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The Battle for the Senate

How will economic anxiety and political tumult affect this fall's congressional elections?

The political landscape littered with casualties, the 2010 election now gets under way in earnest. It may not feature a presidential contest, but that's about all it is lacking.

The elections have Tea Party candidates, sex scandals, lie detector tests, third parties, professional wrestling magnates, intra-party squabbling and more. Thirty-seven Senate seats are at stake, there are races for governor in 37 states, and all of the seats in the House of Representatives are at stake. Control of Congress is really up for grabs this year, as Democrats are trying to hold on to House and Senate majorities in the face of agitated, "throw the bums out" public sentiment.

Republicans are salivating at the thought of controlling the House and Senate, but have already been singed by the anti-incumbent fire. And the issues are as big as ever: Social Security, Medicare, health insurance reform, taxes, the federal deficit and immigration top the list of concerns.

Republicans have attracted the punishing focus of anti-establishment Tea Party activists, even though that’s a double-edged sword. Although Tea Party-backed challengers have defeated Republican incumbents in heavily Republican Utah and Alaska, they have also beaten candidates in Florida, Nevada and Delaware, giving Democrats a chance to win there.

In Delaware, for example, GOP voters chose perennial candidate Christine O’Donnell over longtime moderate Rep. Mike Castle for the Senate seat once held by Vice President Joe Biden. O’Donnell has been accused of campaign irregularities stemming from an earlier contest, and political experts say she will be a much weaker candidate than Castle would have been against the little-known Democratic candidate, Chris Coons, giving Democrats who had all but given up on the seat new hope. 

In New York, Buffalo multimillionaire Carl Paladino won the Republican nomination for governor over former Rep. Rick Lazio, again stunning the GOP establishment. Paladino, a blustery populist and first-time candidate who travels with a pit bull named Duke, will go up against Attorney General Andrew Cuomo.

For the Democrats, there's no shortage of problems—the economy, two wars, the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, health care reform and financial reform. They've combined to hurt incumbents this election year. Most of those incumbents are Democrats, leading to speculation that another political apocalypse, similar to 1994, could occur, when Republicans ended 40 years of Democratic control. In addition, President Barack Obama's approval ratings are as low as they have been at any time in his still-short presidency.

Those fears may be exaggerated, according to University of Virginia political guru Larry Sabato, but they are real. In 1994, Sabato says, House Democrats were more exposed than they are today because more than half the seats they were defending (128) were in districts that had voted for the Republican presidential candidate in at least one of the previous two elections. This year, just one-third of the Democratic seats (85) fall into that category.

But if even half of those seats go Republican, still a bit of a long shot, the House would swing Republican.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., architect of the 1994 GOP takeover, says the landscape is ripe for another Republican wave, but the Republicans have to do some things to take advantage of the terrain.

"There are lots of things out there that could cause [the GOP] trouble, but if I had to choose which hand I'd rather play, I'd rather play the Republican," said Gingrich.

Democrats, not surprisingly, disagree. They think they are on track to keep control of the House and Senate, despite dissatisfaction in the country. And Republican gaffes only help the Democratic cause: House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, compared Wall Street reform legislation to "killing an ant with a nuclear weapon," and senior Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, defended BP against what he said was a White House "shakedown" of the company for compensation over the oil spill.

The Democrats have even turned the tables on the 1994 analogy, using that black day in Democratic hearts to motivate political donors. In a fundraising message to Democrats, Vice President Joe Biden accused Republicans of trying to turn 2010 into 1994. He argued that a Republican Congress would make it nearly impossible for Obama and him to pass new laws on education, the environment and energy.

"Look folks, I spent 36 years in the United States Senate," Biden wrote. "I've seen first-hand the kind of power senators have to advance the president's agenda—or halt it."

Elaine  S. Povich is a veteran congressional reporter and author of three books on Washington politics and politicians


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