Hedge your bets on Senate races

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The election for control of the U.S. Senate in just under four weeks is, somewhat surprisingly, shaping up as a bit of a nail- biter. A volatile mix of President Barack Obama’s unpopularity, voter discontent with things as they are threatening all incumbents, historic trends favoring Republicans, a Democratic money advantage and uncertainty about turnout is inspiring a wide variety of predictions: Democrats barely hold on to their majority! A GOP triumph of eight seats won!

The smart money is on the Republicans getting the net gain of six wins needed to give them 51 seats. Still, so much turmoil opens up the possibility of wacky outcomes. For instance, Republicans capture the Senate but Mitch McConnell doesn’t fulfill his dream of becoming majority leader because he loses a tight re-election race in Kentucky.

First, what the Republicans have going in their favor. History shows that the party not in the White House typically produces gains, sometimes big ones, in the off-year election in the last term of a presidency. And Democrats have to defend more seats, many in states carried by Mitt Romney in 2012.

Obama’s approval ratings are in the low 40s. Democrats in closely contested states are running away from him. One declares “I’m not Barack Obama” while Democrat incumbents claim they vote against the president when they disagree with him — while the record shows they almost always agree with Obama.

Obama threw that strategy in the trash can when he declared in his speech last week at Northwestern University that while he’s not on the ballot, his policies are. You could hear Democrats groaning coast to coast.

Another plus for the GOP is that it survived the primary season by nominating attractive, electable candidates. That’s in contrast to a few fringe figures nominated in 2012 and 2010 who lost winnable seats that would have put the GOP much closer to its majority goal in the Senate.

Among the things the Democrats have going for them is that they have candidates from political families well-loved in their home states. Think Michelle Nunn in Georgia, daughter of the revered former Sen. Sam Nunn. Or incumbent Mark Udall in Colorado from a family with a nationally known political pedigree.

So far, the Democrats have enjoyed a money advantage.

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