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Some Senate Candidates Race Toward Photo-Finish Elections in Fight for Majority

October 24, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
The outcome in extremely tight senate races in states like Connecticut, Arizona, Indiana and North Dakota could determine who controls the Senate and the president's agenda come January. Gwen Ifill talks to Roll Call's Shira Toeplitz and The Rothenberg Political Report's Nathan Gonzales for more on just what's on the line.
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GWEN IFILL: The presidential race is not the only campaign working its way toward a photo finish this year. In competitive contests from East to West, the race for the Senate has turned out to be tight, expensive and slippery.

In Arizona, Democrat and former surgeon general Richard Carmona is running neck and neck with Republican Congressman Jeff Flake.

In Connecticut, former wrestling executive Linda McMahon, a Republican, is battling Democratic Congressman Chris Murphy.

In Indiana, Republican Richard Mourdock, who defeated incumbent Senator Richard Lugar in the primary, is in a fight to the finish with Democratic Congressman Joe Donnelly.

And in North Dakota, former state Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp is staring down Republican freshman Congressman Rick Berg.

The outcome in these and a handful of other races, including in Massachusetts, Montana, Nevada, Virginia and Wisconsin, could easily determine who controls the Senate and the president’s agenda come January.

Here to walk us through the stakes are Shira Toeplitz of Roll Call newspaper, who joins us in the midst of a Rust Belt reporting tour, and Nathan Gonzales, who keeps track of Senate races for The Rothenberg Political Report.

Welcome to you both.

Shira, it’s not an accident you happen to be in Indiana while news is being committed. I suspect you’re responsible for some of it.

But, in fact, it’s Richard Mourdock, the Republican Senate candidate, who at a debate last night in Indiana was quoted as saying this when he was asked about whether there should be an exception for rape and abortion.

He said, “I think even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape that it is something God intended to happen.”

Why did he say that? What did he mean? And what was the fallout today, Shira?

SHIRA TOEPLITZ, Roll Call: Right.

So right after he said that, and after the debate, he went to the spin room and he spoke with reporters, and myself included, tried to get some clarification for those remarks, and he basically stood by the remarks. I think his intent was clear, but he thought he was being misunderstood.

Again, this led to — the confusion led to a second press conference this morning in Indianapolis, more than two hours away, where he sought to clarify his comments again.

And he ended up apologizing for them, but only to those people who misunderstood them. He didn’t apologize for the comments’ intention. He stuck by those.

GWEN IFILL: Now, it not only stirred up members of another Republican candidate who made dubious comments about rape, but also reverberated all the way to Mitt Romney and his campaign, didn’t it?

SHIRA TOEPLITZ: It did. It did. And it’s especially pertinent because Mitt Romney recently cut a television ad for Richard Mourdock here just last week, and that was seen as a real boon to Richard Mourdock’s campaign, because Murdoch’s fate, in many ways, relies on the presidential contest.

But you brought up Todd Akin, who, as we know, several weeks ago made a rather horrific gaffe about abortion. It’s the similar case, because the words both have to do with abortion, but they are different set of words. So, I think it’s important to make those distinctions.

Richard Mourdock, when he said — he was really talking about his beliefs, and Todd Akin, when he was talking about this in Missouri, he was stating essentially a factual inaccuracy about biology.

GWEN IFILL: Yes, that women sometimes — that their bodies are shut down and so there is not pregnancy. And he said he made a mistake.

Today, that’s not what we heard Richard Mourdock say.

One more thing I want to ask you before I move back to Nathan here, which is his competitor, Joe Donnelly, the Democrat, he is also pro-life, right?

SHIRA TOEPLITZ: Yes, absolutely. Joe Donnelly is anti — does favor anti — excuse me — he is pro-life. He does, however, unlike Mourdock, allow for exceptions for the life of the mother, incest and rape.

GWEN IFILL: Nathan, how close is this race and how much could something like this matter?

NATHAN GONZALES, The Rothenberg Political Report: I think before the debate even happened, as we analyzed it, this was an extremely close race.

We had it in a tossup tilting category, where we gave Mourdock the advantage because of the fundamental nature of the state. We believed that by the time we got to Election Day, a Mitt Romney victory would pull Richard Mourdock across the line.

And even before the debate, it looked like Mourdock was starting to coalesce those Republicans who are still on the sidelines, who still their loyalty was to Senator Lugar.

But now we’re in this holding pattern. We’re waiting to see whether those moderate Republicans, those Lugar, loyal Republicans are going to return to the sidelines or if they’re going to stay with Mourdock or even go to Congressman Donnelly.

And I think that’s today why we moved the race to a pure tossup, because there’s just — I think it’s unfair to say now that Mourdock has a distinct advantage. And I think this is going to be a close race and one the Republicans really couldn’t afford to be worrying out this late in the game.

GWEN IFILL: A lot of pure tossups.

Let’s walk through a few of them. Let’s start in Connecticut, where Linda McMahon ran in 2000 — ran four years ago for the seat — two years ago for the seat…

NATHAN GONZALES: Two years ago.

GWEN IFILL: … and now is back again and seems to be spending a lot of money to maybe have at least a really good shot at it this time.

NATHAN GONZALES: I think Democrats made a miscalculation this time around.

I think they thought, because Linda McMahon ran and lost in 2010 — she spent $50 million of her own money. They thought if she couldn’t get across the line in a good Republican year, there’s no way she is going to win this time.

But she did a good job of remaking herself, asking Connecticut voters to take a second look at her.

