Both parties eye tight Senate races

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WASHINGTON (CNN) — Two years ago, Republicans had every reason to believe they could take back the Senate this year, after major midterm election gains. But heading into Tuesday, Democrats appeared well-positioned to retain their slim majority, and with it, the ability to influence much of the Washington agenda during the next two years.

Democrats were victorious in West Virginia, with incumbent Sen. Joe Manchin’s win, according to CNN’s projection. Independent Bernie Sanders, who votes with the Democratic party, is also projected to win in Vermont.

Maine voters handed a victory to the independent candidate, former Gov. Angus King, to fill the seat of retired Sen. Olympia Snowe, a moderate Republican, CNN projects. Considered a shoo-in for re-election, Snowe shocked her colleagues earlier this year when she suddenly announced that she would leave the Senate, which she described as hopelessly partisan.

There are 33 Senate seats at play on Tuesday, with polls showing a number of key races neck-and-neck.

Republicans would need four seats to win the chamber outright; just three if a Republican were to win the White House and a GOP vice president could break tie votes.

Republicans are protecting only 10 seats, while Democrats are defending 23, many in narrowly divided swing states. In addition, several veteran Democratic incumbents, mostly moderates, announced they would retire, making it potentially even easier for Republicans to win those seats.

Republicans have encountered their own problems.

In August, the campaign of Rep. Todd Akin nearly collapsed after the Missouri Republican’s comments about “legitimate rape” and his suggestion that women could biologically prevent pregnancy if they are raped. Until then, Republicans believed Akin would defeat Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill, who polls showed was not very popular after just one term.

Now, Republicans are grappling with the controversy over Richard Mourdock of Indiana, the tea party-backed state treasurer. During a televised debate with his opponent last month, conservative Democratic Rep. Joe Donnelly, Mourdock defended his opposition to abortion even in the case of rape because, “I think even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something God intended to happen.”

Democrats pounced on his remarks and several key Republicans denounced them, too. Romney, who had just appeared in a TV ad for Mourdock, said he disagreed with the comment but didn’t pull his endorsement.

Strong Democratic candidates also have put several GOP seats into play. And polls show tight races in three of the states where moderate Democratic incumbents retired this year and Republicans were early favorites to win.

But Republicans point to their own prospects, including seats they hope to pick up across the aisle.

Operatives from both parties agree that many of these races could be determined by which presidential candidate carries the state, particularly in key battleground states like Florida, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Nevada.

But Democratic and Republican political operatives caution that there are more toss-up races this year than in recent memory, so it’s very hard to predict the outcome.

Key Senate race snapshots

Compiled by Adam Levy and Robert Yoon, CNN Political Research

Arizona: Rep. Jeff Flake (R) vs. Richard Carmona (D)

Open seat — Sen. Jon Kyl (R) is retiring

This race has turned more competitive than originally expected. Democratic nominee Dr. Richard Carmona, a Vietnam veteran and a former U.S. surgeon general under President George W. Bush, has proven a formidable opponent to six-term Rep. Jeff Flake, whose tough August primary for the GOP nomination left him bruised as he began the general election.

Tightening polls caused both campaigns to go negative, with Flake accusing Carmona of having anger issues over an incident in which a former HHS official accused him of banging on her door in the middle of the night and scaring her family (Carmona denies the incident ever occurred). Carmona accuses Flake of not supporting veterans as a congressman (Flake says Carmona is cherry-picking votes and not looking at his entire record).

Democrats think their candidate’s strengths and the state’s growing Hispanic population will lead to their party’s first successful Senate election since 1988. But Republicans point to no significant changes in Hispanic voting records, Flake’s endorsements from Sens. Kyl and John McCain, and the state’s traditional GOP support as reasons for a Flake victory.

Connecticut: Rep. Chris Murphy (D) vs. Linda McMahon (R)

Open seat — Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I) is retiring

After waging a competitive but ultimately unsuccessful bid for U.S. Senate in 2010, former wrestling executive Linda McMahon is making a strong comeback this year. Buoyed by the millions of her own money she invested in the campaign, McMahon’s made an effort to soften her image with ads about her personal life and combat attacks from third-term Rep. Chris Murphy.

