Washington — The stakes in the race between Rep. Chris Murphy, D-5th District, and Republican rival Linda McMahon are soaring as it becomes clearer the contest could tip the balance of power in the U.S. Senate.
“It could go either way,” said Thomas Mann, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
Mann also said Democrats can’t afford to lose a Senate seat in a state like Connecticut that leans Democratic.
“If you are in a fight like this, you don’t give up one of your natural seats,” he said.
Not too long ago, the Connecticut race was a sleeper, overshadowed by a much higher-profile contest in Massachusetts between Democrat Elizabeth Warren and Republican Sen. Scott Brown.
But the tightening of the Murphy-McMahon race has propelled it into the national spotlight in a year where few are willing to predict whether Democrats can keep control of the Senate.
Recent polls show Murphy running even with McMahon, even as other Democratic Senate candidates in toss-up races gained strength this week, giving their party hope.
“Democrats have had a couple of lucky breaks,” said Jessica Taylor, senior analyst at the Rothenberg Political Report.
Those breaks include devastating gaffes by Todd Akin, a Republican Senate candidate in Missouri who said victims of “legitimate rape” can’t conceive; and by Mitt Romney, the GOP’s standard bearer, who told donors, as revealed in a video taken in May, that he did not care about the 47 percent of Americans who don’t pay income tax.
But the electoral map is still volatile, and Connecticut’s Senate race, once thought almost a sure bet for a Democratic candidate, has added to that volatility, Taylor said.
Democrats have to defend 22 seats in the Senate besides the one of retiring Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman. Republicans have just 10 seats up for re-election.
Democrats now hold 51 seats in the Senate, Republicans hold 47, and there are two independent senators, including Lieberman, who caucuses with the Democrats.
That means the Republicans can win back the Senate by taking just three seats from Democrats if Romney wins the White House and his vice president, Rep. Paul Ryan, R- Wis., is in position to cast a tie-breaking vote.
If President Obama wins re-election, the GOP would need to win four additional seats.
And that’s doable, Taylor said.
The Rothenberg Political Report has identified five Senate races as toss-ups: in Virginia, Massachusetts, North Dakota, Nevada and Montana.
While Rothenberg still has Connecticut’s race as “leaning Democratic,” Taylor said that rating could change.
“Democrats and many political observers have underestimated McMahon and her ability to run a different race than she did in 2010,” a Cook Political Report analysis said.
“It seems that Democrats have believed that they could simply run the same campaign that they ran two years ago and achieve the same result. But, while McMahon’s tenacity has surprised them, they are only now coming to the conclusion that their nominee, U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy, isn’t the same kind of candidate that then-Attorney General Richard Blumenthal was.”
The race is such that Blumenthal, who beat McMahon in 2010, declined to say who he thought would win the Murphy-McMahon race.
“I don’t make predictions,” Blumenthal said.
McMahon’s ability to pour millions of dollars of her own money into her campaign — allowing her to blanket the airwaves with ads and hire the best political strategists — has helped her keep Murphy at bay, Taylor said.
One political consultant McMahon hired is Chris LaCivita, who worked for Missouri Senate candidate Akin.
LaCivita is a strategist who heavily uses and strongly defends the use of “opposition research,” or digging up dirt on a political opponent. He was the chief strategist for the “Swiftboat Veterans For Truth,” who attacked Sen. John Kerry’s record in Vietnam when the Massachusetts Democrat ran for the White House.
“He’s very familiar with winning on unfamiliar turf,” Taylor said.
To try to combat McMahon’s firepower, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee stepped into Murphy’s race last week. It has spent $640,000 on advertising and loaned staff to Murphy’s campaign.
The DSCC spent more than $2 million in 2010 to help Blumenthal.
Taylor said it’s likely the DSCC is helping Murphy with opposition research, polling and strategic advice.
Spokesman Matt Canter declined to discuss what kind of help the DSCC is offering Murphy.
“He’ll have all the resources he needs,” Canter said.
That outside help may be effective, said Mann. “It now looks like [the Murphy race] is coming around.”
One reason is the “decline of the Romney campaign,” which is dragging down many GOP candidates, Mann said.
He also said McMahon’s alignment with conservatives in her party, instead of running as a “typical Connecticut Republican moderate” may be hurting her as polls show voters are becoming turned off by political extremism.