Nearly as important as the fiercely fought battle for the White House are the dozen or so contests that will determine control of the U.S. Senate.
Democrats currently maintain a narrow 53-47 majority in the Senate (that includes the votes of two independents who routinely caucus with the left). For much of 2012, the conventional wisdom was that the GOP, which only needed to flip four seats (or three if Mitt Romney wins, since a 50-50 Senate chamber is controlled by the president’s party), had a great chance of retaking the Senate. Democrats were defending some two dozen seats to the GOP’s 10. But after Republicans nominated several far-right candidates (we’re looking at you Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock), most analysts have shifted their predictions, and believe Democrats will keep the Senate. But of course, anything could happen.
Here’s a breakdown of the biggest Senate races in the country:
Seat currently held by: Sen. Joe Lieberman (I), who is retiring
Candidates: Rep. Chris Murphy (D) and Linda McMahon (R)
Real Clear Politics poll average: Murphy: 48.6%, McMahon: 43.6%
Most recent poll: Murphy:52%, McMahon:43% (PPP)
What you need to know: McMahon, a former wrestling executive who lost her bid for the Senate in 2010, has poured a ton of her own money into the campaign—nearly $42 million. She spent about $50 million in 2010. McMahon has been trying to distance herself from Mitt Romney in this reliably blue state, and is trying to cast Murphy as just another Washington insider. McMahon has been campaigning with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, while Murphy a three-term congressman, has been stumping with former President Bill Clinton.
Seat currently held by: Sen. Richard Lugar (R), who lost in the primary
Candidates: Richard Mourdock (R) and Joe Donnelly (D)
Real Clear Politics poll average: n/a
Most recent poll: Donnelly:47%, Mourdock:36% (HoweyDePauw University)
What you need to know: The moderate Lugar was toppled by the Tea Party-backed Mourdock, who has since come under fire for suggesting that pregnancies, even in cases of rape, are “something that God intended to happen.” Several GOPers distanced themselves from Mourdock. While polls showed the strict social conservative tied before the controversial remarks, new surveys show Donnelly way out in front.
Seat currently held by: Sen. Olympia Snowe (R), who is retiring
Candidates: Charlie Summers (R), Cynthia Dill (D) and Angus King (I)
Real Clear Politics poll average: Dill:12.3%, Summers:31.5%, King: 48.5%
Most recent poll: Dill:11%, Summers:33%, King:49% (Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram)
What you need to know: Snowe, one of the Senate’s last moderate Republicans, decided to not run for re-election, giving the Dems a prime opportunity to pick up a seat. The race was thrown into disarray, however, when former Gov. King (who’s in the lead) decided to run as an independent. King is a wildcard because he’s refusing to say which way he’ll lean if he’s elected, though most politicos expect him to side with the Dems.
Seat currently held by: Sen. Scott Brown (R)
Opponent: Elizabeth Warren (D)
Real Clear Politics poll average: Warren: 50.8%, Brown: 46.4%
Most recent poll: Warren:52%, Brown:46% (PPP)
What you need to know: Brown won the late Sen. Ted Kennedy’s seat in an upset in 2010, which resulted in Democrats losing their filibuster-proof Senate supermajority. Warren, a Harvard law professor, rose to national prominence over the fight for financial reform, and was heavily courted by Dems to join the race. The left had been seeking a major challenger to recapture the seat held for nearly 46 years by Kennedy. Brown has been trying to cast himself as a moderate in the reliably blue state, and has been heavily criticized for his personal attacks on Warren and her disputed Native American ancestry.
Seat currently held by: Sen. Claire McCaskill (D)
Opponent: Rep. Todd Akin (R)
Real Clear Politics poll average: McCaskill: 47.8%, Akin: 42.8%
Most recent poll: McCaskill:48%, Akin: 44% (PPP)
What you need to know: Akin’s campaign was thrown into turmoil in August when he notoriously (and, of course, inaccurately) declared that victims of “legitimate rape” can’t get pregnant because “the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” His race against McCaskill–once seen as a prime pickup opportunity for the GOP–was suddenly all but conceded to the Democrats. But Akin has been picking up steam in the last week. He and his GOP supporters are pumping $1.75 million into statewide ads, on par with the $2 million McCaskill is spending.
