TPM’s Top 10 Senate Races To Watch

Campaign season doesn’t really heat up until September … which means now. That means all the scandals and ads and ups and downs you’ve heard and read about in the last several months were just stage-setters. Most voters really begin paying attention now.

It’s looking like a tough year for Senate Democrats, almost of whom are polling below 50 percent. Several weeks ago, many Republicans — including NRSC Chair John Cornyn — thought Republicans wouldn’t be able to retake the Senate. Today, it’s a distinct possibility. There are a number of critical races, but you should really keep an eye on these 10.

This will be the most high-profile race of the year. Nevada is a bellwether state. It’s suffering from extremely high unemployment, and its unpopular incumbent, Democrat Harry Reid, is the Majority Leader of the Senate, and therefore a steward of President Obama’s agenda. He’d probably be down big, except that Nevada Republicans nominated Sharron Angle — an unpolished pol with far-right views, who’s stepped in it repeatedly.

She’s had to walk back a series of extreme statements and positions, and Team Reid has hammered her repeatedly for her out-there views. She’s struggled to explain statements suggesting we ought to phase out Social Security, and she got into big trouble for raising the specter of “Second Amendment remedies” to government overreach. Most recently she’s refused to walk back a claim that there are “domestic enemies” serving in Congress. And throughout it all, she’s basically refused to talk to the mainstream press. The result? The TPM Poll Average shows Reid leading Angle 47.6-44.3.

Of all the close races in the country, this one may be the greatest litmus test for the political power of the tea party and the far-right base. In the current political and economic climate, it’s hard to imagine a Democrat being competitive in a conservative state like Kentucky. But lo and behold, state Attorney General Jack Conway is giving the semi-libertarian, controversial Republican Rand Paul a run for his money.

Paul’s campaign got off to an extremely bumpy and amateurish start. He blew an appearance on Rachel Maddow’s show by questioning parts of the Civil Rights Act, and has more of an affinity for abolishing government departments, knocking the unemployed and talking up mountaintop removal than he does for Aqua Buddha. Conway’s strategy? Show Kentuckians how crazy Paul is.

The TPM Poll Average shows Paul leading 47.1-41.4.

This race is near and dear to Democrats’ heart. When President Obama tapped then-Senator Ken Salazar to be his Interior Secretary, Salazar’s seat went to Michael Bennet, the boy-faced superintendent who went on to vote very loyally with his party. Now he’s up against Tea Party-backed Ken Buck, who’s weathered some controversies of his own — most famously for a misogynistic comment he made about his primary opponent’s high heels. Buck nonetheless holds the lead in the race.

Buck’s strategy of tying Bennet to the Democrats’ agenda has proven effective. Just last week, the embattled Bennet pre-empted President Obama, and announced his opposition to Obama’s new job growth plan — anything to create a bit of daylight between Bennet and his party.

The TPM Poll Average shows Buck leading 46.0-42.8.

Two years ago, it would have been hard to imagine Barbara Boxer — the liberal Democrat from bright blue California — in the fight for her political life against the Republican disgraced Hewlett-Packard executive Carly Fiorina. But two years ago, unemployment wasn’t north of 10 percent in California, and the state’s particular fiscal challenges were slightly less dire than they are right now.

Boxer is popular with progressives and feminists across the country. But she has problems with constituent outreach and as the economy has worsened, her unfavorables have climbed. Now she’s neck-and-neck with a challenger who, under normal circumstances, she’d trounce easily.

The TPM Poll Average shows Boxer leading 46.7-45.0.

Progressives love Russ Feingold more than perhaps any other Senator. And unlike most vulnerable Democrats this year, Feingold voted against bailing out big banks in 2008 — the political sin that’s supposedly (though not actually) at the heart of the conservative uprising. He’s running against the deeply conservative businessman Ron Johnson.

Feingold’s got plenty to work with — Johnson claims that global warming is caused by sunspots and that carbon emissions are good for trees — but he’s never faced a challenge like this. So serious is the threat that Feingold has spotlighted the high marks he’s received from conservative activists in the past on issues like earmarks and deficits. If Johnson wins it will represent a huge swing to the right for that seat, and, indeed, for the U.S. Senate as a whole. Right now he’s up by two.

The TPM Poll Average shows Johnson leading 48.8-46.9.

