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Senate In The Balance: TPM's Look At The 9 Key Races Still Up For Grabs

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Alaska: Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R/write-in) vs. Joe Miller (R) vs. Scott McAdams (D)

This is probably the only plausible chance that Democrats now have to pick up a Senate seat from the Republicans. Even that's a long shot, too -- and the zany circumstances of this race point to how strange such a thing would really be.

Incumbent Sen. Lisa Murkowski narrowly lost her Republican primary in a big upset against Tea Party-backed attorney Joe Miller, who had the support of former Governor (and longtime Murkowski rival) Sarah Palin. Murkowski has since continued as a write-in candidate, and set up a serious three-way race: The TPM Poll Average gives Murkowski 36.9%, Miller 31.7%, and McAdams 25.5%.

Another thing: This race could take a couple weeks to count, if the result is not immediately obvious on Election Night. Absentee ballots won't be counted until later, and votes for Murkowski will initially be tallied as "write-in." They will then only be scrutinized later to make sure that the name "Murkowski" was sufficiently spelled out, on a case-by-case basis, if there are enough write-in votes for the incumbent to potentially win. Recent polls have shown McAdams gaining some support, due to the mudslinging between Murkowski and Miller, but it remains a tough haul for him to win on a split GOP vote.

California: Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) vs. Carly Fiorina (R)

The three-term Democrat Boxer has suffered from lackluster ratings, with the TPM Poll Average giving her an approval of only 43.1% to a disapproval of 48.7%, and has often faced tough races. Republicans had high hopes for former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, who brought several million dollars of her own money into the race and potential appeal to women voters.

But Fiorina never quite caught on with voters. Boxer has managed to stay ahead in the polls, in part by waging an economic populist and nationalist campaign against Fiorina, the former CEO of a multinational corporation. As a result, the TPM Poll Average of Fiorina's approval-disapproval numbers stand at 41.4%-47.9%.

As for the horse race, the TPM Poll Average gives Boxer a lead of 47.8%-43.3%.

Colorado: Sen. Michael Bennet (D) vs. Ken Buck (R)

Bennet, who had been the Superintendent of the Denver Schools, was appointed to the Senate following the appointment of Democratic Sen. Ken Salazar as Secretary of the Interior. Bennet had never sought elected office before, and was challenged for the Dem nomination by former state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff. Bennet narrowly turned back Romanoff in the primary, and now faces Republican Ken Buck, a district attorney and Tea Party-backed candidate who narrowly defeated the GOP establishment favorite, former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton, in the Republican primary.

Democrats have tried to make hay of Buck's various right-wing statements: He compared homosexuality to alcoholism and said that it is a choice; he claimed that global warming is a hoax; and he has been attacked for refusing to prosecute a past rape case.

At the same time, the overall anti-Democratic environment has been clear, as Bennet has admitted that the idea of President Obama's coming on the campaign trail for him would not be helpful.

The TPM Poll Average gives Buck a lead of 48.4%-46.0%.

Illinois: Alexi Giannoulias (D) vs. Mark Kirk (R)

The open-seat contest for the Senate seat formerly held by President Obama is a classic example of a race where the voters are left to choose between two candidates neither of whom they particularly like. As the TPM Poll Averages show, Giannoulias's personal favorable-unfavorable ratings are 36.8%-49.4%, while Kirk's ratings are also in negative territory at 40.3%-42.0%.

The reasons: For Giannoulias, it is the failure of his family's bank. For Kirk, it is his long history of making false statements about his military record. With that said, there has been a lot of Republican momentum in this state, due to such factors as the bad economy and the legacy of impeached former Gov. Rod Blagojevich (who, in turn, had appointed the current occupant of the seat, Roland Burris).

The TPM Poll Average, as we've discovered, is actually very difficult to calculate because of the presence of various third-party candidates picking up protest votes. On Election Day, it's possible that support for any of these minor candidates could collapse as voters face a stark choice of the two major candidates -- but that effect is various hard to predict.

