14 Senate Races You Need to Watch

These races will decide whether the Senate follows the House in going Republican this fall.

Democrats are in trouble. They pinned hopes for a comeback on a summer of recovery, but growth has been disappointing and the jobless rate is stubbornly high. We now think Republicans are likely to win control of the House in November and come very close in the Senate.

View the top races as a slide show: 14 Senate Races to Watch) Can Republicans actually seize the Senate as well as the House? It's unlikely. The GOP would need a net gain of 10 seats to win control, a tall order even in what will clearly be a bad year for Democrats. The primary defeat of Rep. Mike Castle in Delaware was a big setback, turning a likely pickup into an almost certain hold for the Democrats.As we see it now: Republicans can pretty much count on picking up three seats -- the two seats being vacated by Democrats Byron Dorgan (North Dakota) and Evan Bayh (Indiana), and the one in Arkansas, where incumbent Blanche Lincoln trails badly. Beyond that, we’ve identified 14 key races for Senate seats -- nine now in Democratic hands -- that will determine how close Republicans get. The GOP has an advantage in nine while Democrats have an edge in three, with two others rated as toss-ups. To take control, the GOP has win 12 of the 14 key contests. California (now Democratic)

Democrat: Third-term incumbent Barbara Boxer

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Republican: Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina

2008 results: Obama 61%, McCain 37%

Jobless rate: 12.3%

Our take: Leans to Democratic holdIn any other year, Boxer wouldn’t be in trouble, but the antiestablishment tide is lapping at the West Coast, and she’s in her toughest race ever. Though Boxer won in 2004 with 57.8% of the vote, her outspoken liberal views don’t resonate as well as they used to, even in California. And Fiorina fits the mold of the outsider better than most.Fiorina also has lots of money -- most of it her own -- to throw into the race, which she’ll have to do soon. As of June 30, Boxer had $11.3 million on hand to Fiorina’s $952,786. In addition to the cash advantage, Boxer is a tireless and effective campaigner, while Fiorina has yet to prove herself on the hustings. The edge has to go to the incumbent, though not by much. In recent polls, Boxer has held a small but steady lead.Colorado (now Democratic)

Democrat: Two-year incumbent Michael Bennet

Republican: Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck

2008 results: Obama 54%, McCain 45%

Jobless rate: 8.2%

Our take: Leans RepublicanThis high profile race in Colorado will be decided on conservative and Tea Party turnout. Making it difficult in the final stretch for Bennet, an appointed senator with little campaign experience under his belt, is an exceptionally well organized Tea Party movement in the state. They’re fired up behind Buck, a firebrand anti-Washington conservative. President Obama’s popularity has dipped in population centers like Denver and Boulder, and that could hurt Bennet if Coloradans see the midterm as a referendum in part on Obama. Bennet needs a strong showing from young voters to win in November. That’s tough to count on in a midterm election. Connecticut (now Democratic)

Democrat: State Atty. Gen. Richard BlumenthalRepublican: Businesswoman Linda McMahon 2008 results: Obama 61%, McCain 38%Jobless rate: 9.1%Our take: Leans Democratic holdDemocrats had every reason to believe this seat was safe after unpopular incumbent Chris Dodd decided to retire and Blumenthal, the longtime attorney general stepped in. This is a very Democratic state, with strong liberal traditions, and Republicans nominated a candidate who at first blush had far more downsides than up. McMahon, the former CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment, who has been criticized for laying off workers while taking a big bonus and for not providing health care coverage.But Blumenthal ran into trouble when he had to admit he hadn’t been completely honest in citing his military service (he implied he was in Vietnam but wasn’t), and, for all his experience on the hustings, he’s proved a weak and wooden campaigner. The antiestablishment mood of the public isn’t helping him, either. Blumenthal still rates a slight edge, but October will be a crucial month.Florida (now Republican)

Democrat: U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek

Republican: Former State House Speaker Marco Rubio

Independent: Gov. Charlie Crist

2008 results: Obama 51%, McCain 48%

Jobless rate: 11.7%

Our take: Leans Republican holdRubio became the darling of national conservative groups, and the party establishment began flocking to his side last spring, but since Crist dropped out of the GOP primary and decided to run as an independent, Rubio has moved away from angry rhetoric to offer more concrete policy positions, adding nuance to his positions on hot-button social issues such as immigration. Meek, the son of longtime U.S. Rep. Carrie Meek, won the Democratic primary easily over Jeff Greene, a businessman who poured millions of his own money into the campaign, but Meek has yet to catch on with independents.Crist scored well in most polls through the summer, but then fell back as both Rubio and Meek attacked him. He’s still betting that Floridians are tired of the partisan warfare and want someone who will be able to work for compromises in the Senate, but there’s little sign of that. Rubio holds a double-digit lead in most polls.Illinois (now Democratic)

