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Daniel Hamilton: A preview of 2012's US Senate races

Daniel Hamilton, Director of European Affairs at Bell Pottinger, previews this year's US Senate races for the third successive cycle. Follow Daniel on Twitter.

Senate rankings

Arizona – Congressman Jeff Flake (R) vs former Surgeon General Richard Carmona (D)

After the best part of three decades in Washington DC, senior Republican Senator Jon Kyl is retiring from the Senate this year. Had Kyl sought re-election to the Senate, this race would not have been competitive.

The Senate race pits two experienced and substantial candidates against one another; six-term Republican Congressman Jeff Flake and Democrat Richard Carmona, the former US Surgeon General (the American equivalent of the UK’s Chief Medical Officer).

Prior to his election to Congress in 2000, Flake served as Director of the Goldwater Institute, a think-tank established to propagate the libertarian viewpoints of iconic former Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater. In the House of Representatives Flake has built up a solidly fiscally conservative voting record, largely avoiding discussions about social issues.

Flake’s solid political record, however, doesn’t compare favourably to Carmona’s life story – which in parts reads like the script of a Hollywood film. Born to Spanish-speaking Puerto Rican parents, Carmona left school with few qualifications. Upon joining the Army to serve in Vietnam, he first trained as a paramedic before becoming a trauma surgeon. He later qualified as a doctor, yet simultaneously served as a high ranking Police officer and SWAT team member. His campaign advertisements have keenly stressed his wide and varied experience, picturing him in the jungles of Vietnam, taking part in hostage rescues and air-lifting an injured man to safety.

While Arizona is often thought of as solidly Republican territory, it would probably have voted for Barack Obama in 2008 if it were not for the fact John McCain holds the state’s other Senate seat. From 2002 to 2008 the state’s Governor was a Democrat and the ever-increasing Hispanic population of the state are openly hostile towards Republican leaders in the state after efforts by the state legislature to introduce new ID cards to track immigrants. Voter registration records in Arizona show that, between 2000 and 2012, voter registration amongst Latino voters in the state increased 72% with the number of Latinos expected to vote this year up 70,000 from 2008.

Carmona’s obvious appeal to Spanish-speaking voters, moderate Republicans and independent voters in the suburbs of fast-growing cities such as Phoenix, Tempe and Tucson have made this race far closer than any political observer ever expected it would be. Flake has run a textbook campaign, largely campaigning on national issues and has failed to successfully define Carmona as an identikit Democrat who would slavishly support the Obama agenda in the Senate.

Despite the PR war undoubtedly having been won by Carmona, Flake remains a very slight favourite in this race for two reasons. Firstly, Mitt Romney is likely to carry the state by a comfortable margin that will no doubt have a positive impact upon other Republican candidates such as Flake listed further down the ballot. Secondly, Arizona is home to a sizeable Mormon population who will no doubt be more motivated than usual to vote given that their co-religionists Romney and Flake are both on the ballot.

A surprise Carmona victory remains a possibility but he will need to ensure the state’s large Latino community vote in their droves; a task which has historically proved difficult in Arizona.

Missouri – Congressman Todd Akin (R) vs Senator Claire McCaskill (D)

In many respects, Missouri is a microcosm of the entire United States; containing poor and largely African American cities such as St Louis and Kansas City, wealthy suburbs chock-full of strip malls, car dealerships and chain restaurants and rural areas which have a distinct feel of the southern "Bible belt" about them.

Missouri is also home to a Senate race between incumbent Democrat Claire McCaskill and Republic Todd Akin that has garnered international notoriety, largely as a result of a string of preposterous and offensive remarks made by Akin.

Early in the summer, Akin was considered only a distant prospect for the Republican nomination to run against McCaskill.  Businessman John Brunner and former State Treasurer Sarah Steelman were viewed as the most likely candidates for the seat as a result of Brunner’s ability to spend endless amounts of money on the race and Steelman’s institutional support from the state’s Republican establishment.

Knowing that, as mainstream conservatives, Steelman and Brunner would have few problems appealing to voters in the Republican leaning state, McCaskill’s campaign opted to air a string of ads designed to boost Akin that can only be described as a Machiavellian masterstroke. Given that few but the most dedicated and hard-line partisans participate in primary elections, McCaskill’s adverts described Akin as the state’s “most conservative congressman”, a “crusader against bigger government” and having a “pro-family agenda”. While McCaskill’s ads were couched as attack ads, they were clearly designed to boost Akin in the eyes of his primary selectorate. Having been behind in the polls for weeks, Akin rallied at the last minute and won a surprise primary victory.