Nevada: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D) vs. Sharron Angle (R)

Reid has been a highly endangered incumbent, due in large part to the bad economy that has hit Nevada's tourism and real estate economy especially hard. His only hope for re-election has come from his wacky Tea Party-backed opponent, former state Rep. Sharron Angle, who famously flirted with armed revolution with her comment about people potentially using their "Second Amendment remedies" against a Democratic Congress if current policies continue.

Angle is just as unpopular as Reid: According to the TPM Poll Averages, Reid's personal favorable-unfavorable ratings are only 42.4%-55.3%, while Angle's ratings are a similarly awful 43.3%-52.6%. In the horse race, Angle leads leads by 49.5%-46.4%, but there are signs that Democrats have done well in early voting.

The closing days of the campaign have seen Angle dodging the press, taking the unusual step of banning reporters who ask questions from her Election Night event, and falsely accusing Reid of getting rich through his Senate office. Meanwhile, the Reid campaign and the national Democrats' ads have called her a "pathological" liar, and urged voters to not pick Angle even though they are frustrated with the economy.

Pennsylvania: Joe Sestak (D) vs. Pat Toomey (R)

This seat was gained by the Democrats under some highly unusual circumstances in the spring of 2009 -- longtime Republican Sen. Arlen Specter, who was facing defeat in the Republican primary from his past rival Pat Toomey as a result of Specter's support for President Obama's stimulus bill, switched to the Democrats. But switching parties did not help, as he ultimately lost his Democratic primary to Rep. Joe Sestak.

The tough economy and the overall political environment have now put Toomey ahead of Sestak (though polls have suggested he would have done even better against Specter). Despite a recent surge for Sestak, the polls now show Toomey pulling away again.

The TPM Poll Average gives Toomey a lead of 48.6%-44.2%.

Washington: Sen. Patty Murray (D) vs. Dino Rossi (R)

Three-term Democratic Sen. Patty Murray is facing a tough challenge from Republican former state Sen. Dino Rossi, who previously lost two very close races for governor in 2004 and 2008. Recent polls are split on who is actually ahead -- most polls have shown Murray narrowly ahead, but the result sure seems to be close. The TPM Poll Average gives Murray a lead of 48.9%-46.3%.

West Virginia: Joe Manchin (D) vs. John Raese (R)

When Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd died this past June after more than 50 years of service in the Senate, it opened up a Senate seat in a state that has been trending steadily to the Republicans over the past decade. Democrats were, however, able to recruit their strongest possible candidate in Gov. Joe Manchin, a relatively conservative Dem who has enjoyed sky-high approval ratings. Meanwhile, the best that Republicans could get was businessman John Raese, who over the last 26 years has run two unsuccessful campaigns for Senate and one campaign for governor.

However, Raese and the GOP made vigorous use of President Obama's heavy unpopularity in the state, combined with its recent conservative trend. Raese then led in the polls about a month ago, and had Manchin seriously on the ropes.

Then two things happened that blunted the GOP's momentum. First, it was revealed that a National Republican Senatorial Committee ad was produced using a casting call for "hicky" actors. Next, Manchin actively distanced himself from national Dems, going so far as to release a TV ad in which he shot a cap-and-trade bill, in order to re-establish his identity as a conservative Democrat.

The TPM Poll Average gives Manchin a lead of 48.9%-46.2%.

Wisconsin: Sen. Russ Feingold (D) vs. Ron Johnson (R)

Three-term Sen. Russ Feingold has long been a hero to American progressives but, this year, his luck could be running out. Wisconsin has seen an especially tough enthusiasm gap from Democratic voters, and the rough economy is swinging this Dem-leaning Midwestern state sharply to the right.

Feingold's Republican opponent, businessman Ron Johnson, has relentlessly attacked Feingold and the Democrats on the issue of the budget deficit and the economy. On the other hand, he faced some flak for his multiple admissions that he doesn't actually have any detailed policy proposals.

That said, Johnson has had the momentum in all the polls. The TPM Poll Average gives Johnson a lead of 51.3%-44.6%. Wisconsin Democrats can often produce strong get-out-the-vote efforts -- but can they climb a hill this steep?

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