Fall Senate Races Shaping Up

Political writer Shira Toeplitz of Roll Call talks with Melissa Block about the high profile Senate races taking shape in 2012.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Republicans are hoping to take control of the Senate in November. Thirty-three of the 100 seats are up for election. Republicans would need to win a net of four seats to regain the majority.

Joining us to talk about some of the key races to watch is political writer Shira Toeplitz with the Roll Call.

Shira, welcome to the program.

SHIRA TOEPLITZ: Thanks for having me today.

BLOCK: Let's start with some of the places where Republicans are hoping for a pickup. And one is Virginia, the seat being vacated by Democrat Jim Webb. And the fight there is interesting. Two former governors, Republican George Allen - also a former senator, he lost to Jim Webb in 2006 - going up against Democrat Tim Kaine. How does it look?

TOEPLITZ: Well, it's very competitive right now. I think on the whole, people in my business generally give Tim Kaine a slight edge because he's a little more popular in that state. But it's a very competitive race. And what I think is really unique about this race is rarely do you have two high-profile candidates with national bases.

Tim Kaine, obviously the former chair of the Democratic National Committee, also the former governor. And then, George Allen was at one point thinking about running for president. So it's rare you have such a nationalized race with two candidates with big, national backgrounds and fundraising structures in one state.

BLOCK: Virginia interesting, too, because it did go for Barack Obama in 2008 but went very red, very Republican in the last elections.

TOEPLITZ: Yeah, absolutely. Virginia has become kind of the new bellwether after Ohio, in terms of how the country goes. And it tends to swing a deeper red or a deeper blue depending on what the national mood is like. I think it will be interesting to see how the president performs. I'm sure Tim Kaine is watching that very, very closely to see how the president is doing in his state, because his future really depends on how the president does there on Election Day.

BLOCK: Let's move west to Nebraska. With the retirement of conservative Democrat Ben Nelson, Republicans also hoping for a pickup there. It's a conservative state. Is it a good chance for a Republican to win?

TOEPLITZ: Yeah, it is a very good chance for a Republican to win. When you ask Republicans what their most likely pickup opportunities, the seats they're most likely to take from Democrats this cycle, Nebraska is usually in the top one or two.

BLOCK: Interesting that former governor and former senator, the Democrat Bob Kerrey, who first said he wasn't going to run, now says he is. Does he have any chance at all, do you think?

TOEPLITZ: He does have a chance. He's well-known in the state but he hasn't been there for a while. He's been in New York running a university. So that's always a problem when politicians try to return home. We see this a lot in incumbent campaigns, too, when senators have been there for and they've established a life in Washington, and so their opponents attack them for not being from the home state anymore - they say they're from Washington.

Well, Kerrey has that problem multiplied essentially because he moved to New York after he left the Senate.

BLOCK: Let's talk, Shira, about some seats that Republicans hold now that they need to hold onto. And one is in Maine with the surprise retirement announced by the moderate Republican Senator Olympia Snowe.

TOEPLITZ: Absolutely. The timing of her announcement, only a couple weeks before the filing deadline, really left them scrambling. And it left a lot of Democrats scrambling, too. They're now looking for a candidate to run there, as well. And while Democrats and Republicans are scrambling, an independent governor, the former governor of Maine, Angus King announced his candidacy this week. So it's a whole different landscape in Maine just in the course of a week.

BLOCK: And the independent really - I mean, that's sort of an unknown there. Nobody quite knows if he were to win, would he be caucusing with the Democrats or with the Republicans.

TOEPLITZ: That's exactly right. Angus King is a true independent. I think he's one of only a couple of independent governors in the history of the country who have won. And he is a total wild card.

BLOCK: There's a lot of attention also on the race in Massachusetts. That's where the Republican Scott Brown is trying to hold onto his seat. It's the old Teddy Kennedy seat that he won in a special election. He's facing a challenge by the Democrat Elizabeth Warren, the consumer advocate. She's got an economic populist message. You would think in a state like Massachusetts, she would be the favorite. But it seems like it's really, really close.

TOEPLITZ: It is a very close race. And every week, we see a new poll that shows one candidate ahead over the other. And then in the next week it switches again. Look, it's just going to come down to the wire. I think a lot of it will depend on the national race. Even though Scott Brown is a Republican in a true blue state like Massachusetts, he's really staked out an independent image with a lot of voters.

I think a lot of them still remember him as a special election candidate, who ran as a kind of an alternative voice a couple of years ago. But on the other hand, Elizabeth Warren is also much stronger candidate than I think a lot of even Democrats expected she would be.

BLOCK: OK. Political writer Shira Toeplitz with Roll Call, thank you so much.

TOEPLITZ: Thank you.

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