For the third successive cycle, keen US politics watcher Dan Hamilton previews today's closest Senate races.


Indiana – Former Senator Dan Coats (R) vs Rep Brad Ellsworth (D)

Few other states so perfectly represented the scale of Barack Obama’s victory in the 2008 Presidential election than Indiana.  Historically a solidly Republican state, Indiana is a curious mix of sprawling farmland, ethnically diverse cities like the state capitol Indianapolis and depressed former manufacturing towns like Gary, the birthplace of Michael Jackson.  A combination of strong rhetoric on economic protectionism and bitter condemnation of George W. Bush’s record on protecting ‘blue collar’ jobs handed Obama a narrow 28,391 vote victory in the state at the same time as popular Republican Governor Mitch Daniels stormed to a eighteen-point victory.

The Senate seat up for election this year is that of the hugely-popular former Governor and, since 1998, Senator Evan Bayh.  A scion of a well-known Democrat political family, the relentlessly-centrist Bayh family are as close to Indiana royalty as one can get.   It would be fair to say that, having enjoyed the executive power he wielded as Governor of the state, Evan Bayh has found life in the Senate rather staid – particularly given that his party’s leadership has been in the hands of left-leaning Democrats such as Harry Reid and New York liberal Chuck Schumer.  Having tended towards a fiscally and socially conservative voting record during his twelve years in the Senate it is unsurprising that his 2008 Presidential bid failed to make it out of the starting gates.   Since Obama’s election, Bayh’s sense of alienation has been heightened by tough votes on healthcare and the fiscal stimulus.   Aged only 54, he announced his retirement from the Senate earlier this year.  He is expected to use the millions of dollars remaining in his campaign bank account to seek a return to the Governor’s office in 2012 – a race in which he will be heavily favoured.

Shortly before Bayh announced his retirement, several polls indicated that he would face a close election contest in 2010.  While this is undoubtedly true, the depth of his popularity and size of his campaign account would likely have been enough to see him re-elected this year.  Ironically, the man polls indicated would give Bayh a close race was former two-term Senator Dan Coates – the same man would have declined to run for re-election in 1998 due to polls showing him certain to lose to Bayh.

Having already won the Democratic primary, Bayh’s withdrawal meant the state’s Democratic Party committee was forced to select a replacement on the ballot.  The immediate front-runner for the party’s nomination was Congressman Brad Ellsworth, a pro-gun, social conservative sitting for a Republican district in the south of the state.  Ellsworth was handed the nomination in June.

This Senate race has been one of the dullest this year – largely because Coats is so heavily favoured to win.  Ellsworth has done his best to draw attention to Coates’ record as a lobbyist and the fact he hasn’t lived in Indiana for more than a decade, just as Coates has sought to portray Ellsworth as a puppet for Nancy Pelosi.  None of these attacks have done much to move either candidate’s poll numbers.

Ellsworth is as good a candidate as the Democrats could have possibly fielded but the political environment in Indiana this year makes his election impossible.  Mark this one down as Republican gain for Dan Coates whose previous service in the body will see him leapfrog almost half the body’s current Republican members in seniority rankings.

Arkansas – Rep. John Boozman (R) vs Senator Blanche Lincoln (D)

In the minds of those with a modern political consciousness, Arkansas will forever be the home of Bill Clinton.   The days when Arkansas could be reliably depended on to hand victory to the Democrats is, however, long gone.  While the Democrats still control the Governor’s office and their LibDem-style legacy of strong local organisation means they continue to dominate the State House of Representatives and Senate, Arkansas is now a Republican stronghold on a Presidential level.  Indeed, in 2008 John McCain swept the state with 59% of the vote – a considerable improvement on George W. Bush’s 9% margin in 2004.

This seat up this year has been held for twelve years by Blanche Lincoln, a fairly moderate Democrat who has the honour of being the youngest woman ever elected to the Senate.   Going into the election, Lincoln was shot by both sides; criticised by the Republicans for tacking too far to the left and Democrats for her occasional deviation from the Democratic party line.

Before even being able to attempt re-election to her Senate seat, Lincoln had to fend off a hyper-aggressive primary challenge by the eloquent Lieutenant Governor Bill Halter who slammed her for her lack of “progressive values”.  Halter’s campaign was bolstered by millions of dollars in outside advertising from unions critical of her centrist voting record.  After a weak victory over Halter in the first round of the primary in which she failed to obtain the 50%+1 needed to win outright, she was forced into a second round run-off with the Lieutenant Governor which attracted more negative advertising and drained her once-flush campaign bank account.  Lincoln ultimately defeated Halter 52/48, guaranteeing her a place on the general election ballot.

Meanwhile, while the Democrats were tearing themselves apart, the dour (and frankly rather unimpressive) Congressman John Boozman from the state’s northern conservative heartland cruised to a first round victory over a string of little known local officials.  He has run a low-profile race so far, preferring to avoid discussion of specific policies, safe in the knowledge that the national political climate is likely to carry him to victory.

As with many other Democrats in difficult races this year, Lincoln has based her campaign message entirely on her ability to “bring home the pork” as Chairman of the Senate Agriculture committee in a state where farming employs 20% of the population.  While this message undoubtedly has some pull, it has proved a difficult argument to make in a Republican-leaning state where outrage against excessive congressional spending and so-called ‘earmarks’ is running has reached fever pitch in recent months.

The polls in this race have narrowed somewhat since September when Boozman was shown crushing Lincoln by 58% to 37%.  Boozman will still win this race by double digits.

North Dakota – Governor John Hoeven (R) vs Tracy Potter (D)

Nestled in the north of the country along the Canadian border, the state is dominated by agriculture and its largest town (Fargo) has a population of no more than 99,626.  A stronghold for George W. Bush, McCain managed only a 8-point victory in 2008 – largely as result of the Democrat’s ability to tap into widespread anger at economic strife in the farming community. This remains, however, a strongly conservative state.

There are few seats being contested this year – including ones that have been held by Republican incumbents for decades – in which the likely outcome is as easy to call as that in North Dakota.

The incumbent Senator Byron Dorgan, who announced his retirement from the Senate in January, has every right to feel ever so slightly aggrieved at having to leave the Senate this year.  After all, he has represented the state of North Dakota for three decades (twelve years in the House of Representatives and eighteen in the Senate), has always been re-elected by landslide margins and continues to hold a personal approval rating among the state’s voters of in excess of 60%.   The only problem for Dorgan is that his challenger, Governor John Hoeven is even more popular than he is, having been re-elected with 74% of the vote in 2010.

