Live Blog Preview: 9 Key U.S. Senate Races; Final Polls

Tonight we’ll be live blogging presidential results, U.S. Senate races, hotly contested House seats in California, propositions, select State Assembly results, and local contests around the Bay Area. Here’s a look at some races that could tip the balance between Democrats and Republicans in the Senate. Also see our presidential race live blog preview.

Senate in session, 1999. (CSPAN)

The Democrats currently hold a 53-47 advantage in the U.S. Senate, and conventional wisdom is they are going to maintain their majority after today’s election. And by conventional wisdom I mean that New York Times polling whiz Nate Silver (whom some people put more stock in than the metal silver, at this point), says there’s a 95.3 percent chance of that happening. On the other hand he also prognosticates the final Senate tally at 52.5 Dems, 47.5 GOP.  What’s that supposed to mean? Is it because Barbara Boxer’s 4’11″?

(Some Bay Area liberals, who have been complaining about Boxer’s centrist ways for years, might claim he’s talking about Dianne Feinstein — who is expected to coast to victory, by the way.)

Perhaps Silver’s referring to a presumed win by Angus King, the Maine independent, currently leading both his Democratic and Republican rivals in the polls. Maine is one of the seats in play. Here’s a look at all of the races that could have a significant influence on which party controls the Senate.

Connecticut

Linda McMahon (R) vs. Christopher Murphy (D)

No incumbent

Joe Lieberman, whom Jon Stewart was so fond of impersonating as Droopy Dog, is retiring. Lieberman got primaried out of the Democratic nomination by party voters in 2006 but had the last laugh by winning the general election as an independent. He still caucuses with the Dems, however.

Republican Linda McMahon amassed a fortune with her husband Vince by building World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) into a blockbuster brand. The next logical step, apparently, was to attempt to become a U.S. Senator. This is her second go at the job; she lost another bid in 2010 to Democrat Richard Blumenthal. McMahon has now spent close to $100 million in three years on the two races, a near Meg Whitman-level plunking down.

Connecticut’s a true-blue state where Democrats have a 16-point registration advantage. McMahon is trying to win this cage match by drawing some of those folks into her camp. From AP:

Linda McMahon, the Republican candidate in Connecticut’s close Senate race, is leaving campaign literature on Democrats’ doors, urging them to vote for both Democratic President Barack Obama and McMahon on the independent line, even though McMahon has endorsed Republican Mitt Romney for president.

The flyers come on the heels of a McMahon TV ad that targeted voters splitting their ticket but didn’t directly urge people to support Obama.

The new literature, which features pictures of Obama and McMahon, reads: ‘‘President Barack Obama and Linda McMahon will fight for us. Vote Barack Obama for president and vote Linda McMahon for U.S. Senate on the Independent Line.’’

And she’s been holding her own, too. From Reuters, Oct 20:

Even Democrats say they have been impressed by how McMahon has improved as a candidate. Some express dismay at what they say was Murphy’s failure to anticipate some of the attacks McMahon has leveled against him.

“One of the apparent failures in the Murphy campaign was the neglect of doing opposition research on himself,” said Ronald Schurin, a professor at the University of Connecticut and a Democrat. As McMahon hurled attacks at him – for his poor attendance at congressional committee hearings, and for failing to make timely rent and mortgage payments years ago – Murphy has seemed “unprepared to respond quickly”, Schurin said.

Polls show Murphy in the lead.

Maine

Angus King (I) vs Cynthia Dill (D) vs Charlie Summers (R)

No incumbent

Olympia Snowe, part of a fast-dying breed of GOP moderates, has had enough with the “atmosphere of polarization” around Washington, as she put it, and is retiring. Former Gov. Angus King is leading in the polls. But get this… From AP:

Add this to your set of Election Day unknowns: Control of the United States Senate could conceivably come down to an independent candidate from Maine who has resolutely refused to say which party he’d side with if voters send him to Washington.

