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Vulnerable Senate Seats In The Spotlight As Fall Nears


While the political furor over Congressman Todd Akin has shifted fortunes for Republicans in Missouri, what does it mean for the future balance of the U.S. Senate? Republicans need a net gain of at least four seats to control the Senate, and the focus on making that happen falls on a handful of very tight Senate races in other parts of the country.

Jennifer Duffy is senior editor at the Cook Political Report, and she joins us to check in with the state of the Senate races. Welcome, Jennifer.

JENNIFER DUFFY: Thanks, Audie.

CORNISH: So to start, what is the Cook Political rating now for Missouri, given all of these news events and the chances for Senator Claire McCaskill who is one of the most vulnerable senators around, right?

DUFFY: Well, actually she was considered the most vulnerable incumbent for re-election. Once, though, Todd Akin uttered those very unfortunate words the other day and saying legitimate rape, he really destroys his chances of winning that seat. So yesterday, the Cook Political Report changed our outlook on this race from toss up being too close to call to likely Democratic, meaning that Claire McCaskill now has a clear advantage in this race.

CORNISH: And now, also, the National Republican Senatorial Committee said that it's withdrawing support for Todd Akin in Missouri, and we're assuming they mean money. So what's the calculus here? I mean, can they actually afford to abandon a state like Missouri, which could have been a sure win for them?

DUFFY: You know, the Republican Senatorial Committee is not in the business of making bad investments. You know, they want to invest in races they can win. My guess is what they'll do now is look at a couple of races that are on the bubble and put money there and try to make them more competitive. And two examples that come instantly to mind is Florida, Senator Bill Nelson, who's running for re-election and in Michigan, where Democrat Debbie Stabenow is also up for re-election.

CORNISH: So at this point, when you look at the map in terms of the balance of the Senate, what are the states that are true toss ups?

DUFFY: So at this point, you know, we're looking at nine toss-up races, six held by Democrats, three held by Republicans. The Republican seats are in Massachusetts, Nevada and Maine. The Democratic seats are in Hawaii, New Mexico, North Dakota, Virginia, Montana and Wisconsin.

CORNISH: And which of those states, if you could give us a snapshot of what's going on there, do you kind of symbolize what's going on with the sort of politics in general?

DUFFY: Well, I mean, I think there are a couple of states. I like to bookend North Dakota and Massachusetts, because North Dakota is a very Republican state, yet Democrats are competitive there. Massachusetts is a very Democratic state, yet Republicans are very competitive there. I mean, these are two races that the parties thought would frankly be almost over by now. But it sort of speaks to voters' unrest a little bit about why they're still competitive. It also talks about what's important in this cycle that hasn't been important in the last two elections, which is candidate quality.

CORNISH: You talked about the Massachusetts race as a potential toss up. And I want to play an ad that has begun to run in that state. It is produced by Elizabeth Warren's campaign.


CORNISH: Should we expect to hear more ads like this across the country? And does this speak to the kind of reverberations there could be from the Missouri campaign?

DUFFY: Absolutely. This is exactly what Republicans are afraid of, that they're going to see this seep into other Senate races across the country. I mean, this ad is pretty powerful, and the message is beyond her Republican opponent, Senator Scott Brown, who is really pretty moderate in his views on these things. So this really is a problem for Republicans, one of the reasons they would like Congressman Akin to really bow out of this race.

What Akin's comments essentially did was pour fuel on a smoldering fire, this war on women that Democrats have been pushing for a number of months and really brought it back to the forefront. Women voters are important to both parties, and it's well understood by strategists of both parties.

CORNISH: Do you think that the majority of the Senate, capturing the majority is within grasp for the GOP?

DUFFY: You know, it's not as close as it was on Friday, before Akin made his remarks. Taking Missouri off the table makes it a lot harder for Republicans to win the majority. They almost have to execute perfect campaigns everywhere. It's just - it's much more of an uphill climb now.

CORNISH: Jennifer Duffy is senior editor at the Cook Political Report. Jennifer, thank you.

DUFFY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.