What followed next can only be described as a complete and utter vindication for McCaskill’s campaign. In a television interview with a station in St Louis conducted only days after the primary, Akin was asked to justify his view that abortion ought to be illegal, even in cases of rape. Akin appeared to question whether pregnancy following rape was even possible, stating: “if it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down”.

As one would expect, a media furore ensued, culminating in Mitt Romney and the state’s four previous Republican Senators publicly urging Akin to exit the race. John McCain went on television to state that Akin “would not be welcome in the Senate Republican caucus”, while the powerful National Republican Senatorial Committee, which would have been expected to provide millions of dollars of funding to his campaign, withdrew its support for his campaign.

As the weeks went on, Republican Senate leaders continued to call for Akin to leave the race, hoping that he would have a change of heart before the October deadline to change the names of candidates appearing on ballot papers. That change of heart never came.

Every poll conducted over the past few weeks has shown McCaskill ahead of Akin. Once a dead woman walking, Senator McCaskill's political masterstroke in helping pull Akin across the finishing line in the Republican primary has guaranteed her another six years in the Senate and the respect of every self-proclaimed strategist in politics today.

North Dakota – Congressman Rick Berg (R) vs former Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp (D)

Nestled in the north of the country along the Canadian border, the state is dominated by agriculture and its largest town (Fargo) has a population of no more than 99,626.

While the Republicans have long dominated Presidential politics in North Dakota (the last Democrat to carry the state was Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964), the Democrats held both of the state’s Senate seats and single Congressional seat until two years ago. The Democratic Party’s success in federal elections in North Dakota has little to do with actual policy issues but rather the deeply personal nature of politics in the state, with many residents basing their vote upon the person rather than the party.

When long-term Democratic Senator Kent Conrad announced his retirement from the Senate last year, it was widely assumed that the seat would be won by a Republican. Any expectation of the Democrats holding the seat all but disappeared when Rick Berg, the state’s Republican Congressman who scored a landslide victory over Democrat incumbent Earl Pomeroy, entered the race. The perception of Berg as a strong nominee, coupled with the expected easy re-election of popular Governor Jack Dalrymple, appeared to doom Democratic prospects here.

Initially, little buzz surrounded the entry into the race of Heidi Heitkamp, the state’s former Attorney General. After all, the last time Heitkamp had run for office in North Dakota was back in 2000 where she lost decisively to John Hoeven (who went on to serve as Governor until 2010 when he won the state’s other Senate seat). A slew of polls conducted in the day following her entry into the race, however, showed a surprise result: a narrow Heitkamp lead.

Heitkamp has a down-home, weather-beaten look about her. In short, she looks like the people of the agrarian state she is seeking to represent. Her struggle to overcome breast cancer while campaigning for Governor in 2000 has not been forgotten by voters.

A carefully-coordinated string of campaign commercials have helped her hone a “one of us” persona; from the images of her blue-collar, rural home-town to punchy reminders of her work tackling sex offenders and drug dealers during her time as Attorney General. She has also successfully deployed elements of “prairie politics”; a strain of no-nonsense political populism best encapsulated in a line she caustically delivered to attack cuts to funding for poor children wanting to attend university: “I don’t think any kid should miss out on college to play for a millionaire’s tax break”. Other adverts have seen her standing on railway tracks with carriages of North Dakota oil heading for Louisiana refineries (“we’re the nation’s second biggest oil producer - we need an oil refinery here!”) and in the middle of the America’s only synfuels plant (“we need more plants like this to create jobs here!”) - a naked appeal to pork barrel politics.

While Heitkamp has been able to define herself as a gutsy fighter for the state’s interests, Berg has run a relatively uninspiring campaign based largely upon national issues. His support for reform of Medicare entitlements and failure to act as a cheerleader for large infrastructure projects has unsettled voters in a state where services such as rural clinics and transport links are vital to people’s day to day lives. Berg has simultaneously failed to address widespread voter disquiet surrounding his decision to run for the Senate after serving little more than a year in the House of Representatives.

Berg is, however, a Republican running in a heavily Republican state. He has a strong cash advantage over Heitkamp and enjoys strong support from national Republican campaign groups who are buffeting the airwaves with ads attacking Heitkamp and seeking to tie her to the President’s unpopular agenda.

