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Now there are seven

Despite the volatility of recent weeks, the overall outlook for the Senate has not changed much. The six Republican-held seats that were rated highly vulnerable three months ago remain in serious jeopardy.   But now seven GOP seats at risk.  By Jennifer E. Duffy, Cook Political Report, for  National Journal.
/ Source: National Journal

Despite the volatility of recent weeks, the overall outlook for the Senate has not changed much. The six Republican-held seats that were rated highly vulnerable three months ago remain in serious jeopardy. Democrats have only one seat in that category. Neither party holds many seats that could provide a second tier of opportunity for the other party; Republicans have one (Arizona), and Democrats have three (Maryland, Michigan, and Washington).

What has changed is Democrats' chances of picking up the all-important sixth seat that would give them a Senate majority. There are now seven GOP seats at risk. So, to take control, Democrats no longer have to run the table while holding all of their own seats.

With the election only days away, here is where the most competitive contests stand.

Missouri — Republican Sen. Jim Talent
There are more than a few days when this race provides flashbacks to 2002, when Republican Jim Talent was running against appointed Democratic Sen. Jean Carnahan.

In that contest, polls showed the race continually seesawing, and neither candidate was ever able to open up a meaningful lead. The election turned on Republicans' arguments that Carnahan wasn't up to the job and on voter turnout in a good year for GOP candidates across the board. Talent edged the incumbent, 50 percent to 49 percent.

Fast-forward four years to the Missouri Senate race: Now it is Talent's turn to run for a full six-year term, and this time the climate is poor for Republicans. Polling again shows a statistically insignificant lead alternating between Talent and his Democratic challenger, state Auditor Claire McCaskill. Democrats recently released a poll showing McCaskill ahead by 5 points. The most recent public poll [PDF] shows Talent ahead by 3.

As in 2002, both candidates are well known, neither has significant negatives, and turnout will be the key to victory. Democrats hope that state ballot initiatives on stem-cell research and raising the minimum wage will draw their voters to the polls and put McCaskill over the top. McCaskill attributes her failure to win the governorship in 2004 -- she drew 48 percent of the vote -- to spending too little time in rural areas. She is campaigning vigorously there now. Refighting the last war can be a risky strategy, but if this race ends up close, attracting a bigger share of the rural vote could put McCaskill over the top.

Talent is running on his Senate record while working to portray McCaskill as a liberal campaigning as a moderate. This is one Senate contest in which both the Democratic and the Republican national parties have made a significant investment. It is also one where the GOP's vaunted 72-hour get-out-the-vote program has been very successful in the past. While its effectiveness depends on an energized GOP base -- and signs abound that the base is demoralized -- Republicans argue that the stem-cell research initiative is motivating conservatives to vote. They also question whether a vote in favor of stem-cell research is an automatic vote against Talent.

This race is firmly in the toss-up column and it will be a key measure of the strength of the Democratic wave. Talent has no significant liabilities, apart from having to defend his party and the Bush administration. Yet a sizable wave could well sweep him out of office.

Montana — Republican Sen. Conrad Burns
Conrad Burns is carrying some heavy baggage in his race for a fourth Montana Senate term. And he packed most of it himself. First, the Republican is dogged by the perception that he has "gone Washington" and has lost touch with Montana's voters and values. Second, he has been caught up in the Jack Abramoff scandal. While the question of whether Burns is under investigation for his (or his staff's) dealings with Abramoff is still being debated, the fact that Abramoff's clients and associates contributed $150,000 to Burns's leadership PAC is definitely hurting his re-election prospects. Finally, Burns is running in a difficult political environment for Republicans in a state that elected a Democratic governor two years ago.

Since late January, Burns has aired just about every kind of political advertising on television and radio: ads that tout his accomplishments, that boast of his clout and seniority, that seek to define his opponent, and that attack the Democrats' attack ads.

Democratic nominee Jon Tester seems content to stay out of Burns's way, letting the senator trip over his own ill-considered statements, the most notorious being his insulting firefighters battling forest fires in the state. Recently, Burns has stepped up his efforts to depict Tester as too liberal for Montana, pointing to the Democrat's comment that he would repeal the USA PATRIOT Act [PDF] and accusing him of supporting tax increases.

