Fresh polling in marquee contests shows a distinct trend line in the Democrats' favor, making the GOP's narrow path to a Senate majority significantly more difficult with less than two months until the election.
Democratic candidates in Virginia, Massachusetts and Wisconsin are on the rise after navigating a summer of challenges, and benefiting from Obama's growing strength in all three states. In Florida and Ohio, Democratic incumbents have so far withstood a tidal wave of spending by conservative super PACs and outside groups.
Senate Democrats said Wednesday that stumbles by Republican Senate candidates, infighting between the tea party movement and establishment wings of the GOP and effective Democratic ads have all helped their cause. The Democratic convention, they say, firmed up the party's base.
"Obama's convention bounce is going to -- in the short term -- make taking the Senate majority look near impossible for a little bit," acknowledged one top GOP strategist.
Democrats came into the cycle defending 23 seats, versus only 10 for Republicans. Obama and the Democrats had taken a historic beatdown in the 2010 midterm elections, and the president was polling behind Senate Democratic candidates and incumbents in key swing states. Many in the party feared an unpopular president combined with a bad economy would cost the party the White House and the Senate.
The race for the Senate is far from over, but those fears are nowhere near as acute seven weeks out from the election.
Obama is far stronger, especially in battleground states. And Sen. Olympia Snowe's (R-Maine) decision to retire was a huge gift, putting a safe GOP seat into play.
"A year and a half ago, no one gave us a shot at all of being in the majority after November," said Washington Sen. Patty Murray, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. "We have increased the odds dramatically."
Added Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.): "The chances are very, very strong that we will keep the Senate, and it's certainly within the realm of realistic possibility we won't lose net seats."
At a party lunch Wednesday in the Senate's LBJ Room, Republicans privately discussed their party's Senate prospects. They argued there is still a clear pathway and that poll numbers are fleeting.
Yet there was considerable GOP concern, both publicly and privately, over Mitt Romney's campaign snafus.
"We need him to do well," Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), No. 3 in leadership, said of Romney. "I think there's obviously a down-ballot impact from the performance of the top of the ticket -- so we're all pulling for him and doing everything we can to help him -- especially in a lot of the states where we have really competitive Senate races."
Texas Sen. John Cornyn, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said he sees a "lot of swings in these polls," which he takes "with a grain of salt." He said there is plenty of time for the party to turn things around in strong GOP states like North Dakota and Montana -- and Republicans are in the hunt in Connecticut and Maine, two states that Democrats are counting on.
"A month ago, the race for the Senate was tight. Today, the race for the Senate is tight," said a top Senate GOP operative. "We took a lump in Missouri, but Connecticut is real, and Maine is real. We've taken a step back in some places, a step forward in other places."
But in three critical states, the evidence of a Senate Democratic surge could hardly be stronger.
After no shortage of handwringing over Elizabeth Warren's campaign, the Massachusetts Democrat has overtaken Brown in four consecutive polls.
After running behind in August, the former Harvard professor has pulled ahead of the freshman incumbent by 2 to 6 percentage points in surveys taken over the past two weeks. Her uptick came before any recalibration of her messaging -- Schumer and other top Democrats urged her to hit Brown harder. But it did follow her prime-time convention speech, which helped lock down wavering Democrats as well as undecided voters who lean toward Obama.
"There are plenty of Democrats who like Scott Brown, but fewer are now willing to vote for him," Public Policy Polling President Dean Debnam wrote in a memo on the race.
On Capitol Hill Wednesday, Brown dismissed questions over whether the race was slipping away -- even as he continued to distance himself from the problems engulfing Romney, the former governor of his state.
"We're two different people, obviously, and people recognize that," Brown told POLITICO. "They know me, they've known him, they made their position known on who they support, and who they don't support. ... I know she'd like to run against Mitt Romney, but she's running against me."
In Wisconsin, liberal Rep. Tammy Baldwin, who trailed Tommy Thompson in five straight August polls, has now vaulted ahead of him in several surveys. Three separate polls have Baldwin either deadlocked with or ahead of the former four-time governor. A survey by Marquette University -- which gained notoriety for correctly forecasting Gov. Scott Walker's margin in the Wisconsin recall -- put Baldwin up by a jarring 9 points.
While Republicans dismiss that margin, Thompson has been carpet-bombed on the airwaves this month. Thompson's campaign has been largely dark as it replenished a diminished war chest from a grueling August primary. Baldwin and her allies have saturated the airwaves with $4.6 million in TV and radio ads, versus $2.5 million from Thompson and his allies since the Aug. 14 primary.
"[I] have to believe that the pounding she has put on Thompson has dropped his numbers some," acknowledged Brandon Scholz, a Madison-based GOP operative and Thompson backer. "I have said from the beginning that R's who think it is Thompson's race to lose were nuts. She has big money, and she's no political dummy."
Even in Virginia -- the race that has cemented itself as the most consistently competitive in the country -- daylight has started to emerge for Democrats.
Tim Kaine, the former governor and onetime head of the Democratic National Committee, has carved out a lead against former Sen. George Allen.
A pair of polls from The Washington Post and Quinnipiac University had Kaine ahead of Allen by 7 and 8 points, making it five straight polls showing a lead for the Democrat.
In Ohio and Florida, meanwhile, Democratic incumbents Sherrod Brown and Bill Nelson have benefited from Obama's recent gains -- though in neither case do they say that they win if Obama wins.
"I think they [voters] are looking for balance and mainstream values and as they start to size things up, I think at the end of the day, that's where they come down," said Nelson, who is being challenged by GOP Rep. Connie Mack.
"[Obama] is doing better because [of] the contrast between him and Mitt Romney on auto rescue, trade enforcement. Those are issues I've been working on for years," added Sherrod Brown. "Sure, it helps me when he's doing better. ... We're running our campaigns cooperatively. We're running a lot of grass-roots efforts together."
Brown insisted his race against Republican Josh Mandel "wouldn't even be competitive except for the $18 million" spent by GOP-allied outside groups, pounding him throughout the year.
If Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) keeps his seat in the Republican-leaning state, it will bedespite, not because of Obama. There was no post-convention lift for Tester -- whose strong showing against Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg is one of the reasons for the Democrats' optimism -- and the senator is doing all he can to distance himself from the top of the ticket.
"We're focused on a guy by the name of Dennis Rehberg. ... It's a race between me and Dennis Rehberg," Tester said. "Truthfully, that's where it needs to be focused."
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