By ANDREW MIGA and DONNA CASSATA, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — Democrats are counting on their New England friends to help them pick up Republican-held Senate seats on Nov. 6 and construct a barrier against losses in Nebraska and elsewhere that could erase their majority.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee has stopped spending money in Maine, where former Gov. Angus King, an independent, leads in the polls and is seen as likely to side with Democrats if he wins. In Massachusetts, Republican Sen. Scott Brown is suddenly considered the underdog against Elizabeth Warren as the state is poised to easily back President Barack Obama over former Gov. Mitt Romney.
"She's closing the argument by linking Brown with national Republicans, who are about as popular around here as the New York Yankees," said Mike Shea, a Democratic strategist in Boston.
Republican hopes of swiping the seat in Connecticut are fading. Democratic Rep. Chris Murphy has steadied his campaign against former wrestling executive Linda McMahon, who spent $50 million on an unsuccessful bid in 2010 and $42.6 million and counting this year. McMahon's less-than-stellar debate performances and the state's Democratic tilt have undercut the GOP candidate's prospects.
"If New England could tip the Senate's balance to the Republicans, it would be fairly earth-shattering," said Rob Gray, a veteran GOP consultant in Massachusetts. "The real question is whether these races will be close-but-no-cigar for Republicans."
In Senate math, the loss of two seats in New England complicates the GOP calculation for majority control. Republicans would have to gain a net of six seats while holding suddenly uncertain Indiana, or a net of five seats if Romney wins the presidency. Democrats currently have the edge 53-47, including two independents who caucus with the party.
On the Election Day ballot are 23 Democratic seats and 10 Republican.
Republicans are optimistic they can make it add up and they point to fresh enthusiasm for Romney and the party ticket. After weeks of pure toss-ups, Republicans say North Dakota and Wisconsin are trending GOP though still close, Montana remains tight and the contest in Ohio has narrowed, due in large part to the roughly $20 million in negative ads against Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown.
In a late move, the GOP invested $500,000 in Pennsylvania, where some polls show a tight race between first-term Sen. Bob Casey and tea-party backed businessman Tom Smith, who has invested more than $16 million into his bid. The state has been considered safe Democratic for much of the year.
Republicans and Democrats expect Nebraska to switch to the GOP despite the candidacy of former Sen. Bob Kerrey, and Virginia to stay close, with the outcome of the presidential election crucial to the final count.
That's not so in Florida. Romney has grabbed a slight lead in polling, but there are no signs that it has helped Republican Rep. Connie Mack in his race to unseat two-term Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson. In the most telling development, outside Republican groups bailed on the Senate race at the beginning of October and there is no indication they will resume spending in the closing days.
Guy Cecil, executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said he was cautiously optimistic about Democrats holding their majority.
"Frankly a lot in our own party gave us little chance to be competitive this cycle, in large part because they were looking at a map where we had two times as many Democratic seats and we were coming off the worse election cycle for Democrats in 75 years," Cecil said. "Certainly despite that fact and the fact that we had seven retirements, we are in a stronger position today than at any point in the cycle."
Privately, Republicans are nervous about Indiana, unsure about the political damage from Republican state treasurer Richard Mourdock's debate comment that pregnancy resulting from rape is "something God intended."
Democrats are spending $1.1 million on an ad saying even Romney and Rep. Mike Pence, who is running for governor, "believe Mourdock goes too far." Worried about Mourdock, the anti-tax Club for Growth, a strong proponent of the Republican in his primary win over six-term Sen. Richard Lugar, invested more money on Friday, raising its state spending to more than $3.5 million.
Up until the debate, Mourdock's race with Rep. Joe Donnelly had been close; the comment could prove decisive in the campaign's closing days.
Republicans dismiss Democratic hopes of capturing the Arizona Senate seat, arguing that Rep. Jeff Flake has consistently maintained a lead in the polls over Richard Carmona. Democrats cringed recently when Carmona told the male moderator at a debate with Flake that he was prettier than CNN's Candy Crowley, who moderated the second presidential debate. Carmona later apologized to Crowley.
Determined to change the trajectory of the race, Democrats released an ad of the state's two Republican senators delivering effusive testimonials about Carmona at his 2002 Senate confirmation hearing for U.S. surgeon general in President George W. Bush's administration.
"One might call him a man for all seasons," says Sen. Jon Kyl.
"He's extraordinarily, perhaps uniquely qualified, to address the need of our nation," Sen. John McCain says.
Republicans have countered with ads in Arizona, Indiana, Montana and North Dakota, linking the Democratic candidates to Obama and in some cases, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, with images of the president and California Democrat.
"Once Heidi was different, but now she's fighting for Obama not us," says a commercial about North Dakota's Heidi Heitkamp, who is in a close race with Rep. Rick Berg.
The GOP spot against Carmona calls him Obama's rubber stamp. The one against Donnelly says a vote for him is a vote for the Obama-Pelosi agenda. "Say no to this yes man," the ad says.
In Missouri, the once vulnerable Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill is trying to hold onto her seat against Rep. Todd Akin, who severely damaged his candidacy when he said women's bodies can avoid pregnancy in cases of "legitimate rape." National Republicans, including Romney, abandoned Akin, but conservatives and evangelicals still stand behind his candidacy.
Associated Press writer Steve LeBlanc in Boston contributed to this report.