Despite McMahon’s significant financial advantage, Murphy is polling even or ahead of his opponent. In a state where President Barack Obama won by more than 20 points in 2008, a tie in the polls going into Election Day could mean a Murphy win on the president’s coattails.

This is a tough state for Republicans in federal office. The last Connecticut Republican to hold a U.S. Senate seat left office in 1989.

Indiana: Richard Mourdock (R) vs. Rep. Joe Donnelly (D)

Open seat — Sen. Richard Lugar (R) was defeated in the primary

When six-term Republican Sen. Richard Lugar lost a bitter primary race to state treasurer Richard Mourdock, Democrats gained an unexpected opportunity to take over the seat with three-term Rep. Joe Donnelly.

Though Indiana is a Republican-leaning state, the polls have been close and some longtime Lugar supporters still haven’t rallied behind the GOP nominee. Democrats pounded Mourdock for his comment at a debate two weeks before Election Day that “even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, it is something that God intended.” Mourdock the next day clarified his comment and added, “Rape is a horrible thing, and for anyone to twist my words otherwise is absurd and sick.”

The full impact of the flap remains to be seen. Donnelly, a relatively conservative Democrat who opposes abortion rights, was one of few red-state Democrats to survive the Republican onslaught of 2010. He has kept the race competitive, but even with the Mourdock comments, Donnelly faces a Republican-friendly electorate and won’t get much help from the top of the ticket.

Maine: Charlie Summers (R) vs. Cynthia Dill (D) vs. former Gov. Angus King (I)

CNN projection: Former Gov. Angus King wins

The unexpected retirement of three-term Sen. Olympia Snowe set the stage for a three-way contest between Democratic state senator Cynthia Dill, Republican Secretary of State Charlie Summers and former Gov. Angus King, an independent.

King, who quickly rose to frontrunner status, has declined to state until after the election which party he would caucus with in the Senate, though he is widely assumed to align with Democrats. The former governor has endorsements from the Human Rights Campaign, environmental groups and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s new super PAC, which supports gay rights, gun restrictions, and education reform.

The national Democratic party did not actively support Dill but instead ran ads hammering Summers. The national Republicans focused much of their ad fire on King, with the hope that he and Dill would split enough of the anti-Republican vote to ensure a Summers victory.

Massachusetts: Sen. Scott Brown (R) vs. Elizabeth Warren (D)

Massachusetts is perhaps the one race that has lived up to all its hype and more. As Republican Sen. Scott Brown competes for a full term against Harvard Law School professor Elizabeth Warren, the race for the state’s few remaining undecided voters has taken a sharp tone. Brown launched harsh attacks questioning Warren’s claims of Native-American heritage while also highlighting his own bipartisanship in the Senate.

Warren continues to attack Brown for protecting millionaires and for vowing to repeal Obamacare while highlighting her advocacy for the middle class and women’s issues. Democrats hope the president’s popularity and expected wide margin of victory in Romney’s home state will counter Brown’s popularity to make Warren the first woman to represent Massachusetts in the U.S. Senate.

Montana: Sen. Jon Tester (D) vs. Rep. Dennis Rehberg (R)

Democrat Jon Tester knew he’d have an uphill battle to a second term against six-term Rep. Denny Rehberg. Both are known quantities with high favorables in the state, though neither has been able to crack 50% in the polls. Both campaigns have gone negative in the fight over Social Security, and both say the other is distorting their views.

Like the Massachusetts race, there are few undecideds left, except here Republicans are hoping that works in their favor. Though the state has a history of voting for Democrats statewide along with a Republican for president, Barack Obama’s disapproval ratings could drive the strong GOP turnout Rehberg needs to move up a chamber in Congress.