While Heitkamp has undoubtedly run the best campaign, Berg must be viewed as the narrow favourite to win this seat. Despite most polls showing Heitkamp to be both personally popular and narrowly ahead of Berg in voting intention, she would have to outperform Barack Obama by anything up to 15% in order to pull off a victory. Voter antipathy towards Obama, coupled with a strong pro-Romney turnout is likely to see Berg splutter over the finishing line.

Connecticut – Linda McMahon (R) vs Congressman Chris Murphy (D)

On first impressions, Connecticut might be considered a strange state to include on a list of competitive US Senate races. After all, the state has voted for every Democratic Presidential candidate since 1988 and the state’s Congressional delegation is entirely comprised of Democrats.

Lying just east of New York, Connecticut is home to some of America’s wealthiest people, with average earnings higher here than any other state in the nation. While the state is home to a large number of Republican-friendly stockbrokers who commute via high speed train services to New York City each day, most voters in this state are loyal Democrats who respond well to messages about social justice and environmental protection.

Barack Obama is set for a landslide victory here by as much as twenty points. The Senate race between Republican businesswoman Linda McMahon and Democratic Congressman Chris Murphy is set to be considerably closer.

There is only one reason this race is competitive: McMahon’s personal wealth. In the past four years (she also ran for Senate in 2010) she has spent close to $100 million of her own money on running for the Senate, money she and her husband made from the WWF wrestling company they founded. Campaigning in Connecticut is extremely expensive, with many of its television markets abutting those of New York City, leading to the strange situation where voters in the city are forced to endure months of adverts for political races they cannot even vote in.

Chris Murphy is a far weaker Democratic candidate than the Dick Blumenthal, the state’s long-serving Attorney General who decisively beat McMahon in 2010.  McMahon has also run a far better race than she did two years ago, making significant inroads with female voters who polls previously show  perceived her as cold and off-putting.

As she has grown into the role of a candidate, her likeability ratings have also soared, but one fundamental problem still remains: she is a Republican seeking to run against the political tide in a solidly Democratic state.

This race will be close but polls have indicated a modest lead for Murphy in recent days – a lead that is likely to be augmented by a decisive Obama victory in the state.

Florida – Congressman Connie Mack (R) vs Senator Bill Nelson (D)

With the exception of Texas, Florida is easily the friendliest towards the Republican Party of the larger American states. A mix of big cities such as Orlando and Miami, agrarian rural communities and vibrant ethnic minority communities home to hundreds of thousands of Haitians and Cubans, Florida has become the archetypal swing state on a Presidential level. Barack Obama won the state during his successful 2008 campaign, just as Ronald Reagan, George Bush, Bill Clinton and George W Bush did during their successful campaigns for the Presidency.

This year’s battle for Senate pitches veteran Democrat Bill Nelson against Republican Connie Mack (real name: Cornelius Harvey McGillicuddy IV), a scion of Florida’s most famous political family, whose father, grandfather and great-grandfather each served in the US Senate. While Mack’s political pedigree might suggest that he would be a tough opponent for the Democrat Nelson, who has been habitually dogged by poor approval ratings, his campaign has failed to catch fire against a backdrop of rumours about his alleged adultery and history of involvement in bar fights and the widespread accusation that Mack feels a sense of entitlement when it comes to holding a position in the US Senate.

Nelson himself is a poor public speaker, yet his rather wooden delivery has peculiarly worked to his advantage during his past three Senate races, allowing him to position himself as a respectable moderate and centrist policy wonk – even though his voting record is solidly pro-Democrat in nature.

One issue where Nelson has been able to put clear blue water between himself and Mack has been on the issue of social security entitlements. As a Congressman, Mack has repeatedly voted for initiatives to reform the current Medicare system, a prospect which causes widespread alarm in a state home to millions of retirees who have moved to the state in order to take advantage of Florida’s pleasant climate. Mack’s assurances that he would protect these entitlements appear to have fallen on deaf ears, with polls suggesting Nelson has a clear lead amongst those aged 65 and over.

Republicans are rightly frustrated that what should be an easy pick-up opportunity for the party now appears to be out of reach. Mack, after all, was never his party’s first choice candidate for this seat with many leaders in the state party having unsuccessfully tried to persuade former Governor Jeb Bush to run.

Nelson won a relatively comfortable 6% victory in the state in 2000 at the same time as George W Bush narrowly edged Al Gore state-wide by 543 votes. It increasingly appears as though Florida will see a repeat of what happened in 2000: a narrow victory on a Presidential level for the Republican nominee and a modest victory in the Senate race for the Democrat.

