Democrats Are on Track to Retain Control of Senate

The GOP takeover, once a sure thing, looks like a long shot as voters go to the polls. By Eleanor Clift.

With election forecasters predicting enough close races will break for the Democrats, Republican hopes of regaining control of the Senate now appear dashed.

Polls close at 7 p.m. in the Northeast, and if Democrats win seats in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Virginia, together with independent Angus King in Maine, Republicans won’t have enough opportunities left across the country to gain the four seats they need to reach 51.

In a Romney victory, the GOP would need just three seats for a 50-50 Senate, with potential vice president Paul Ryan breaking any tie. But that too looks out of reach for a party that was once expected to cruise to victory in the Senate, with only 10 seats to defend, while the Democrats have 23 seats on the line. That includes seven retiring Democrats, some in red states that looked like automatic turnovers to the GOP.

Reciting those numbers, Larry Sabato, who heads the politics institute at the University of Virginia, marvels, “My God, it looked like a disaster area for Democrats. What a turnaround!” Sabato’s “Crystal Ball” predicts the Democrats will return to Washington with 53 seats, the same number as now: 51 Democrats plus two independents who caucus with the Democrats, Vermont’s Bernie Sanders and Maine’s King.

The race in many states is as tight as the presidential contest, and Sabato acknowledges that internal divisions on his staff about the likely outcome of the presidential race in Virginia were settled by a coin toss. Mitt Romney won, but Sabato awards the Senate seat to Democrat Tim Kaine. “I don’t know anyone else who could have won,” Sabato says. “He ran a great campaign. His only fear is Romney coattails. But if Romney wins by a point, it’s not going to make much difference.”

It’s a good lesson about expecting the unexpected, says Matt Canter, spokesman for the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee. “Six months ago people were still writing the obituary for Senate Democrats. We’ve turned the map on its head.” He points to five of the Republican-held seats where the GOP was forced to spend money, in some cases on seats they once considered safe. Missouri tops the list, with Democrat Claire McCaskill having a good chance to win reelection thanks to the bizarre biology views held by her Republican opponent, Rep. Todd Akin, about “legitimate rape” and its consequences.

In Indiana, where Democrat Joe Donnelly is contesting Republican Richard Mourdock for the seat long held by Richard Lugar, the GOP was expected to win handily until Mourdock voiced his view that a woman impregnated as the result of rape should regard it as God’s will and be denied an abortion. “It’s not just that Mourdock is a disaster,” says Sabato. “People like Donnelly.”

Two more Republican-held seats that could go the other way are in Nevada and Arizona. Democrat Shelley Berkeley is in a close race with GOP Sen. Dean Heller and could win on the strength of Obama’s coattails and a strong Hispanic turnout. In Arizona, Republican Rep. Jeff Flake is favored to win but could be upset by Democrat Richard Carmona, a physician and Vietnam War veteran who was President Bush’s surgeon general.

Wisconsin, the most polarized state in the country, has a Senate race that pits popular former three-time governor Tommy Thompson against Democrat Tammy Baldwin, who if she wins would become the first openly gay female senator. Thompson has been on the defensive over the years he spent in Washington as a lobbyist after leaving the governor’s office. “This race is going to surprise a lot of people,” says Canter. How? “Because she’ll win,” he says.

Montana is another closely watched state, with incumbent Democrat Jon Tester trying to hold his own against a strong challenge from Rep. Dennis Rehberg. It’s a small state, and there’s a third candidate in the mix, libertarian Dan Cox, who could siphon off enough votes from Rehberg to cost him the race. “Tester is losing, but he could win,” says Sabato.

In Nebraska, former senator Bob Kerrey’s comeback bid got a nice boost from an endorsement by popular former Republican senator Chuck Hagel, but Republican Deb Fischer, a novice politician and Tea Party favorite, is expected to win handily, returning the seat to the GOP. North Dakota is another likely Republican pickup after the resignation of popular Democrat Kent Conrad. Former attorney general Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat, is running a strong race and gets credit for keeping the race unexpectedly close in a red state.

Keeping it close is small comfort when the race is winner take all, but it matters in an election as divided as this one. Democrats forced the GOP to defend seats in Indiana and Missouri that should have been in the red column, potentially denying the party control of the Senate because of the views of its most extreme candidates.

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In Connecticut, Linda McMahon, former World Wrestling Entertainment CEO, ran against the tide of her party, courting women and urging voters to split their ticket, supporting her while voting for Obama. She too managed to keep the race close, but if the polls prove correct, Connecticut will stay blue in this most expensive race to retain the status quo. But Elizabeth Warren is locked in a tight race to oust Republican Sen. Scott Brown in Massachusetts.