While only a few political strategists are predicting a Republican takeover of the Senate in November, Democrats may, in fact, lose the Senate if they cannot win several key races in the West, where incumbents such as Washington's Patty Murray are fighting for their political lives against surprisingly strong GOP challengers.
Murray has been added to the list of endangered Democratic senators, including several in Western states.
A SurveyUSA poll released earlier this month gave her opponent, real estate investor Dino Rossi, a seven-point lead, while a Rasmussen poll showed Murray in the lead by four points. Pollsters and political experts rate the Washington Senate race a tossup, which is hardly good news for Murray as she seeks a fourth term.
Other Democrats west of the Mississippi are also in difficult battles. In California, incumbent Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer is in a statistical tie with her Republican challenger, Carly Fiorina. Colorado's freshman Democrat, Sen. Michael Bennet, is trailing Republican Ken Buck by 9 points, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll released last week. And Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., is tied with Republican Sharron Angle in his bid for a seventh term.
"If the Republicans won three of four, they'd very probably control the Senate," University of Virginia political science professor Larry Sabato told The Washington Examiner. "It's mathematically possible but less probable they could get to a 10-seat gain with just two of these currently Democratic seats."
Like other incumbent Democrats facing tough races, Murray's popularity has been hurt by the sputtering economy and voter anger aimed at those already holding office.
"It's really hard to be a Democrat right now," said Jennifer Duffy, an editor and political analyst for the Cook Political Report. "The other problem for her is that Rossi is a good candidate. It's been a long time since she's had an opponent this good."
Rossi is a fiscal conservative who barely lost two campaigns for governor in 2004 and 2008. Those narrow losses gave him statewide name recognition. He has attacked Murray over earmarks and taxes and has pledged to work to repeal the new health care law. He is not affiliated with the Tea Party.
Murray has been unable to distance herself from the less popular Democratic legislation, in part because she helped create it.
Like Reid, Murray is a member of the Democratic Senate leadership and holds the title of secretary of the Democratic Conference, whose job, according to Reid's office, is to play "a critical role in helping shape and set the Democratic agenda."
Todd Donovan, a political science professor at Western Washington University, said the state not only has a strong Republican base, but voters who are more than willing to toss out an incumbent, even one in a leadership position. House Speaker Tom Foley, a Democrat, lost his re-election bid in 1994, and in 2000, Sen. Maria Cantwell beat GOP incumbent Slade Gorton.
"We are a more two-party, balanced state than most people think," Donovan said. "It's definitely going to be close and everything that could be working against Murray is working against her this time."