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Republicans struggle to get Senate majority after self-inflicted wounds

As President Barack Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney barnstorm the battleground states in the closing days of the 2012 campaign, the fate of their competing agendas may rest as much on the results of the fight for control of the U.S. Senate as on which candidate wins the state of Ohio.  

A Senate under Republican control could make it difficult for the president to get his judicial and executive branch nominees confirmed if he’s re-elected and could stall or derail his second-term agenda. 

If Romney should win and gain a narrow majority, his agenda could face obstacles from Democrats under Senate rules, furthering the kind of gridlock that has defined Washington for the past two years.

And on the weekend before the election the Republicans’ chances of winning the four seats they need to gain control of the Senate seem a bit slimmer than six months ago (Republicans would need a net gain of three seats if Paul Ryan is elected vice president).

A GOP Senate isn’t impossible, but it may have been foiled by the Republicans themselves.

GOP candidates Richard Mourdock in Indiana and Rep. Todd Akin in Missouri inflicted what may be politically fatal wounds to their campaigns:

Aj Mast / AP

This May 8, 2012 file photo shows then-Indiana Treasurer Richard Mourdock speaking to supporters in Indianapolis after he defeated incumbent Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind. in the primary.

  • When Mourdock was asked during an Oct. 23 televised debate with his opponent Rep. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind about opposing abortion in all cases except when the mother's life is endangered by the pregnancy, Mourdock said, "I struggled with it myself for a long time. But I came to realize life is that gift from God, and I think even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen."

Due to that comment and the way Democrats exploited it, it now looks possible that Mourdock could lose to Donnelly, giving the Democrats what is a Republican-held seat in a state President Barack Obama is expected to lose.

  • In August, Akin was asked in a TV interview whether abortion should be legal in cases of rape. "From what I understand from doctors, that's really rare,” he replied. “If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down." Later he explained in another interview that he opposes abortion in cases of women become pregnant after being raped because "rape is a tragedy, and I don't think it helps the first tragedy to add a second tragedy to it.”

Akin’s “legitimate rape” phrase sparked a furor that may end up saving the once-beleaguered Democratic incumbent Sen. Claire McCaskill.

Missouri, like Indiana, is a state that Obama is expected to lose on Tuesday.

A political panel discusses how the presidential election will impact the House and Senate

Much media attention has been lavished on Mourdock, Akin and on the marquee East Coast Senate races with very well-known candidates. In Virginia, two former governors, Republican George Allen and Democrat Tim Kaine, are squaring off for the open Senate seat and in Massachusetts, Sen. Scott Brown, the first Republican elected to the Senate from that state since 1972, is trying to stave off a challenge from Harvard law professor Elizabeth Warren, who has become a cult hero to progressive Democrats across the nation.

But despite the GOP gaffes and prominence of the Massachusetts and Virginia races, in the end the Senate majority will hinge just as much on races in two relatively thinly populated rural states far from the nation’s media centers: North Dakota and Montana.

Three hundred thousand voters in North Dakota could have just as big a voice in deciding the Senate majority as 3.6 million voters in Virginia.

In North Dakota, Democrat Heidi Heitkamp is trying to hold a seat for her party. With Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad retiring this year, Republicans thought they had a glittering opportunity to gain a seat.

North Dakota votes Republican in presidential elections. With Mitt Romney at the top of the ticket the chances looked good for GOP Senate candidate Rep. Rick Berg, elected to the House in 2010. The state last went Democratic in a presidential race in 1964. Obama is unpopular in North Dakota and got only 44 percent of the vote there in 2008.

Yet until 2010, North Dakota voters also had a 28-year habit of electing Democrats to the Senate. They voted for the Democratic duo of Conrad and Byron Dorgan even when they were voting for President George W. Bush and his father, George H.W. Bush in three presidential elections.

Heitkamp, the state attorney general, has kept her distance from Obama but the Republicans portray her as his loyal ally, citing pre-campaign statements she made supporting the Affordable Care Act and another in which she called Obama “amazing.”

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One of Berg’s TV ads featured a quartet of middle-aged and older women at a coffee shop voicing dismay at Heitkamp attacking Berg.

“Does that surprise you?” one lady asks another. “She’s trying to hide her support for Obamacare, which cuts $500 billion from Medicare.” Another of the coffee klatch ladies replies: “And don’t forget her calling Obama ‘amazing.’” 

Summing it up, the first lady says, “False attacks, supporting Obama, that’s not the North Dakota way.”

But in her recent soothing TV spot Heitkamp reminisces about growing up in the tiny town of Mantador, N.D.

“I learned how schools and tractors and guns were all part of how we lived,” she says. “And that we vote for the person, not the party…. I will only answer to you.”

Heitkamp has gotten help from former President Bill Clinton who visited the state on Monday to campaign with her. And nearly $16 million in independent spending has been lavished on the race, with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) spending heavily on direct mail pieces against Berg and Americans for Tax Reform and Crossroads GPS running ads, sending mail, and making phone calls against Heitkamp.

Next door in Montana, an impressive $25 million in independent spends has poured into the race between first-term Democrat Sen. Jon Tester and Rep. Denny Rehberg, who has served six terms in the House. 

As in North Dakota, AFSCME is wading in with TV ads against Rehberg while Crossroads GPS has been opposing Tester. Other groups in in the fray include Gun Owners of America backing Rehberg and the League of Conservation Voters Action Fund aiding Tester.

With the race having been tied in polling for months, libertarian candidate Dan Cox might play a role in the outcome. The Billings Gazette reported last week that Montana Hunters and Anglers Leadership Fund, a super PAC financed by the League of Conservation Voters is running a TV ad telling voters to support Cox.

The availability of the filibuster to either party if it ends up in the minority means that there may be legislative gridlock, no matter who is president.

But the outcomes in North Dakota, Montana and the other Senate races are hugely important for another reason: whoever has the Senate majority sets the agenda for national policy discussion.

Take for example the topics of climate change, pollution, and energy policy. It matters whether the chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee is a Democrat or a Republican.

Kyle Danish, a lawyer at Van Ness Feldman in Washington who specializes in environmental law, said that since Republicans took control of the House in 2011 they’ve passed bills that would curb the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases, coal ash, and mercury.

Liberal Sen. Barbara Boxer, D- Calif., as chairman of Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, helped block the House bills. If Republicans had the Senate majority and Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma were chairman of the committee, the agenda would be more aligned with the House Republicans.

When it comes to the potential for hearings on Hurricane Sandy and climate change, for instance, Boxer is “much more likely to hold hearings on climate change impacts than Jim Inhofe who has held the view that climate change is the greatest hoax foisted on the American public.”

Danish added “Hearings matter in calling public attention to issues and forming the agenda of Congress.”