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Shades of 1996

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Public attitudes toward candidates and elections often start off in a fluid state. Then they gradually begin to jell, first reaching a semisolid state before hardening to rock-solid. This year’s presidential race isn’t over, but Mitt Romney’s current trajectory in the polls will not cross President Obama’s by Nov. 6—or maybe even Nov. 6 of next year. If something doesn’t happen to shake up the race, Romney will lose.

Romney’s negatives, particularly in swing states, have grown to the point that if allowed to solidify, his opportunity to recover will vanish. The GOP nominee still has a chance to change the trajectory of the campaign, but the longer he takes, the smaller the payoff. Very few undecided voters are left in swing states; campaign pollsters say that maybe 4 or 5 percent of likely voters fit in this category. And no one would be surprised if some of the remaining undecided voters, after being subjected to saturation advertising for months—in some cases since June—throw up their hands and opt to stay home on Election Day.

If the presidential race stays on its current course for another week or 10 days, Romney faces the very real prospect that Republican donors, super PACs, and other parts of the GOP support structure will begin to shift resources away from helping him and toward a last-ditch effort to win a Senate majority—which once seemed very likely—and to protect the party’s House majority.

A year and a half ago, it looked like Republicans had a 65 to 70 percent chance of capturing the Senate. The 23 Democratic seats up for grabs, compared with just 10 for Republicans, offered the GOP many opportunities for gains, particularly in states that Democrats had captured from Republicans in 2006. Jennifer Duffy, senior Senate editor of The Cook Political Report, now argues that the range of possible Senate outcomes goes from Republicans picking up two or three seats to actually losing a seat or two.

For the most part, the deterioration of the Senate outlook is unrelated to Romney’s problems at the top of the ticket, and it comes despite a strong effort by the National Republican Senatorial Committee. But there’s no denying that things are not looking so good for the red team in the Senate. Arguably, Republicans now have a chance against only one of the four most vulnerable Democratic Senate incumbents, with GOP Rep. Denny Rehberg now running even with Jon Tester in Montana. Republican prospects to unseat Democrats Claire McCaskill in Missouri, Bill Nelson in Florida, and Sherrod Brown in Ohio are remote, at best. Top-tier recruits in open seats in Hawaii and New Mexico have not caught on despite strong campaign efforts, further undercutting GOP chances of securing a Senate majority. Two moderate Democrats running for open Senate seats in very Republican states are doing unexpectedly well: Democratic former state Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp is locked in a tight race in North Dakota with GOP Rep. Rick Berg, while Democratic Rep. Joe Donnelly is in an equally close contest with Republican state Treasurer Richard Mourdock in Indiana. Republicans were heavily favored to win both seats early on; now both races are very tight.

Duffy points to the last time this class of Senate seats was up, in 2006: Then, three Senate seats and control of the chamber were settled by 60,665 votes spread among three states, Missouri, Montana, and Virginia. Of the 10 Senate races that The Cook Political Report rates as toss-ups, six are now in Democratic hands and four are in GOP hands. The range of possible outcomes is very wide.

In the House, we have not yet seen any signs of deterioration for the GOP majority. Even if Democrats were to win every seat currently rated solid Democratic, likely Democratic, or lean Democratic, as well as every toss-up, they would still come up short of a majority. The canaries in the coal mine are GOP seats currently rated as lean Republican or likely Republican. Cook Political Report House Editor David Wasserman points out that with Democrats likely to lose perhaps 10 of their own seats, they would have to gross 35 seats to hit the 25 net seats necessary to win a majority. That’s a very tall order.

House Republican strategists have been preaching the “balance message” to their candidates: If the top of the ticket starts to go south on them, then Republicans need to argue that the party must keep the House in GOP hands to have a firm check in place to balance against a second-term President Obama.

The next week or 10 days are thus critical for Romney and the GOP. If things don’t turn around, a stampede could ensue reminiscent of 1996, when Republicans realized that Bob Dole was not going to defeat President Clinton. History could repeat itself.

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