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Senate races continue to tighten

Tribune Washington Bureau

The battle for control of the U.S. Senate grows more competitive each day, new polls from battleground states show.

Two surveys released Tuesday showed Democrat Joe Sestak with his first lead over Republican Pat Toomey in the Pennsylvania Senate race since just after he won the state’s May primary. Kentucky’s Jack Conway has pulled to within 5% of Republican Rand Paul; an internal poll by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee shows him ahead.

A new CNN poll released today showed Republicans Joe Miller and Lisa Murkowski tied in the Alaska Senate race; Murkowski is running a write-in campaign after losing the GOP primary in August. Contests have also closed in Colorado, Washington and California, all seats held by Democrats.

According to Real Clear Politics, which compiles all public polling, there are currently eight Senate races where one candidate’s lead is no greater than 4%. Democrat Barbara Boxer leads by 1% in the RCP average in California, for instance, while in Colorado, it’s Republican Ken Buck with a 1% lead.

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The number of competitive races is not unusual, experts say, even with the heightened focus this year. In fact, in each of the last five election cycles, the Cook Political Report has ranked nine seats as tossups by Election Day.

Those tossup races “tend to break disproportionally toward one party” once the votes are counted, according to Jennifer Duffy, Senate race analyst for the respected handicapper.

In 2008, seven of the nine contests rated as a tossup went to the Democrats. In 2006, eight fell to the Democrats, giving the party a slim majority. In 2004, it was Republicans who benefited from the wave, winning eight of nine toss up races to cement their majority at the time.

Currently, the Cook Report rates 11 races as tossups, though Duffy says that number may change when a new analysis is released tomorrow. Republicans need to gain a net of 10 seats to control the Senate in 2011.

As most experts now predict that the House is likely to go Republican, the White House has put additional emphasis on preserving that upper chamber.

“It’s really, really important that we keep this momentum going. And it’s impossible to keep this momentum going without us having the United States Senate,” Vice President Joe Biden said at a fundraiser last week.

Today, Biden was campaigning in Nevada with Majority Leader Harry Reid. President Obama is due to fly west for a series of campaign stops, including ones for Reid, Boxer and Washington Sen. Patty Murray.

mmemoli@tribune.com

twitter.com/mikememoli


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