Nebraska: Former Sen. Bob Kerrey (D) vs. Deb Fischer (R)

Open seat — Sen. Ben Nelson (D) is retiring

Republicans began eyeing two-term Democrat Ben Nelson’s seat even before he announced his retirement. With Nelson out, Democrats pinned their hopes on Bob Kerrey, the former governor and two-term senator. Although a well-known figure in Nebraska, Kerrey spent most of his post-Senate career outside of the state, primarily in New York City where he served as president of The New School.

The conservative super PAC American Crossroads began running ads against Kerrey before he even declared his candidacy. The Republican nominee is state Rep. Deb Fischer, who scored a surprising win in a crowded GOP primary. Kerrey has an uphill battle to keep the seat blue; Fischer has been leading with at least 50% in both independent and partisan polls.

Nevada: Sen. Dean Heller (R) vs. Rep. Shelley Berkley (D)

Democrats’ strength in Nevada is being put to the test once again in a Senate election. With voter registration numbers on their side, seven-term Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley hopes to deny Republican Sen. Dean Heller a full Senate term (Heller was appointed to the seat after Republican John Ensign resigned).

A House ethics investigation and a lackluster debate performance have kept Berkley below Heller in the most recent polls. Heller’s strong fundraising ability also helped him keep the advantage in a state with a heavy Latino population that overwhelmingly votes Democratic. Both parties are hoping for a win here, though the race should remain close through Election Day. Turnout for the presidential race could have the largest impact on the outcome of this race.

North Dakota: Heidi Heitkamp (D) vs. Rep. Rick Berg (R)

Open seat — Sen. Kent Conrad (D) is retiring

Former state Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp gives Democrats their best opportunity to keep the seat of retiring five-term Sen. Kent Conrad. Republicans hope first-term Rep. Rick Berg will repeat the party’s success of 2010, when they took over retiring Democrat Byron Dorgan’s seat.

The state has a history of split-ticket voting, giving Heitkamp an opportunity to show her independence from national Democrats. She’s publicly disagreed with Barack Obama on issues like energy, which she points to as evidence she won’t be a rubber stamp. She enjoys high favorables and solid support from Republican ticket-splitters and has hammered Berg for his connection to a controversial real estate company.

With the lowest unemployment rate in the country, North Dakotans have their choice between two candidates with strong statewide appeal. This race will remain close until Election Day.

Virgina: Former Gov. Tim Kaine (D) vs. former Gov./Sen. George Allen (R)

Open seat — Sen. Jim Webb (D) is retiring

Republican George Allen is fighting hard to win back the seat he lost six years ago to now-retiring Democratic Sen. Jim Webb. A strong Democratic wave, along with a gaffe caught on tape that became infamous on YouTube, stripped Allen of what was expected to be his second term (and perhaps a launching pad to the 2008 GOP presidential nomination). He now faces Democratic nominee Tim Kaine, another former governor, in one of the marquee Senate races of 2012.

Polls remain close. Barack Obama’s win in Virginia in 2008 and the strong play he’s making for the state in 2012 have given Kaine organizational support. Allen has run ads linking Kaine, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee at the start of the Obama administration, to the president and to looming budget cuts. Kaine, in turn, has run ads tying Allen to George W. Bush’s economic policies and that he’s wrong on women’s issues.

Both candidates have seen their leads grow and shrink with the presidential candidates. It’s very likely the winner of the Senate seat will be a member of the same party of the presidential candidate who wins Virginia’s 13 electoral votes.

Wisconsin: Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D) vs. former Gov. Tommy Thompson (R)

Open seat — Sen. Herb Kohl (D) is retiring

Former Gov. Tommy Thompson won a tough Republican primary to take on seven-term Democratic Rep. Tammy Baldwin for retiring incumbent Herb Kohl’s Senate seat. Thompson’s attacks on Baldwin as being too liberal haven’t had the impact he was hoping. The polls are very close, but Baldwin has pulled slightly ahead recently, though not outside the margin of error.

Unless vice presidential candidate and native son Paul Ryan brings out strong turnout for the party, the state’s historic Democratic tilt in presidential elections could help Baldwin succeed to becoming the first openly gay senator.