Republican Grab For Senate Seats May Not Come Easy

Melissa Block talks with senior Washington editor Ron Elving about the Senate races to watch on Tuesday.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Earlier this year, it appeared Republicans would surely gain enough Senate seats to think the majority in that chamber in the new Congress. But a mix of retirements and primary surprises has weakened the Republican wave so much that the GOP might not see a net gain in seats at all this week.

Joining us to talk about the prospects is NPR's senior Washington editor Ron Elving. Ron, hi.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Melissa.

BLOCK: Let's talk first about the balance of power in the existing Senate.

ELVING: The current Senate to 51 Democrats, 47 Republicans, plus two Independents who organize with the Democrats. So that makes it 53 to 47. The Republicans need four seats net gain to be the majority. Or three to tie, in which case they would be the majority if Mitt Romney wins the presidency and Paul Ryan, as vice president, casts the tie-breaking vote in the Senate.

So 33 seats are on the ballot this year, that's one third of the Senate. That's how it is every two-year cycle. And there's a huge tilt in the playing field this time, because 23 of those 33 seats are being defended by the Democrats. In the spring, a dozen or more of those seats look vulnerable. And now in November just five or six do.

BLOCK: And that is in part because there have been some campaign moments that really badly hurt Republican candidates.

ELVING: There have been and they started really in the primaries when, in some cases, Republicans did not necessarily find their strongest candidate for the November contest. And so, we had in Indiana six-term veteran, incumbent Richard Lugar defeated in the primary by State Treasurer Richard Mourdock.

And then when we got into the campaign, of course, he got nationally famous for a remark that he made having to do with rape and abortion. And that came on the heels of another one made by another Republican candidate who had been elected in the primaries in a surprise. And his name is Todd Akin and he's down in the state of Missouri.

But also, they've had some disappointment with some of their other candidate performances. They expected Scott Brown, the incumbent in Massachusetts, to be as charming as he had been in his first election and to make a great connection with voters. But he's had a hard time dealing with Elizabeth Warren's challenge from the Democratic side.

BLOCK: Ron, in a number close races, the candidates have not been closely tied with their party's presidential candidate. In fact, only a few of them are running ads featuring endorsements from either Barack Obama or Mitt Romney. What's going on?

ELVING: Neither the president nor Governor Romney has been particularly a great updraft in a lot of these states. They may be the most popular candidate for that state in their party, but they are not a tremendous boost to the Senate candidate. And Senate candidates, by and large, would rather run on their own terms and be elected on their own.

Now, there are some exceptions to this. We mentioned the Mourdock campaign in Indiana and they want the endorsement, and they have had a televised endorsement from Mitt Romney, because that helps him look a little bit more moderate on that social issue that got him into trouble. Chris Murphy, the Senate candidate for the Democrats in Connecticut, is very eager to have people know that he's the Democratic candidate against Linda McMahon, self-financing Republican candidate.

She has been putting out door knockers that say: Vote for President Obama and For Me, Linda McMahon. So, in those cases, you do see the Senate candidate wanting to grab onto the presidential identity a little bit.

BLOCK: Ron, predictions are dangerous game. But do you have a sense of whether the contours of the Senate will have broadly shifted come Wednesday, or whether we'll be looking at more or less the same fundamental body?

ELVING: Any prediction you make at this point, Melissa, has to rely primarily on polls. And we simply don't know if all of the polls or any of the polls, or most of the polls are right or wrong. But if they are right, and if we're reading other factors correctly, the Democrats would seem likely to lose three of those vulnerable seats, probably the ones in the Great Plains: Montana, North Dakota and Nebraska, maybe one in Wisconsin, as well.

The Republicans though are likely to lose three of theirs. We mentioned Indiana, Maine is a state were Olympia Snowe's retirement really hurt the Republican prospects. And Angus King, former governor there who's an Independent but expected to organize with the Democrats, is the likely winner. And I already mentioned Brown and Warren race in Massachusetts.

And the Republicans holding their seats in Arizona and Nevada is largely going to depend on how big the Hispanic vote is in those states, as well. So, on balance, probably not much change, probably not much chance the Republicans get the majority back this time. But tune in tomorrow night.

BLOCK: OK. NPR senior Washington editor Ron Elving. Ron, thanks so much.

ELVING: Thank you, Melissa.

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