The Senate Republican leadership has been desperate to entice Hoeven into the Senate race for years and will be delighted by his decision to contest the seat, having failed back in 2006.  Elected as Governor in 2000, Hoeven is arguably the most popular Governor in the United States, having enjoyed a decade of visits to farm shows, shooting competitions and rodeos in a state where personal contact makes a difference.  There are few people in the state who haven’t met – and don’t like – their Governor.

It is a mark of the largely cordial nature of North Dakota politics that Hoeven politely informed the incumbent of his intention to seek the seat prior to publicly launching his own campaign, allowing Dorgan to opt for a dignified retirement rather than risk a sure defeat. Dorgan leaves the Senate with the respect and admiration of the people of his state.

Little is known of Democratic challenger Tracy Potter who sits in the North Dakota State Senate.  It’s unlikely most voters in the state will bother to do much research on her either – Hoeven will cruise to a victory with in excess of two thirds of the vote.

If they haven’t already started, the Senatorial authorities can start making nameplates for United States Senator John Hoeven.

Wisconsin – Ron Johnson (R) vs Senator Russ Feingold (D)

It has been eighteen years since a Republican last won a Senate seat in Wisconsin and the last of the party’s candidates to receive the state’s backing for President was Ronald Reagan way back in 1984.  Against that backdrop, one could be forgiven for thinking that Wisconsin was a Democratic stronghold – but this would be a step too far given George W. Bush’s narrow losses in the state in 2000 and 2004.  Despite the state’s slight Democratic lean, Wisconsin is a fairly politically divided state, including strongly left-leaning areas around the city of Milwaukee as well as ample slices of small-town conservatism.

Russ Feingold, the state’s sitting Senator, was first elected in 1992 – the same year Bill Clinton swept the state in his first run at the White House.  During his first election, he gained notoriety by driving around the state in a beaten-up old truck and emblazoning his garage doors with campaign promises to rely on Wisconsin residents for the majority of his campaign funding, to continue to spend the bulk of his time in the state and to refuse any pay rises during his term of office.  Political observers are divided as to whether or not he has kept his promises, yet nobody would deny he has cultivated an image as an outspoken ‘progressive’ activist who has stood firm against the war in Iraq and big business. He has also demonstrated a strong civil libertarian streak and was the only member of the hundred-person Senate to oppose the passage of the Patriot Act which significantly expanded federal surveillance.

It is perhaps due to his rather idiosyncratic image that Feingold has never quite been able to establish a stranglehold on his Senate seat, winning relatively close re-election races against weak Republican challengers in 1998 and 2004.

For a while during this election cycle, it appeared as if Feingold may have an easier time than usual of being re-elected.  Republicans Senate leaders had for months put considerable pressure on popular former Governor Tommy Thompson to enter the race, although they were ultimately disappointed by his decision to remain focussed on his extensive business interests.

With Thompson out of the race, they were left with a little-known businessman named Ron Johnson, a wealthy accountable and businessman.  While the race remained off the radar of even the most seasoned of political observers, a combination of Wisconsin’s weak economy and a clever campaign by Johnson – no doubt aided by millions of dollars of his own money – have seen this race rapidly turn into strong Republican pick-up prospect.  Johnson’s message has been clever.  In particular one of his ads draws attention to the fact that, during the present economic downturn, the Senate contains 57 lawyers, only one accountant and no manufacturers.   Johnson is, of course, both an accountant and a manufacturer.

Feingold has run the same campaign as he runs every time, stating his independence and touting the early votes he cast in favour of Wall Street reform in particular.  He does, however, have the word “Democrat” after his name on the ballot in a state where unemployment has been a particular problem and no tangible benefits have been derived from the fiscal stimulus package.

It has been almost two months since Russ Feingold held a lead in this race, the most recent polls showing the incumbent trailing Johnson by 52% to 45%.  Given the stability of the challenger’s lead, it would be a surprise if Ron Johnson was not elected as the next Senator for the state of Wisconsin on Tuesday.


Alaska – Joe Miller (R) vs Senator Lisa Murkowski (Write-In) vs Sitka Mayor Scott McAdams (D)

The Senate race in Alaska this year is likely to go down in the annals of political-geekery as one of the most exciting and peculiar in the body’s history.  It is a story of blood feuds, hatred – and even involves a rather spooky campaign endorsement from beyond the grave.

Back in late August, Alaskans woke up to find out that their sitting Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski had been narrowly defeated in the party’s primary by an unknown judge from the state’s bleak northern town of Fairbanks called Joe Miller.  Little was really known of Joe Miller other than the fact he had drawn active endorsements from his fishing buddy Todd Palin, was praised in a press release by Sarah Palin and was a broad adherent to the Tea Party’s policy platform.  Murkowski, on the other hand, enjoyed universal name recognition in the state from her own eight years in elected office and her father’s twenty six years as Alaska’s Senator and later (disastrously unpopular) spell as Governor.

The story of Lisa Murkowski’s primary defeat can largely be traced back to 2002 when her father Frank was elected as Governor following a long term in the Senate.  Being only four of the six years into his Senate mandate, Frank Murkowski was in the strange position as Governor-elect of being able to personally appoint a successor to fill the last two years of his term.  Among the leading candidates being considered for the appointment was young Wasilla Mayor Sarah Palin who had fought a close losing campaign for Lieutenant Governor that year.  Despite having a string of experienced candidates to choose from, he selected his own daughter Lisa who at the time was a member of the Alaska House of Representatives.  This nepotistic move infuriated not only Palin but the majority of Alaskans and set the tone for his entire, unpopular spell as Governor.

In 2004, Lisa was narrowly re-elected to her Senate seat by a 3% margin at a time when George W. Bush won the state by a twenty-five point margin.  Despite initial anger about the means by which she was appointed she steadily built an approval rating in the mid-60s, leading many to believe she was safe in her seat for life.  Her popularity extended to Washington DC where she was elected Vice-Chairman of the Republican caucus in the Senate and became the party’s ranking member on the Energy Committee – a crucial post for the oil-producing state.