While it’s commonly accepted that Angus King, a former Democrat who supports President Barack Obama, would align with Democrats, he has refused to say. That’s generated suspense and, in theory, could translate to power for King if the Senate ends up close to a 50/50 split. If one party wins a decisive majority, King could find himself with less leverage than he hoped.

Massachussetts

Scott Brown (R) vs. Elizabeth Warren (D)

Brown is incumbent

Scott Brown is the early Tea Party darling who shocked Democrats by getting a hold of Ted Kennedy’s seat in a special election after Kennedy died. Brown’s surprise election threw the Democrats’ plan for passing the health care bill into disarray before they got a second wind and managed to push it through. The Dems at the time needed a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, and Brown provided the extra vote Republicans needed to block cloture.

Harvard Law professor Elizabeth Warren is a darling of the left and a thorn in the side to the financial industry. After the 2008 financial crisis, she served as chair of a congressional oversight panel in charge of the TARP bailout and became a familiar presence on TV as a critic of big banks. After the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill created a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Warren became a leading candidate to head it up, but by then she’d become anathema to Republicans and had to settle for serving as a special advisor on its set-up.

Warren’s candidacy ran into trouble after it was revealed she had claimed Native American lineage at Harvard Law. From the Boston Herald, Apr. 27:

Elizabeth Warren’s avowed Native American heritage — which the candidate rarely if ever discusses on the campaign trail — was once touted by embattled Harvard Law School officials who cited her claim as proof of their faculty’s diversity.

Warren’s claim…put the candidate in an awkward position as campaign aides last night scrambled but failed to produce documents proving her family lineage. Aides said the tales of Warren’s Cherokee and Delaware tribe ancestors have been passed down through family lore.

“Like most Americans, Elizabeth learned of her heritage through conversations with her grandparents, her parents, and her aunts and uncles,” said Warren’s strategist Kyle Sullivan.

Warren defended her claim and later responded in an ad, saying, “I never asked for or never got any benefit because of my heritage. The people who hired me have all said they didn’t even know about it.”

Polls show a tight race.

Missouri

Claire McCaskill (D) vs. Todd Akin (R)

McCaskill is incumbent

McCaskill was once considered the Democratic incumbent most-likely-to-be-able-to-spend-more-time-with-her-family after the election. But that was before her opponent, Todd Akin, said the following during a TV interview in response to a question about why he didn’t support the right to an abortion in the case of rape:

Well you know, people always want to try to make that as one of those things, well how do you, how do you slice this particularly tough sort of ethical question. First of all, from what I understand from doctors, that’s really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.

But let’s assume that maybe that didn’t work or something. I think there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be on the rapist and not attacking the child.

Here’s the video proof that this statement was actually made in public by a candidate who was at the time the frontrunner:

Republicans desperately tried to get Akin to resign from the race, and the party withdrew its support. But Akin said no dice, and after losing that particular game of political chicken, the Republican Senatorial Committee backed him again.

Montana

Jon Tester (D) vs. Denny Reberg (R)

Tester is the incumbent

Democrat Tester beat Republican incumbent Conrad Burns in 2006, helping Democrats retake control of the Senate. From an article in Mother Jones called “Montana’s Weird and Wild Senate Race“:

Six years after knocking off Republican incumbent Conrad Burns, Tester, once viewed as the populist Western Democrat of the future, is locked in one of the most closely watched races in the country. His showdown with GOP Rep. Denny Rehberg, the state’s lone congressman and winner of six statewide elections, is among a handful that will determine control of the Senate. With outside groups like Karl Rove’s American Crossroads set to flood the airwaves with millions of dollars of attack ads, it will almost certainly be the most expensive race in Montana history. By mid-July, $6.5 million had already been spent on the race, close to half the 2006 total, with the biggest expenditures yet to come….

Nevada

Dean Heller (R) vs. Shelley Berkley (D)

Heller is incumbent.

