For Democrats, Senate Still a Possible Nightmare

by Stuart Rothenberg October 1, 2010 · 9:21 AM EDT

Delaware’s Republican primary may well have lulled Democrats into a sense of complacency about their ability to hold the Senate after November’s elections. They would be wise to wake up if they want to avoid a nasty surprise on election night.

Tea party activists did indeed do Democrats a huge favor in selecting Christine O’Donnell (R) to oppose New Castle County Executive Chris Coons (D) in the fall.

Yes, Coons is an unabashed liberal, and he almost certainly would have fallen to Rep. Mike Castle (R) in an election cycle when voters are dissatisfied with Democratic governance and focused on issues such as spending and big government. But most voters don’t care about ideology, and O’Donnell’s worldview and agenda simply do not fit Delaware.

Smart Republicans know they will win if the 2010 elections are about Democrats, not about the Republican candidate’s background or ideology. Tea party activists apparently don’t get that, even though it isn’t a complicated idea.

O’Donnell’s primary victory notwithstanding, Republicans are still headed for major Senate gains, and a 10-seat gain isn’t impossible.

With a month to go until Nov. 2, Republicans have a clear advantage in five seats held by Democrats, with another five seats still in play.

Unless things change, Republicans will likely hold all 18 of their seats up this cycle. No GOP incumbent is in any trouble — even Sens. Richard Burr (N.C.) and David Vitter (La.), who seemed at some risk early on, look headed for comfortable victories — and Republican open seats appear to be at limited risk.

Of the open seats, Kelly Ayotte (R) looks like a solid bet over Rep. Paul Hodes (D) in New Hampshire, and Rob Portman (R) has opened up a lead over underfunded Lee Fisher (D) in Ohio.

In Florida, Independent Charlie Crist appears to be slipping, and that should all but guarantee the election of former state Speaker Marco Rubio (R).

That leaves Kentucky and Missouri, where weak Republicans are likely to take advantage of a good political environment to hang on to GOP seats.

While Democrats like to talk about Kentucky as “within the margin of error,” most surveys show Rand Paul (R) ahead, probably by somewhere from 3 to 6 points — meaning that the contest could be anywhere from even to Paul up by 8 or 9 points.

While the campaign of Jack Conway (D) claims momentum and portrays the contest as even, there is little reason to see Kentucky as a pure tossup. Paul clearly has a narrow but important edge, with few undecided voters in some surveys.

The same goes for Republican Rep. Roy Blunt in his Missouri Senate contest against Robin Carnahan (D). Blunt isn’t an ideal candidate in this or any cycle, but Carnahan’s Democratic label and liberal bent are more damaging to her. Blunt is ahead in the race by at least a few points, and barring a major goof by the Republican nominee, he should win.

GOP nominees have a solid advantage in three states: North Dakota, Arkansas and Indiana. They have an advantage in the polls — and a momentum advantage — in two other states: Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

Polling in Illinois has been close for weeks, but with Republican Bill Brady running ahead in the gubernatorial race and Republican Congressional candidates overperforming in a number of parts of the state, Republican Rep. Mark Kirk seems more likely than not to win the Senate race.

If all of those races fall into place as expected, they add up to a gain of six seats for Republicans, with six other contests still in play.

Two of the six, Colorado and Nevada, look like tossups. But in a year like this, the party with a strong wind at its back normally has a better-than-even chance of winning the jump balls. In Colorado, in particular, Ken Buck (R) appears to have a slight advantage over Sen. Michael Bennet (D). The Nevada race is so tight, and both Sen. Harry Reid (D) and Sharron Angle (R) are so unpopular, that any outcome is possible.

If Democrats lose both tossups, Republicans would have a net gain of eight seats, and they would need two of the remaining four contests — West Virginia, Washington, California and Connecticut — to net 10 seats

West Virginia voters like Gov. Joe Manchin (D), but they don’t like President Barack Obama, which is a headache for Manchin in a state that went solidly for Republican Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) in 2008. While Manchin can win the Senate seat if the election is about the governor, Democrats could easily lose the seat if the election is about Obama and Congressional Democrats.

Washington and California are difficult for Republicans for different reasons, while Connecticut is quickly emerging as perhaps a more viable target than the two West Coast states.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) isn’t popular, but California is difficult for any Republican nominee. Boxer’s recent television ads seem to be taking their toll on challenger Carly Fiorina, who is slipping in polls.

Sen. Patty Murray (D) is more popular than Boxer, but Washington’s size and politics offer more opportunities for GOP Senate hopeful Dino Rossi.

In Connecticut, Linda McMahon (R) has run a strong race, but the state’s uninspiring Democratic Senate nominee, Richard Blumenthal, for all his problems, enters the final month of the campaign with a small advantage over McMahon. As in California, the partisan bent in Connecticut is a problem for McMahon.

Republicans would need a strong wave to carry through Election Day to make a 10-seat net gain. While that’s not yet likely, Senate Democrats can’t take their East Coast/West Coast firewall for granted.