Seat currently held by: Sen. Jon Tester (D)
Candidates: Rep. Danny Rehberg (R)
Real Clear Politics poll average: Tester:46.3%, Rehberg:46.7%
Most recent poll: Tester: 45% Rehberg: 49% (Mason-Dixon poll)
What you need to know: This race is close. Rehberg has made big headway in recent weeks, and Republicans see the Montana seat as a must win if they want the Senate majority. Tester won his seat by just one percent in 2006. A lot of money has been poured into the race. The candidates, in total, have raised and spent about $20 million, and outside groups on both sides are said to have spent at least $10 million.
Seat currently held by: Sen. Ben Nelson (D), who is retiring
Candidates: Bob Kerrey (D) and State Sen. Deb Fischer (R)
Real Clear Politics poll average: n/a
Most recent poll: Kerrey:45% Fischer: 48% (World-Herald)
What you need to know: Nelson announced that he was retiring, leaving a prime opportunity for Republicans in the reliably conservative state. Fischer had long been considered to have the upper hand, but the polls have been narrowing in recent weeks. Kerrey, a former Nebraska senator and governor, recently picked up a big cross-party endorsement from senator and Republican Chuck Hagel.
Seat currently held by: Sen. Dean Heller (R)
Opponent: Rep. Shelley Berkley (D)
Real Clear Politics poll average: Berkley:43.5%, Heller:47%
Most recent poll: Berkley:40%, Heller:46% (Las Vegas Review-Journal/8NewsNow)
What you need to know: Heller was appointed to the Senate two years ago, after Republican Sen. John Ensign stepped down amid a sex and lobbying probe. Nevada was thought to be a strong Democratic pickup this year, but Berkley is in trouble too, having faced a congressional ethics investigation over advocacy for a kidney clinic that benefited her husband. Still, the race is very close.
Seat currently held by: Sen. Kent Conrad (D), who is retiring
Candidates: Heidi Heitkamp (D) and Rep. Rick Berg (R)
Real Clear Politics poll average: Heitkamp:43.3%, Berg:49%
Most recent poll: Heitkamp:45%, Berg:47% (Mason-Dixon poll)
What you need to know: Heitkamp, a former North Dakota attorney general, is in a tight race with freshman Rep. Berg. The GOP initially thought they would easily win the seat, but polls show the race is close. Heitkamp is running her sixth statewide campaign and has been stumping with former President Bill Clinton. The race came under scrutiny after state Dems accused Berg of not properly paying for the use of a private plane that he partially owns.
Seat currently held by: Sen. Jim Webb (D), who is retiring
Opponents: Tim Kaine (D) and George Allen (R)
Real Clear Politics poll average: Kaine:48%, Allen: 47.2%
Most recent poll: Kaine:51%, Allen:44% (Washington Post)
What you need to know: Kaine, a former governor and ex-chairman of the Democratic National Committee, is up against another former governor. Republicans believe that capturing the seat is critical if they want to control the Senate. Both men have raised a total of $30 million combined. In addition, more than $40 million has been pumped into the race by outside groups, the most of any non-presidential race in the U.S. Kaine has strong support among women voters while Allen has strong backing among seniors and whites.
Seat currently held by: Sen. Herb Kohl (D), who is retiring
Candidates: Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D) and Tommy Thompson (R)
Real Clear Politics poll average: Baldwin:48.6%, Thompson:46.4%
Most recent poll: Baldwin: 51%, Thompson:48% (PPP)
What you need to know: Baldwin has appeared several times with Obama, who is also trying to lock up the battleground state. Meanwhile, Romney and Thompson have appeared together. Thompson served four terms as governor in addition to being the Health and Human Services Secretary under George W. Bush. Baldwin was elected to the House in 1998, and would be the first openly lesbian member of the Senate. The race, essentially tied, has become heated over the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Thompson ran an ad citing a 2006 vote by Baldwin against honoring victims of the attacks. Baldwin, who called the ad misleading, says she voted against the legislation because it included language praising the controversial Patriot Act.