From USA Today over the weekend:

Nevada Senate race hinges on presidential vote, Latinos

With a barrage of attack ads that confront TV viewers around the clock, rookie Republican Sen. Dean Heller is trying to hold his seat against a similarly negative video assault from his challenger in a race that has put Nevada at the center of the struggle over Senate control.

Heller, 52, appointed to the seat when his GOP predecessor resigned after an affair and an ethics investigation, has relentlessly attacked Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley as an ethics-challenged tool of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as she tries to move up to the Senate after seven terms as a congresswoman.

Berkley, 61, dismisses the ethics charges as tame stuff by Las Vegas’ Sin City standards. She is relying on President Obama’s power to turn out Democrats, especially Latino voters, to lift her in this fast-growing but economically hard-hit state. She ties Heller to GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney and charges he would “gut” education and end Medicare’s guarantee of health care for seniors. Full article

Polls show Heller in the lead.

North Dakota

Heidi Heitkamp (D) vs. Rick Berg (R)

No incumbent

Democratic Senator Kent Conrad is retiring, leaving these two members of the House of Representatives to duke it out. From Slate earlier this week:

Our Next Long National Nightmare: A North Dakota Recount

Both Democrats and Republicans are busy preparing to wake up Wednesday having to wage legal fights in both North Dakota and Montana, which share small electorates and very close Senate races. North Dakota has the prospect of being a much more open-ended mess if lawyers for candidates Rick Berg and Heidi Heitkamp start challenging the eligibility of those who cast ballots: The state is the only one with no voter registration.

Any North Dakotan who arrives at a polling place (or early-vote location) with an ID card showing him or her to be over 18 years old and a resident of the local precinct is handed a ballot approved by a judge of elections. Anyone who does not have ID, or one with a local address on it—or is challenged by an election monitor—can complete an affidavit ballot attesting to his or her eligibility. While the state retains a central file of who has participated in past elections, voters’ IDs are not checked against it or any other external data source.

But these affidavit ballots are not segregated, as provisional ballots are elsewhere. Like standard ballots, they are filled out by hand and then run through an optical scanner on the spot, according to Cass County auditor Mike Montplaisir, and counted immediately. Even though recounts are automatically triggered when a North Dakota election is determined by a margin of less than one-half of 1 percent—or within 2 percent if requested by the losing candidate—they have never in the past involved questions of individual eligibility…

Imagine Heitkamp v. Berg having all of the legal machinations of the epic eight-month Minnesota recount that eventually sent Al Franken to the Senate…

Oy.

Virginia

Timothy Kaine (D) vs. George Allen (R)

No incumbent.

Democratic Senator Jim Webb is retiring. Webb beat Allen, who is now trying to regain his seat, in 2006, after Allen famously called a Webb campaign worker who was videotaping Allen “macaca,” a racial slur “used in some European cultures,” according to Wikipedia. Rather than being impressed with this applied use of arcane knowledge, Virginia voters abandoned Allen, who once had presidential aspirations.

Both Allen and Kaine are former Virginia governors. Polls show Kaine with a small lead.

Wisconsin

Tommy Thompson (R) vs. Tammy Baldwin (D)

No incumbent.

Yet another Democratic Senator, Herb Kohl, is retiring. Thompson is a well-known former governor, Baldwin a member of the House of Representatives.

From the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Craig Gilbert, Oct 28:

The fierce election fight between Tommy Thompson and Tammy Baldwin may be destined to go down as one of the most negative US Senate races in recent political history.

In a 30-day period ending Friday, 99% of the ads aired on broadcast television were negative, the highest percentage of any Senate contest in the nation, according to data provided by Kantar Media CMAG, which tracks campaign advertising.

“In one of the most phenomenally negative years ever, the Wisconsin Senate race stands out this fall as perhaps the most negative race in the entire country,” says political scientist Ken Goldstein, who heads CMAG.

The polls show a tight race.