carmona in the lead.
The simple fact that Arizona is in play should give you a good indication of how Republican hopes of gaining Senate control have suffered.  While they will hold onto the House of Representatives this cycle, it is highly doubtful they have even a sniff at the Senate.
- Are you in the US? Send us your stories or views and related photos on the build-up to the elections .
Read more on:    barack obama  |  simon williamson  |  mitt romney  |  us  |  us elections 2012

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