House Seats Up For Grabs, Third Of Senate Seats

While most of the focus this campaign season has been on the race for the White House, there is also an intense — and expensive — battle going on for control of the House and Senate. Depending on who wins the White House, Republicans need a net gain of 3 or 4 seats in the Senate to get a majority. In the House, Democrats need to pick up 25 seats to make Nancy Pelosi speaker once again.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The race for president has been at the heart of this election season. Let's turn now to the intense and expensive battle going on for control of the House and the Senate.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The next Congress will be losing some famous names, like Barney Frank, Joe Lieberman and Ron Paul - all retiring. Today, one-third of the Senate and all 435 seats in the House are up for grabs.

MONTAGNE: Depending on who wins the White House, Republicans need a net gain of three or four seats in the Senate to get a majority. In the House, Democrats need to pick up 25 seats to make Nancy Pelosi speaker once again. Ken Rudin writes NPR's online column Political Junkie, and joined us to talk about some of the key contests.

Good morning.

KEN RUDIN, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Well, let's start with the Senate. What numbers are we looking at, here?

RUDIN: Well, there are 33 seats at stake. Twenty-three of them are currently held by the Democrats, and seven of the Democrats are retiring. So, theoretically - at least on paper - Republicans seems to have more opportunities.

MONTAGNE: And you say on paper - what are the chances for a Republican majority? Because this was much talked about not but, you know, maybe a month or two ago, they had a good chance.

RUDIN: Absolutely. They were looking at states where Democratic incumbents were retiring, like in North Dakota, in Nebraska, in Connecticut. They all look good. They think that perhaps Mitt Romney's coattails in Montana could help Congressman Denny Rehberg. That race is very, very close.

But a lot of the Republican targets seem to be far more elusive than they expected. It's very close in Wisconsin, for example, where former four-term Republican Governor Tommy Thompson is locked in a tight battle with Democratic Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin. Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill started the election cycle thought to be in deep trouble, but comments about rape and abortion by her Republican opponent Todd Akin really put the Republican candidate on the defensive.

And they also have to worry about some of the states that they currently hold. In Massachusetts, for example, Senator Scott Brown - he's the one who won the seat of the late Ted Kennedy - he's in a very tough race with Democrat Elizabeth Warren. In Indiana, this was a safe Republican seat, but once Dick Luger was beat in the Republican primary by a very conservative candidate, Richard Mourdock, that has turned that race very, very close. Mourdock is probably running even with Congressman Joe Donnelly. And also in Maine, where moderate Republican Olympia Snowe decided to retire after a bunch of terms, that seat could be another Republican loss.

MONTAGNE: Now, talk about the Senate: You just mentioned Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts. Generally speaking, this seems like it could be a big day for women.

RUDIN: Absolutely. There are more women running for the Senate - 18 in all. You have strong candidates, like Deb Fischer, a Republican state senator in Nebraska. You have Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat in North Dakota. You have Shelley Berkley running in Nevada - also a very close race. Linda McMahon, the former wrestling executive, is running strong in Connecticut. And there's guaranteed to be a female senator from Hawaii, where both candidates are women.

And also in the House - look at the House, too. One of the oddest stories of all that may come out of Election Day: Mia Love is an African-American female Republican running in, of all states, in Utah, and she has a chance of winning there, too. There's never been an African-American female Republican in the House in history.

MONTAGNE: Let's look at the larger outlook for the House. What's going on there? Again, Democrats hoping to get a majority - not likely.

RUDIN: Well, it's hard to say. I mean, they need 25 seats. Unlike the last three elections in 2006, 2008 and 2010, we had wave elections - especially 2010, when the Republicans picked up 63 seats. So you think there might be some kind of a correction in 2012. Democrats would gain a lot of them back. But there are a lot of Democrats retiring in the South. That helps the Republicans. I think whoever wins may be in single digits, not close to the 25 the Democrats need to get majority.

MONTAGNE: What then has happened with the Tea Party?

RUDIN: Well, the Tea Party, of course, was on the ascendency in 2009 and 2010. They were probably responsible, more than anybody else, for the great Republican gains in 2010. But the enthusiasm, a lot of the momentum is gone. The Tea Party has spent a lot of 2012 focusing on challenging Republicans less so than Democrats. Republicans, they feel, is just too establishment, too much status quo. And that has driven a little wedge inside the Republican Party.

MONTAGNE: And, of course, we don't know how this will turn out, exactly. But at this point in time, what would you say might be the big takeaway in terms of the Senate and the House of Representatives together?

RUDIN: Well, the irony is that after hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent, it's very possible we may wind up with a status quo election. Republicans could wind up still controlling the House of Representatives. The Democrats could still wind up controlling the Senate. And with split parties - the Republicans in the House, Democrats in the Senate - what will get done on Capitol Hill, that remains the question.

MONTAGNE: Ken Rudin's Political Junkie column this week looks at what's at stake in today's election. And it can be found at npr.org/Junkie.

Ken, thanks very much.

RUDIN: Thank you, Renee.

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