Control of the Senate, two weeks out and counting

The rundown on where things stand -- and where we think they'll end up.

Published October 24, 2006 5:15PM (EDT)

We're now two weeks out from Election Day, and we've got something approaching a critical mass of prognosticators predicting that Democrats will take control of the House of Representatives. The Senate is a more complicated climb, and a new round of polls gives us an occasion to check in on the ascent.

You know the math by now. Republicans hold 55 seats in the Senate today. With independent Jim Jeffords -- who will be replaced by independent Bernie Sanders -- the Democrats effectively have 45 seats now. To get to a 51-49 majority, they need to achieve a net gain of six seats on Nov. 7.

How's it looking? Not impossible, but not anything like easy, either.

Let's start with the two competitive races in which Democrats have got to hold on to seats that they already have.

Maryland: A Survey USA poll out last week had Democrat Ben Cardin and Republican Michael Steele tied in the race for the seat now held by retiring Democratic Sen. Paul Sarbanes, but other polls suggest that the race isn't as close as all that. According to, Cardin has led in all but one other published poll since April. In the five polls released this month before the Survey USA poll, Cardin led by an average of about seven percentage points. CQ Politics rating: Leans Democrat.

New Jersey: Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez is up by three points in the new McClatchy/MSNBC poll -- the same as the within-the-margin-of-error lead he held in the poll three weeks ago. has Menendez up by five in its running average of recent polls. CQ Politics rating: No clear favorite.

Assuming that Menendez and Cardin hold on -- and assuming that some late-breaking development doesn't make any noncompetitive races competitive -- Democrats will need to win six of the following seven seats. Here's where things stand now, ranked in rough descending order by the likelihood of a Democratic victory two weeks from today.

Pennsylvania: Democrat Bob Casey Jr. continues to enjoy a steady lead over Republican Sen. Rick Santorum. In the latest McClatchy/MSNBC poll, Casey is up 51-39 percent, a couple of ticks better than his 49-40 showing three weeks ago. Casey may not win by double digits on Election Day -- look out for the "Eye of Mordor"! -- but we haven't seen anything to suggest that Santorum can overtake him now. CQ Politics rating: Leans Democrat.

Rhode Island: McClatchy/MSNBC has Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse pulling away a bit from incumbent Republican Sen. Lincoln Chafee. Whitehouse leads 48-43 in the latest poll, a seemingly significant step up from the 42-41 advantage he had three weeks ago. Whitehouse is up by eight points in a Rasmusssen Reports poll out today, and he hasn't trailed in any poll we've seen since Chafee won the GOP primary in September. CQ Politics rating: Leans Democrat.

Montana: Republican Sen. Conrad Burns seems to be closing in a bit on Democratic challenger Jon Tester. Tester was up 47-40 in the McClatchy/MSNBC poll three weeks ago; now he leads by just a 46-43 percent margin that's within the poll's margin of error. That said, we haven't seen a single poll anywhere that has had Burns ahead of Tester, and Pollster's running average of recent polls still has Tester up by seven points. CQ Politics rating: No clear favorite.

Ohio: Democrat Sherrod Brown is building a lead over Republican Sen. Mike DeWine in the latest McClatchy/MSBNC poll. He's up 48-40 percent now compared with 45-43 three weeks ago. Brown's upward movement is consistent with what we're seeing elsewhere -- and also consistent with reports that the GOP is shifting its resources to states where it has a better shot at defending its incumbents. CQ Politics rating: Leans Democrat.

Missouri: Democratic challenger Claire McCaskill seems to be outperforming Republican Sen. Jim Talent, if ever so slightly. McCaskill is up by a within-the-margin-of-error three points in the latest McClatchy/MSNBC poll; the candidates were tied the last time around. As Pollster reports, McCaskill is up by an average of one point in five other recent polls. But an average is just an average, and in this case it obscures the all-over-the-map nature of what we've seen: In the five polls that preceded the McClatchy/MSNBC survey, McCaskill was down by three, down by one, up by nine, up by five and up by one. CQ Politics rating: No clear favorite.

Tennessee: Republican Bob Corker leads Democrat Harold Ford Jr. by a within-the-margin-of-error two points in the new McClatchy/MSNBC poll, which may or may not represent a switch from the 43-42 percent lead Ford enjoyed the last time the poll was conducted. Pollster has the two candidates tied in its average of the last five and the last 10 published polls. CQ Politics rating: No clear favorite.

Virginia: McClatchy/MSNBC has Republican Sen. George Allen putting a little distance between himself and Democratic challenger Jim Webb. Allen leads 47-43 in the latest poll; the two men were tied two weeks ago. Pollster's running average has Allen up by five. If Webb, who hasn't shown himself to be much of campaigner, couldn't overtake Allen via "macaca," the "N-word" and everything else, we have a hard time seeing how he does so now -- especially if Allen's handlers continue to keep the senator away from gaffe-inducing reporters. CQ Politics rating: Leans Republican.

What does it all mean? Charlie Cook puts all seven races in the "toss-up" category. Larry Sabato says Democrats have to win four out of his "fundamental five" -- New Jersey, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Missouri and Virginia -- but that that's not an "uphill" fight because he sees the GOP leading only in Virginia now. The Washington Post's Chris Cillizza sees the GOP holding on 51-49, with Allen, Talent and Corker denying the Democrats the majority. If we had to bet today? We'd put our money down between a 52-48 Republican advantage and a 50-50 tie, with Tennessee staying red, Missouri on the fence and some Democratic candidate somewhere waking up on Nov. 8 wondering what the hell went wrong.

By Tim Grieve

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

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