With nine days to go, it looks like the Republicans are poised to take the House. The math in the Senate looks like more of a long shot.
The current Senate makeup is 59-41, counting Joe Lieberman and Bernie Sanders, so Republicans would have to net 10 seats to get to 51, since a 50-50 tie would be broken by Joe Biden. Below I look at the races where Republicans have to prevail in order to take control.
Probable Republican Pickups
Arkansas, North Dakota and Indiana have long been considered Republican pickups, with the Republican candidates leading in opinion polls for months. These races are basically over at this point and can safely be considered Republican pickups.
In one of the more puzzling results of the year, Russ Feingold has trailed badly behind plastics manufacturer (I can’t help but think of The Graduate) and Tea Party candidate, Ron Johnson. A few months ago, I characterized this as a Democratic Firewall seat, based on Feingold’s history of bucking party and common wisdom as well as Wisconsin’s traditional voting patterns. Wisconsin has been true blue for a while now and has a history of electing fiery populist Democrats (dating back to ”Fightin” Bob LaFolette during the Progressive Era). In recent polling Feingold has trailed by up to 8 points, with Johnson polling over 50% in some polls. This is very bad news for Feingold at this late hour, and the race would have qualified as a Probable Republican Pickup just a week ago. However, just last week week two polls came out showing Feingold closing the gap, so I err on the side of caution and include this as a Lean Republican seat.
In another race where biography would seem to indicate a different result, former Congressman and Admiral Joe Sestak has consistently trailed former Congressman and free market libertarian derivatives trader Pat Toomey for almost the entire year. But in what seems to be a national trend of poll tightening in Senate Races, Sestak has pulled even with Toomey or is showing a small lead. Having pulled even, Sestak hopes the Pennsylvania Democratic machine can carry him over the finish line.
Tea Party favorite Ken Buck has generally led appointed Senator Michael Bennett by 2-5 points since the primaries. This race has tightened in recent weeks as Bennett has surged slightly and Ken Buck has stepped on his message a few times. A new Denver Post poll out today has the race a dead heat, but Buck should still be considered a slight favorite here.
The nastiest, most high profile race in the country has to be in Nevada, where the Least Charismatic Man in America continues to be locked in a tight race against the Crazy Cat Lady from your Old Neighborhood. The fact that Harry Reid hasn’t been able to put the Tea Party Fringe Candidate Sharron Angle out of her misery is a testament to how much Nevadans hate their sitting senator. This is probably the most polled race in the country and it seems like they alternate leads in every other poll. Angle’s up by a couple of points now, but all indications are that this race will go down to the wire.
In Illinois, the voters face another Faustian bargain as Mark Kirk, a former Republican Congressman who is most famous for lying about his military record during the Gulf War takes on Alexi Giannoulias, who is most famous for his family’s shady savings and loan which went belly up early this year. On Meet the Press, Kirk defended his exaggerations about his military experience while Giannoulias put himself in the running for the most cringeworthy political statements in history when he basically admitted that he knew he was loaning money to mobsters when he worked at his father’s bank 4 years ago. This race is another that is too close to call, with Kirk mostly maintaining a one to two point lead over Giannoulias for the past few months, but Giannoulias showing some signs of life in the past few weeks. Another race where turnout will be key.
The addition of West Virginia as a possible Republican pickup has kept the Republicans in the game. Here, popular governor Mike Manchin is taking on another perennial Republican loser, John Raese, in a Special Election for the seat of held by the late Robert Byrd. In another example of how ignorance sells in this country, Raese has made a point of pointing out that he can’t pronounce non Anglo names, recently calling Energy Secretary Dr. Steven Chu, Dr. Chow Mein (Stay classy John Raese!).
This seat was initially assumed a safe Democratic seat because of the popularity of Manchin, but in recent weeks, Raese surged into a lead over Manchin with a clever campaign which acknowledges Manchin’s popularity as Governor, but agues that he would become a rubber stamp for Obama and Pelosi if he were to go to Washington. The polling in this race has been all over the map, with polls within days of each other exibiting violent swings.
Democratic Firewall Seats
If the Republicans were to sweep all of the above races, they would still need to take one more seat to get to 51. The two most obvious seats are the generally reliable blue states of Washington and California, where two Democratic women from the 1992 “Year of the Woman” class are facing tough challenges.
In Washington, Senator Patti Murray faces Dino Rossi, another perennial Republican challenger who narrowly lost a race for Governor in 2004 and then lost by a more substantial margin in 2008. This race has bounced around a bit, but Murray has held a small lead for the past few weeks. At this point, Nate Silver ranks this race as an 85% chance of a Murray win.
Liberal stalwart Barbara Boxer, another Year of the Woman Alumnus, has yet to put away former Hewlet Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, but she has led her in the polls by margins from 1% to 8% since early September. Although Boxer’s inability to poll about 50% has been cited as a bad sign for her, a Republican pickup here, while possible, seems unlikely.
Lean Republican Hold
While Democrats are on defense in almost all of the swing seats, there is still faint hope that they could take one Republican seat. Democratic hopes are pinned on Kentucky, where son of the Tea Party icon Ron Paul, Rand Paul, is taking on Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway. Even in reliably red Kentucky, Paul has struggled due to the original intent constitutionalism and the radical free market ideology that he stands for. While this race has been closer than expected, Paul now leads by close to 5% and Conway’s attacks on Paul’s college associations and pranks look increasingly desperate. It looks like the Democrats will have to rely on defense to get them through this one.
Bottom line for the Republicans? They need to lock up the three seats they are favored in (Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Colorado), run the table in the tossup elections of Nevada, Illinois and West Virginia, and take either California or Washington while holding on to their lead in Kentucky.
Stay frosty folks. The next week and a half will be interesting.