In 2006, Palin easily defeated Frank Murkowski for the Republican nomination for Governor.  Following this, the dislike between Lisa Murkowski and Sarah Palin intensified, although never broke out into open warfare.  Upon Palin’s resignation as Governor, Murwowski said “I am deeply disappointed that the Governor has decided to abandon the State and her constituents before her term has concluded” while, when asked her opinion of the Senator, the former Governor would simply state, with pursed lips, “I have always wished Lisa well”.

Todd and Sarah Palin’s endorsement, therefore, of Joe Miller was unsurprising.  It was, however, key to bringing groups such as the Tea Party political committee on board to run advertisements slamming Murkowski – even though she held a reliably conservative voting record on the majority of issues, aside from abortion where she can be considered a moderate.

Her defeat in the primary was not any particular reflection on her popularity across the state but rather a combination of complacency on the part of her campaign and its supporters and a strong showing from anti-Murkowski Tea Party supporters and anti-abortion activists (the state held a referendum on tightening abortion controls on the same day) in an election with a very low turnout.

With Joe Miler and small-town Mayor Scott McAdams installed as the Republican and Democratic candidates respectively, Murkowski made overtones to the state’s Libertarian Party about replacing their elected nominee on the ballot paper.  Her attempts failed, forcing her to attempt a run at the seat as a ‘write in’ candidate.

The ‘write in’ procedure is a complicated one, requiring voters to circle a box on their ballot paper and physically write her name onto the ballot paper.  She does, however, have the financial resources by which to educate voters as to the process – holding more than $2 million in her bank account in a state where television advertising is very cheap.  Indeed, over the past few weeks television ad breaks across the state have been flooded with (at times, amusing) commercials of children at ‘spelling bees’ spelling out Murkowski (“M-u-r-k-o-w-s-k-i”) and compelling arguments about the advantages her seniority brings.

Her campaign adverts have also featured an endorsement from the iconic former Senator Ted Stevens who recorded a campaign ad for her that was scheduled to run only a few days after his death in a plane crash in July.  The ad begins with Stevens’ daughter explaining that Murkowski did not wish to run the aid “out of respect” for her father, yet her family decided to allow it to air as her father felt “so strongly about the need to re-elect Lisa”.  The Stevens endorsement is a powerful one which will appeal to the strong emotional attachment many in the state still have for him.

Murkowski’s write in campaign, which was initially ridiculed by politicians in Alaska and Washington DC, stands at least an even chance of succeeding. While only one candidate in US Senate history has successfully managed to conduct a write-in campaign (Strom Thurmond back in 1954), polls show her ahead of Miller by as much as 10%.

To date, Miller’s campaign has exposed him as being the political novice he is.  He has drawn criticism from many groups for attempting to portray himself as a fiscal conservative opposed to costly social welfare campaigns while at the same time claiming low-income heating allowance and fishing licences.  Miller has also drawn heat for his disciplining as part-time attorney for the City of Fairbanks for the misuse of state computers for political campaigning purposes and his security detail were criticised for a bizarre incident in which a left-leaning blogger was in handcuffed at a campaign rally.  McAdams has tried his best to remain relevant and is the only candidate promising to fight for the state to continue receiving its present bloated levels of federal funding if elected – a popular position in Alaska.  In one clever ad, he tied his approach to that of former Senator Stevens – a well known pork-barrel spender.

While the chances of a McAdams victory are very slim, they are not impossible.  It’s likely, however, that this race will come down to the wire between Miller and Murkowski.  The result is unlikely to be known for weeks as state rules demand write-in votes can only be counted if they are able to change the ultimate outcome of the election.  With no candidate anywhere near 50%, this will undoubtedly happen.

California – Carly Fiorina (R) vs Senator Barbara Boxer (D)

When Barack Obama carried California with 61% of the vote in 2008, it would have been hard to believe that only two years later the state would be home to one of America’s most competitive Senate races.

This year’s Senate race pits the doyenne of the American “progressive” movement and Senator since 1992, Barbara Boxer, against former Hewitt Packard Chief Executive Carly Fiorina.  On a personal level, it would be a stretch to say that either of the two women exude charm, although they are both passionate and fluent campaigners with clear differences in approach – Boxer appealing to a Nancy Pelosi-style urban base and Fiorina targeting her campaign at aspirational suburban voters.

In California, as with Washington further to its north on the west coast, regional turnout is going to be the key deciding factor when it comes to determining which of the two women will be elected.  For Boxer to be re-elected, she will have to rely on strong turnout among Democratic voters in the urban San Francisco and Los Angeles areas while also remaining competitive in wealthy inland commuter towns.  On the contrary, Fiorina’s path to victory is predicated around the assumption “urban liberals” will be sufficiently disappointed with Obama’s first two years of office to largely sit at home and the hope that conservative-minded voters in the rock-ribbed west of the state will turn out in droves.

For much of the past year, Fiorina was considered the weaker of the two wealthy women running for statewide office in California this year with billionaire former eBay Chief Executive Meg Whitman (who has spent almost $150 million of her own money on the race) consistently leading former Democratic Governor Jerry Brown in the gubernatorial race.  Whitman’s campaign has, however, floundered following allegations she employed illegal immigrants as domestic staff and several notable gaffes on the campaign trail.  Brown now leads Whitman by 10% while polls show Boxer and Fiorina at 49% to 46% apiece.

The strength of the Jerry Brown candidacy is likely to have at least a reasonable impact on the close Senate race, with the gubernatorial race listed at the top of the ballot.  Unlike in a state such as Nevada, where Republicans expect to win the gubernatorial election (which voters arguably pay far more attention to than Senate races) by a strong margin they can expect no such boost in California.

It is not impossible for the Republicans to win this race, but it is looking increasingly unlikely.

Colorado – Ken Buck (R) vs Senator Michael Bennet (D)

Located in the south west portion of the United States, the chilly state of Colorado has been fertile territory for Democrats in recent years.  Going back to 2004, the Democrats picked up a Senate seat at the same time as George W. Bush carried the state, seized the Governor’s office in 2006 and added to their tally of victories in 2008 when they captured another Senate seat and obtained 54% of the vote in the Presidential race.

This year, there is every chance that the Democrats’ winning streak could come to an end.

