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Dems Look to Hold Senate Majority, GOP Tries to Wrest Control in Key Races

October 15, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Republicans and Democrats are looking to muster the votes in key elections to take the Senate majority. Judy Woodruff talks to USA Today's Susan Page and The Rothenberg Political Report's Stu Rothenberg about campaigns in states like Missouri, Massachusetts and Virginia, and whether the majority is still in play.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Massachusetts is among the top Senate contests our analysts Susan Page and Stuart Rothenberg will be watching on Election Day. The Rothenberg Political Report rates it one of nine tossup races on the ballot.

Those races are Nevada, Arizona, Montana, North Dakota, Indiana, Wisconsin, Virginia, Connecticut, and Massachusetts.

Susan Page is the Washington bureau chief for USA Today, and Stu Rothenberg is also a columnist for Roll Call.

Thank you both for being with us.

So, Susan, Republicans need to win four more Senate seats if President Obama wins reelection to gain the majority, only three if Governor Romney wins. What are their prospects?

SUSAN PAGE, USA Today: A year ago, I think we would have said the prospects were really good for Republicans to take over the Senate. But they have had one disappointing outcome after another in these states.

And I think it’s now a stretch for Republicans to take control of the Senate. They may gain a seat or two, but I think it’s unlikely they’re going to get to control.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you see it?

STUART ROTHENBERG, The Rothenberg Political Report: I generally agree, except that I do think the Senate is still in play.

The problem is Republicans have to pull the inside straight. There are basically four or five states that — Democratic states they’re competing in. And they need to win four of those.

So, it’s a tall order, I think you would have to say. It’s more likely that the Democrats will hold on to the Senate than the Republicans will win it. But I wouldn’t discount Republican chances entirely.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, well, let’s talk about some of these competitive races. We just heard Gwen’s report on Massachusetts. Let’s talk, Stu, about Missouri.

STUART ROTHENBERG: What a disaster for Republicans.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What a fascinating race.

STUART ROTHENBERG: Right.

I was talking to a Republican start who told me the Republicans had a poll just a few days before Todd Akin made his ill-advised comments about rape, legitimate rape. And Akin was up by a dozen points over Democrat Claire McCaskill.

That race has obviously tanked for Republicans. Akin refused to get out of the race. A lot of Republicans wanted him out. He has stayed in.

Some conservatives think that there may be an opportunity here, but there’s no doubt Todd Akin is a significant underdog now against Claire McCaskill, who frankly six months ago looked like she had no chance of winning.

SUSAN PAGE: Not just an underdog in Missouri, but a problem for Republican candidates elsewhere.

We have seen Mitt Romney in the presidential race trying hard to get women votes. And the controversy over Todd Akin has been a problem for him.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And one of the reasons that the Romney campaign has continued not to endorse or stay behind Todd Akin.

All right, let’s move on to Wisconsin. Susan, another woman candidate there, Tammy Baldwin, Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin, running against former Governor Tommy Thompson.

SUSAN PAGE: I have been struck that, of the nine swing — tossups that you mentioned at the beginning, I believe five of them have women candidates, a lot of them running for the Senate, especially Democratic candidates, although some Republicans.

Tammy Baldwin, a congresswoman from Wisconsin, would break a barrier if she’s elected to the Senate. She would be the first openly gay member of the U.S. Senate. And what’s remarkable about this is the degree to which it has not — her sexual orientation has not been an issue to a big degree in this race against Tommy Thompson, the former governor.

And I think that says a lot about changing attitudes toward gay men and lesbians in America.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you see the Wisconsin race?

STUART ROTHENBERG: Well, we have it as a tossup, certainly.

But Republicans were pretty enthusiastic initially about Tommy Thompson, figuring that he was a well-known candidate statewide. He had good ratings. Once this race engaged, the Democrats were able to remind people what they don’t like about Tommy Thompson, the fact that he has been around an awfully long time.

The Republican view is that Tammy Baldwin is weak, not because of her gender or because of her sexual preference, but because she is a very, very liberal Democrat.

I have to remind Republicans, this is Wisconsin. And they have elected people like Russ Feingold and Gaylord Nelson and Herb Kohl over the years. So that’s not disqualifying. I think it’s a close race. I probably would pit a pinkie on the scale for Baldwin.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A pinkie. All right.