Burns has been trailing since the June primary. Recent polls, though, indicate that he is beginning to close the gap. GOP strategists credit their efforts to portray Tester as a liberal. Still, Burns does not have time on his side. And Tester is getting plenty of help from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which has been running TV ads hammering the senator on a host of issues.

Burns's battle will continue to be difficult.

New Jersey — Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez
This New Jersey Senate race appears to defy political gravity. Despite the anti-Republican political climate nationally, one of the bluest states is producing a very close contest, pitting an appointed Democratic senator, Robert Menendez, against GOP state Sen. Tom Kean Jr.

Republicans struggle here even when the national climate favors them: New Jersey voters have not sent a Republican to the Senate since 1972. That Kean is beating the odds this year by making this a real race against a well-funded and seasoned politician is almost inexplicable. Almost.

Several seemingly unrelated factors have combined to make this race competitive. The first and perhaps most prominent is the issue of corruption. New Jersey voters have a high tolerance for political scandal at the state and local levels. They wear that tolerance almost as a badge of honor. But there has been no shortage of political scandal this year. A former state senator pleaded guilty recently to corruption charges. The attorney general, who was appointed by the governor, was forced to resign after she interceded on behalf of her boyfriend, who had been stopped for a traffic violation. Former Democratic Gov. James McGreevey, who resigned after declaring that he had had a sexual relationship with his former homeland security adviser and that the man was threatening to sue him for sexu! al harassment, is on a national tour promoting a tell-all book. And Menendez is caught up in an investigation of whether he did something improper in steering federal funds to a nonprofit organization that was renting a building from him. Menendez denies any wrongdoing and disputes the Kean campaign's charge that he is under investigation. The U.S. attorney's office acknowledges that it subpoenaed the nonprofit's property-rental records. Democrats note that the U.S. attorney is a Republican appointee and argue that his actions are politically motivated.

Even New Jersey voters appear a little scandal-weary. It does not help Menendez that he ran the political machine in Hudson County for years and that the county has long been synonymous with corruption.

The second factor in the Republican nominee's success in making this a contest is Kean himself, the son of a popular former governor who has stayed in the public eye by co-chairing the 9/11 commission. According to polls, voters are well aware of the differences between father and son, but the name Kean represents a solid brand. When the elder Kean was governor, no scandals -- at least no serious ones -- were associated with his administration. The state was prospering, and Kean's famous tourism-boosting television ads were a source of pride for residents. This year, the younger Kean entered the Senate race with high name recognition and low unfavorable ratings. Just as important, he is viewed as ethical.

New Jersey Republicans typically nominate conservatives, but Kean is running as a moderate, putting him more in sync with average voters. He opposes President Bush's call to create a new path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, and he has called on House Speaker Dennis Hastert to resign in the wake of the Mark Foley page scandal. This has helped Kean to remain competitive. He has focused nearly all of his paid media on Menendez, painting him as another corrupt Democratic politician.

Another factor keeping this race in play is that Menendez remains largely unknown to many voters, despite being the incumbent. New Jersey is a notoriously difficult state in which to gain name recognition because it does not have its own media market and is split between the expensive New York City and Philadelphia markets. Before being appointed to the Senate in January, Menendez served seven terms in the House from the 13th District, which is in the northern part of the state. He needs to make himself better known in South Jersey, but the Philadelphia media market is crowded with ads for Pennsylvania's gubernatorial, Senate, and House candidates, making it even harder than usual to break through. This could help Kean, because voters know his name.

For months, polls on the race were all over the map, with the lead bouncing back and forth. Menendez has gone on offense, airing television and radio ads attacking Kean as a rubber stamp for Republicans and for Bush's agenda. Democratic strategists say that the moves are paying off, contending that Kean's negative ratings have increased and that Menendez has begun to consistently run ahead in the polls.

Republican operatives disagree with this assessment, noting that the race remains within the polls' margin of error. They insist that Kean has Menendez on the run and argue that the Democrats' negative ads will wind up hurting their candidate more than Kean.

Both sides' arguments seem to have some merit: By Election Day, voters might find both candidates to be unacceptable. The question then will be whether an unacceptable Democrat trumps an unacceptable Republican in a blue state.

Ohio — Republican Sen. Mike DeWine
If the national political climate is bad for Republicans, the environment in Ohio is downright toxic for the party. GOP Sen. Mike DeWine is suffering because of it. And as if the climate weren't enough of a challenge, DeWine is having difficulty finding a message that resonates with voters.

