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Handful of races seen as key to control of Senate

By Bill Lambrecht, St. Louis Post-Dispatch –

WASHINGTON — Sen. Claire McCaskill recently visited gas stations to argue that Congress should end subsidies for oil companies.

The Missouri Democrat’s campaign, which she dubbed a “Fighting for Fairness” tour, prompted Republicans to argue that punishing oil companies would be tantamount to passing a tax hike on consumers.

Such a back-and-forth is being repeated in key Senate races across the country.

Lines of attacks in Senate races this political season are remarkably similar: Republicans blame Democrats for higher gas prices and a new health care law that they complain means more government intrusion; Democrats hammer Republicans for tax and energy policies that they say favor the wealthy.

Missouri’s Senate contest, in which three Republicans are vying to take on McCaskill, is one of a handful that ultimately could determine which party controls the Senate next year.

Polls since last month show that Missouri is one of at least eight states with opposing Senate candidates or presumed candidates separated by no more than 5 percentage points. The surveys point to an intense battle for Senate control and an election with the potential for surprises.

“With a huge number of Senate races this tight, the Senate picture might be the most interesting thing on election night,” said Tom Jensen, a pollster with Public Policy Polling, a Democratic-aligned firm.

Democrats began with a structural disadvantage, defending 23 of the 33 Senate seats on November ballots. Democrats hold Senate control by a margin of 53-47, which includes Joseph Lieberman, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats.

Republicans need four seats to take over — or three, if the GOP captures the White House, in which case the vice president would cast deciding votes on legislation and leadership in a deadlocked Senate.

Of the races where the incumbent is the Democrat, McCaskill’s “is the toughest” to win, said Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill.

A GOP operative confirmed last week that the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee thus far has reserved $25 million in advertising time in six states — Missouri, Wisconsin, Virginia, Montana, Nevada and New Mexico — in its drive to capture the Senate.

While Republicans have a strong chance to do so, the narrative has shifted in recent months with the improvement in the economy and the unexpected retirement of GOP Sen. Olympia Snowe in Democratic-leaning Maine.

Larry Sabato, who directs the University of Virginia Center for Politics, rates the race to control the Senate as too close to call.

“It’s looking like it will be a closely divided Senate, no matter how you look at it,” he said, noting that big issues — such as a European recession — could yet have a major bearing on the outcome.

In Maine, where Barack Obama won with 58 percent four years ago, Snowe’s stunning announcement on Feb. 28 further complicated handicappers’ tip sheets. Polls suggest that the biggest beneficiary of her departure is not one of several Democrats vying for the nomination but a political independent — former two-term Gov. Angus King.

King has declined to say which party he would caucus with in Washington. But his recent assertion that he supports Obama for re-election suggests there’s little doubt that he’d be counted among Democrats. Republicans are hoping that a three-way race will allow their candidate to slip in.

Political analyst Stu Rothenberg, who publishes a nonpartisan political newsletter in Washington, views Missouri’s race as a toss-up but tilting Republican. Overall, he counts at least 10 competitive races and says that Obama’s job rating in November could have a potentially decisive impact on several of them, including those in Massachusetts, Virginia and Nevada.

“It just jumps out at you how many races are close and continue to be close,” he said. “The country is polarized, many states are polarized and you have a large number of states that could go either way.”

Along with Missouri and Maine, here are races to watch as the battle for the Senate heats up:

Nebraska — Republicans expected an easy pickup after unpopular Democrat Ben Nelson retired. The GOP still is favored, but the decision by former Sen. Bob Kerrey to return to his red state roots to run for Nelson’s seat alters the equation. Kerrey, 68, was a severely injured Navy Seal and Medal of Honor winner who ran for president 20 years ago. He’s been a New Yorker in recent years and, after bouts of indecision, returned home to face a residency challenge and polls showing him trailing three GOP hopefuls.

