GOP dark horses set to finish strong

Gain on favorites in upset bids

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A stable of dark-horse Republican candidates - to the surprise of political handicappers - are seriously threatening veteran Democrats in heavily Democratic states, increasing GOP hopes to reclaim control of the Senate in November.

From Washington to Wisconsin and Connecticut, Republican challengers are forcing analysts to revise upward their midterm forecasts of potential Democratic losses, putting the GOP in sight of a long-shot 10-seat gain and a majority in the upper chamber.

In the parlance of analysts, two three-term Democratic senators, Washington’s Patty Murray and Wisconsin’s Russ Feingold, have moved into “tossup” territory - unexpected terrain, especially for Mrs. Murray, who wasn’t on anyone’s radar screen as vulnerable earlier this summer.

After Tuesday’s primary, two-time Republican gubernatorial loser Dino Rossi has Mrs. Murray locked in a dead heat in the polls. Even more surprising, businessman and political novice Ron Johnson is using his outsider status to forge a strong challenge to the liberal Mr. Feingold.

With the SenateGOP minority able to slow or block key parts of President Obama’s agenda in his first two years in office, the prospect of a Republican majority in the Senate would have profound effects on the remainder of the president’s first term.

Each race and each state has its own dynamics, but a national Republican surge could end up swamping even “safe” Democratic incumbents such as Sen. Barbara Boxer of California, Mrs. Murray and Mr. Feingold.

“In short, if the anti-incumbent wave is big enough in November, then Feingold could do everything right and still lose,” said Jennifer Duffy, Senate analyst for the Cook Political Report.

About a month ago, election handicappers had Mr. Feingold’s re-election bid solidly in the Democrats’ column. Signs that the race has tightened are forcing Democrats to devote more time and resources to a campaign that they thought would cruise to victory.

“Adding Wisconsin to the ‘tossup’ list brings the number of Democrat-held seats that are tossups or lean in Republicans’ favor to 11, one more than Republicans would need to capture a majority,” Ms. Duffy wrote in a recent analysis of the race.

Mr. Johnson, a little-known plastics manufacturer from Oshkosh, has raised big money in the past few months, with $4.3 million on hand going into July. Nearly 60 percent of Wisconsin voters say the state has gone off track. Mr. Feingold has supported Mr. Obama’s agenda, including the health care overhaul and the $862 billion economic stimulus plan.

“The fact that Democrats are not only playing defense, but are in serious danger of losing seats in deep-blue states like California and Washington, speaks volumes about how the landscape has shifted in the Republicans’ favor over the last year,” said Brian Walsh, communications director for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Mr. Walsh said Democrats ignored earlier signs of electoral discontent.

“After losing the Massachusetts Senate race, many would have thought that Democrat leaders would learn from the message that voters, and particularly independents, have been sending. Instead, they’ve doubled down on their reckless spending agenda while arrogantly ignoring the electorate. As a result, they are now on defense in at least a dozen Democrat-held Senate seats as we move towards November,” he said.

Democratic Party officials acknowledge that a volatile political mood could produce many more close races, but they say some Republican candidates should be worried, too.

“Democrats are likely to win in states that could very well surprise people in November,” said Eric Schultz, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

“There is so much volatility in this electorate, and I don’t think we’ve seen the last of the surprises,” he said. “Over the past few months: [Florida Republican Gov.] Charlie Crist was forced out of his own party, [Senate Minority Leader] Mitch McConnell’s hand-picked candidate didn’t even get the nomination [in Kentucky], and several other acclaimed Republican recruits couldn’t win their party’s primary,” Mr. Schultz said.

Until recently, the focus of the Senate contests has been in such battleground states as Ohio, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, New Hampshire, Delaware, Arkansas and Nevada.

But as the playing field has broadened for Republicans, Wisconsin is not the only traditionally Democratic state that could give the GOP an opening. Among others:

c Connecticut: Democratic state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal was the overwhelming front-runner for the open Senate seat being vacated by Sen. Christopher J. Dodd. But Republican nominee Linda McMahon, who once ran a major pro wrestling company, has sliced the deficit to single digits in recent polls by hitting Mr. Blumenthal on the economy and his conflicting statements on his service record during the Vietnam War.

c California: No Senate contest looked more daunting than political novice Carly Fiorina’s decision to take on Mrs. Boxer, another three-term Democratic incumbent, in this heavily Democratic state. But the former Hewlett-Packard chief executive officer has turned the race into one of the most competitive in the country, targeting Mrs. Boxer’s liberal record on jobs, taxes and economic growth at a time when the state’s 12.3 percent jobless rate is the third worst in the country.

Mrs. Boxer’s lead in the polls has been slipping steadily in recent weeks, and the race is now considered a tossup with crucial independent voters backing the Republican by a 17-percentage-point margin.

Mrs. Boxer had held a slight lead in most polls, but last week, a SurveyUSA poll gave Mrs. Fiorina a 47 percent to 42 percent lead.

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