Friday, July 23, 2010

Senate Is in Play, but GOP Has Reasons to Worry

By Stuart Rothenberg

Until about 10 days ago, I agreed with the conventional wisdom that control of the House of Representatives was up for grabs this fall but that Republicans had yet to put the Senate into play. I no longer believe that.

The chances that the next Senate will have a Republican majority are not great, but even three months ago there were not enough Senate seats in play to imagine a Republican gain of 10 seats. Now there are, with 11 Democratic seats definitely competitive.

But at the same time that Republican prospects have brightened overall, they suddenly look less bright than previously in at least a couple of states: Nevada and Illinois.

Just a few months ago, Democratic nominees Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in Nevada and Illinois state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias looked like sure losers in their races, but their candidacies have been resuscitated by their GOP opponents.

Even Republican political operatives acknowledge privately that former Nevada state Assemblywoman Sharron Angle has been an even worse candidate than they had thought. And while recent polling in the Silver State may overstate Reid’s prospects in the fall, it seems clear that the contest has evolved from being purely a referendum on Reid and President Barack Obama to being a choice between Reid and Angle.

That’s a far less advantageous position for the challenger and a far better one for Reid. Angle’s prospects have now slipped from being a clear favorite to only 50-50.

Reid remains a political basket case, but he certainly has a fighting chance in a contest of two unappealing nominees. And Angle has the benefit of a Republican wind at her back that could still turn into a gale-force wind. Republicans might want to ship Angle out of the country for a few months to improve her prospects.

In Illinois, polls suggest the race remains tight, but Republican Rep. Mark Kirk’s reputation has been hurt, creating another contest between two damaged candidates. This race, as one political wag noted, is now “the crook versus the liar.”

That’s an improvement for Giannoulias, whose own reputation with voters has been poor for months and who has the added problem of a damaged Democratic brand in Illinois.

If Kirk has indeed stopped the bleeding, as some Republicans insist, he may be able to take advantage of a favorable political environment. But this race could be competitive all the way to Election Day, a disappointing fact for Republican strategists who once expected Kirk to put the race away sooner rather than later.

Giannoulias’ weak fundraising is a disappointment, of course, since it reflects a lack of Democratic enthusiasm for him. And while Obama is helping him raise the money he needs to run a competitive race, that won’t say much about the Senate nominee’s fundamental appeal.

So where does the fight for the Senate now stand beyond Nevada and Illinois, which have become more competitive? Democrats are now very likely to lose Senate seats in North Dakota, Arkansas, Delaware and Indiana.

Pennsylvania and Colorado remain tossups, though Keystone State Republican Pat Toomey appears well-positioned, financially and strategically, against Democratic Rep. Joe Sestak. Colorado’s primary is still more than two weeks away.

Three more Democratic seats, which I didn’t regard as particularly competitive six months ago, now could possibly change hands: Wisconsin, Washington and California.

In Wisconsin, incumbent Sen. Russ Feingold and challenger Ron Johnson are running even in two automated polls that have their critics: Rasmussen Reports and Public Policy Polling, a Democratic firm.

If you had any doubt that the race is in play, all you need do is watch Feingold’s first TV spot, in which the Senator accuses Johnson of wanting to “hand over the Great Lakes to the oil company” for drilling. The ad isn’t merely intended to firm up Feingold’s image or remind voters about his accomplishments. It’s an attack spot.

Johnson, a businessman and first-time candidate, is running against spending, the deficit and Washington. He’s a classic “change” candidate in an anti-Washington, anti-politician environment. Though he is likely to make a mistake or two as a candidate, Johnson is a threat to Feingold.

In Washington state, challenger Dino Rossi (R) is running slightly ahead of Sen. Patty Murray (D) in a Rasmussen survey but narrowly behind in three others. In all recent surveys, Murray is under 50 percent on the ballot and in a competitive contest.

Rossi has already run two statewide races, losing one very narrowly, so he understands how to be a candidate. If the national economy hiccups between now and November, the challenger will have the opportunity to ride a Republican wave. Murray has a slight edge in the race, but it’s a serious contest.

The 11th Democratic seat at risk is the one held by California Sen. Barbara Boxer, and I will readily admit that I’ve been skeptical about former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina’s prospects.

As a longtime HP stockholder, I knew of the criticism of Fiorina, and I have a very hard time believing that California will send a pro-life, conservative Republican to the Senate. But if Massachusetts voters can hand the late Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy’s seat to Republican Scott Brown, it’s probably unwise simply to dismiss Fiorina’s chances entirely.

Polls continue to show Boxer in trouble, with mediocre job ratings and unimpressive showings in general election ballot tests. Just as important, Fiorina is a quality candidate — poised, smart and with the kind of personal resources that allow her to run a full-scale campaign.

In 1994, California Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) survived an aggressive challenge from wealthy businessman Michael Huffington (and his Greek-born wife, Arianna), probably because the challenger’s hiring of an illegal immigrant became a major issue at the end of the contest. Sixteen years later, California is less receptive to Republican candidates. But Boxer is not and never has been as highly regarded by California voters as Feinstein.

Can Fiorina win? Six months ago, I would have said “no.” Today, my answer is “maybe.”

Of course, Democratic prospects in the Senate, as in the House, depend on the size of the GOP wave. At least four Republican seats — Kentucky, Ohio, Missouri and Florida — are at risk, and any Democratic gains in those states would further lengthen the GOP’s long-shot opportunity to get to 51 seats. (I don’t regard any other Republican-held Senate seat as at-risk.)

Right now, Democrats look poised to lose five to eight seats, and any net loss short of that would have to be regarded with relief by Democratic strategists. But as recent developments in Nevada and Illinois have demonstrated, things can change quickly in the fight for control of the Senate.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on July 22, 2010. 2010 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.