(LAUGHTER)

JUDY WOODRUFF: Arizona, this is a state, surprising. I mean, the Republicans — the Democrats didn’t really think they had a shot here.

STUART ROTHENBERG: Well, no, six months ago, Democrats were enthusiastic always about Richard Carmona, but the Republican reaction was, come on, this is Arizona. We have a good candidate. They expected to have Congressman Jeff Flake. That’s who they do have.

But Democrats always said Richard Carmona, surgeon general under President Bush, had a good story. He’s Hispanic. No legislative record.

Republicans have had a hard time dealing with him. And Flake had a primary from the right, a conservative attacking him on immigration, saying he was too soft on immigration.

It turns out this is becoming a competitive race. I think the Republicans do have a slight advantage because of the state.

SUSAN PAGE: And look at the demographics in Arizona, an increasing number of Hispanics who are eligible to vote and vote in Arizona. It’s made the presidential race there a little closer.

And it means, if you look down the road, Arizona, which has been a pretty Republican state, is increasingly moving toward becoming a more purple state.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Another race that’s become a surprise, Susan, is Connecticut. Linda McMahon, who had run statewide, had a very rough time of it, former wrestling executive, pro wrestling executive, now she’s looking like she may have a shot.

SUSAN PAGE: That’s right.

And in Connecticut, which we know is a pretty blue state, and she came back, and she fought again. She’s run an interesting campaign. She’s poured a lot of her own money into ads. That’s definitely one to watch.

STUART ROTHENBERG: There are second acts in American politics. And this is a great case.

Linda McMahon hired an entirely new consulting team. Her consultants ran her last time as a businesswoman.

This time, they have softened her image. They have talked about the fact that she went through personal bankruptcy, that she can — she’s like a real person and can identify with people who have real problems.

Chris Murphy is a congressman, young, and this race has surprised Republicans, who six months ago didn’t think they would be pouring money in. They are. Linda McMahon has a chance here. This is a very blue state, but she has a chance.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Campaigns do matter.

Finally, Virginia, Stu, this is a very close race, former governor, former senator.

STUART ROTHENBERG: I think this was guaranteed to be a close race from the beginning. Tim Kaine has benefited from the fact that the president’s job ratings have improved over the past few months. Obviously, he was DNC Chairman Kaine.

George Allen, who lost a bitter race six years ago, is back. He has a folksy equality. Kaine, kind a little bit more professional, emphasizes that he’s a successful politician and a successful governor. I think it’s a very close race. And I wouldn’t know how to call it right now.

SUSAN PAGE: You know, we have seen Democratic Senate candidates keep their distance from President Obama even if they’re in states where he’s likely to do well.

That’s not an option for Tim Kaine in Virginia because they’re too close to Obama. He served as his DNC chairman. And I think he has not tried to do that. He has tied his fortunes with Barack Obama, for better or worse.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, if Republicans have had to scale back their hopes in the Senate, Susan, in the House, it’s looking like the Democrats’ hopes — Democratic hopes of taking over the majority are a long way.

SUSAN PAGE: Well, Stu is more of an expert on House races than I am.

But it seems highly unlikely that Democrats will muster the numbers to take over control of the House. And that raises a question.

If you end up with a Democratic Senate and a Republican-controlled House, just like we have now, how will we get things done in Washington?

If President Obama is reelected and there’s a Republican-controlled House, will the obstinate attitude of Republican leaders toward President Obama change?

STUART ROTHENBERG: Well, unlike 2006, ’08, and ’10, there is no partisan wave out there.

And while we began this cycle with some people talking about anti-incumbency and Congress’ low ratings and all these incumbents are going to lose, we don’t see it now.

I wouldn’t be shocked with anything from a wash in the House to a Democratic gain of, say, 10 seats. They need 25; 10 doesn’t sound too far from 25, but it is because of redistricting. There just are not enough districts in play for the Democrats.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But with all the disappointment in Congress, it’s fascinating. Most incumbents are going to be reelected.

STUART ROTHENBERG: Well, it looks like, Judy, we’re going back to the old story of, my incumbent is OK. It’s all the other ones who are bad.

(LAUGHTER)

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we are delighted to have the two of you.

Stu Rothenberg, Susan Page, thank you.

SUSAN PAGE: Thanks.

STUART ROTHENBERG: Thanks.