Shortly after winning the Presidential election, Barack Obama opted to install Colorado’s sitting Senator Ken Salazar as the United States Secretary for the Interior.  Upon Salazar’s resignation, Governor Bill Ritter appointed the Chief Superintendent of the Denver public schools network Michael Bennet to fill the last two years of his term.  Bennet was a surprising choice, given that initial speculation had centred on Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper (who is running for Governor this year) and the former State House Speaker Andrew Romanoff.   Bennet, despite his tremendous success as a banker before entering politics, gives every impression of having had his personality removed, speaking in a stilted, wooden and perfunctory style which has endeared him to few of the state’s voters.

As such, Bennet’s first challenge upon being appointed to the seat was to solidify the state’s Democratic base – something he has struggled, to this day, to do.  Despite high profile endorsements from Barack Obama and other senior Democrats, the fragility of his hold on the office was illustrated by the closeness of his victory over Andrew Romanoff in the August primary for the seat.  Despite dramatically outspending Romanoff, he only defeated him by 53% to 47%.

Democratic primary aside, the Republicans have had similar problems with respect to their own candidate selection.  At the start of the race, there had been considerable enthusiasm in national Republican circles about the candidacy of former Lieutenant Governor Jane Norton, yet her campaign never managed to catch fire.  Her challenger, an obscure District Attorney called Ken Buck was able to cleverly paint Norton as a professional politician and “establishment pick” while harnessing the power of the Tea Party movement to propel him to victory in the Republican primary.

Neither Buck or Bennet are particularly strong candidates.  Bennet, as I have already mentioned, is plagued by his lack of strong campaigning skills while Buck’s propensity to make poorly-timed gaffes (including, perplexingly, labelling his own supporters as “dumbasses”) has meant he has never been able to pull away from the Democratic incumbent.

The polls in this race have essentially been deadlocked for much of the last month, rarely showing a distance of more than a couple of points between either Bennet or Buck.

As with so many races this year, it’s all going to come down to turnout.  If the liberal Democratic base in Denver and Boulder displays the same kind of enthusiasm for Bennet as it did for Obama in 2008, the Democrat will be re-elected.  Sadly for Bennet, he has neither the campaigning skills of Obama nor the perfect-storm political climate of 2008 on his side.   Given the political climate, Buck should win this race – but it’s a mark of the weakness of his candidacy that he hasn’t yet been able to pull away.

Illinois – Rep Mark Kirk (R) vs State Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias (D)

It would be hugely embarrassing for the Democrats if they were unable to hold onto President Obama’s former Senate seat – but that really does look like a distinct possibility this year.

Political anoraks will recall the furore at the start of last year caused by news that Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich had attempted to sell the seat left open by Obama’s elevation to the Presidency.   While he was prevented from doing this as a result of a CIA phone-tap which had picked up the details of his ‘phone calls, he was still legally able to make the appointment to the Senate seat and selected the former Illinois State Treasurer Roland Burris.

Burris’ period in Washington DC got off to a farcical start, in which he turned up at the Senate with a team of lawyers and quite literally hammered on Majority Leader Harry Reid’s door demanding to be seated.  Sceptical that any appointment made by Blagojevich could be kosher, Reid initially refused Burris’ demands to be allowed to sit in the body before later capitulating and allowing him to take his seat.

Faced with poor polling numbers, non-existent and a complete and utter lack of support for his candidacy among Democratic Party bosses, Burris announced in July 2009 that he would not be seeking a full term in the Senate this year.

Burris’ decision not to seek re-election left open the possibility of the Senate being entirely without African American representation and, as such, the black Chairman of the Chicago Urban League Cheryl Robinson Jackson entered the race.  Her candidacy, however, never gained traction and she ultimately placed third in the primary behind former Chicago police chief David Hoffman and the ultimate winner Alexi Giannoulias.

At only 34 years old, Giannoulias has served as the Illinois State Treasurer since 2006.  His campaign advertisements have been full of images of him and his close personal friend Barack Obama, with whom he – and he loves telling people this – used to play basketball.  While he is a hugely fluent and telegenic candidate, his campaign has been persistently dogged by reports that while he served as the Senior Loan Officer of a bank owned by his family, he awarded loans to high profile convicted felons.  His business problems became a further drag on his campaign when, in April, the family-owned Broadway Bank his parents had founded in 1979 after they moved to America from Greece had gone bankrupt with enormous debts.

In many ways, the Republican challenger Mark Kirk is about as close to an ideal candidate to run for statewide office in Illinois as the Republicans could wish for.  Since he was elected to the House of Representatives back in 2000, he has managed to hold onto his strongly Democratic seat by taking centrist positions in social issues and occasionally deviating from the party line on issues such as environmental protection.  While few would dispute that Kirk is a canny and effective politician, his initially strong lead over Giannoulias has been steadily eroded by reports that he exaggerated his record of accomplishments as a military officer.

The Democrats are desperate to hold onto this seat and have, in the last few days, unveiled television ads featuring a personal endorsement of Giannoulias by the President.  Similarly, Michelle Obama spoke at a large rally for Giannoulias in Chicago last week.

The omens for the Democrat do not, however, look great.   While headline polling figures show him essentially tied with Kirk, digging deeper into the data it is clear that independent voters strongly favour the Republican while enthusiasm from his own supporters is severely limited.

For Giannoulias to win this race, he will have to hope for a stronger than expected turnout of voters in the Democrat-dominated Cook County – home to Chicago.   There is little evidence that this will happen, particularly given the presence of the highly unpopular Democratic Governor Pat Quinn at the top of the ballot.

Kirk has run a solid, if uninspiring race yet should just about pull this election off by a point or two.

Nevada – Sharron Angle (R) vs Senator Harry Reid (D)

On election night, political hacks from both of the two major parties will have their eyes very closely trained on Nevada – the seat of the incumbent Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid.

Back in 2008, Nevada was one of Democrat’s biggest success stories; carrying the state with 55% of the vote in the Presidential and gaining a key congressional seat in the Las Vegas suburbs.  The enthusiasm for the Democrats has faded quickly though, largely as a result of Nevada now having the highest rate of mortgage repossessions in the country and an unemployment rate of around 15%.

Despite his great success on the national stage, Reid has never been a particularly popular figure in his own state.  In 1998, for example, he was only re-elected by 428 votes and has a personal approval ratings of less than 40%.  With the combination of Reid’s poor personal standing and the state’s economic woes, Nevada has long been seen as one of the Republican Party’s top pick-up opportunities this year.

