GOP Hopes for Senate Control Face Hurdles

By Adam Nagourney, New York Times - February 17, 2010

WASHINGTON — The retirement of Senator Evan Bayh of Indiana has raised Republicans’ hopes of capturing a significant number of Democratic Senate seats in November. Some Republicans and analysts are even suggesting that the party might take control of the Senate.

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In theory, at least, that is possible, given the number of Democratic retirements, soaring public disillusionment with Congress and an unemployment rate that seems unlikely to diminish appreciably before November.

But a review of the political map suggests how daunting the Republican task would be, requiring both a continuing barrage of bad luck for Democrats and nothing short of a flawless performance by the Republican Party.

“As the map stands now, if we run the table of competitive races, we can get there,” said Rob Jesmer, the executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “We hope to get a few more races in play over the next couple months, which would give us some margin for error.”

Democrats control the Senate 59 to 41. Because Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. casts the tie-breaking vote if the Senate is split 50-50, Republicans would need to pick up 10 seats to gain control.

For argument’s sake, factor in the possibility that Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, a Connecticut independent whom Democrats have counted as one of their own, switches his party affiliation if Republicans are on the verge of taking control, a move that Democrats do not rule out.

Then Republicans would have to win every one of the eight Democratic-held seats viewed as vulnerable — in Arkansas, Colorado, Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, Nevada, North Dakota and Pennsylvania.

Republicans can probably put North Dakota in the bank today, after Senator Byron L. Dorgan, a Democrat, decided not to seek re-election. Republicans also appear to be in strong shape in Delaware, where Mr. Biden’s son Joseph R. Biden III, known as Beau, decided not to run, yielding the stage to Representative Michael N. Castle.

Mr. Bayh’s retirement makes Republicans justifiably comfortable about their prospects of taking back a state that tilts Republican.

An open seat in Illinois means Republicans have a good shot at winning the Senate seat once held by President Obama. In Colorado, where Ken Salazar gave up his Senate seat to become interior secretary, Republicans are hopeful about toppling the appointed senator, Michael Bennet.

Republicans say they have a strong chance of winning in Pennsylvania, where Senator Arlen Specter, who changed his party registration to become a Democrat, is wheezing as he faces a strong primary challenge from the left. And two Democratic senators are clearly in trouble: Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas and the majority leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, though a self-identified Tea Party candidate could divide the anti-Reid vote.

If Republicans win all those races, that would put them one seat away from control. But they are not only playing offense. There are seven open seats that were held by Republicans, including four that appear highly competitive: in Kentucky, Missouri, New Hampshire and Ohio.

“We feel we’re going to pick up states on their side of the ledger, and that is going to make it harder for them,” said J. B. Poersch, executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

In Kentucky, the Republicans’ prospects in the general election have been threatened by a primary battle. Rand Paul, who has the support of the Tea Party, is running strong against Trey Grayson, the secretary of state; Republicans think Mr. Paul could easily win a Republican primary but stumble in a general election.

In Missouri, Democrats said the Republican candidate — Roy Blunt, a former Republican whip in Congress — would have trouble overcoming his past association with President George W. Bush. Republicans are less worried, pointing out that Senator John McCain of Arizona, the party’s presidential nominee in 2008, squeaked out a victory in Missouri over Mr. Obama.

Assuming that Republicans held on to all seven of the open seats and picked up all eight held by vulnerable Democrats, they would still need to pick up one Democratic seat in decidedly less competitive races in California, Connecticut, New York, Washington and Wisconsin.

But the old rule of politics is you can’t beat somebody with nobody. And so far, Republicans are struggling to find top-tier candidates in New York, Washington and Wisconsin.

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