WASHINGTON—Democrats are within striking distance of taking control of the U.S. Senate on Election Day, a series of new polls for McClatchy Newspapers and MSNBC showed Monday.
Democratic Senate candidates are tied, have a slight edge or an outright lead in every one of 10 pivotal battleground states. No Democrat trails in those races; no Republican leads. Democrats must gain six seats to capture control of the 100-member Senate.
Democratic candidates have a strong chance to win all seven at-risk Republican Senate seats—with their candidates tied in Virginia and Missouri, holding a slight edge in Ohio, Rhode Island and Tennessee, and leading in Montana and Pennsylvania.
And they are in position to hold their three most vulnerable seats—with a slight edge in New Jersey and leading in Maryland and Washington.
This in-depth, state-by-state look at the political landscape of 10 Senate battleground states five weeks before Election Day Nov. 7 is based on a series of polls by Mason-Dixon Polling and Research, Inc. Seven were conducted for McClatchy Newspapers and MSNBC, and three for other newspapers were made available to McClatchy. Each state poll was by phone of 625 likely voters in the final week of September. The error margin is plus or minus 4 percentage points.
"These numbers look very encouraging for the Democrats to take control of the Senate," said Mason-Dixon pollster Brad Coker.
Democrats are faring well and Republicans are on the defensive for several reasons: dissatisfaction with President Bush, disapproval of the war in Iraq, anti-incumbent sentiment, and some anxiety about the economy.
Aggravating those factors is the fact that several Republican strategies don't appear to be working well at this point:
_Voters who don't like Bush are taking it out on the Republican candidates, regardless of whether Republicans run from or with the president.
_Voters in all but one state rank Iraq as their top concern, above terrorism, despite Bush's campaign to link the unpopular war to the more broadly supported effort against terrorism.
_A majority of voters think Iraq is going badly. Those who think that support Democrats by solid margins.
_The fact that Democrats haven't spelled out clear alternatives on Iraq—a main complaint from Republicans—doesn't seem to matter.
"The Democrats haven't said anything that makes people say, `Yeah, that's the way to go.' People just don't like what the Republicans are doing," Coker said.
Another problem for the Republicans: None of their Senate candidates in these 10 competitive states has the support of more than half the voters, and undecided voters may be hard for them to persuade.
"Undecided voters typically go more for challengers than for incumbents," said Coker. "Even the two Republican incumbents who are tied, in Missouri and Virginia, are still in the low 40s. Those are not very impressive numbers for an incumbent. It doesn't mean they're definitely going to lose, but it's a warning sign."
Despite all that, Democrats still face challenges in seizing control of the Senate.
Most notably, they're still locked in several close races that could be decided by which party does a better job of turning out its core supporters—something the Republicans are very good at, and they have more money.
Here are snapshots of the races, first for Republican-held Senate seats:
Incumbent Republican Sen. Jim Talent and Democratic challenger Claire McCaskill, the state auditor, were tied 43-43 percent.
Missouri is the one state where health care topped Iraq among voters' concerns, perhaps because McCaskill has made an issue out of Bush's ban on federal financing for most embryonic stem cell research.
She led by nearly 2-1 among health-care voters. She also led among voters who cited Iraq as their No. 1 issue.
Talent led by a 6-1 margin among voters ranking terrorism their top concern—but it was fifth on the priority list of the state's voters.
Democratic challenger Bob Casey Jr., the state treasurer, led incumbent Republican Sen. Rick Santorum by 49-40 percent.
Santorum and Bush are lightning rods in the race.
More than two out of five Pennsylvania voters have an unfavorable opinion of Santorum, among the highest negative ratings of any candidate in the battleground states. Also, a quarter of the voters said they were making their decision against someone, rather than for someone. Of them, four out of five were against Santorum.
Also, 56 percent of Pennsylvania voters disapprove of how Bush is doing his job. They support Casey by better than 5-1. The 42 percent who approve of Bush break for Santorum by the same margin.
Democratic challenger Sheldon Whitehouse had a slight edge over incumbent Republican Sen. Lincoln Chafee, 42-41 percent.
Trends look different in Rhode Island in part because Chafee opposes Bush on several major issues—including Iraq and tax cuts.
Rhode Island gives Bush his worst ratings of any battleground state—70 percent disapproval. Yet those who turn thumbs down on Bush split on their Senate choice, 51 percent for Whitehouse and 32 percent for Chafee.
Also, the state ranks Iraq its top issue, but Iraq voters don't give Whitehouse as big an edge as Democrats get in other states. They favor Whitehouse by 56-37 percent. Conversely, Chafee doesn't get the margin on terrorism that fellow Republicans get elsewhere. Terrorism voters in Rhode Island break for him by 59-32 percent.
Incumbent Republican Sen. George Allen and Democratic challenger James Webb are tied at 43 percent each.
Iraq and terrorism are both major issues in the state that is home to the Pentagon and the Atlantic fleet.
