NY Times: Members of the House Face Uphill Battles for Senate

The race in North Dakota for a Senate seat being vacated by a retiring Democrat, Kent Conrad, was supposed to be a cakewalk for Republicans. When the state’s lone House member, Rick Berg, entered the contest, leading Republicans tucked the seat into their pocket and looked to other battles in their quest for a Senate majority next year.

It has not worked out that way. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has announced it would spend $200,000 broadcasting gauzy advertisements promoting the energy positions of Mr. Berg, a House freshman. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report downgraded the race to a tossup.

And Mr. Berg’s Democratic challenger, Heidi Heitkamp, a former state attorney general, has begun tearing into his brief record in the terribly unpopular House of Representatives. “The people of North Dakota, like the people of this country, believe Washington, D.C., is badly broken,” Ms. Heitkamp said.

Republicans, who need a net gain of only four seats to guarantee control of the Senate, have long been optimistic that they could capture the majority because they are defending just 10 of the 33 seats up for grabs. But their task is complicated by the fact that many of their candidates are sitting or recent members of the House, which polls show to be deeply unpopular.

In the 15 races ranked as most competitive by The New York Times, Republicans could field current or recently departed House members in eight of them; Democratic House members are top candidates in four Senate races.

Races that were not supposed to be all that close are looking more like barn-burners, in large part because one of the standard-bearers carries the millstone of his or her current position: member of the House.

House membership is “more a liability than I’ve ever seen it,” said Stuart Rothenberg, editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report. “We go through periods when Congress is less popular than other times, but Congressional approval ratings right now are so abysmally bad, so unbelievably bad, it has to rub off on members seeking higher office.”

Just west of North Dakota, Montana’s endangered freshman Democratic senator, Jon Tester, is going up against the state’s lone House member, Denny Rehberg. Todd Akin, a veteran Republican representative from Missouri, is in a tough primary to decide whether he will challenge Senator Claire McCaskill, who is considered vulnerable.

Representative Jeff Flake, Republican of Arizona, remains favored to take the Senate seat of Senator Jon Kyl, who is retiring. But Mr. Flake now faces a spirited challenge from a former United States surgeon general, Richard H. Carmona, running as a Democrat and an outsider. And Representative Connie Mack, Republican of Florida, has an uphill fight to unseat Senator Bill Nelson, a Democrat.

Democrats have their own struggles. The Senate contest in New Mexico between Representative Martin Heinrich, a Democrat, and former Representative Heather Wilson, a Republican, is considered close. In Wisconsin, Republican campaign operatives are hammering the House record of Representative Tammy Baldwin, a Democrat, as she gears up her campaign for a Senate seat. The House records of both Representative Shelley Berkley, Democrat of Nevada, and Dean Heller, appointed to the Senate from the House, will feature heavily in their Senate contest.

And in the tossup race for an open Senate seat in Hawaii, former Gov. Linda Lingle, a Republican, is likely to brand her once-favored challenger, Representative Mazie Hirono, a creature of the hated House.

But comparatively speaking, the problem in some races may be especially acute for Republicans, who must contend with both Congress’s overall approval rating and the damage that has been done to the Republican brand, Mr. Rothenberg said.

Members are making the best of it. Mr. Rehberg said individual members of Congress were “not as unpopular” as the institution itself. Besides, “Montanans don’t sit around saying, ‘Boy, I hate Congress.’ That’s something for the pollsters and the media to feed — and do,” he said.

Mr. Flake said his record of angering leaders of both parties with his crusade against pet projects financed by earmarks — a crusade that led to his removal from the House Appropriations Committee — would inoculate him from attack.

“I could see how it would be seen as a negative for some if they’re seen as just part of the institution, but if you’re seen as fighting the institution, it’s a plus,” he said.

But Democrats happily e-mailed around links to a Web video put together by Mr. Flake’s Republican challenger for the Arizona Senate nomination that portrays Mr. Flake as a career politician, and Carmona campaign aides say Mr. Flake’s reputation as a rebel is more a fixture of Washington than Arizona.

Opponents eager to tie all the House members seeking a Senate seat to the body they are leaving will make few distinctions. The National Republican Senatorial Committee last week tried to tar Representative Joe Donnelly, Democrat of Indiana, a Roman Catholic alumnus of the University of Notre Dame, with the Obama administration’s requirement that health insurance plans provided by Catholic charities and universities offer free birth control to women. Mr. Donnelly is running for the seat of Senator Richard G. Lugar, a Republican.

Ms. Baldwin, of Wisconsin, was criticized for missing House committee votes on an energy bill but making time to appear on Ed Schultz’s liberal radio show. After Ms. Baldwin introduced legislation codifying President Obama’s “Buffett Rule,” which would increase the tax rate for many people who earn more than $1 million a year, Republicans denounced her for seeking to raise taxes on “American families and small businesses.”

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