WASHINGTON — When voters choose between Barbara Boxer and Carly Fiorina in California’s hard-fought Senate race Nov. 2, they also may be deciding control of the entire U.S. Senate.
The contest between the three-term Democratic incumbent and the Republican former Hewlett-Packard CEO is shaping up as one of a small handful of races around the country that will determine whether Democrats retain power in the Senate or cede it to Republicans, three election handicappers told the San Jose Mercury News.
While Republicans are widely expected to win the House, it’s a much taller order in the Senate, where there are 41 Republicans compared with a Democratic caucus of 59 (57 Democrats and two independents). GOP candidates would have to hold all of their current seats (likely) and then win 10 seats now held by Democrats. Election handicappers are predicting GOP gains of six to nine seats; to get to 10, Republicans would have to take almost every competitive race.
It would mean knocking off Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, claiming Barack Obama’s former Senate seat in Illinois and nabbing the West Virginia seat held by the late Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd for more than five decades.
Assuming all that happens, and then some, the prospects for a Republican takeover would come down to victory in one of two liberal strongholds, Washington or California. Both are represented by Democratic women elected in 1992 — the so-called Year of the Woman — running against Republican former business executives.
In Washington, Sen. Patty Murray has maintained a small but steady lead on Republican Dino Rossi in recent polls. The same is true of Boxer, who is running slightly ahead of Fiorina. Neither incumbent, however, is a lock for re-election.
Will the GOP wave reach the Left Coast? Anything is possible in this most unpredictable of election years.
“The problem with a wave election is you have no idea how big it is until it lands,” said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor of the Cook Political Report, which predicts Republicans will gain seven to nine seats and rates the Boxer-Fiorina contest a tossup. “If Fiorina wins in California, it’s clearly a big wave.”
Elections expert Larry Sabato’s “Crystal Ball” politics website has Republicans falling one or two seats short of a Senate takeover. However, he — like other prognosticators — is hedging his bets. One historical nugget that gives him pause: Since the 1940s, each of the six times that control of the House has changed parties, the Senate has switched in the same election.