Far from losing control of the Senate, the latest polling suggests Democrats could actually expand their majority on Tuesday — a stunning turnaround for a party that entered this cycle playing defense across the board.
The Real Clear Politics average of polls now shows Democrats winning enough seats to keep their 53-47 ratio, and as recently as Saturday showed them actually netting a seat.
Specific polling is all over the map. On the same day last week, a Quinnipiac survey showed Democrat Tim Kaine leading by 4 points in Virginia, while a Roanoke College poll showed Republican George Allen up by 5 points.
But the general trend would seem to be inescapable: Republicans are poised to squander what they had expected to be a straightforward path to a majority in the Senate, and both sides say it’s because for the second election in a row they put up flawed candidates.
Mike McKenna, a Republican pollster and strategist, said on the one hand his party nominated old horses whose time has come and gone, such as George Allen in Virginia and Tommy G. Thompson in Wisconsin, while on the other hand the tea party candidates failed to deliver.
“The establishment candidates are just really hopelessly bad retreads — Allen, Tommy Thompson,” he said. “The tea party guys — some of them lack fundamental skills necessary to the profession they’ve chosen. They want to be politicians, but they don’t quite have the skill set necessary to be politicians yet.”
Democrats entered this election cycle with 53 members of their Senate caucus to 47 for the GOP. That meant Republicans need to net three or four seats to take control, depending on who becomes vice president and has the potential tiebreaker on 50-50 votes.
Democratic caucus members, though, held 23 of the 33 seats up for election, and saw a slew of retirements from senior members, which seemed to put the majority well within the GOP’s reach.
But that was also true in 2010, when a GOP wave swamped the House but fell short in the Senate. Republican voters nominated candidates in Nevada, Delaware and elsewhere who proved too radical for general election voters.
This year the stumbles came in states such as Indiana and Missouri.
In Indiana, state Treasurer Richard Mourdock ousted Sen. Richard G. Lugar, the longest-serving Republican in the chamber, in a tea party-backed primary bid. But Mr. Mourdock then faltered in a debate when he said pregnancies, even those resulting from rape, were “something God intended to happen.”
The latest two public polls in the state give Rep. Joe Donnelly, the Democratic nominee for that Senate seat, a 3-point advantage and an 11-point advantage.
“If there’s a lesson to be learned out of this election, it’s that candidates really matter,” said Mo Elleithee, a Democratic strategist. “Just look at it — in Indiana, this would probably be a much different-looking race if had not been for Republicans nominating Mourdock and had it not been for Democrats getting Joe Donnelly, who’s a very strong candidate who fits that state well.”
“Democrats did a better job of getting candidates that fit the mood of the electorate than Republicans did. The Republicans nominated candidates that may have fit the mood of the electorate in 2010. The problem is, those types of candidates that won in 2010 then started to govern very badly, and people are rejecting that.”
Soon after winning the nomination, though, Mr. Akin claimed that women’s bodies have ways of rejecting pregnancies from “legitimate rape” — a remark that led to problems for the GOP nationwide. Indeed, it was a follow-up to Mr. Akin’s comment that caused Mr. Mourdock’s own falter.
Republican leaders urged Mr. Akin to drop out of the race to allow the party to name a replacement, but he refused, and has trailed Mrs. McCaskill in the polls ever since.
The GOP was also hit by some difficult retirements, including Sen. Olympia J. Snowe in Maine, whose decision opened the way for independent former Gov. Angus King to run. Polls show him poised to defeat both the Republican and Democratic nominees there, and both sides expect him to caucus with Democrats.
The only races that are safe for Republicans this year are in the reddest of red states: Texas, Mississippi, Tennessee, Wyoming and Utah.
Meanwhile, in Montana, North Dakota and Arizona, where Mitt Romney is poised to top President Obama in the presidential balloting, Democratic Senate candidates are competitive. And in West Virginia, where Mr. Romney will steamroll, Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin III is poised for an easy re-election.
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Stephen Dinan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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