- The Washington Times - Monday, September 1, 2014

Republicans are poised to pick up seats in the Senate as congressional campaigns head into the home stretch, but Democrats are strongly defending a half-dozen states that will determine whether the GOP wrests control of the chamber or settles for another session of a divided Congress.

Analysts say Republicans will pick up vacant seats in West Virginia and South Dakota long held by Democrats and should pick up a vacant seat in Montana, putting them halfway toward the six needed to flip control of the Senate.

Despite a highly touted class of challengers, though, Republicans have struggled in a number of other conservative states, leaving the fate of the Senate to be fought out over the next two months in North Carolina, Louisiana, Alaska and Arkansas, as well as in several progressive states.

“Republicans remain slight favorites to net the six seats they need to win the Senate,” said Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.

The center’s latest forecast shows Republican gains of four to eight seats. “That said, there are a ton of really close races according to the polls: more than half a dozen,” Mr. Kondik said.

Some of those close races are for Republican-held seats. Democratic wins in Kentucky, Georgia and Kansas could doom GOP hopes.

The race could turn on a variety of issues, including the economy, health care, immigration and the growing threat of Islamic extremism in the Middle East.

More than anything else, however, this election will be a referendum on President Obama, who has become politically toxic in many states, analysts say.

“He is a huge drag,” said Stuart Rothenberg, of the Rothenberg Political Report. “The reason why the Democrats are in trouble in states ranging from Arkansas to Iowa to Colorado is the president.

“If George Bush were in the White House right now and he had the ratings that Barack Obama has, none of these Democrats would be in trouble most likely,” he said. “It is possible that when the final weeks of October roll around, the election is all about the president and it is up to the Democrat to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

The latest Real Clear Politics Average of Polls shows that 41.8 percent of Americans approve of the way Mr. Obama is handling his job and 52.4 percent do not.

More than half of the competitive races are in states that Mr. Obama lost to Republican challenger Mitt Romney in 2012: Alaska, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana and North Carolina.

Despite the backlash against Mr. Obama, Republican candidates in some of the most competitive races have failed to open significant leads.

Part of the reason is that public disapproval is even lower for congressional Republicans than it is for Mr. Obama.

History also shows an uphill battle for Republicans. The last time Republicans have knocked off more than two sitting Democrats was in 1980.

Polls show that Sen. Mark Begich, Alaska Democrat, is holding on to a 5 percentage point lead over former state Attorney General Dan Sullivan, down from a high of 12 percentage points in July. In Colorado, Sen. Mark Udall a Democrat, is leading Rep. Cory Gardner by an average of 1 percentage point, according to Real Clear Politics. In Louisiana, Sen. Mary L. Landrieu, a Democrat, is ahead of her strongest Republican challengers, Rep. Bill Cassidy and Rob Manness.

Sen. Mark L. Pryor, Arkansas Democrat, is locked in a neck-and-neck race with freshman Rep. Tom Cotton. In Iowa, Rep. Bruce L. Braley, a Democrat, is in a virtual tie with Republican state Sen. Joni Ernst.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky is clinging to a 3 percentage point lead over his Democratic challenger, Alison Lundergan Grimes, though he took a hit over the weekend when his campaign manager, Jesse Benton, stepped down because of a scandal involving his work with Ron Paul’s presidential campaign.

In Virginia, Republican Ed Gillespie, a former adviser to Mr. Bush, has struggled to gain any traction against the Democratic incumbent, Sen. Mark R. Warner.

On the other side of the ledger, Republicans added some races to the playing field that Democrats considered out of reach earlier this year. Michigan could vote for a Republican for Senate for the first time in 14 years. If the elections turn into a Republican wave, New Hampshire, Minnesota and Virginia also could flip.

“There are a lot of Republican opportunities and very few Democrat opportunities,” Mr. Rothenberg said. “I would describe it as a classic midterm election with an unpopular president where there is strong breeze behind Republican candidates. Will it turn into hurricane-force winds? We will have to wait and see, but it is pretty strong right now.”

Over the summer, a hard-charging Scott Brown, a former Republican senator from Massachusetts, closed a double-digit deficit with Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, New Hampshire Democrat.

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