WASHINGTON (Reuters) - With Republicans headed to big election gains on November 2, Democrats are counting on the liberal-leaning West Coast to counter the national trend and help them preserve their fragile Senate majority.
President Barack Obama heads to California and Washington state this week to drum up support for endangered incumbents Barbara Boxer and Patty Murray in the last days of a campaign that finds his Democrats playing defense around the country.
Wins in those two Democratic-leaning states — most polls show Boxer and Murray with slight leads — likely would be enough to ensure Democrats retain narrow control of the Senate even if Republicans sweep the other competitive races.
“Right now, Democrats have their best chances on the West Coast. They are in relatively good shape out there compared with the rest of the country,” said Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Minnesota.
Public discontent with Obama and the economy has sparked widespread predictions of a Democratic election defeat, with Republicans favored to gain more than the 39 seats they need to seize control of the House of Representatives and perhaps even the 10 seats needed for a Senate majority.
Republicans, who have 41 seats in the 100-member Senate, already hold commanding leads in races for Democratic seats in North Dakota, Arkansas and Indiana.
That leaves them needing wins in seven of eight toss-up Senate races in Democratic-held states — California, Washington, Nevada, Colorado, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Illinois and West Virginia — to regain Senate control.
“The odds are against the Republicans taking the Senate, but the odds are in favor of them getting very close,” said Peter Brown, a Quinnipiac University pollster.
“It’s going to come down to three or four seats that all have to go the Republicans’ way,” he said.
A narrow one- or two-seat Democratic majority in the Senate would almost certainly ensure partisan gridlock on Obama’s legislative initiatives like climate change and immigration unless he is willing to make significant concessions.
It also would probably prompt Republicans to try to entice conservatives like Ben Nelson of Nebraska and independents like Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut to join their party as they try to repeal Obama’s healthcare overhaul and cut federal spending.
Obama also will campaign this week for threatened Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid, who is in a tight battle for re-election in Nevada against a Tea Party favorite.
Incumbent Democrats Reid, Boxer and Murray, along with Michael Bennet in Colorado, Russ Feingold in Wisconsin and Blanche Lincoln in Arkansas, are in danger of falling victim to the foul public mood over the economy and government in Washington.
Boxer and Murray have solidified small leads in California and Washington in recent weeks as Democratic voters become more engaged. Democratic Senate candidates in Democratic-leaning states in the East like Connecticut and New York also have seen their leads widen.
“Democrats are starting to wake up a bit in these blue states,” said Jennifer Duffy, a Senate analyst at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, using the color designation for Democratic states used on network election maps.
“Is that enough? It’s hard to know,” she said. “There are seven or eight races that, if you believe the polling, are within the margin of error at this point.”
Obama has hit the campaign trail in recent weeks to pump up Democratic turnout, drawing sharper distinctions with Republicans and cranking up his criticism of their economic policies.
He could find fertile territory for those arguments in California, where he beat Republican presidential candidate John McCain by 14 percentage points in 2008, and in Washington, where he beat McCain by a whopping 18 points.
In California, Boxer has criticized her Republican challenger, former Hewlett-Packard chief Carly Fiorina, for shipping jobs overseas while she headed the company. But Boxer, like Murray in Washington state, has been hurt by the economy and voter anger at Congress and government.
In Nevada, where an influx of new residents from the Snow Belt and a growing Hispanic population have bolstered Democrats in recent years, Reid has struggled against Republican Tea Party favorite Sharron Angle in a race that appears to be a dead heat.
“It’s going to be a very late night before we know which party controls the Senate, it probably will come down to those races out West and maybe Colorado, which are tight,” Schier said.
For Republicans, the hope is that a swelling landslide propelled by voter unhappiness with Obama, persistent unemployment and high government spending enables them to run the table on all the competitive races.
“The law of averages rarely applies in political landslides,” Brown said. “All the close ones go the same way.”