Indiana – State Treasurer Richard Mourdock (R) vs Congressman Joe Donnelly (D)

Few other states so perfectly represented the scale of Barack Obama’s victory in the 2008 Presidential election than Indiana. Historically a solidly Republican state, Indiana is a curious mix of sprawling farmland, ethnically diverse cities like the state capital Indianapolis and depressed former manufacturing towns like Gary, the birthplace of Michael Jackson. A combination of strong rhetoric on economic protectionism and bitter condemnation of George W. Bush’s record on protecting blue collar jobs handed Obama a narrow 28,391 vote victory in the state at the same time as popular Republican Governor Mitch Daniels stormed to a eighteen-point victory.

By any normal logic, this year’s Senate race in Indiana shouldn’t be even remotely close. Despite Barack Obama having eked out the narrowest of victories in the state in 2008, his campaign has all but abandoned this seat this year with successive polls showing Mitt Romney ahead of the President by a margin of ten points or more.

Despite the state’s pronounced Republican lean, Democratic challenger Joe Donnelly must be viewed as the favourite to win this seat with only hours to go until voters to the polls. At the start of 2012, the thought of the Democrats picking up this Senate seat was inconceivable. While Donnelly had declared he would run for the seat after the Republican-controlled state legislature obliterated his seat in the House of Representatives during the redistricting (boundary changes) procedure, his campaign was seen as a distant long-shot.

The reason for this was that incumbent Senator Richard “Dick” Lugar, who first won the seat in 1976 was seeking a seventh term. A cordial and congenial man, Lugar has served as the leading Republican on the Senate’s Foreign Affairs since 1985, demonstrating a willingness to cooperate with Democrats on issues such as bills to assist countries in the former Soviet Union with deactivating their nuclear weapons stock.

Such was Lugar’s bipartisan respect in the Senate that a newly-elected Senator named Barack Obama sought out his assistance early on in his career to develop his expertise on foreign policy issues. During the 2008 Presidential campaign, Obama frequently made reference to Lugar as the Senator he “most respected” and seemed content to allow rumours to swirl that he would consider the Indiana Senator as a possible Secretary of State if he was to win the contest.

While in a different age, Lugar’s bipartisan credentials may have been viewed as a bonus for voters in his Midwestern home state, the polarised politics of the year 2012 have seen his more constructive, genteel deportment fall out of fashion.

The beneficiary of new-found Republican suspicion towards the overly Democrat-friendly Lugar was State Treasurer Richard Mourdock, a rock-ribbed conservative whose campaign for the Republican nomination was backed by scores of both fiscally and socially conservative groups. Television adverts alleged that, at 80 years old, Lugar was too old to continue serving in the Senate and that his political views were too left-wing for Indianans (despite being ranked as the 29th most conservative of 47 Republican Senators by National Journal magazine).

Mourdock’s campaign initially appeared to have little momentum against Lugar but revelations that the incumbent had not really lived in Indiana since the late 1970s coupled with allegations that he had overcharged the state for hotel expenses saw his campaign hit its stride with only weeks to go until polling day. Mourdock went on to defeat Lugar by 61% to 39%, one of the largest ever defeats for an incumbent.

As would befit his cordial style, Lugar accepted defeat gracefully and made an effort to introduce Mourdock to his Senate colleagues at closed sessions of Republican leaders in Washington DC. Bruised by his defeat, however, he has declined to campaign for his vanquisher.

Given the state’s ordinarily-Republican leanings, Mourdock began the general election campaign against Donnelly with a small but nonetheless comfortable lead. His public pronouncements have, however, gradually eroded his standing while the stock of the moderate-sounding Donnelly who has amassed a fiscally conservative record during his time in Congress has continued to rise.

Voters may have been able to live with Mourdock’s assertion that his “favourite thing about politics was inflicting his opinions on others”, but his assertion during a debate with Donnelly that foetuses conceived as a result of rape were a “gift from God” and “something God intended to happen” went one step beyond what most electors consider appropriate.

Polls taken after Mourdock’s rape comments saw what was a close race between him and Donnelly transform into a pronounced lead for his Democrat challenger. Polls now show Donnelly with a 47% to 36% advantage. Improbably, the Democrats must now be seen as heavy favourites to win this seat.

Wisconsin – Former Governor Tommy Thompson (R) vs Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin (D)

During the past two years, there has been no better example of the bitterly divided nature of American politics than Wisconsin.

