Senate Fight: Still Too Early to Count Chickens

by Stuart Rothenberg October 24, 2012 · 10:20 AM EDT

One year ago, Republicans had every reason to believe that they were poised to net at least four Senate seats in November and gain control of the chamber in the next Congress. A month ago, on the other hand, Democrats had reason to be confident that even if they lost a seat or two, their party would more likely than not retain control of the Senate in the next Congress.

But now, with the presidential race tight and polls contradictory, this year’s fight for the Senate is anything but clear.

The GOP needs three Senate seats to organize the chamber if Mitt Romney wins the White House and four Senate seats if President Barack Obama wins re-election.

Democrats are still likely to pick up the Maine open seat, and Massachusetts remains a problem for the GOP.

While Sen. Scott Brown (R) continues to run almost even with challenger Elizabeth Warren (D) in some public and private polling, voters across the country are increasingly likely to cast votes for candidates in the party they traditionally favor. That’s a problem for Brown in Democratic Massachusetts, just as it is for former WWE CEO Linda McMahon (R) in Connecticut, former state Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp (D) in North Dakota and even for Sen. Jon Tester (D) in Montana.

Democrats hope to swipe GOP-held seats in Nevada, Indiana and Arizona, and all three remain competitive.

But appointed Sen. Dean Heller (R) appears to have a slight advantage over Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley (though her pollster, Mark Mellman, disputes that) in Nevada, and state Treasurer Richard Mourdock (R) in Indiana and Rep. Jeff Flake (R) in Arizona also are very slight favorites for November. Mourdock benefits from the same trend that should help Warren in Massachusetts.

If the two New England seats go Democratic but the other three seats remain in GOP hands, then Republicans need to take over five or six Democratic seats, not three or four, a significantly more difficult task.

Retiring Sen. Ben Nelson’s (D-Neb.) seat will flip to the GOP. North Dakota remains a tossup, but it isn’t unreasonable to believe that Romney’s strength will help tip the state’s Republican voters slightly toward Rep. Rick Berg (R), no matter how much they like Heitkamp personally.

If both seats go Republican, the GOP needs three or four seats to control the next Senate, with three states pure tosssups — Montana, Virginia and Wisconsin — and the longer shots in play — Connecticut, Ohio and Florida.

McMahon is running a good campaign but, after increasingly strong Democratic attacks, she must overcome the impression in very Democratic Connecticut that she and her party are too conservative and that her election would empower tea party conservatives in Congress.

Florida Rep. Connie Mack IV is not running the kind of campaign that would allow him to overtake incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson (D), but the Republican lawmaker could be dragged into the Senate by Romney if the GOP presidential nominee carries the state strongly enough. Still, Mack is likely to lose to Nelson.

Finally, Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel may have crawled back into the Senate race against Sen. Sherrod Brown (D), but that is not the same thing as being a coin flip away from victory. Mandel almost certainly needs Romney to win the state to have any chance of defeating Brown, and at this point, the Senator has a big advantage in the race.

The bottom line, of course, is that none of the three is even money to win. One or all of them could succeed, but all of them are, at least at this point, underdogs in their races.

It’s at this point that conservative activists will be jumping out of their chairs to complain that I have left Pennsylvania businessman Tom Smith off the list of potential GOP winners.

Smith, who has an interesting life story that includes adopting four children and building a hugely successful coal business from scratch, spent millions of dollars to win the Republican Senate nomination and has become something of a threat to Democratic Sen. Bob Casey.

While I was impressed with Smith’s story, sincerity and commitment to the race when I interviewed him, I doubted that he could beat the incumbent.

But his money has helped him gain ground on the Senator, who didn’t appear to take the challenge all that seriously. Smith turned a race that didn’t deserve to be on anyone’s radar into an interesting, uphill effort.

Six recent public polls showed the Smith-Casey race within the margin of error, and one, from a Harrisburg-based Republican polling firm, showed Smith with a 2-point lead. Other polls, a bipartisan survey conducted for the Philadelphia Inquirer and two Democratic surveys, including one for Casey, showed the incumbent Senator with a low double-digit lead.

Unfortunately for Smith, two of the GOP polls also showed Romney leading Obama, which did not reflect the actual situation in Pennsylvania when those polls were conducted. That raised a whole series of questions about sampling and weighting for those surveys and, in my view, tended to undermine their findings on the Senate ballot.

Where is the race now? I’d guess that Casey is ahead by somewhere between his poll (13 points) and Smith’s (2 points). That would put it at 7 points or 8 points, which seems reasonable — and still a ways from the nail-biter that some Republicans like to think it is. (A Muhlenberg College poll released Monday showed the race at 8 points, substantially different from the 2-point race the college found in its previous survey.)

In any case, it is still hard to imagine Smith overtaking the incumbent, given that Casey is finally matching Smith on TV after being significantly outspent by the Republican.

Romney’s campaign seems to have conceded the state to the president, and Casey — whose name continues to be an asset in Northeast Pennsylvania and in the western third of the state, where the president is stunningly weak — is almost certain to run ahead of Obama statewide.

With the elections a mere two weeks away, the safest thing to say is that anything from a Democratic gain of four seats to a Republican gain of five seats is possible.

Unfortunately, nobody will let me get away with that estimate. The most likely outcome now — two weeks before Election Day — looks like no change to a GOP gain of three seats. But if voters decide to fire Obama and hire Romney to replace him, Republican control of the Senate would suddenly look very possible.

In any case, keep those seat belts fastened. Close races, recounts and Independent Angus King in Maine could make for a long night — or a long few days — in November.