The Democratic nominee is Rep. Sherrod Brown. Despite having been Ohio's secretary of state before first winning election to Congress in 1992, Brown started this race virtually unknown beyond his suburban Cleveland district. Republican strategists say that this gave DeWine the chance to define Brown before the challenger could define himself. DeWine's first effort, a television ad criticizing Brown's record on national security, was criticized in the news media and by Democrats for including a doctored photo of the World Trade Center. DeWine's campaign appeared to be spooked by the criticism and pulled back, allowing Brown to focus on his own message of linking trade agreements to lost manufacturing jobs and to national security.

Now DeWine looks like an incumbent in search of a message, while Brown attacks him on national security, particularly for missing votes and hearings of the Senate Intelligence Committee. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is also airing ads attacking DeWine. One spot questions the incumbent's integrity by linking him to unpopular Republican Gov. Bob Taft, indicted GOP fundraiser Tom Noe, and convicted Rep. Bob Ney. The spot is a bit of a reach, because DeWine has never been implicated in the legal difficulties of those fellow Republicans.

Polling this month shows DeWine trailing Brown, who is hovering around 50 percent. Given the environment in the state, DeWine needs to be running ahead of Brown by Election Day if he is to overcome the advantage that virtually any Democrat on the ballot in Ohio is likely to have.

It is unclear what DeWine could do to change the trajectory of this race, and he is running out of time.

Pennsylvania — Republican Sen. Rick Santorum
Rick Santorum, one of the most conservative Republican senators, remains the most vulnerable incumbent of either party. There has been no shortage of polling in this Pennsylvania race: Santorum continually hovers around 40 percent, despite his intense advertising. In 10 polls taken since Labor Day, Santorum trailed state Treasurer Bob Casey Jr., the Democratic nominee, by an average of 10 points.

Casey has run an interesting campaign: He has worked hard not to engage Santorum. According to reporters covering the race, Casey's schedule of campaign events is not nearly as full as might be expected for a serious challenger. And he has turned down Santorum's entreaties for more debates. In short, Casey's goal seems to be to avoid making news. Although this has frustrated political observers who had been counting on a bare-knuckled brawl, voters don't seem to care, making it a pretty successful strategy. If there is one thing that Casey understands, it is that this race isn't about him. The more his campaign can keep the attention focused on Santorum, the better off Casey is.

If there is anything that Santorum and his campaign understand, it is that it's hard to draw contrasts with an opponent who refuses to spar with you. This has left Santorum with little else to do but accuse Casey of avoiding the issues and not showing up for work as state treasurer. Given Santorum's own problems, he is not making much progress.

It is very hard to see how Santorum could turn the situation around and win a third term.

Rhode Island — Republican Sen. Lincoln Chafee
Incumbent Lincoln Chafee survived a bruising GOP Rhode Island Senate primary only to face an even tougher challenge in the general election from former state Attorney General Sheldon Whitehouse.

Because Whitehouse did not have a competitive Democratic primary, he was able to use his time leading up to the general election campaign to fill his war chest and boost his profile around the state. More important, he entered the general election unscathed and ready for battle. His first television ad outlined the choices for voters: Stick with a well-liked incumbent who happens to be a member of the unpopular majority party, or vote for a Democratic Senate. A vote for Whitehouse is really a vote for a Democratic takeover of the Senate, while a vote for Chafee is a vote to keep the Republicans in control. The choice appears to have tied Rhode Island voters in knots.

Given Rhode Island's small size and the fact that both candidates are well known, it has been surprising that polling consistently shows a large pool of undecided voters. Between 15 and 20 percent have parked themselves in the "undecided" column as they apparently struggle over whether their fondness for Chafee (and his late father) outweighs their unhappiness with the direction of the country, President Bush, and the Republican-controlled Congress.

Chafee has largely spent his time highlighting his independence, noting in his first ad that both the Left and the Right have attacked him. He has recently started to hit Whitehouse on his record as a U.S. attorney and as state attorney general, particularly his decision not to pursue allegations of corruption at a local hospital. The former head of the hospital was convicted two weeks ago of conspiracy and mail fraud. Meanwhile, both Whitehouse and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee have worked to tie Chafee to Bush and other Republicans.

