GOP Recasts Path to Senate Majority -- Without Missouri

GOP Recasts Path to Senate Majority -- Without Missouri

By Caitlin Huey-Burns - August 23, 2012

Pressing on with his Senate bid against the broader GOP's wishes, Missouri Republican Todd Akin introduced a new campaign theme Wednesday: "Let the people decide; not party bosses." Of course, such is the premise of all elections. But the "party bosses" in this case are looking at a much bigger picture than Akin is, and facing a critical decision of their own: How to win control of the upper chamber if Missouri stays in the Democratic column?

Republicans need to gain four seats in November -- three if Mitt Romney wins the presidency and Paul Ryan subsequently holds any tie-breaking votes -- to earn a majority in the U.S. Senate. Before Akin told a local television show on Sunday that “legitimate rape” usually doesn’t cause pregnancy, the Show-Me State had long been considered the easiest GOP pickup. (As one Republican strategist described it, “Akin could have sat on his front porch and won.”)

Amid the outcry over the six-term congressman’s remarks, the National Republican Senatorial Committee characterized the stakes Tuesday in a public message. “By staying in this race, Congressman Akin is putting at great risk many of the issues that he and others in the Republican Party are fighting for, including the repeal of ObamaCare,” spokesman Brian Walsh said in a statement. The health care law is a major issue in congressional campaigns across the country; having majorities in both chambers of Congress would give Republicans a better chance to revoke the law.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell twisted the knife. “When the future of our country is at stake, sorry is not sufficient,” he said in a statement, referring to the Missouri lawmaker’s apology for his incendiary comment. Republicans had advised their candidates to quickly distance themselves from Akin and denounce his remarks, as Democrats would no doubt try to tie their opponents to the controversy.

Akin’s refusal to leave the race -- for now -- has thrown a monkey wrench into the GOP’s battle plans for the Senate, and the party is recasting its possible pathways to the majority. (Akin has until Sept. 25 to remove his name from the ballot. The NRSC has pledged to rescind its planned $5 million expenditure in Missouri if Akin remains in the contest, but is keeping the reservation in case Akin leaves and a state committee then nominates a new candidate.)

While Akin is causing Senate Republicans headaches, other races had started to look brighter for them in recent weeks -- namely Wisconsin’s, where former Gov. Tommy Thompson prevailed in a four-way primary earlier this month.

The GOP’s original plan to regain Senate control hinged on picking up seats in Montana, North Dakota, Nebraska and Missouri, states Mitt Romney is expected to win and where the Democratic Senate candidates are trailing in the polls. Without Missouri, party strategists say, there will be an enhanced focus on, and heavier investments in, open-seat races in Wisconsin and New Mexico, as well as Democrat Bill Nelson’s seat in Florida.

A Marquette Law School poll released Wednesday shows the popular Thompson, who served four terms as governor, leading Rep. Tammy Baldwin by nine points. Republicans believe native son Paul Ryan’s presence on the presidential ticket will give the Senate candidate a further boost.

Democratic Rep. Martin Heinrich leads former Rep. Heather Wilson in New Mexico by 7.7 points, according to the RealClearPolitics Average.  President Obama faces favorable odds there, which could be an additional boon to Heinrich. But Wilson is running a strong campaign, and Republicans invested money on her behalf early in the contest. They figure Wilson could run ahead of Romney in the state, and that having a woman on the ticket might narrow the gender gap in this race.

In Florida, Nelson is running 6.0 percentage points ahead of Rep. Connie Mack in a state that is highly competitive on the presidential level. Florida has one of the most expensive media markets in the country, so party investments here will have to be large in order to make progress. Not putting money in Missouri, though, would open up significant resources for the Sunshine State.

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Caitlin Huey-Burns is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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