Democrat: State Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias

Republican: Five-term U.S. Rep. Mark Kirk

2008 results: Obama 62%, McCain 37%

Jobless rate: 10.1%

Our take: Leans to Republican takeoverThis is Obama’s old Senate seat, a fact that immediately raises the stakes and makes the contest a symbol of the entire battle for Senate control. Kirk and Giannoulias are both running tough -- some would say nasty -- negative campaigns, tearing each other down at every opportunity. And each candidate is giving the other plenty to work with.Giannoulias survived a bitter primary in which opponents spent millions to make sure voters knew that the bank his family owns was taken over by federal regulators, costing the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation almost $400 million. What made that so difficult for Giannoulias was that he had highlighted his experience with the bank when he ran for state treasurer in 2006.Kirk, a moderate, escaped a serious primary challenge by shifting his stance to the right, but that could hurt him in the general election. Some questionable claims he made about his career in the Navy also could come back to haunt him.Most recent polls show Kirk slightly ahead, but this one’s not over yet.Kentucky (now Republican)

Democrat: State Att. Gen. Jack Conway

Republican: Ophtalmologist Rand Paul

2008 results: McCain 58%, Obama 41%

Jobless rate: 9.9%

Our take: Leans to Republican hold

When Rand Paul, a Tea Party-backed candidate and son of Texas Rep. Ron Paul, beat the GOP establishment-backed candidate in the primary, Democratic chances of taking the seat of retiring Republican Jim Bunning rose significantly. But Kentucky is still GOP territory, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, the dean of Kentucky politics, will do what he can to avoid a loss in his own backyard.

Paul, though, isn’t making it easy. While he’s tapped into simmering voter anger at the governing establishment in Washington, he’s also made many voters nervous with his legal critique of the Civil Rights Act and his defense of BP in the oil spill. But Conway’s support of the health care law and the stimulus will work against him with many Kentucky voters. Missouri (now Republican)

Democrat: Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan

Republican: Seven-term U.S. Rep. Roy Blunt

2008 results: McCain 49.4% , Obama 49.3%

Jobless rate: 9.2%

Our take: Likely Republican holdMissouri was split almost evenly in the 2008 presidential race, and 2010 may also be close. Blunt has held a consistent lead in the polls, mostly by convincing voters that Carnahan would be a rubberstamp for Obama’s policies. But as one of the GOP’s former top leaders in the House, Blunt’s ties to the establishment are also a weak spot, and his vote for TARP, the Troubled Asset Relief Program, in 2008 is weighing him down. Carnahan has been running TV ads attacking him for it.Both candidates have long political bloodlines in the state. Carnahan’s father, Mel Carnahan, was finishing a second term as governor in 2000 when he died in a plane crash while campaigning to unseat Republican Senate incumbent John Ashcroft. Voters elected him posthumously, and his wife, Jean Carnahan, was appointed to the seat, only to lose a close special election in 2002. Russ Carnahan, Robin’s brother, is a three term congressman.Blunt, meanwhile, is the father of Matt Blunt, who was elected governor in 2004 but struggled with low job approval ratings and decided not to seek a second term in the 2008 election. Nevada (now Democratic)

Democrat: Four-term incumbent Harry Reid

Republican: Former state Assemblywoman Sharron Angle

2008 results: Obama 55%, McCain 43%

Jobless rate: 14.3%

Our take: Toss-upSix months ago, it looked like Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was roadkill, with little or no chance of winning reelection to a fifth term. But when Republicans nominated Tea Party favorite Sharron Angle, a former state assemblywoman, they gave Reid a chance to rise from the dead. The 24-year Senate veteran remains deeply unpopular in his home state, where unemployment is well above the national average and where Obama initiatives such as the health care law have not gone over well. But Angle’s controversial statements calling for a phaseout of Social Security, abolishment of several Cabinet agencies as well as denouncing the BP compensation fund as a slush fund have turned off many voters. And Reid has the money and knife-wielding campaign style to make the most of her missteps. Polls have the two running neck and neck, with voters making it clear they don’t like either candidate. A lot of money is being poured into advertising, most of it negative, and the only question is which candidate will be able to duck more. This one is too hard to call.New Hampshire (now Republican)

Democrat: U.S. Rep. Paul Hodes

Republican: Former State Att. Gen. Kelly Ayotte (Likely)

2008 results: Obama 55%, McCain 44%

Jobless rate: 5.8%

Our take: Leans RepublicanAyotte won a tough and nasty primary against a Tea Party candidate by fewer than 2,000 votes but didn’t let that slow her down. Backed by Sarah Palin and other conservatives, she has plenty of money and is proving to be a strong campaigner. She leads by six to nine percentage points in most recent polls. Hodes, a two-term congressman, had no serious primary opposition, which leaves him with a full campaign chest for the dash to November as he tries to capture the seat of retiring Sen. Judd Gregg. New Hampshire has trended Democratic in recent elections as the influx of people from Massachusetts has grown. But there is much dissatisfaction with the latest goings-on in Washington, and that is weighing Hodes down.Pennsylvania (now Democratic)

