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NPR Politics presents the Lunchbox List: our favorite campaign news and stories curated from NPR and around the Web in digestible bites (100 words or less!). Look for it every weekday afternoon from now until the conventions.

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Rape Comments Complicate But Don't End GOP Senate Takeover Chances

Oct 25, 2012
Originally published on October 25, 2012 5:00 pm

The enthusiasm with which Democrats seized upon Senate candidate Richard Mourdock's philosophizing about God's plan for unborn children of women impregnated by rape may have suggested the Indiana Republican's election chances had just ended.

And, in the favored Democratic scenario, a Mourdock self-destruct would mean that the GOP's dreams of taking control of the U.S. Senate would once again be significantly hobbled by a Tea Party candidate. (See: Christine O'Donnell of Delaware and Sharron Angle of Nevada in 2010.)

Not so fast, say race analysts.

Though President Obama already has incorporated Mourdock's comments into his stump message on women's health care and choice, it's too early to tell how they will play in the Republican's dead-heat race with Indiana Democratic Rep. Joe Donnelly.

Or whether they'll resonate, as Democrats hope, in the presidential race and tightening Senate races beyond Indiana.

"We just don't know yet," says Jennifer Duffy, who analyzes Senate races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. "While it would be nice to do this instant analysis, anyone who is putting a marker down on this is nuts."

Republican chances for a Senate takeover remain alive, although they are slim, to be sure. The Senate now is made up of 51 Democrats, 47 Republicans, and two independents who caucus with the Democrats. The GOP needs to gain four seats to control the Senate if Obama wins; three seats if Republican Mitt Romney emerges the presidential victor on Nov. 6.

But it is still "too early to count chickens," wrote Stuart Rothenberg at the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report.

Nathan Gonzales, also at the Rothenberg Political Report, says that Republicans have to win eight of nine races that he and analysts at his organization have rated as broad tossups.

Those races include three currently held by Republicans: Indiana; Massachusetts, where Sen. Scott Brown is facing a fierce challenge from Democrat Elizabeth Warren; and Nevada, where Sen. Dean Heller is neck and neck with Democratic Rep. Shelly Berkley.

"Obviously, in order to gain seats, Republicans need to hold as many of their own as possible," Gonzales says, even as they are expected to gain seats in Nebraska and North Dakota, where longtime Democratic senators are retiring.

Other states where Senate races are considered tossups by Rothenberg are in Montana, Virginia, Wisconsin and Connecticut.

If Republicans lose Indiana and Massachusetts, where Warren has consistently been polling ahead, "all they've done is hold even," Gonzales says. "That's where the trouble lies."

Republicans are expected to lose Maine, where GOP Sen. Olympia Snowe is retiring. Democrats, whose own candidate is not considered competitive, have put money into attacking Republican Charlie Summers in the hopes of bolstering the independent candidate, former Gov. Angus King. Democrats expect King to caucus with them in the Senate, though he has not publicly committed to doing so.

"Democrats have done a good job getting candidates in position to take advantage of opportunities that are there," says Gonzales, pointing to longtime moderate Republican Sen. Richard Lugar's loss to Mourdock in the Indiana primary as an example. "A lot of this is the hand that you're dealt, and the Republicans are now dealing Democrats some good cards."

Gonzales adds: "The Tea Party has complicated Republican efforts to regain the Senate majority, but you're dealing with a group of conservatives for which the majority isn't even a priority."

"For them," he said, "purity is better than a majority."

Mourdock: Slowed, But Not Finished?

In a debate this week, Mourdock said he doesn't think abortion should be a legal option even after a rape: "Even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen," said Mourdock.

"What [Mourdock] said was not well-said," Duffy acknowledges, "but there are a lot of people on the pro-life spectrum who share his view, that a life is a life no matter how it's conceived."

She noted that the Democrat Donnelly in the Indiana race has a strong anti-abortion record, too, and "can't go all in on this issue." Mourdock's comments aren't comparable, she says, to Missouri GOP Senate candidate Todd Akin's earlier musings on "legitimate rape."

"This is different — Mourdock didn't try to be a biology professor," Duffy says, referring to Akin's suggestion that women can shut down their reproductive system to avoid pregnancy during rape. "Akin has also said ridiculous things every day since."

Akin appears on course to lose in a close race to Sen. Claire McCaskill, once considered the Democratic Senate incumbent most vulnerable to defeat.

So Mourdock is not necessarily cooked.

Romney is standing by him, as are other conservatives — even as Obama criticized what he characterized as Mourdock's parsing of rape, and male politicians "making decisions about women's health care" choices.

Timing Is Everything

Before Mourdock's comments, the thinking was that he was gaining his footing and that an expected Romney victory in Indiana would very likely pull the Senate candidate across the finish line a winner.

It still might, and how strong Romney runs in other states with tossup Senate races could do more to decide the upper chamber's balance than any comments on rape.

Republicans have been tantalizingly close to seizing control of the U.S. Senate in recent years, only to see those dreams dashed by a combination of the party's rightward push and inferior candidates.

This was to be the year they did it, and, while it's been complicated by Mourdock and Akin — as complicated as Romney's swing state path to the presidency — neither are impossible.

Says Duffy: "Every day matters."

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