Seeing Reid’s vulnerability, initial speculation in Republican circles centred on the likelihood of Congressman Dean Heller entering the race.  Heller’s decision to seek re-election to his congressional seat saw Republicans scramble to find a candidate with the “establishment” settling on former state party chairman Sue Lowden.

Despite her strong slate of endorsements Lowden was never able to pull away from the other two candidates in the race – namely, Danny Tarkanian and former State Assemblywoman Sharron Angle.   For the majority of the primary season, Sharron Angle lingered in a poor third place in the polls,  only gaining traction after the conservative Club for Growth and Tea Party political committees dumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into a last-minute advertising blitz on her behalf.  She won the primary with 40% compared to 26% for Lowden and 23% of Tarkanian.

Following Sharron Angle’s primary victory, Harry Reid’s team could hardly contain their delight.  During her spell in the state assembly, Angle had cast many votes that made for great campaign ad fodder including voting against forcing insurance companies to provide mammograms and advocating the privatisation of social security.

Initially, Reid moved back into a strong lead over Angle yet, as the election has drawn closer, she had continually moved forward.  Her campaign message is an effective one; alleging that Reid is nothing more than a rubber stamp for Obama who has failed to use his huge influence to benefit the state’s ailing economy.   Reid’s strategists are fully aware that their man is unpopular and have dedicated their efforts to highlighting Reid’s importance in the Senate (“he’s the most powerful Senator Nevada has ever had”) and ability to bring home costly spending projects.  The Reid campaign’s appeal to voters has been purely transactional and has in some cases verged on fear-mongering about what the state sets to lose if they elect Angle.

Polling suggests that the gap between the two candidates remains extremely tight – the latest figure showing Angle ahead by only 4%.  There is a feeling, however, that momentum in the race has shifted to the Republican, largely due to her (unexpected) failure to say anything particularly controversial or offensive in the last few weeks.  Reid’s campaign will also be disheartened by several media reports in the last few days which have discussed the likely battle between New York’s Chuck Schumer and Dick Durbin of Illinois to succeed him as Democratic leader after the election.

This race won’t be a blowout victory for the Republicans – but Sharron Angle is certainly looking like the favourite.

Pennsylvania – Former Rep Pat Toomey (R) vs Rep Joe Sestak (D)

During the past two electoral cycles, there were few states which illustrated the complete and utter rejection of the Republican Party as well as Pennsylvania.   The rot began in 2006 when Republican Senator Rick Santorum lost his battle for re-election by almost twenty points at the same time as losing several congressional seats and continued in 2008 when Barack Obama carried the state by 11%.

A rugged state in America’s north eastern corner, Pennsylvania takes in swathes of former manufacturing towns which have been in perpetual decline for decades, thick forests and ethnically-diverse cities such as Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.  Due to the enduring influence of manufacturing in the state, Pennsylvania remains a heavily unionised state which contains few pockets of genuine wealth.  The state does, however, have a strong socially conservative streak in many rural areas as a result of the larger than average number of Roman Catholic voters.  Indeed, several Democratic congressmen for the state – some of whom will lose their re-election battles this year – have had to go to great lengths over the years to draw voters’ attention to their opposition to abortion in the face of criticism from national Democrat leaders.

The Senate seat up for election this year is that has been held by Arlen Specter since 1980.  From 1980 until early 2008, Specter had held his seat as a Republican although was frequently endorsed by labour unions for his votes in favour of legislation sympathetic to their position and was a strong opponent of restricting abortion rights.  Specter was never a particularly popular figure in his own party, although his contrarian positions were tolerated for many years as a result of what was perceived to be his strong cross-over appeal to Democrat voters in a state which has not been friendly territory for Republicans for generations.  During his 2004 re-election battle, Specter was held to a very close 51% to 49% victory over conservative Congressman Pat Toomey who had hammered him for his lack of fiscal conservatism and social liberalism.  Despite the closeness of his primary contest, Specter was easily re-elected.

Early in 2008, Specter cast a vote in favour of President Obama’s fiscal stimulus package.  As a result, Pat Toomey immediately declared that he would once again challenge Specter in the Republican primary – a race polls showed Toomey likely to win by around thirty points.  In response, Specter folded to pressure from the likes of Vice-President Joe Biden and announced his defection to the Democratic Party.

It is no particular secret that, despite his left-leaning stances on many issues, Specter’s defection to the Democratic caucus had less to do with disenchantment with the Republicans (after all, he’d already had 28 years of disagreements with his own party) and far more to do with securing his own re-election.  In a statement on the steps of the Senate, he said as much, claiming: “my change in party will allow me to be re-elected”.  Senior Democrats, delighted that Specter’s defection now gave them the sixty votes in the Senate required to shut down all attempts by the Republicans to block legislation, were unanimous in their support for him.

Democratic Congressman Joe Sestak, on the other hand, had other ideas and declared he would enter the primary against Specter.  Sestak, a former admiral in the US Navy, had first been elected to Congress in a Republican-leaning district in 2006 and had a reputation as a forceful campaigner – although his bid for the Senate did appear to be quixotic to say the least.   While polls showed him trailing Specter by a large margin for most of the primary campaign, the distance between him and the incumbent tightened significantly over the past two weeks of the campaign.  Indeed, a last minute advertisement from Sestak featured footage of the passionate last-minute endorsement of Specter by George W. Bush in 2004 which is credited with delivering his close primary victory over Toomey that year.   Sestak defeated Specter by six points in the primary.

With Specter out of the picture, the general election race now boiled down to Sestak and Pat Toomey.

It is interesting to contrast Toomey’s 2004 campaign with the one he is running this year.  Back in 2004, his message was almost entirely predicated around attacking Specter for not demonstrating enough loyalty towards the Bush administration and social issues.  While he did attack Specter for his votes in favour of tax increases and the like, it was very much a secondary issue to that of abortion.  This year, his campaign is trained solely on economic issues – a popular position in a state which has been hammered so badly by the recession.

For much of the year, Toomey has held large leads over Sestak but, just as in his primary with Specter, the Democrat has managed to dramatically close the gap in recent weeks.  The final poll for the race shows Toomey ahead by 49% to 45%, although it would be foolish to count Sestak quite out yet.

Washington – Dino Rossi (R) vs Senator Patty Murray (D)

Like many states on America’s left coast, Washington is a state which is profoundly politically divided along geographic lines – the western area along the coastline being heavily sympathetic to the Democrats and the rural interior to the East heavily favouring the Republicans.   In some Washington Republican circles there have long been calls for the state’s eastern counties along the border with Idaho should go it alone as a new state (provisionally titled ‘Cascadia’) in order to avoid the age-old problem of elections usually being decided by voters in the strongly Democratic Seattle-centred King County.

