Control of the Senate? It could come down to the Final Four

A look at the horse races in Missouri, New Jersey, Tennessee and Virginia.

By Tim Grieve

Published October 16, 2006 4:18PM (EDT)

If this morning's New York Times analysis of the state of play in the Senate is correct, control of that body will turn on the electoral outcomes in four states: New Jersey, Missouri, Tennessee and Virginia. If Democrats go three-for-four or four-for-four, they probably win the Senate. If Republicans go three-for-four or four-for-four, they probably retain control. And if the parties split the four two-two, the parties will probably find themselves itself in a 50-50 tie, with Dick Cheney casting the deciding vote and Joe Lieberman's political loyalties, or lack thereof, looming rather large in the process.

So what's happening in the Final Four? Here's where things stand now:

New Jersey: It's probably the only state where an incumbent Democratic senator is in danger, and Bob Menendez isn't looking quite as threatened as he was last month. Menendez leads Republican state Sen. Thomas Kean Jr. in six of the last seven polls released in New Jersey. A Strategic Vision poll released on Oct. 1 had Kean up by 5 points; the six polls released since then -- including a new Rasmussen Reports poll out over the weekend -- have Menendez up by an average of about 4 points. The Times says that the GOP will be running TV spots in the Garden State this week to "test" Menendez' "vulnerability," but it would take a serious chunk of change to close the money gap between the candidates: As the Associated Press reported over the weekend, the Menendez campaign has $5.5 million in cash ready to spend in the final weeks of the campaign. Kean's campaign has just $3.17 million.

Missouri: Incumbent Republican Sen. Jim Talent seems to be locked in a neck-and-neck race with Democratic State Auditor Claire McCaskill. A Survey USA poll released last week gave McCaskill a 9-point lead over Talent, but a Rasmussen poll released Sunday has Talent up by a point. Other polls have been mixed as well.

Tennessee: Democratic Rep. Harold Ford Jr. and Republican Mayor Bob Corker appear to be in an ever-closer race for the seat now held by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist. The latest Rasmussen poll has Ford up by a within-the-margin-of-error 2 points; a Survey USA poll released last week had Corker up by the same 2-point spread. Four other polls released earlier this month had Ford up by an average of about 4 percentage points, suggesting that Corker has some momentum going for him as the race moves into its final three weeks.

Virginia: Two new polls have Democrat Jim Webb closing the gap on Republican Sen. George Allen. A Rasmussen poll out today puts Allen 3 points ahead, down from a 6-point lead Rasmussen saw earlier this month. And a Washington Post poll released over the weekend has the candidates in a "virtual tie," with Allen holding a within-the-margin-of-error 49-47 percent lead. "With few respondents saying they are undecided and most seemingly locked in for their candidate," the Post says its poll shows that "the candidates' strategies for turning out supporters will be vital, and that changes in the national political climate could tilt the outcome."

Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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