Countdown to Election Day: Senate Races to Watch


election-2010The battle for Congress is likely to hinge on the Senate. Republicans are widely favored to win back the House but face a narrower path to victory across Capitol Hill. The GOP needs to pick up 10 seats to wrest the upper chamber from Democratic control.The current partisan breakdown: Democrats, 57; Republicans, 41; with two independents who caucus with the majority.

Incumbents in more than a third of the Senate seats up Tuesday are considered safe.

At least two open Democratic seats — North Dakota, where Gov. John Hoeven is running virtually unopposed, and Indiana, where former GOP senator Dan Coats holds a comfortable lead — have all but been transferred to the Republican column. Republican seats in Missouri, Ohio and New Hampshire are likely to stay red.

Here, from east to west as polling places close, is a rundown of races to watch:

Connecticut and West Virginia will offer clues to which party will control the Senate when the night is over and whether the much-heralded Republican wave crested too soon.

In Connecticut, Democratic Attorney General Richard Blumenthal has rebounded from damaging revelations about his puffed-up Vietnam War service to take a lead over Republican Linda McMahon, the former wrestling mogul who’s taken some body blows over her treatment of pro wrestlers.

West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin was the heir apparent when Democratic legend Robert Byrd died in June. But an electorate that rejected Barack Obama in 2008 has been receptive to Republican businessman John Raese’s message that Manchin will be a rubber stamp while he is the “Nobama” candidate. The special election is rated a toss-up.

Congressman Joe Sestak bucked his party’s establishment to take on five-term incumbent and former Republican Sen. Arlen Specter in the Pennsylvania Democratic primary. Sestak won but now is in a bruising battle with GOP nominee Pat Toomey for a seat that normally would shade blue but this year may revert to red.

Florida could have bragging rights to the first senator from the tea party if Republican Marco Rubio maintains his growing lead into Tuesday. The former state house speaker squeezed Gov. Charlie Crist from the GOP primary, prompting his run as an independent. The two have been duking it out ever since while Democratic Rep. Kendrick Meek has struggled in a distant third place.

Another tea party candidate, Rand Paul, is having a tougher time in Kentucky. From the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to “Aqua Buddha,” the Republican has given Democrat Jack Conway plenty of campaign fodder to work with. Paul has been ahead, but a race long on surprises should never be called early.

Rounding out the eastern time zone is Delaware, home to one of the most entertaining Senate races this year. Once a slam-dunk for Republicans eager to swipe Vice President Biden’s old seat with moderate Rep. Mike Castle, the presumed nominee, the race was upended when tea party perennial candidate Christine O’Donnell pulled an upset in the primary. Democrat Chris Coons, the relatively colorless New Castle county executive, is now the heavy favorite in a bewitching campaign full of speech sometimes free of facts.

Republicans still have a chance for another trophy in Illinois where Republican Rep. Mark Kirk hopes to snag President Obama’s Senate seat. He’ll have to defeat Democratic state treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, whose been battered by sordid headlines about his family’s troubled bank yet has traded razor-thin leads with his opponent all fall.

If there is a Republican wave, perhaps the most surprising victim could be Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold. The three-term liberal populist, whose signature campaign finance reform law was recently gutted by the Supreme Court in a decision that opened the floodgates for corporate spending in this election, is behind tea party candidate Ron Johnson in every recent poll.

Prospects also look bleak for conservative Democrat Blanche Lincoln in Arkansas. She survived a strong primary challenge from the left only to hobble into the general election against GOP Congressman John Boozman. Political pundit Larry Sabato calls her “Dead Woman Walking.”

Nothing much to see in the mountain time zone other than Colorado where the race is tightening between appointed Democratic incumbent Michael Bennet and Republican tea party favorite Ken Buck. The two most recent polls had them tied.

Moving west into Nevada brings into view the night’s marquee race between Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and tea party challenger Sharron Angle. Despite, or more likely because of, his powerful perch in Washington, Reid has been unable to shake Angle. Despite numerous controversies, they remain in a dead heat.

In California, Democratic Sen.Barbara Boxer holds a small but consistent lead over former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina and was favored to win in the blue-leaning state. It was unclear what impact, if any, the Republican’s hospitalization a week before the election to treat an infection related to reconstructive surgery following breast cancer would have on the outcome.

To the north, Democratic incumbent Patty Murray faces a tougher challenge in Washington state where Republican Dino Rossi is coming on strong after two runs for governor. Both President and Michelle Obama have been out to campaign for Murray in what analysts have rated a toss-up.

Finally, there is Alaska, where incumbent Lisa Murkowski hopes to become only the second senator, after Strom Thurmond in 1954, to be elected in a write-in campaign. Thumped in the Republican primary by tea party insurgent Joe Miller, she and once written-off Democrat Scott McAdams, the mayor of Sitka, are tied in a three-way race. From hand-cuffed reporters to a misspelled YouTube ad, the race promises a fitting nightcap to a wild Senate season.