Back in June, Wisconsin voters went to the polls to vote in a recall election forced by Democrats after a series of reforms pushed by Republican Governor Scott Walker designed to deny public sector workers the right to enter into collective bargaining arrangements during salary negotiations. Walker won the recall election by a 53% to 47% margin on the back of an extremely well-funded campaign, backed by a skilful team of on-the-ground operatives.

For that reason, Republicans are bullish about their prospects of winning the Senate seat this year – and for good reason. For the past decade it has been a source of frustration that popular former Governor Tommy Thompson, who served from 1986 until his appointment to the Bush Cabinet as Secretary for Health and Human Services, has publicly fulminated about running for Senate, only to drop his plans at the eleventh hour. To the surprise of some, Thompson decided – at the age of 71 – to re-enter politics this year and pursue the seat of retiring Democratic Senator Herb Kohl.

A popular figure in the state, Thompson brings a genuine record of accomplishment to the post, having defined the welfare-to-work system that many other states across America have copied. Elected to the Governor’s office on four occasions, he never received less than 58% of the vote in his re-election races.

Thompson hasn’t, however, run for office since 1998 and some of his professional activities and public utterances since leaving the Governor’s office sparked concern amongst Republicans when he declared his intention to run for the Senate. Chief amongst these concerns was his apparent remarks made in support of President Obama’s healthcare reforms, leading to conservative businessman Eric Hovde entering the Republican primary against Thompson. Thompson defeated Hovde in the August primary – but the costly campaign to defeat him depleted valuable financial resources and forced him to tack to the right; a dangerous move in a Democrat-leaning state.

Wisconsin voters have not backed a Republican candidate for President since Ronald Reagan’s landslide re-election race in 1984 and, until two years ago, hadn’t elected a Republican to the Senate for eighteen years. Despite the state’s slight Democratic lean, however, Wisconsin is a fairly politically divided state, including strongly left-leaning areas around the city of Milwaukee as well as ample slices of small-town conservatism.

As such, the Democratic candidate, Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin is a far from ideal candidate for her party. A member of Congress since 1998, Baldwin’s congressional district is centred on the liberal town of Madison, the voters of which have been comfortable with her partisan rhetoric in favour of tax increases and same-sex marriage. Such positions are more challenging on a state-wide level.

Baldwin’s strong links to liberal Democrat activist groups have, however, been a boon for her fundraising efforts. While Thompson’s campaign was flat-broke after his contentious primary battle with Eric Hovde, Baldwin was unopposed for party’s nomination and used the summer to stockpile money for an all-out TV assault on the former Governor. Thompson’s campaign was forced to cancel its TV advertising reservations for most of September due to lack of money, giving Baldwin a free hand to define her opponent as a politician that has fallen out of touch with his state. Her campaign has been careful to treat Thompson’s service as Governor with respect, instead attacking him for money he made from lucrative government contracts obtained by his companies since stepping down from George W Bush’s cabinet. Her war cry has been “Thompson’s not for you – anymore”.

According to almost every public opinion poll issued in the past month, the race between Baldwin and Thompson remains neck and neck. The race is, however, overshadowed by the Presidential election, with polls in the state hinting at a narrow Obama lead over Romney. Polls show Thompson running narrowly ahead of Romney, but not by the 5% or so he needs to overcome Obama’s lead in the Presidential race. By a fingernail, Baldwin is the favourite here.

Massachussetts – Senator Scott Brown (R) vs Professor Elizabeth Warren (D)

For Democrats across America, the race for this Senate seat is of both emotional and political importance. It is, after all, the seat held by Democratic icon Ted Kennedy from 1962 until his untimely death from cancer in August 2009.

When Kennedy passed away, it had been widely assumed that the seat would be safely won by whichever Democratic candidate was anointed by the party to fight it. The party nominated the state’s popular Attorney General Martha Coakley to oppose the unknown Republican candidate, State Senator Scott Brown.

While initial polls suggested that Coakley had the race locked up, her lead throughout the campaign was successively eroded by a combination of her personal coldness on the stump, poor debate performances and strange remarks that allowed the Republicans to paint her as an effete elitist out of touch with the state’s voters. On one occasion, when questioned by reporters as to why she was spending so much time holding fundraising events outside the state she responded, “What? As opposed to standing outside… in the cold? Shaking hands?” – something her opponent Brown had been doing earlier that day. On another, she claimed that Boston Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling was a “Yankees fan”, a comment akin to telling voters in Manchester that Sir Alex Ferguson is a Liverpool supporter.

