Democrats are defending 23 seats in the U.S. Senate, while Republicans are only defending 10 seats this election. Currently, the Democrats control the Senate with 51 seats, though 2 seats are in the hands of Independents who caucus with Democrats. Republicans hold 47 seats. Republicans need to hold all 10 of the seats they are defending and pick up 4 seats if President Obama wins re-election (since the Vice President would tip the balance in the event of a tie).
With President Obama on the ticket this year, his candidacy will help some Democrats, but it may hurt others. Voter turn-out will be very important this election. Here are the 10 most important Senate races in 2012 (in no particular order):
When Senator Olympia Snowe announced that she would not be seeking re-election this fall, she caused quite a stir, throwing her seat into serious play for the Democrats. What would have been an incumbent seat is now an open seat. Scott D’Amboise, who was planning to run against Snowe in the Republican primary with Tea Party support, is currently running unopposed. While there had been a crowded Democratic field, former Governor Angus King (I), a left-leaning independent (and former Democrat), has a good chance of picking up Snowe’s seat. Democrats hope that if he wins, he will caucus with them in the Senate.
Though Virginia has an open senate race, polls show that the match-up will likely be between former Governor and former Senator George Allen (R) and former Governor and former head of the Democratic National Committee Tim Kaine (D). According to Rasmussen, Allen and Kaine are tied at 46% each. Allen lost his seat to retiring Senator Jim Webb (D) in 2006 in an election with 2.3 million votes cast. Turnout in Virginia for President Obama (which he won in 2008) will be key to a Kaine victory.
Incumbent Senator Scott Brown (R) is in a very competitive race with Elizabeth Warren (D). Warren is a darling of the left, who was urged to run after Republicans in the Senate made it clear that they would not confirm her to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Brown, who was elected in a special election after the death of Senator Ted Kennedy (D), has been somewhat of a moderate in the Senate. But his close relationship with Mitt Romney, however, is causing him some problems. Though polls have been consistently tight, a recent poll showed Brown leading Warren by 8 points. With the presidential election likely to bring more people out in this heavily blue state, Brown may find it more difficult to hold on to his seat.
The field in this open race is not yet settled, but it will likely be Democratic Representative Tammy Baldwin against former Secretary of Health and Human Services and former Governor Tommy Thompson (R). A recent poll has them in a dead-heat. Both are vulnerable. Thompson is vulnerable because he supported President Obama’s health care law, and Baldwin is one of the most progressive members of Congress (which could be a challenge for representing a mid-western state). If she wins, Baldwin would be the first openly-gay U.S. Senator. Governor Scott Walker’s recall vote may have a huge impact on this race, energizing one side or the other.
Incumbent Senator Claire McCaskill (D) is in trouble in Missouri, partly after her popularity took a hit when she admitted failing to pay taxes on a private plane. Far less than half of the Missouri electorate says that they are likely to vote for her. President Obama is equally unpopular in Missouri, and if he loses the state, she is likely to lose as well. Her Republican challenger is not yet clear. But Representative Todd Akin, former Missouri Treasurer Sarah Steelman, and businessman John Brunner are all in a dead-heat with McCaskill.
When Senator Ben Nelson announced his retirement in late December, it looked like the GOP had a chance to pick up his seat. Democrats initially had a hard time recruiting a viable candidate to run. After initially saying he would not run, former Senator Bob Kerrey (D) announced that he would, and the Democrat’s prospects got rosier. Chuck Hassebrook (D) just dropped out of the race and endorsed Kerrey. The Republican field is not yet settled, with Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning (R) running against state Treasurer Don Stenberg (R).
(7) New Mexico
New Mexico’s Lieutenant Governor, John Sanchez, recently dropped his bid for the open seat in New Mexico. Former Republican Congresswoman Heather Wilson will face either Hector Balderas (D) or Representative Martin Heinrich (D). Wilson polls slightly better against Balderas (44% each) than she does against Heinrich (43% to 45%), but this race is too close to call.
(8) North Dakota
After Senator Kent Conrad (D) decided not to seek reelection, things looked gloomy for Democrats in North Dakota. But former state Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp (D) is a giving freshman Representative Rick Berg (R) a run for his money in a race that many thought was ripe for the Republicans’ taking. Democrats believe that they have a good chance to keep this seat. Though North Dakota has not voted for a Democrat for president since 1964, for the past two decades voters have a history of splitting the ticket.
Incumbent Senator John Tester (D) is fighting to keep his seat against Representative Denny Rehberg (R). Tester narrowly won his seat in 2006, beating incumbent Conrad Burns by less than one percent. Rehberg has held Montana’s only congressional seat since 2001. The two are in a statistical tie, though Rasmussen has Rehberg up by 3%, 47% to 44%. Out-of-state groups, like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, are spending a lot of money running ads against Tester. Just yesterday though, Citizens for Strength and Security Fund, a new 501(c)(4) nonprofit group, put up an ad aimed at Rehberg for accepting a pay raise after promising not to in the 1990s.
Incumbent Senator Dean Heller (R) is in trouble in Nevada. Heller was appointed to the seat after former Senator John Ensign (R) resigned amid a sex scandal and ethics investigation. Heller faces a re-election challenge from Representative Shelley Berkley (D). Berkley and Heller have been in a dead heat for the past few months.
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