Although the race for the White House has received the lion’s share of political coverage this fall, the Senate has several interesting races and the news here is much better than anyone would have expected last year. If Governor Romney wins the Presidential election, the Senate will – rightly or wrongly – be the final firewall against the Tea Party Congress passing radical budgets that will gut Medicare and Social Security or laws that will increase government control of women’s reproductive rights. It will also be the only defense against President Romney nominated Supreme Court justices who will overturn Roe vs. Wade. Most of the seats up for reelection are held by Democrats, so through pure chance it seemed as though Democrats were in for some bad news. Several recent events have changed that, though.
Two of these fall into the category of male GOP candidates forgetting that women have the right to vote, and making statements about rape that were shocking. In Missouri, where Senator Claire McCaskill seemed certain to lose, Todd Akin lost 10% of his support in a single week by attempting to differentiate between “legitimate” rape and whatever other kind there is. Months later, when the controversy had all but died, Indiana candidate Richard Mourdock revived it by referring to pregnancies resulting from rape as God’s will. Mourdock, the former state treasurer, is a Tea Party candidate who successfully defeated bipartisan-minded (read: he supported reducing the number of nuclear missiles in the world) long-time Senator Richard Lugar in the primary. Had Luger been up for reelection, he almost certainly would have won. Once again, the Tea Party seems on the verge of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory by selecting candidates that would make an Ayatollah proud.
Republicans are falling prey to the dynamics of the Presidential race in Connecticut, where they could have picked up a Democratic seat, and Massachusetts, where Senator Scott Brown now seems likely to lose to Elizabeth Warren. In both these states, President Obama will win by a large margin, increasing Democratic turnout.
In Nevada and Arizona, larger than usual Hispanic turnout could swing two seats to the Democratic party. In Nevada, the Democrat leads the race. In Arizona, veteran Dr. Richard Carmona trails Representative Jeff Flake by a single point in the latest polls. If Latino voters have been under sampled in polls, this could be the most surprising Democratic victory of election night, and could even benefit the President in a state often considered solid Red.
In four swing states, Democratic Senate candidates are outpolling the President. Their victories could shift the balance of swing states and make it more likely that President Obama will win next week. In Virginia and Ohio, the Democratic candidates lead by healthy margins. In Florida, as well, the Republicans nominated a weak candidate tarred by his past association with Hooters restaurants and his history of drunken brawling. In none of these states have they nominated candidates with an exciting view of a modern Republican Party. Their candidate in Virginia is the Senator defeated after the “Macacca” moment and their candidate in Wisconsin is a former Governor long-removed from political relevancy.
In Maine, Republicans were hurt by the unexpected retirement of longtime moderate Senator Olympia Snowe, who had grown exhausted from the partisan bickering in the capital. Her seat – one of the last Republican senate seats in the Northeast – is expected to be won by independent former Governor Angus King, who will probably caucus with Democrats.
The Senate hasn’t received much coverage this election cycle, in part because the Republican candidates have been unexciting and the race is seen as less important than the Presidential election. Primarily – and without reform of the filibuster – it serves as an avenue for legislative gridlock, especially since the Republicans are expected to continue their control of the House. Without some major upset, it appears that Democrats will control between 52 and 54 seats in the Senate next year.