Brown’s genuine likeability and moderate political messaging saw his poll numbers soar in the final days of the campaign, leading him to defeat Coakley by a 52% to 47% margin.

In the Senate, Brown has been true to his campaign promises, supporting the Democrats on votes designed to extend unemployment benefits and opposing some of his party’s more socially conservative legislative initiatives. Successive opinion polls show that Brown is by far and away the most popular politician in Massachusetts with an approval rating that has, at times, spiked above 60%.

His re-election race was always, however, going to be difficult. In 2008, Barack Obama carried the state of Massachusetts with 62% of the vote. Every single Congressman in the state is drawn from the Democratic Party and Democrats control every single state-wide office other than the Senate seat Brown now holds.

After struggling to find a candidate to run against Brown, the Democrats eventually settled on Harvard University Professor Elizabeth Warren, a long-time consumer advocate who was instrumental in persuading Barack Obama to establish the powerful new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau responsible for regulating the sale of financial services products.

Warren is everything you would imagine a Harvard professor to be: cold, acerbic, and apparently unable to use language that inspires an impression of empathy or understanding with ordinary people. Her TV adverts, which have largely shown her looking directly into the camera and delivering her campaign credo as if it were a lecture, have been widely panned – particularly when contrasted with those of the jovial Brown and his attractive family.

Personal appeal aside, Warren is a hero for left-wing Democrats. Her long record of consumer activism and gutsy attacks on senior Republicans have seen her raise close to $40 million in campaign donations, significantly outraising Brown (who remains the best funded Republican candidate in the country with an impressive $27 million in donations to his name).

Early on in the campaign, the two candidates signed a pledge to decline any assistance from outside campaign groups that would have been willing to spend a combined total of more than $100 million in order to boost the campaigns of their chosen candidates. Such a pledge means that the combined Brown and Warren campaigns will “only” spend $80 million.

Commenting on Brown’s personal approval ratings which show him with a voter approval rating of 52% in the latest poll, the respected pollster Scott Rasmussen said that Brown would be “the most popular candidate ever” to lose re-election. That is, however, what will happen.

Warren has been able to overcome her failings in the personal likeability department through a combination of fundraising prowess and the overwhelmingly Democratic nature of the state which will see an Obama landslide. Warren will win this race by as much as 10%, denying Republicans a crucial voice of moderation and social liberalism.

[Regardless of who win the race, it may not be too long before voters see the defeated challenger on their ballot papers once again. 2004 Presidential candidate John Kerry, who holds the other Massachusetts Senate seat, is considered a front-runner for the position of Secretary of State when Hillary Clinton steps down in January. Kerry’s resignation from the Senate would likely spark a ‘special election’ in May in which the defeated candidate in this year’ s race would start as the prohibitive front-runner. Brown’s absence from the Senate may well be a short one.]

Virginia – Former Governor George Allen (R) vs Former Governor Tim Kaine (D)

The year’s Senate race in Virginia represents a political "clash of the titans" between two former Governors: Republican George Allen and Democrat Tim Kaine.

While Virginia – the “gateway to the south” – has long been thought of as a deep-red, Republican bastion, the reality is now somewhat different. While much of the state remains rural and deeply conservative in nature, its northern counties that lie just south of Washington DC have experienced significant demographic shifts in the past decade, with many more ethnic minority and urban-minded voters moving to the state. Similarly, the Virginia Beach area along the state’s eastern shoreline is now home to sizable populations of black and socially liberal voters who have shown themselves to be no friend to Republican candidates. In 2008, Barack Obama became the first Democrat to win the state for more than forty years.

Initially a reluctant candidate, Kaine entered the Senate race earlier this year after being given the express “permission” of President Obama to stand down from his position as Chairman of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), the campaigning arm dedicated to electing Democrats to offices across the US. Prior to holding the chairmanship of the DNC, Kaine served a four-year term as Virginia’s Governor in which he enjoyed strong approval ratings for his moderate style of governance.

For Allen, another popular former Governor, the race represents a re-run of the contest he fought in 2006 when he lost his battle for re-election to the Senate to former Navy Secretary Jim Webb after a disastrous campaign that has left him open to accusations of racism after he used a racial slur (“macaca”) to describe one of his opponent’s campaign aides. While Allen makes frequent reference on the campaign trail to his time as Governor, in which he recorded strong approval ratings, he is quick to gloss over his previous service in the Senate from 2000 to 2006 which can only be described as stumbling and undistinguished in nature.

