Midterm Madness: McCain, Reid, & 10 Hot Races to Watch

Will John McCain and Harry Reid survive? Can the Republicans take Obama’s old seat—and the Senate? The Daily Beast gives you the state of play for November’s biggest races.

08.22.10 10:45 PM ET

What do you need to know as the final round of Senate primaries approach? The Daily Beast catches you up on the most important races:

State of Play

First the skinny on the partisan makeup of the Senate today: Our nation’s upper body holds 57 Democrats, 41 Republicans, and two independents. The independents—Connecticut’s Joe Lieberman and Vermont’s Bernie Sanders—normally side with the Democrats, which give the party a 59 to 41 advantage. Of the 100 seats, 37 are on the ballot in November: 19 Democrats and 18 Republicans. So even before the voters head to the polls, we know that 40 Democrats and 23 Republicans have spots in the 112th Congress.

Right now, the two nonpartisan analysts most relied upon for horse-race watching—the Cook Political Report and the Rothenberg Political Report—put the number of seats in play as 18 and 15, respectively. While the possibility of a Republican-controlled House is very real, the chances of a Republican seizure of the Senate are slim. As things stand, Kentucky Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell won’t be hearing the words “Majority Leader” until 2012 at the earliest. Polling whiz Nate Silver predicts the Democrats will emerge with a three- or four-seat majority, although this number has been shrinking.

Races You’re Already Following

1. Sometimes the most covered races aren’t really races at all. You may have heard that in Arizona, Sen. John McCain is in the fight of his life. He’s not. McCain spent at least $19.6 million to fend off a primary challenge from J.D. Hayworth. Going into primary day, August 24, McCain is up 30 points on the conservative radio talker. He holds a 20-point lead over his likely Democratic challenger, a Tucson city councilman.

2. But McCain’s isn’t the only much-touted race with the chance of ending with a whimper. Across the border in Nevada, Sen. Harry Reid was left for dead this spring. Sarah Palin and her Tea Party friends visited his hometown in May to celebrate his political burial. But since one of the Tea Party’s own, Sharron Angle, secured the Republican Party’s nomination, GOP hopes have soured. As Angle flirts with some extreme positions—privatizing Social Security, reconsidering Prohibition—Reid’s chances increase. He’s up 2 points in recent polls, and his poll trajectory is northward.

3. Charlie Crist is exhibiting similar staying power in Florida, where the Sunshine State’s governor has gone from a has-been to potential U.S. senator over the last few months. Crist, who was pushed off the Republican ticket by conservative favorite Marco Rubio, has taken heterodox positions on teacher’s pay, among other issues, and benefited from the heroic limelight provided by the BP oil spill. If elected, Crist would become the third independent serving in the Senate, and many expect him to caucus with the Democrats. The Democratic field has added color to the race as billionaire Jeff Greene—who made millions off the sinking housing market and had Mike Tyson as his wedding’s best man—has challenged Rep. Kendrick Meek. In the final days of the primary campaign—the election is Aug. 24—the party establishment still hasn’t seemed to cotton much to Meek’s candidacy.

Tunku Varadarajan: John McCain's Embarrassing Last Act4. In Kentucky, there’s also a tug-of-war between Republicans and Tea Partiers. Mainline Republicans like Mitch McConnell backed the losing candidate in the Republican primary. The winner, Rand Paul, positioned himself as someone who would come and shake up the status quo in D.C. But all the attention on Paul has overlooked the fact that Democrat Jack Conway, the state’s attorney general, has a very real chance of taking the seat away from the GOP. One recent poll had Paul and Conway stuck in a dead heat.

5. Being 64 years old is a little on the late side to be a newcomer, but for nearly four decades, Richard Blumenthal, Connecticut’s attorney general, has been seen as a man on the cusp of great things. His perfect pedigree was singed by stories in The New York Times that he exaggerated his Vietnam War record. Fibbing may not be Blumenthal’s downfall but rather something even more unexpected: professional wrestling executive Linda McMahon, the Republican who has spent millions to keep the race to replace Democrat Sen. Chris Dodd competitive. Blumenthal is up 7 points in recent polls.

Races You Should Be Following

6. The Colorado primaries were a bit of a zoo, with Barack Obama and Bill Clinton putting their muscle behind two different Democrats. On the Republican side, District Attorney Ken Buck bested Lt. Gov. Jane Norton in a race that devolved into a debate over which candidate wore high heels. The Democrats nominated seat-warmer Michael Bennet. When the Democrats hosted their national convention in Denver in 2008, their aim was to turn the state permanently blue. A win for Buck, who like Rand Paul is a Tea Party standard-bearer, would be a major setback for that drive.

7. There’s more danger out West for the Democrats in Washington, where incumbent Sen. Patty Murray could be bumped off by real-estate executive Dino Rossi. Rossi is a familiar face for Washington voters. He’s run for governor twice—once losing in the closest fight in U.S. history. One stumbling block for Rossi will be getting the entire state party behind him. Primary opponent Clint Didier, a former Washington Redskin, has proven difficult to woo thus far. Murray was up four points in one recent poll.

8. Staying on the left coast, California’s contest between Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer and former H-P executive Carly Fiorina has tightened over the summer. One poll has Fiorina up five points. The race got off to a catty start, when a tape of Fiorina mocking Boxer’s hair surfaced. Boxer is exactly the kind of Democratic candidate whose loss would have been unthinkable a year ago. It’s not anymore.

9. As goes Ohio, so goes the country. With Sen. George Voinovich stepping down, former Bush administration official Rob Portman is hoping to keep the seat in Republican hands. Portman has been emphasizing how important the state will be for Obama’s reelection hopes in 2012. Meanwhile, opponent Lee Fisher, the lieutenant governor, has worked to tie Portman to the economic collapse under Bush’s presidency. Expect the Buckeye State to be a center battlefront over Bush’s legacy come November. According to Nate Silver, there’s a 42 percent chance that Fisher will hold off Portman.

10. Just as Republicans salivate over sending Harry Reid packing, they’d also relish taking Barack Obama’s former Senate seat in Illinois. Obama intimate and the state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias has a tiny lead over Republican Rep. Mark Kirk for the seat now occupied by Sen. Roland Burris. Each campaign has struggled. Giannoulias has had trouble fending off attacks about the failure of a family bank; he’s also been linked with some of the same unsavory characters who hung with Mayor Rod Blagojevich. Kirk has been caught lying about his military record. In the spring, it appeared that Obama was avoiding Giannoulias. Now Giannoulias may want to return the favor: A new poll out in Illinois has only a quarter of voters saying they think Obama is an asset on the campaign trail.

Is there another Senate race we should be watching? Please let us know in the comments.

Samuel P. Jacobs is a staff reporter at The Daily Beast. He has also written for The Boston Globe, The New York Observer, and The New Republic Online.