Eight months before the Nov. 4 elections, Republicans have expanded the number of competitive races for US Senate seats and have a growing chance of gaining control of that chamber and stalling Democratic US President Barack Obama’s second-term agenda.
Public dissatisfaction with the president, concerns about his healthcare overhaul and a sluggish economy and a series of retirements by key Democratic senators in conservative states have made a rugged year for Democrats even more so, analysts and strategists in both parties say.
Republicans, who are widely expected to retain control of the US House of Representatives, need a net gain of six seats to take back the 100-member Senate.
Recent polling indicates they have big leads in three states — Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia — where longtime Democratic senators have retired or will retire in January next year.
Although the primary season is just starting and the candidates in many races are not set, polls suggest Republicans have boosted their odds of gaining additional Senate seats by becoming competitive in politically divided states such as Michigan and Colorado, where a year ago they were given little chance of winning.
Senate races in those states and five others now represented by Democrats — Alaska, Arkansas, Iowa, Louisiana and North Carolina — have been close in early voter surveys.
Democrats have a chance to pick up Republican-held seats in two states: Kentucky, where Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell is expected to dispatch a Tea Party-backed challenger in the primary, but would face a tough fight against Democrat Alison Grimes in November; and Georgia, where Michelle Nunn, daughter of former Democratic senator Sam Nunn, will face the winner of a crowded Republican primary in a race to replace retiring Republican Saxby Chambliss.
That leaves Republicans needing to win at least three of the seven closely contested races for seats now held by Democrats, while holding off Grimes and Nunn in Kentucky and Georgia. If either of them wins in November, the task for Republicans will be more difficult.
“It’s moving a little in the Republican direction,” University of Virginia professor Larry Sabato said.
“Republicans will pick up Senate seats, probably three or four. The question is, will they get that wave in October that carries them to the six they need?” he said.
If Republicans were to control the Senate and the House for the last two years of Obama’s presidency, virtually any legislation or nomination he sought from Congress would probably be frozen in place.
Republicans also would be likely to press the Senate to join the House in trying to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare.
Although Obama could veto any bill from Congress that targets it, a Republican takeover of the Senate would put him on defense for the balance of his tenure.
There have been signs that Obama’s administration is increasingly concerned about this year’s elections.
Last week’s decision by the White House to extend the time insurers can offer health plans that do not meet minimum requirements under Obamacare was seen by some as an effort to protect Democrats from having to explain a new wave of policy cancellations during the final days of the fall campaign.
Obama has promised to help Democratic candidates any way he can, but told Senate Democrats last month that he would not be offended if those in conservative states do not want his help.
Democrats have faced an uphill battle in Senate races from the start of the political cycle.
Of the 35 Senate seats up for election, 21 are held by Democrats and 14 by Republicans, so Democrats have more seats to defend.
Beyond that, those Democrats include Mark Begich of Alaska, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Kay Hagan in North Carolina, who represent conservative states where Obama and Obamacare are particularly unpopular.
The top challengers to all four have raised significant campaign cash, and outside advocacy groups such as Americans for Prosperity, funded by billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, already have spent millions of US dollars on ads attacking the senators for backing Obamacare.
Republican candidates are heavy favorites to capture the seats of retiring Democrats Jay Rockefeller in West Virginia and Tim Johnson in South Dakota, two other states in which Obama’s ratings are poor.
Democrats also could be stung by the retirement of Michigan Senator Carl Levin, which has put that state in play.
Democratic Representative Gary Peters and Republican Terri Lynn Land, a former Michigan secretary of state, are now in a tight battle.
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