Both men have had little problem raising money for the race but the clear financial advantage in the race lies with Kaine, who outraised Allen $4.5 million to $3.5 million in the last quarter of the year. Kaine’s financial advantage has seen him buy a total of $3 million of television advertising for the final weeks of the campaign, targeting specialist TV networks for religious (he is a devout Catholic) and Hispanic (he speaks fluent Spanish) voters.

While polling between the two candidates has remained fairly close, Kaine has successively held a lead over Allen. In a year when a Presidential race was not taking place, Allen would probably have been able to fire up conservative voters in rural parts of the state sufficiently in order to pull off a victory. This Senate race, however, plays second fiddle to the battle for the Presidency. With Obama likely to defeat Romney in order to seize the state’s Electoral College votes, a narrow Kaine victory here appears likely.

Nevada – Senator Dean Heller (R) vs Congresswoman Shelley Berkley (D)

As with nearly every state that is hosting a competitive Senate race this year, Nevada is a swing state on a Presidential level. Barack Obama won the state in 2008 with 55% of the vote, with George W Bush having been victorious here in the 2000 and 2004 races.

Much of the support for the Democrats in this state lies in and around the anonymously-named Clark County, a place better known to most people as Las Vegas. As one might imagine, "Sin City" is home to a base of liberal-minded voters who are naturally favourable towards the Democratic Party, yet the city also has a sizeable Latino community who are ordinarily loyal to the party.

No state in America has been affected as much by the financial meltdown as Nevada, with incidents of personal bankruptcy and home foreclosure here amongst the highest in the nation. A short drive from the city limits of Las Vegas leads one to vast, newly-built housing estates which are either unfinished or scarcely occupied as a result of the wholesale collapse of the local property market. Given the economic turmoil the state has been through in recent years, it was no surprise to see the Republicans seize both the Governor's office and a suburban Las Vegas congressional district at the 2010 elections.

Politics in the state is sharply divided between liberal Las Vegas and the remainder of the state which is considerably more conservative in nature. In many respects, the two candidates Nevadans have to choose from in this year's Senate race are symptomatic of this divide. The Democratic candidate Shelley Berkley is the long-standing Congresswoman for an urban congressional district centred on Las Vegas while the incumbent Republican Senator Dean Heller hails from the more rural north of the state.

While Berkley's outspoken support for the gambling industry and LGBT rights is no doubt fully in tune with her current constituents in Las Vegas, her policy positions are problematic in more rural and suburban areas of the state.

Back in 2010, the state's other Senator Harry Reid - the Democratic Party's leader in the Senate - only narrowly survived a close re-election campaign as a result of his performance in Washoe County, home to the city of Reno and its surrounding suburbs. It is likely that the outcome of this year's race will come down to the very same county. During his term as a Congressman, Heller represented the entirety of the county, securing relatively comfortable victories in the Democratic landslide years of 2006 and 2008. Heller's roots and record of electoral success in Washoe County give him a clear advantage over Berkley.

Aside from geographical complications, Berkley has also faced a string of damaging ethics allegations relating to her behaviour as a Congresswoman. In July the bipartisan House of Representatives Ethics Committee issued a unanimous decision to open an investigation into whether she used her office by authoring legislation relating to kidney transplants that could have benefitted her husband's medical business. As we approach Election Day, the committee’s investigation remains unresolved – and is giving Heller plenty of ammunition for hard-hitting television ads.

Heller isn't a particularly dynamic candidate and his record of accomplishments in the Senate has not been particularly distinguished. He does, however, project an air of stability and civility that appeals to voters in a state that is unwilling to show slavish loyalty to either Republicans or Democrats. Where Berkley has been willing to put her head above the parapet and risked offending certain voter groups, Heller has quietly focused upon building the necessary coalition of rural and suburban voters required for a Republican to win in a state like Nevada.

While the state will vote for Barack Obama over Mitt Romney on a presidential level, the Republican Heller is a strong favourite in the Senate race.

Ohio – State Treasurer Josh Mandel (R) vs Senator Sherrod Brown (D)

As we enter the final hours of the campaign, the eyes of the world’s media are on Ohio and the closely-fought Presidential race between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. It is widely thought that whoever wins the state’s electoral votes will win the Presidency.