And now she is in a competitive race with Chris Murphy. It looks like Murphy does have a distinct advantage. He will have the advantage of the presidential race, but it’s still competitive.

GWEN IFILL: Shira, you have written about the North Dakota Senate race, which is another one of these tight races, Heidi Heitkamp vs. [Rick] Berg, the Republican. And energy is a big issue in that race.

SHIRA TOEPLITZ: Yes, absolutely.

North Dakota has lowest unemployment rate of any state in the country, and that’s because the oil industry is absolutely booming out there, especially in the western part of the state.

Now, this plays into both candidacies, obviously, Rick Berg, the freshman congressman, but he was a longtime state lawmaker in the state. He was dealing with a lot of these issues.

And Heidi Heitkamp, former state attorney general, left public office temporarily — obviously, she’s running again now — in 2000 and she went to go work at an energy company. So, energy is both huge in the state and huge in this race.

GWEN IFILL: Thanks for correcting me on the candidate’s name. I called him something else, but it’s Rick Berg.

Let’s move to Arizona, where we’re watching Richard Carmona, the former attorney — former surgeon general, run against Jeff Flake, six-term congressman, and a Latino candidate in the case of Carmona. And that’s also very tight in a state which hasn’t elected a Republican — I mean, a Democrat to the Senate in how long?

NATHAN GONZALES: Right. And it’s because, you know, this is a surprise retirement with Senator Kyl, and I don’t think Republicans were expecting to defend here.

But this is a close race. And what we’re looking at there is that Carmona had his own debate gaffe, where he basically insulted CNN’s Candy Crowley, even though she wasn’t in the room at the time. And, so, we’re waiting to see…

GWEN IFILL: He said…

NATHAN GONZALES: I mean, at best, it was a crude remark, and we’re seeing whether it was — it will have further ramifications. It’s a close race.

But Jeff Flake went through a late Republican primary, piled up a lot of negatives from his opponent spending millions of dollars against him, and it looks like Flake will have the advantage there, but it’s very close, and this is — Republicans can’t afford to lose their own seats if they want to take over enough Democratic seats in order to win back the majority.

GWEN IFILL: They need four seats to take over the majority if the president wins, and three seats if Mitt Romney wins. Is that correct?

NATHAN GONZALES: Correct. A Vice President Paul Ryan would be the tiebreaker.

GWEN IFILL: Right. Exactly.

Shira, of course, we can’t talk about anything in politics without talking about Ohio. And you have been to Ohio, where there is a surprisingly close race going on, the incumbent, Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown, against Republican Tea Party-backed candidate Josh Mandel.

SHIRA TOEPLITZ: Yes, absolutely.

This is another competitive race, and similar to Indiana, but in a different way. The fate of this race is tied closely to the presidential contest.

Another really unique thing about this race is just how much outside money has poured into this contest. Sherrod Brown on the trail likes to talk about the $24 million in advertisement that’s been poured into the state, into his specific Senate race, starting as early as six to eight months ago.

So, obviously, Ohio voters who have been watching their television sets and are sick of seeing the presidential contest ads, they’re sick of seeing these Ohio Senate ads, too.

GWEN IFILL: In Pennsylvania, right next door, you kind of must have driven through there on your way to the Rust Belt there, that’s Bob Casey, the incumbent Democratic senator, running against Tom Smith, who no one — the Republican who no one gave a shot to, but had the airwaves all to himself for a long time.

SHIRA TOEPLITZ: Yes, absolutely.

Tom Smith is a former coal executive from Southwestern Pennsylvania. He’s quite wealthy. He’s put $17 million of his own money into this race and he did something very key, which was go up on the Philadelphia media market. That’s the largest media market in the state.

And he did it with a lot of power before Senator Casey could afford to do so. And it really gave him an edge. And we saw something in this race that didn’t happen in any other Senate race across the country. When Republican Senate candidates were faltering at the end of September, when the president was on the uptick, Tom Smith was actually going the other direction. He was gaining ground on Bob Casey.

And now most people in the state still think Bob Casey is going to pull it out, but it’s going to be by a much smaller margin than many anticipated.

GWEN IFILL: What do you think about Pennsylvania, Nathan?

NATHAN GONZALES: I think the discrepancy lies — if you think that Mitt Romney is going to win Pennsylvania, those are the same polls that show Tom Smith running close to Bob Casey.

So, we still think that a Romney victory in Pennsylvania is unlikely, and, thus, I think Casey will be OK.

And I think it’s important to remember on election night because we have so many of these close races, we could have recounts. We could be waiting on former Governor Angus King in Maine on who he is going to caucus with, and we may not know who is going to be in the majority until days, maybe even weeks after Election Day.

GWEN IFILL: Is there any connection to be made between what’s happening at the top of the ticket and what is happening in these races? It seems in some cases you can’t take what’s happening in the national scene and connect it to what is happening in the Senate.

NATHAN GONZALES: I think there are enough — there’s tens of millions of dollars spent on these competitive Senate races and enough where they can almost stand alone, where voters can get familiar with the candidates themselves and choose between candidate quality, campaign quality, differences on the issues.

It does affect on the margins. I think, as Ohio and Florida looked like they were slipping away from Mitt Romney, those Senate races started to slip away from Republicans.

So, and then when you look at the crossover vote in North Dakota, where Heidi Heitkamp, the better Mitt Romney does, I think the harder it is for Heidi Heitkamp to win that race.

GWEN IFILL: Nathan Gonzales of The Rothenberg Political Report, Shira Toeplitz crossing the country there for Roll Call, thank you so much for joining us.

NATHAN GONZALES: Thank you.