The election this year is really no different to any other in Washington in that, for a Republican to be victorious, they will require a solid showing in King County – something that only the state’s popular Attorney General Rob McKenna has managed to achieve in recent years, narrowly carrying the county in 2008.

The Senate race this year pits two of Washington’s best known politicians against one another: Democratic incumbent Patty Murray and former State Senator Dino Rossi.

Murray has served in the Senate since 1992, being re-elected by comfortable margins against Republicans Congresswoman Linda Smith in 1998 and Congressman George Nethercutt in 2004.   Not famed for her intelligence – indeed, she was twice awarded the ‘No Rocket Scientist’ award by congressional staffers – Murray is nonetheless a homely and accessible politician who likes to style herself as a “just a Mom in tennis shoes” as a reference back to disparaging remarks a Republican state representative made to her when she first entered politics in the 1980s.

Rossi has been a permanent fixture on the Republican scene since his nail-biting close loss in the 2004 gubernatorial election where, despite outpolling George W. Bush in the state by three points, he was defeated by current Governor Christine Gregoire by 150 votes.  Having lost by such a small margin, the former State Senator spent four years relentlessly travelling the state in preparation for a 2008 rematch with Gregoire.  This time he lost by a 53% to 47% margin, yet still outperformed John McCain by 6%.   Despite having lost two elections, Rossi  is arguably a victim of a poor political climate for Republicans in his 2004 and 2008 races – something which cannot be said for this year.

There have been few other contests this year that have shown such little movement in the polls; indeed it has been two weeks since a poll showed a gap of more than 1% between Rossi and Murray – a fact likely influenced by the close familiarity voters have with the two challengers.

With the polls so close, it would be foolhardy to predict the ultimate outcome.

The result, as ever, will hinge on King County.  If Murray is able to fire up the Democratic base in King County and remain competitive in the Seattle suburbs, she will likely win a close race over Rossi.  If Democrats stay at home, Republicans turnout is strong in the west of the state and Rossi is able to secure at least 55% of the vote in the wealthy and socially suburbs just to the west of Seattle – an area Barack Obama won emphatically in 2008 – he will be the state’s next Senator.

West Virginia – John Raese (R) vs Governor Joe Manchin (D)

When Senator Robert Byrd died back in June, West Virginia said goodbye to the man who had served their state in America’s upper chamber since 1959.  Byrd remains the longest-serving member of Congress in history with a total of 57 years unbroken service in the House of Representatives and Senate.

Like Arkansas, West Virginia is a state which has been trending away from its once-solid Democratic roots in recent years.  While Bill Clinton successfully carried the state with by 15% in 1996, it delivered John McCain 56% of the vote in 2008 – a larger margin of victory than that achieved by George W. Bush when he won the state in 2004.

To say Barack Obama is unpopular in the state would be the understatement of the year, particularly following his enthusiastic support for ‘cap and trade’ legislation which seeks to limit carbon dioxide emissions in a state where coal mining continues to provide a large number of jobs.

As such, the Democrats will have been delighted with the decision of the state’s Governor Joe Manchin to appoint his young aide Carte Goodwin to the state as an interim measure until he was able to seek the seat for himself this November.  As Governor of the state since 2005, Manchin is a self-styled conservative Democrat who has been a staunch opponent of gun control and the ‘cap and trade’ bill.

Early polls showed the popular Manchin with a twenty point lead over his Republican rival, the businessman and mine operator John Raese.  Raese is the eternal bridesmaid of West Virginia politics having lost a very close race for the Senate to Jay Rockefeller in 1984, lost in a landslide to Robert Byrd in 2006 and failed in bids for the Governor’s office.  Despite his losses, Raese is a pugnacious performer whose campaign message is solely centred around his claim that he “won’t be a rubber stamp for Barack Obama”.  Raese personal wealth has allowed him to spend limitlessly on television advertising.

As such, it didn’t take long into the relatively short campaign for Manchin’s lead to go up in smoke; with most polls from the end of September showing the race either statistically tied or with a slight lead for Raese.  It is clear that Raese’s characterisation of Manchin as “rubber stamp Joe” who would be an ineffective lapdog for the President in Washington, while at the same time praising his record as Governor (“we need Joe Manchin here in West Virginia”), is working.

Raese’s campaign has not been entirely without hitches, chief among them being a disastrous campaign ad featuring supposed “average West Virginians” which was actually filmed in Pennsylvania using actors who were told to dress up “like Hicks”.  Manchin quickly jumped on the comments, responding with a campaign ad critical of Raese for his perceived slight on the state.  The ads temporarily blunted Raese’s momentum, yet recent polls show him continuing to hold a small lead over the Governor.

If this race is allowed to become a referendum on Barack Obama, a combination of high Republican turnout and anger at the President will likely see John Raese finally win his twenty-six year battle for elected office.  If Manchin can change the narrative of the race into a choice between his popularity as Governor and the fear of the relatively unknown Raese, he’ll win.  Time is running out for Governor Manchin – but West Virginia remains too close to call.


Florida – Marco Rubio (R) vs Charlie Crist (Independent) vs Rep Kendrick Meek (D)

For Charlie Crist, it all could have been so different.  When the perma-tanned former Attorney General entered the Governor’s office back in 2006, he did so as one of the brightest rising stars in the Republican Party.   Having beaten back a tough challenge from ultra-conservative primary challenger Tom Gallagher and defeated Democratic Congressman Jim Davis in the general election in a strongly Democratic year, he appeared to have a strong future in national politics.  In the months following his election, his approval soared to 65% and his last-minute endorsement of John McCain’s Presidential campaign won him a place on the 2008 Vice-Presidential shortlist.

It didn’t take long, however, for Crist’s popularity among Republican voters in the state to fade – and to ultimately implode.  Many will offer theories as to why Crist’s popularity declined so sharply, yet a key event in his fall from grace was his literal and figurative embrace of Barack Obama’s fiscal stimulus package.  While Republicans the length and breadth of America were denouncing the President for what they saw as fiscal recklessness, the Florida Governor was there on the runway to hug Obama as he arrived in Florida, enthusiastically praising him.  While state Republicans condemned Crist’s closeness to the President and cheerleading for his policies, he gave every impression of thinking his detractors were at best discourteous and, at worst, mad.