With the focus of both the media and voters in the state being upon the Presidency, it has been easy to overlook the tight Senate race between Democrat incumbent Sherrod Brown and Republican challenger State Treasurer Josh Mandel.

Swept into office in the Democratic wave of 2006 where he ousted Republican Senator Mike DeWine by a decisive 55-45 margin, Brown has been one of the most consistently liberal members of the US Senate – a risky move in a state where the number of registered Republicans and Democrats is roughly equal and state-wide political figures have historically sought to cultivate a centrist persona. His unpolished speaking manner and shambolic dress sense most certainly appeals to voters in the state’s depressed industrial regions, yet is more challenging when it comes to sealing the deal with wealthy moderates in the suburbs of cities such as Columbus, Cleveland and Cincinnati.

While his personal presentation and voting record would logically lead one to conclude the Senate race would be close – and indeed polls suggest it is – Brown remains the dominant figure in this race.

The reason for his success is largely down to the Republican Party’s choice of candidate. While Josh Mandel has proven himself to be a more than effective fundraiser, he has a credibility problem with the state’s voters. Despite having a great story to tell as a former marine who served in Afghanistan, Mandel is only thirty-four years old and looks much younger. He was only elected Treasurer of the state in 2010 and has faced significant criticism of his performance in the office to date, with commercials from Brown claiming he filled the office’s payroll with personal friends and skipped thirteen consecutive meetings of the State Investment Board he chairs while fundraising for his Senate campaign.

The race has tightened in recent weeks but polls continue to show the incumbent Brown outpolling the President by several points. Sherrod Brown will be re-elected.

Montana - Congressman Denny Rehberg (R) vs Senator Jon Tester (D)

One of the most sparsely populated states in America, Montana is home to only just under one million people – and one of the closest fought Senate races in the entire country. Unlike the population of most rural states in America where employment is predominantly drawn from the agricultural sector, Montanans have failed to slavishly line up behind the Republicans in recent years.

The reason for this is threefold. Firstly, Montana lies outside the Bible-belt, with a comparatively small number of its residents attending church, thus decreasing the influence of campaign groups who rail against abortion and advocate social conservatism. Secondly, being so rural in nature, Montanans recognise the value of federal government spending on roads and other infrastructure projects – something Tea Party Republicans have repeatedly stated their wish to see considerably decreased. Thirdly – and perhaps most importantly – the Democratic brand has been “decontaminated” by the state’s extremely popular Democratic Governor Brian Schweitzer. A multi-millionaire farmer who hails from the wealthy, liberal skiing community of Whitefish, Schweitzer’s carefully honed-image (he is rarely seen wearing anything other than jeans, even at official functions, and is never pictured without his dog) coupled with libertarian stances against gun control have won him many fans.

The Senate race pits two genuinely popular candidates against one another – Democrat incumbent Jon Tester and the state’s sole Congressman Denny Rehberg for the Republicans.

In many respects, Tester is an accidental Senator, only swept into office in 2006 after a string of embarrassing revelations about Republican Senator Conrad Burns’ links to convicted fraudster Jack Abramoff and other questionable sources of campaign funding. A former President of the Montana State Senate and farmer from the isolated town of Big Sandy, Tester has adopted generally populist positions in office; bringing home billions of dollars of funding for projects across the state. His campaign advertisements, which describe him as a “Senator that looks like Montana” have depicted the portly Tester importing Montana beef to Washington DC and operating his combine harvester (“out here, the combine doesn’t care if you’re a Senator or not”). It is a credit to his approachability and likeability that he continues to be a serious prospect for re-election in a state Mitt Romney is set to win.

Rehberg is a veteran of Montana politics, having served as Lieutenant Governor of the state in the early '90s and as the state’s sole Congressman since 2000. While Rehberg also comes from farming stock, he made a fortune in property deals and appears to lack the same folksy persona as the blue-collar Tester. That said, Tester has only appeared on the voters’ ballots on one occasion – in 2006 – while Rehberg has been returned to office with no less than 59% of the vote in each of his bi-annual election races since 2000.

While Barack Obama came within a whisker of winning Montana in 2008, Mitt Romney is likely to win the state by double digits this year.  Tester will need to significantly out-run Obama in order to have any hope of winning re-election.  Polls currently show Tester and Rehberg to be deadlocked as they enter the final few hours of the campaign.   Given Mitt Romney’s likely victory here, Rehberg is the favourite here.  Theis outcome of this race will likely come down to no more than 2,000 votes either way.


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