Massachusetts — Democrats’ best hope of capturing a GOP-held seat may be in the hands of consumer advocate and Harvard professor Elizabeth Warren. But incumbent Republican Scott Brown already defeated one popular woman (Martha Coakley) in a special election to fill the late Edward M. Kennedy’s seat. And Brown, one of his party’s most appealing new figures, has worked to separate himself from Republican orthodoxy in Washington, even posing for photos recently with Obama. The outcome will hinge on the sentiments of hundreds of thousands of voters who didn’t turn out when Brown won.

Virginia — This is a heavyweight contest with presumed GOP candidate George Allen seeking a return to the Senate in a race against Tim Kaine, a former governor and most recent Democratic National Committee head (and University of Missouri graduate) in the seat opened with the retirement of Democrat Jim Webb. Webb’s victory over Allen six years ago was due partly to an ethnic slur Allen uttered. Allen is running on anti-government themes that have long been his strong suit. Kaine is raising more money but Allen won’t want for resources due in part to a new super PAC that will be accepting unlimited donations on his behalf. Women’s issues could be a key for Kaine.

Nevada — A staunch Republican state as recently as the 1980s, Nevada is trending blue with a changing population now 26 percent Hispanic. That could be a challenge for GOP Sen. Dean Heller, appointed last year when Republican John Ensign resigned after his extramarital affair became public. Heller is in a tight race with Rep. Shelley Berkley, his New York-born Democratic challenger, who is trying to persuade him to agree to reject spending in the race by outside groups unfettered by limits. Heller called the proposal “a sideshow in Berkley’s campaign circus.”

Montana — Like McCaskill, Sen. Jon Tester is a moderate Democrat who arrived in Washington in 2006. But moderates in both parties are imperiled these days and Tester is no exception. The GOP candidate, Rep. Denny Rehberg, is a rancher (he raises cattle and cashmere goats) and a veteran politician with an independent streak. In this tight election, Rehberg is doing his best to tie Tester to Obama, who is unpopular in Montana. The burly, buzz-cut Tester’s hopes for keeping his seat may well ride on his populist appeal and his aw-shucks charm.

Wisconsin — Wisconsin, where the Aug. 14 primary is even later than Missouri’s Aug. 6 election, is another toss-up state where the winner in a Republican field even more crowded than Missouri’s will take on Democratic Rep. Tammy Baldwin. They will compete for the seat opened with the retirement of Democrat Herb Kohl. The GOP candidate — possibly former Gov. Tommy Thompson — will almost certainly take aim at Baldwin’s staunchly liberal credentials but will have less than three months to make the case.

North Dakota — Republicans sound confident that their candidate, Rep. Rick Berg, will enable the GOP to pick up the seat opened by the retirement of Democrat Kent Conrad. And they could be right given that John McCain beat Obama here by nearly 9 percentage points in 2008. But Democrats believe that voters will be drawn to the personal story of their candidate, Heidi Heitkamp, a breast cancer survivor and former state attorney general who is running ads noting that her mother was a janitor and her father a high school dropout.

New Mexico — Democrats see this state as having turned almost reliably blue (Obama won by 15 percentage points in 2008) but Republicans are excited about former Rep. Heather Wilson’s chances to pick up the seat opened by the retirement of Democrat Jeff Bingaman. She is a moderate, a graduate of the Air Force Academy and a Rhodes Scholar who will face either Rep. Martin Heinrich or state auditor Hector Balderas in November.

Hawaii — In the contest for the open seat of retiring Democratic Sen. Daniel Akaka, Republicans recruited a candidate of distinction in Linda Lingle. Lingle is her adopted state’s first female governor, first Jewish governor and a newspaper entrepreneur. But she likely will be competing against popular Rep. Mazie Hirono on a ballot topped by Hawaii-born Obama, who won the Aloha State by 45 points four years ago. Despite polls showing a clear advantage for Hirono, the race is rated only “leans Democratic.”

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