Politically, however, this wasn’t particularly a problem.  While his approval rating with Republicans was on the slide he remained extremely popular with independent voters and had the support of a plurality of Democrats.   Early polling showed indicated that he was on his way to a landslide re-election victory in the 2008 gubernatorial election.

In August 2009, Florida’s Republican Senator Mel Martinez abruptly resigned his Senate seat in order to return to his business interests.  As Governor, Crist was left to appoint an interim Senator to the seat for the remainder of the term up to January 2011.  With polls showing Crist would ahead leading all possible challengers for the Senate seat by landslide margins, he opted to appoint his close personal friend and former Chief of Staff George Lemieux as a ‘placeholder’ in order allow himself what he hoped would be a clear run at the seat in November 2010.

At around the same time as Crist announced his campaign for the seat, the rock-solid conservative former Speaker of the Florida House of Representatives Marco Rubio announced his intention to contest the primary against the popular Governor.   A poll in August 2009 showed Crist ahead by 55% to 26% for Rubio.

While respectful of Rubio’s political skills and record as Speaker of the Florida House, many observers dismissed his bid as a long-shot, with state Republican insiders privately urging him to forgo the race in order to run for Attorney General.  He refused all of these calls and intensified his campaign, criss-crossing the state denouncing Crist for his closeness to the President and lack of fiscal conservatism.

Poll after poll, week after week, Rubio’s polling numbers rose until, in January, he eclipsed Crist by 4%.  By March, he held a 32% lead over Crist in the polls and appeared to be solidly on track to defeat him in the Republican Party.

Seeing no viable way to win the Republican primary, Crist’s decision in April to leave the Republican Party and run in the election as an independent candidate surprised almost nobody and, for several months, his bid stood an exceptional chance of succeeding.  Initial polling showed Crist leading the field with 40% with Rubio at 33% and Democrat Congressman Kendrick Meek at 14%.

Just as in the case of his battle to secure the Republican nomination, Crist has watched his polling numbers fall gradually to the point where Rubio is now the race’s undisputed leader.  This is not so much because of anything Crist has done – he remains a genuinely popular Governor – but rather because of the success of both Rubio and Meek in solidifying their voter bases.  Rubio’s current strength is easy to explain – he’s the Republican nominee in an ordinarily Republican state in a year favourable to the Republicans.

With current polls showing Rubio leading the race at 42% compared to 35% for Crist and 15% for Meek, it is difficult to see any way in which the Governor can win.  Indeed, given that Rubio’s standing is some way below 50%, Crist has made a spirited effort at getting Meek to exit the race.  Such is his desperation to push Meek out of the race, a news story this week carried a bizarre tale of Crist harassing Meek by phone at all hours of the day and offering him a silver Christian cross as a gift.   Meek has been steadfast in his refusal to exit the race, even in light of a statement from Crist’s campaign manager saying he would caucus with the Democrats if elected.

When all is said and done, Charlie Crist is likely to go down as one of the most successful independent candidates ever to run in a Senate election – but victory will belong to Marco Rubio.  Crist must be very sorry he didn’t decide to run for a second term as Governor…

Kentucky – Rand Paul (R) vs Jack Conway (D)

Looking ahead to the 2010 Senatorial elections, there was no seat Republicans had as many concerns about holding as Kentucky. 

Back in 2004, the incumbent Senator Jim Bunning appeared to be heading for a very easy re-election until he displayed some extremely bizarre behaviour on the campaign trail, including commenting that his then-opponent Daniel Mongiardo looked like one of Saddam Hussein’s sons and refusing to debate him without the use of a teleprompter.  He was re-elected by just over one percentage point. Bunning has continued his pattern of stage behaviour throughout this term of congress, including missing key votes in order to attend “family events”.  Aged eighty, some detractors have suggested that his advanced years have reduced his effectiveness in Washington DC.

While Bunning was hell-bent on running re-election, his state party was less keen.  Senator Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who holds Kentucky’s other Senate seat, was forced to intervene in the race and ensured that influential donors in the state did not contribute to Bunning’s 2010 fighting fund.  Faced with weak polling numbers, no financial resources and the distinct possibility of a humiliating defeat in the Republican primary, Bunning announced his retirement.

With Bunning out of the picture, the field appeared to be clear for Kentucky’s Secretary of State Trey Grayson who quickly gained the endorsement of Mitch McConnell and the tacit support for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.  He was joined in the primary, however, by Rand Paul – the son of libertarian idol Dr Ron Paul – who quickly defined himself as the race’s “true conservative” and gained the support of influential Tea Party activists.   Despite Grayson’s establishment support, Paul was able to call upon his father’s vast national fundraising network in order to vastly out raise his challenger.  Paul won the primary by a 59% to 35% margin.

On the Democratic side, the primary pitched Lieutenant Governor Daniel Mongiardo, the man who had nearly beaten Bunning in 2004 against state Attorney General Jack Conway.  Mongiardo portrayed himself as the more conservative of the two men, arguing that he would be more likely to appeal to voters in what is usually a reliably-Republican state.  Despite high name-recognition, Mongiardo was unable to compete with the significant financial advantage built up by Conway and lost the primary by 3,000 votes.

While his views are slightly to the left of Kentucky’s political mainstream, Conway is an excellent candidate for the Democrats.  He has a strong record as the Attorney General of the state and does a terrific job in presenting himself as a moderate against the backdrop of what he alleges is Rand Paul’s “extreme” libertarian positions on the reform of social security and healthcare coverage.

Conway, however, did his campaign significant damage earlier this month when he ran a campaign advert which appeared to question Paul’s religious beliefs, repeating a thirty year old story of a drunken (or indeed stoned) escapade from the Republican’s university years.  Those who follow American elections closely will know that questioning the faith of another candidate is a “no go” area that often results in severe electoral consequences.  Indeed, Republican Elizabeth Dole was in a near dead-heat with Democrat Kay Hagan in the 2008 Senate race in North Carolina until she aired an advert accusing her opponent of being in a league with “Godless Americans”.  She lost the race by more than 10%.

In light of his missteps in recent weeks, it is hard to see how Conway can win.  The final poll shows Rand Paul with a 10% lead.


