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Election 2012: In Senate, a mighty struggle to maintain status quo

The battle for the Senate now looks like a standoff with neither Republicans nor Democrats likely to win the 60 seats needed for political control. Will partisan gridlock change after Election 2012?

By Staff writer / October 2, 2012

Democratic candidate Tim Kaine (l.) and Republican candidate George Allen are in a hard-fought contest to represent Virginia in the US Senate.

Evan Bucci/AP

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Washington

This was supposed to be the year that Republicans stormed back into power in the US Senate, after enduring six years in the minority. But that scenario is looking less certain as Nov. 6 nears – thanks to a few missteps by GOP candidates, strong campaigns by some Democrats in red states, and presidential battleground states that lately are tilting toward President Obama in the polls.

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As a result, political control of the Senate remains up for grabs – and the likelihood is rising that the winning party will hold only the narrowest of majorities. The upshot? Hope is fading that Election 2012 will yield a decisive mandate that can break the partisan gridlock that has immobilized Washington policymaking in recent years.

"When you have parties that are this polarized, unless one party really dominates the whole government – 60 votes in the Senate, a majority in the House, White House – then everything has to be a compromise," says political scientist David Karol at the University of Maryland. "And there's no basis for compromise."

Senate Democrats hold only a 53-to-47-seat majority, and this election they are defending nearly two dozen seats – twice as many as Republicans.

Presidential coattails in Virginia

Still, the electoral picture for the GOP has become less rosy as the campaign season unwinds, and not least among the reasons is the way the presidential contest has been playing out. Senate races in several 2012 battleground states are taking place in the shadow of the much larger and better-funded presidential operations – and a number of these states, polls show, currently lean toward Mr. Obama.

Virginia is one of four tight Senate races taking place in presidential battleground states. Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney are jamming the airwaves with ads and building deluxe voter-turnout campaigns that will influence races down the ballot. Tim Kaine (D) and George Allen (R), both former governors, have been locked in a match so tight that there was, until recently, no daylight between them. (Mr. Kaine opened up a single-digit lead in a pair of recent surveys.)

Virginia is "the Senate race in the country that gets decided by the presidential" political picture, says Jennifer Duffy, the Cook Political Report's analyst on Senate contests.

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