This race defies basically every 2010 cliche out there. It has nothing to do with tea parties or anti-incumbent sentiment. But despite the fact that Illinois is reliably Democratic, the race between Alexi Giannoulias and Republican Mark Kirk is tight. Giannoulias’ campaign has been hampered by his connection to his family-run bank, which was seized by the feds. Many thought the scandal would ruin him in a race against Kirk — a military officer who represents the Chicago suburbs.

But Kirk hasn’t done himself any favors. A series of embarrassing stories showed Kirk has a tendency to exaggerate his military record. The sheer number of them were too many to walk away from. He’s never been able to break out. And thus this race is far, far too close to call.

The TPM Poll Average shows Kirk leading 41.3-40.0.

If there’s anybody who isn’t benefiting from an enthusiasm gap in the Republican Party, it’s David Vitter. This year, a generic Republican would waltz to re-election in a conservative state like Louisiana. But Vitter has a scandal sheet a mile long, and is facing voters for the first time since the damaging stories broke. He’ll have to answer for his history of soliciting prostitutes, and for knowingly employing a physically violent aide. He’s still significantly ahead of Democrat Charlie Melancon, but Melancon is hopeful that a campaign dedicated to reminding voters of Vitter’s ethical troubles will kick independents into his camp, or at least convince die-hard conservatives to stay home (or vote for a third-party candidate).

Plurality wins in Louisiana, which may be Melancon’s brightest ray of hope. A number of conservative third-party candidates have entered the race, and if they draw votes from Vitter, and Melancon’s visibility climbs, this could be a race.

The TPM Poll Average shows Vitter leading 47.9-33.7.

Democratic officals in Washington (and, indeed, in Pennsylvania) tried notoriously hard to protect Arlen Specter from a primary challenge. But he got one from Joe Sestak. Sestak won, and now the Democrats face an uphill climb against wealthy arch-conservative Pat Toomey — one-time head of the Club for Growth. Now, Sestak has proven he’s a dogged campaigner — he came back from well behind to defeat Specter, and he’s got Bill Clinton working the stump for him.

The uncharismatic Toomey has a long, deeply conservative track record, and long-standing ties to Wall Street. But thus far, Sestak’s assets and Toomey’s liabilities haven’t been enough to catapult Sestak into the lead.

The TPM Poll Average shows Toomey leading 46.3-39.6.

There’s an X-factor in Florida named Kendrick Meek (D). The better he does, the harder he runs, the more likely it is that Republican Marco Rubio defeats Republican-turned-Independent Governor Charlie Crist. As it stands Meek, though a distant third in the polls, is gaining popularity, and, in the process, stealing support from Crist.

Crist is popular, but his late party switch leaves him vulnerable to the omnipresent flip-flop charge, and his long history as a Republican gives Meek a huge opportunity to draw Democrats away from him. Many speculate that if Crist is elected, he’ll caucus with the Democrats — and that has Democrats divided over whether it’s a good idea for Meek to run at all.

The TPM Poll Average shows Rubio leading 36.8-33.4 with Meek trailing both at 19.9 percent.

TPM’s PollTracker has this one all tied up. Literally. Statewide, Washington is blue. But wide swaths of the state are rural and quite conservative and that’s allowing Republican Dino Rossi to remain competitive while running fairly far to the right. Rossi is a polished political veteran, and the NRSC is extremely invested in taking the seat away from incumbent Patty Murray. Murray has a fairly strong base of support and has a reputation for great constituent outreach. At this early stage, though, it’s not enough to give her a lead.

The TPM Poll Average shows Murray and Rossi tied at 48.2 percent.

These are the the top 10, but by no means the only interesting races. In Alaska, Tea Party-backed Republican Joe Miller ousted incumbent Lisa Murkowski. Now Murkowski’s contemplating a third-party run, and suddenly a Democrat nobody heard of named Scott McAdams is polling pretty well. On Tuesday, Delaware Republicans will choose their nominee. If they choose Tea Partier Christine O’Donnell, Democrat Chris Coons will be sitting pretty. If they nominate establishment Republican Mike Castle, Coons will have a tough eight weeks.

Elsewhere, Democrats have tough, but not impossible races ahead of them in Indiana, Ohio, and Missouri. They stand a reasonable chance of unseating Republican Richard Burr in North Carolina. And though Democrat Dick Blumenthal retains a significant lead over Republican Linda McMahon in the Connecticut Clown Show, the trendlines are narrowing.