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Senate balance of power hinges on weird, ‘nasty’

Tight races, record spending ‘disconcerting’ for pollsters

In an already unusual Senate election year filled with bizarre talk about witches and "aqua Buddhas," and chickens as currency, the waning days of the 2010 campaign season continue to crank out weirdness.

A liberal activist getting kicked in the head at a Republican rally in Kentucky, accusations that the co-author of federal campaign finance laws broke his own rules, and the sudden hospitalization of a California candidate in a tight race have made Senate campaigns anything but dull leading up to Tuesday's midterm elections.

Throw in record campaign spending and an unusually large number of close races so late in the election season, and this year's Senate contests are a political junkie's dream and a pollster's nightmare.

"Broadly, I don't think I've ever seen a campaign quite like this in the sense that, in a tradition of fair and nasty campaigns, this is perhaps the nastiest of them all," said pollster John Zogby. "And then you have [strange] events ... at the very end of several campaigns. It just seems fitting that all of this together makes a seasoned pollster wish that the election was over."

Most pollsters and political analysts say Republicans, who currently number 41 in the 100-member Senate, will win several seats but fall just short of a majority. But with at least a half-dozen races still up for grabs, few prognosticators are willing to make ironclad predictions.

"There are so many [races] on the margin; it's a little disconcerting" for a pollster, said Jennifer Duffy, who covers Senate races for the Cook Political Report. "It's been an utterly crazy cycle. Anything can happen in the next [few] days."

The past week's campaign peculiarities are a trend in a long line of oddities this Senate election season. Past highlights include Delaware Republican nominee Christine O'Donnell telling voters "I'm not a witch" and Sue Lowden, who lost in the Nevada Republican primary, suggesting a return to bartering chickens for health care like "in the olden days of our grandparents."

Among the latest controversies is Sen. Russ Feingold's choice of words in a campaign television advertisement. The conservative American Future Fund on Thursday filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission arguing that the Wisconsin Democrat violated campaign finance laws he sponsored by saying in the ad that he "supports" the message rather than "approves" it.

"While everyone else complies with the hypertechnical and onerous disclosure requirements of the McCain-Feingold law ... Senator Feingold simply ignores requirements," American Future Fund spokesman Nick Ryan said.

"As the author of these laws and a Harvard lawyer, perhaps he has realized how foolish his disclaimer laws are and decided they shouldn't apply to him."

Feingold campaign spokesman John Kraus called the complaint "frivolous" and "without merit."

A former FEC chairman said the committee likely will dismiss the complaint, using its discretionary authority to pursue higher-priority cases.

In Kentucky on Monday, a scuffle at an event for Republican Senate nominee Rand Paul led to a female liberal activist being knocked to the ground and stomped on the head by a campaign worker. The incident - like so many others in the modern political era - was caught on camera and immediately posted on the Internet via YouTube.

The melee has resulted in a volley of accusations and counteraccusations between the woman, MoveOn.org activist Lauren Valle, and the campaign worker, Tim Profitt, who was fired over the incident.

Kentucky Democrats are playing up the scuffle in an ad called "The Rand Paul Stomp" that will begin airing Friday, a party spokesman said.

The Paul campaign was embroiled in another embarrassment months ago after GQ magazine reported details of the candidate's membership in a Baylor University secret society while a student in the early 1980s. The magazine cited an anonymous woman's allegations that Mr. Paul and a friend tied her up, tried to force her to use marijuana and made her bow to a "god" called "Aqua Buddha."

Mr. Paul denied the accusation, and the woman later clarified that she wasn't kidnapped and went along with the prank. But his Democratic opponent, Jack Conway, later highlighted the "Aqua Buddha" scenario in a TV ad.

Also this week, a West Virginia newspaper reported that an ongoing federal investigation into the administration of Gov. Joe Manchin III, the Democratic Senate nominee, took a new turn. The Charleston Gazette said that federal subpoenas have been issued for the state aviation division director and for records maintained by the aviation division.

The Justice Department investigators first issued subpoenas in 2009 seeking records from the state Division of Highways' Right-of-Way Division. That sparked speculation that the investigation might have something to do with Mr. Manchin's chief of staff at the time, Larry Puccio, the paper said.

Although the exact details are unclear, the investigation is an unwelcome distraction for the governor, who holds a slight poll lead over Republican nominee John Raese.

In California, Republican Senate candidate Carly Fiorina resumed campaigning Thursday after spending two days in a hospital because of an infection stemming from reconstructive surgery she underwent after a bout with breast cancer. Polls show Democrat Sen. Barbara Boxer with a slight edge in the race.

While the hospitalization of a candidate a week before an election is rare, two Democratic Senate candidates in the past decade have died in the final weeks of their campaigns: Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan in 2000 and Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone two years later.

"Trust me, it does not get weirder than that," Ms. Duffy said.

While other Senate elections have had comparable numbers of seats still in play this late in the campaign season, voter angst and incivility between candidates are at unusually high levels, analysts say.

"You had a reasonable expectation in previous years that if you throw the bums out that you may very well get some replacements that were worth it - a fresh start, new ideas, perhaps even a notion of consensus to make policy," Mr. Zogby said. "Now you have a huge number of seats in play, but [there is] really very little confidence on the part of the public that we'll be moving in the right direction afterward."

Voter frustrations and impatience have resulted in an unusually large number of Senate incumbents in danger of losing. They include Democrats Mr. Feingold, Mrs. Boxer, Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and Sens. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, Patty Murray of Washington and Michael Bennet of Colorado, and Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.

"I think in many ways it's a normal protest election," said pollster Scott Rasmussen. "Most Senate elections are team sports. It's not a choice between two independent contractors who happen to be running for office, so a lot of supporters may vote for someone from their party even if they're not thrilled with the candidate."

c Stephen Dinan contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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