Connecticut – Linda McMahon (R) vs Richard Blumenthal (D)

While the Republicans have held the office of Governor in Connecticut since 1994, the state has voted reliably for Democrat Presidential candidates since 1988 and was carried by Barack Obama with 61% of the vote.  The state is arguably the richest in the United States, stretching from the suburbs of New York City where many of the state’s residents work to upmarket seaside towns.  There are pockets of deprivation, particularly around Bridgeport and the military town of New London, yet they are anomalies in a very wealthy state.

When incumbent Chris Dodd announced his retirement from the Senate seat he had held since 1980, Democrats breathed a great sigh of relief.  While Dodd had enjoyed strong popularity in Connecticut for the bulk of his long career, his reputation suffered following his long-shot Presidential bid in 2008 in which he moved his family out of the state for several months to campaign with him in Iowa and ethnics concerns surrounding preferential lone rates he received to buy a holiday home in Ireland.  At the time of his retirement polling had shown Dodd being crushed by former Congressman Rob Simmons and trailing Linda McMahon, the former Chief Executive of World Wrestling Entertainment.  Many Republican saw Connecticut as a likely gain.

With Chris Dodd departing the field, however, Connecticut’s long-standing Attorney General Richard Blumenthal entered the race.  With a 70% approval rating for his current position and twenty years of state-wide electoral experience, Blumenthal immediately established himself as the race’s clear front-runner. 

With Blumenthal in the race, it was clear that any Republican challenger would have to have be able to raise significant campaign funds in order to compete.  This was simply not an option for the Simmons campaign, which quickly folded in the wake of Linda McMahon’s public pledge to spend up to $50 million of her own money on the race – the largest amount a Senatorial candidate has ever spent.

McMahon has been true to her word, spending at an astronomical rate in a state where the cost of television advertising is vastly inflated by proximity of much of the population to the costly New York City media markets.  Adverts alone, however, cannot buy you an election.   Her public persona is more reminiscent of a prurient headmistress than it is of a modern retail politician.   Blumenthal, on the other hand, has done little to deviate from his decades-old image as a patrician law-maker with a commitment to doing “what’s right”. 

While McMahon managed to narrow the gap between her and Blumenthal to three points in May this year, he now appears to be pulling away with the final poll conducted for the race showing his lead at 8%.

McMahon’s millions will make this race a far closer one than it really ought to be against a candidate as strong as Blumenthal but, at the end of the day, it’ll be money down the drain.

Delaware – Christine O’Donnell (R) vs Chris Coons (D) 

If the Republicans fall only one seat short of capturing the United States Senate, they will be able to squarely put the blame for failing to win outright on the shoulders of Republican primary voters in Delaware.

Earlier this year, the two-term former Governor Mike Castle who has been the state’s only Congressman declared his candidacy for the United States Senate seat which had previously been held by Vice-President Joe Biden.  Castle has long been the only Republican elected to state-wide office in Delaware, largely because of his centrist voting record and willingness to take stands against the Republican leadership.  When he was last elected to his seat in the House of Representatives, he received 61% of the vote at the same time the Obama/Biden ticket carried the state with 62% of the vote.

As such, the entry into the Senate race of the popular Castle – and the decision of Biden’s son Beau who is the state’s Attorney General to forgo the race – handed the Republicans an unlikely chance to gain a seat in Delaware.  Initial polling appeared to confirm the optimism of Republican leaders with polls showing Castle leading his Democratic opponent Chris Coons, the Chief Executive of New Castle County, by a 13% margin.

Castle was, as he always had done, expected to breeze through the Republican primary and defeat the Tea Party-backed Christine O’Donnell for the nomination.

The warning signs for Castle appeared a couple of weeks before the Delaware primary when the similarly-popular Lisa Murkowski was defeated by a Tea Party-backed candidate in Alaska.  Indeed, Murkowski was so alarmed at the possibility of the same happening to Castle that she is rumoured to have ‘phoned him to encourage him to up his attacks on O’Donnell.   He was spoiled in terms of material for attack ad, including claims from former campaign volunteers that they had not been paid for work on her 2008 Senate campaign and more bizarre allegations that she had once dabbled in Witchcraft.  The mild-mannered Castle failed to go on the attack.

Meanwhile, Tea Party groups aired hundreds of thousands of dollars in advertising against Castle, accusing him of excessive spending and accusing him of not being conservative enough.  Castle lost the primary to O’Donnell by a 53% to 47% margin.

For a candidate that stands next to no chance of actually winning, O’Donnell has attracted a significant amount of attention – particularly for a rather dotty campaign ad in which her first words were “I’m not a witch”.  I can’t imagine a scenario outside of seventeenth century Salem in which a candidate has been forced to make such a statement in order to assuage voters of their suitability for elected office.

Regardless, what was a race in which the Republicans held a 13% lead became a race in which Democrat.

Chris Coons now dominated.  O’Donnell’s continued bizarre statements and disastrous debate performances – including one in which she appeared unaware of American’s separation of church and state – have done nothing to close the gap.

With O’Donnell rather than Castle on the ballot, what ought to have been an easy Republican pick-up will almost certainly be a Democratic retention.

-    New York  1 – Senator Chuck Schumer (D)
-    New York 2 – Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D)
-    Hawaii –  Senator Daniel Inouye (D)
-    Maryland –Senator Barbara Mikulski (D)
-    Oregon –Senator Ron Wyden (D)
-    Vermont –Senator Pat Leahy (D)

-    Alabama –Senator Richard Shelby (R)
-    Arizona –Senator John McCain (R)
-    Georgia –Senator Johnny Isakson (D)
-    Idaho – Senator Mike Crapo (R)
-    Iowa – Senator Chuck Grassley (R)
-    Kansas – Rep Jerry Moran (R)
-    Louisiana – Senator David Vitter (R) vs Rep Charlie Melancon (D)
-    Missouri – Rep Roy Blunt (R) vs Robin Carnahan (D)
-    New Hampshire – Kelly Ayotte (R) vs Rep Paul Hodes (D)
-    North Carolina – Senator Richard Burr (R) vs Elaine Marshall (D)
-    Ohio – Former Rep Rob Portman (R) vs Lt Gov Lee Fisher (D)
-    Oklahoma – Senator Tom Coburn (R)
-    South Carolina – Senator Jim DeMint (R)
-    South Dakota – Senator John Thune (R)
-    Utah – Mike Lee (R).