Democrat: Two-term U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak

Republican: Former U.S. Rep. Pat Toomey

2008 results: Obama 55%, McCain 44%

Jobless rate: 9.3%

Our take: Leans RepublicanThis race will tighten in the homestretch with a blitz of advertising and grass roots work and an infusion of resources from the national parties. Still, Republicans have a very good shot of netting a Senate gain. Sestak’s rise to become the Democratic nominee meant ousting incumbent Sen. Arlen Specter, a state legend for decades who switched parties in 2009. Specter had the backing of President Obama and the national party, which let Sestak claim the outsider’s mantle, making inroads with both liberal Democrats and independents. Still, he has to overcome the state’s economic anxieties, general opposition to the health care law by many of the state’s large elderly population and the growing antiestablishment mood that has gripped so many rural areas in particular.To win statewide, Sestak needs a strong showing in the population-dense Philadelphia suburbs. While Democrats run well in Philadelphia and Pittsburg, much of the rest of the state leans decidedly Republican. Sestak is playing a fear card with older voters, warning that Toomey would privatize Social Security. Toomey, a champion of fiscal conservatives, is pushing an agenda of lower spending, more tax cuts and less government regulation. He’s largely steering clear of social wedge issues, including abortion and gay marriage. He’s struggling some with his attempt to appear a “man-of-the-people” candidate. Toomey’s résumé includes Wall Street banker and big business lobbyist, making it hard for him to go that route. That may be irrelevant in the end. If the antiestablishment wave hits Pennsylvania, Toomey will ride it to victory.Washington (now Democratic)

Democrat: Three-term incumbent Patty Murray

Republican: Former state Sen. Dino Rossi

2008 results: Obama 58%, McCain 40%

Jobless rate: 8.9%

Our take: Leans Democratic holdMurray won reelection easily in 1998 and 2004, and early this year, many pundits put her in the safe category. But she faces her toughest opponent in 18 years in Rossi, who lost the 2004 governor’s race to Democrat Christine Gregoire by a razor-thin margin and is well known throughout the state. The two candidates couldn’t differ more on issues. While Murray has supported almost all of Obama’s agenda, Rossi wants to repeal health care and financial reform legislation, stop stimulus grants and use the money to pay down the debt. He says he would have voted against Supreme Court nominees Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. Washington, once a bellwether swing state, has lately moved solidly into the Democratic fold, and if recent polls are a guide, that will keep Murray in office.West Virginia (now Democratic)

Democrat: Gov. Joe Manchin

Republican: Businessman John Raese

2008 results: McCain 56%, Obama 43%

Jobless rate: 8.8%

Our take: Toss-upWhen Sen. Robert Byrd, the longest serving senator in history, died earlier this year, it appeared that an election wouldn’t be held until 2012, but the legislature rebelled at the idea of a two-and- a- half-year appointment and set the balloting for Nov. 2. Manchin, who is very popular in the state, started as an odds-on favorite against Raese, who lost two earlier Senate elections -- one to Jay Rockefeller in 1994 and one to Byrd in 2006. But Manchin has one big problem that is pulling him down -- Barack Obama. The president is extremely unpopular in the state, and Raese has made inroads by arguing that Manchin would be another vote for Obama’s policies. The race has tightened to a dead heat.Washington (now Democratic)

Democrat: Incumbent Russ Feingold

Republican: Businessman Ron Johnson (Likely)

2008 results: Obama 56%, McCain 42%

Jobless rate: 7.8%

Our take: Leans RepublicanRepublicans would treasure a win in Wisconsin, and they’re close to getting it. Feingold, an 18-year veteran has a history of coming from behind and running very well in the final laps, but his record as a reliable liberal vote is a harder sell this year to frustrated independents and motivated conservative voters. In past tight races, Feingold often ended the campaign with a blitz of light-hearted commercials poking fun at Washington politics. That may not work this time, and in a year of political outsiders, Feingold is up against the genuine article. Johnson, owner of Pacur Inc., an Oshkosh-based plastics company, is a political novice who entered the race after the health care law passed, calling it an assault on personal freedom and a threat to the country because of its potential effect on the national debt. He’s proving adept at fund-raising and winning the support of conservatives and Tea Party activists, who propelled him to the nomination. National Republican campaign offices and out-of-state conservative PACs are funneling resources his way in the final weeks. Johnson will do especially well in the many rural farming areas of the state. A depressed Democratic turnout, especially in hub cities like Milwaukee and Green Bay, would clear the way for a Johnson victory.

Mark Willen
Senior Political Editor, The Kiplinger Letter