Among those who think Iraq is the top issue, Webb leads 4-1. More than three out of five disapprove of how Bush is handling the Iraq war. Of them, 66 percent support Webb, a former combat veteran and Navy Secretary who opposes the war.
Among those who rate terrorism their top issue, Allen leads by a similar margin.
Webb was carrying the Democratic Virginia suburbs of Washington, but also had a narrow edge in the military-dominated Hampton Roads region. Allen led everywhere else.
A torrent of news suggesting racial insensitivity by Allen apparently took a toll. But news that Webb also used a racial epithet and criticized affirmative action may also have hurt him. Among African-Americans, 69 percent supported Webb and 3 percent supported Allen, while 25 percent remained undecided. Among Hispanics, 39 percent supported Webb, 28 percent supported Allen and 28 percent remained undecided.
Here are snapshots of the Democrat-held Senate seats:
Democratic Rep. Ben Cardin led Republican Lt. Gov. Michael Steele by 47-41 percent in the race for a Democratic seat being vacated by retiring Sen. Paul Sarbanes.
Maryland voters ranked Iraq the top issue, followed by health care and terrorism. Cardin led by more than 2-1 among voters who ranked Iraq or health care tops. Steele led by a margin of 3-2 among voters who ranked terrorism their top concern.
Also, nearly 7 out of 10 disapprove of how Bush is handling the war, and disapprovers supported Cardin 2-1.
Steele is bidding to become the first Republican African-American elected to the Senate since Edward Brooke of Massachusetts in 1966.
Steele had 19 percent of the African-American support while Cardin had 59 percent. Steele had 48 percent of the white support; Cardin had 43 percent.
Incumbent Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez had a slight statistical edge over Republican Tom Kean Jr., a state senator, 44-41 percent.
Bush is a factor in New Jersey, where 37 percent approve of his job performance and 61 percent disapprove. Menendez leads by 3-1 among those who don't like the way Bush is doing his job. Kean leads by 10-1 among those who like Bush.
Iraq narrowly tops terrorism on New Jersey's list of concerns, noteworthy in a state that lost citizens in the Sept. 11 attacks and has major port operations. Menendez leads by 5-1 among those who rank Iraq tops; Kean leads by 2-1 among those who rank terrorism their top concern.
Incumbent Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell led Republican Mike McGavick by 50-40 percent. Other candidates had 1 percent, and 9 percent were undecided.
War is a big issue in Washington, where voters rank Iraq their top concern—followed by terrorism, taxes and government spending.
Of those who think Iraq is issue Number 1, Cantwell's ahead by 2-1. That's a lower edge than Democrats in other states, probably because Cantwell voted to authorize the war and faced an anti-war challenge in a primary.
Nearly three out of five—57 percent—disapprove of Bush's job performance. Disapprovers support Cantwell by 6-1. Those who approve of Bush's job performance support McGavick by a similar margin.
Here are poll results in three other Senate races:
In Montana, Democrat Jon Tester, the state Senate president, led incumbent Republican Sen. Conrad Burns 47-40 percent. The Mason-Dixon poll was conducted for the Lee Newspapers;
In Ohio, Democrat Rep. Sherrod Brown had 45 percent and incumbent Republican Sen. Mike DeWine had 43 percent. The poll was conducted for the Cleveland Plain Dealer;
In Tennessee, Democratic Rep. Harold Ford Jr. had 43 percent and Republican Bob Corker, the former mayor of Chattanooga, had 42 percent. The poll was conducted for the Chattanooga Times Free Press and the Memphis Commercial Appeal.
The McClatchy-MSNBC Poll also surveyed several governor races. Among results:
In California, incumbent Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger led Democrat Phil Angelides 49-36 percent.
In Maryland, Democrat Martin O'Malley led incumbent Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich 47-43 percent;
In Pennsylvania, incumbent Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell led Republican Lynn Swann 54-37 percent;
In Rhode Island, incumbent Republican Gov. Don Carcieri led Democrat Charlie Fogarty 50 -34 percent.
(McClatchy Newspapers correspondent Brady Averill contributed to this report.)
HOW WE POLL
The McClatchy-MSNBC Poll is a snapshot of voter opinion at the time it was conducted. It is not a prediction of how people will vote on Election Day.
The poll of 625 likely voters in each state was conducted by telephone from Sept. 22 through Sept. 28. Those interviewed were selected by a random variation of telephone numbers from a cross section of telephone exchanges. That means anyone in the state with a phone line had the same odds of being called as anyone else, except for people who use cell phones only. Cell phone numbers are not in the exchanges.
The margin of error was plus or minus 4 percentage points. That means that 95 percent of the time, the correct numbers could be up to 4 percentage points above our poll's percentage point findings, or up to 4 percentage points below them. The other 5 percent of the time, the correct numbers could vary even more.
The sampling margin of error does not include other variables that could affect results, including the way questions are worded or the order in which they are asked.
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
GRAPHICS (from MCT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20061002 7POLL Senate, 20061002 7POLL issues
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