5 battleground states key for GOP Senate majority 

Democrat Sen. Evan Bayh's sudden decision to forgo a third term puts his party one step closer to losing the majority in November, but a GOP victory would hinge on winning five critical races.

Bayh, of Indiana, was 20 points ahead in one recent poll, but his departure gives Republicans the edge so far in the race to claim his seat. Democrats already must contend with the likely loss of seats in North Dakota and Delaware thanks to Byron Dorgan's retirement and Beau Biden's decision not to run for the seat once held by his father, Vice President Joe Biden.

Races in Arkansas, Colorado, Illinois, Nevada and Pennsylvania have been deemed a tossup by most analysts, but the strong anti-incumbent sentiment has Republicans anticipating several victories.

If Republicans are victorious in all five races and are able to win GOP-favored Indiana, Delaware and North Dakota, they are still two seats short of winning the majority. To get there, Republicans are setting their sights on races that were once considered long shots, including California, where a new poll shows Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer's lead has shrunk to four points, and New York, where appointed first-termer Kirsten Gillibrand could face a strong challenge from former Republican Gov. George Pataki if she makes it through a primary with former Tennessee Rep. Harold Ford.

A look at the five races that could decide control of Congress:

* Nevada - Perhaps the most glaring example of the Democrats' vulnerability in 2010 lies in the Silver State, where Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is in the fight of his political life. Reid is seeking a fifth term, but all the polls seem to signal he may not get it. The latest poll, taken earlier this month, shows Reid trailing potential Republican opponents Danny Tarkanian and Sue Lowden by eight and six points, respectively. But political analysts say Reid could benefit from the fallout of a potentially bloody GOP primary or the entry of a third-party candidate put forward by Tea Party Republicans. "I wouldn't count him out yet," Nevada political analyst Jon Ralston told The Examiner.

* Colorado - Democratic incumbent Michael Bennet was appointed last year to take the seat vacated by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, but it's been a rough ride for the freshman, who has suffered from low approval ratings and little recognition from voters, and is facing a formidable challenge from the GOP, which some analysts say is a recipe for political disaster.

The former Denver schools superintendent is trailing Republicans Jane Norton and Ken Buck by 14 points and 4 points, respectively.

* Illinois - The seat once held by President Obama and passed imprudently by indicted Gov. Rod Blagojevich to Democrat Roland Burris is now at serious risk of falling into GOP hands in November. Illinois state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, a Democrat, now trails Rep. Mark Kirk, the moderate Republican challenger, by an average of 6 points in recent polls.

* Pennsylvania - Sen. Arlen Specter tried to save his political career by switching parties last year, but it has done the moderate lawmaker little good. Specter, who has swerved left politically to fend off a primary challenge, is consistently polling behind Republican challenger Pat Toomey, who would have likely beat Specter in a Republican primary if he had remained in the GOP.

* Arkansas - Incumbent Blanche Lincoln is considered the Senate's most vulnerable incumbent. Her re-election prospects are so questionable that rumors have circulated repeatedly that she would follow Bayh's lead and quit. Despite trailing Republican Rep. John Boozman by double digits, Lincoln said she is staying in the race and has raised millions in campaign funds. The state's century-long tradition of choosing Democrats could ultimately save her.

sferrechio@washingtonexaminer.com

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