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Is the Senate becoming riper for a Republican takeover?

Surging challenges to two Democratic incumbents – Patty Murray in Washington and Russ Feingold in Wisconsin – are a reason that chances for Republican takeover of the US Senate may be rising in Election 2010.

By Staff writer / August 10, 2010

Sen. Patty Murray (D) of Washington, second from left, glances at Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nev., right, during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Aug. 4.

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

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Washington

The conventional wisdom on the midterm elections has been that the House is vulnerable to a Republican takeover, but the Senate? Not so much.

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It’s still true that the Republicans have an easier path to a House takeover, with so many Democratic-held seats in play. But with strong challenges emerging against two Senate Democratic incumbents previously seen as safe – Patty Murray of Washington and Russ Feingold of Wisconsin – and the national atmospherics heavily favoring the Republicans, Democrats increasingly have their work cut out for them to save control even of the Senate.

Add to that the possibility that one or even two senators currently in the Democratic column could flip to the Republican side if the GOP gets close to a takeover on Nov. 2. Let’s say the Republicans make a net gain of nine seats – one short of the 10 they need for a majority. Speculation will then immediately turn to Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, a conservative Democrat from a red state who sometimes sides with the Republicans. Less likely but still conceivable as a party-switcher is Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats but is seen by some Democrats as not completely with the team.

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If the Republicans get close to a majority and offer one or both of these senators a committee chairmanship, that could sweeten the deal.

“So you’ve got two on the Democratic side you’ve got to worry about,” says Peter Fenn, a Democratic communications strategist.

Senator Lieberman already chairs a committee for the Democrats – Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs – but in politics, there are no guarantees. The Democrats still have to wonder if they might lose him under certain circumstances.

What’s more, it’s looking increasingly possible, though still not likely, that the Republicans could take over the Senate without the help of party-switchers. In the event of a tsunami-size wave of voter discontent, the Democrats’ large majorities in both houses – 59 to 41 in the Senate, 256 to 178 (and one vacancy) in the House – could easily be swept away. Typically, Senate races are not as vulnerable to the national mood as House races, but in this cycle, Republicans believe they could be.

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