Rhode Island is among the bluest states, giving Whitehouse an inherent advantage. At the same time, the Chafee name ought to be worth a couple of points for the incumbent. In his past races, Whitehouse has not always been a strong closer. That offers Republicans some hope, but Chafee needs to give voters a reason to support him despite his party affiliation and their unhappiness with the status quo.

Polling since the primary has largely shown a very close contest, with Whitehouse ahead by a few points. This race's final days will be critical, but Chafee is the underdog.

Tennessee — Open: Republican Sen. Bill Frist (retiring)
The Tennessee race to succeed retiring Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist has frustrated Republicans and surprised Democrats. At the start of the cycle, both parties thought that the open-seat contest would favor Republicans.

The GOP nominee is former Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker, who won a three-way primary in early August with seeming ease. As it turns out, his opponents inflicted some damage by casting him as a moderate. Corker, a developer, was also hit with some bad press over a real estate deal that put an access road to a Wal-Mart Super Center on environmentally sensitive land.

Meanwhile, Rep. Harold Ford Jr., the Democratic nominee, did not face primary opposition and hit the ground running once Republicans chose their nominee. With the help of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Ford has hammered Corker on his tenure as mayor, accusing him of ignoring problems with the city's 911 emergency call system and of using his position to enrich himself.

The Corker campaign seemed to founder, acting as if it had counted on the primary being the hardest part of the race. The campaign did not quickly settle on a general election strategy or a line of attack against the young and charismatic Ford. Corker tried to paint Ford as a liberal, but Ford had spent the better part of a year inoculating himself against such charges. Ford's voting record is more moderate than those of many of his Democratic colleagues and considerably more moderate than those of most other members of the Congressional Black Caucus. Ford has also defied being cast as a standard-issue Democrat, at least for the time being. On the stump, he talks about faith and values, and he has aired television ads on both subjects, including one spot that was filmed inside a church.

Republicans appear to have decided on a message that questions Ford's character. They have attacked him for referring to himself as a lawyer even though he has not passed the bar exam. They have contrasted his prep school, Ivy League, Beltway upbringing with Corker's Tennessee roots and up-by-the-bootstraps success in business.

More recently, it was revealed that shortly after Ford secured a seat on the House Financial Services Committee, his father was hired as a lobbyist for Fannie Mae. Ford succeeded his father in the House, and Republicans accuse him of using his committee post to help Fannie Mae. This charge has the potential to damage Ford's candidacy because it highlights one of his biggest vulnerabilities, his family's legal troubles. The Ford family has a long and highly visible political presence in Memphis and has become controversial over the years. As a member of the House, Harold Ford Sr. was the subject of a lengthy federal investigation and was twice tried on charges of bank and mail fraud before eventually being acquitted. The younger Ford's uncle John was forced to resign from the state Senate after being indicted on corruption charges that resulted from a sting. His trial is scheduled for early next year. Although Ford has tried to put the "family issue" to rest, the recent case involving his uncle has the potential to undo all of that work, because it reinforces the idea that he is part of a corrupt family.

This race has been very close since the primary, and recent polls show a statistical dead heat. Corker has made some changes in his campaign, such as hiring a new manager and consultants, and Republican operatives are feeling a bit better about Corker's chances. The real question is whether they made the changes in time to overtake Ford.

Expect the final days of this contest to be very nasty and hard-fought.

Virginia — Republican Sen. George Allen
Virginia is the most recent addition to the list of states where a Republican-held Senate seat is very vulnerable. The reasons seem fairly obvious: Sen. George Allen's general election campaign got off to a terrible start because of his own missteps, beginning with his calling an aide to his challenger "macaca."

Post-macaca, Allen has been like a baseball player in a batting slump. Nothing has seemed to go right for him. His solid performance in a recent debate was the equivalent of finally getting a hit: It wasn't a home run, but it might indicate that the slump is over.

As in several other contests in which a Republican senator is in danger, this race has been about the incumbent, not his Democratic challenger. The Democratic nominee is former Navy Secretary Jim Webb. And although Webb's campaign has been busy drawing attention to Allen's problems, Webb himself has stayed largely on the sidelines.

Just three months ago, Allen was expected to cruise to a second term. Now he's caught in a close race. The most recent polling shows Allen holding a statistically insignificant advantage. With the polls and the increasingly moderate nature of the state's electorate in mind, both national parties are on television attacking their respective opponents.

This will be a nail-biter.