WASHINGTON (AP) — Republican chances of capturing control of the Senate in Tuesday's elections could be dimming, amid signs that the party's candidate in the state of Indiana has fallen behind after his incendiary remarks about rape and pregnancy.
Republicans have little margin for error in their quest to win control of the Senate from the Democrats, and controlling the upper chamber will be essential for either President Barack Obama or Republican challenger Mitt Romney to get their agenda through Congress, where Republicans control the House of Representatives. Republican failure in Indiana, combined with the likely loss of a seat in Maine and quite possibly in Massachusetts, would put the party in a deep hole. Democrats control the Senate by a 53-47, so Republicans need a net pickup of four seats if Obama wins reelection, or three if Romney wins.
If Republicans lose their seats in Indiana, Maine and Massachusetts, they face an uphill battle in gaining control of the Senate. They would have to win all the competitive open seats now in Democratic hands — Nebraska, North Dakota, Virginia and Wisconsin — plus knock off incumbents in Montana, Ohio and perhaps Pennsylvania. Analysts predict that Democrats will narrowly hold the Senate, while Republicans are expected to keep the House.
In Indiana, the latest survey out Friday showed Democratic Rep. Joe Donnelly leading Republican Richard Mourdock by 11 percentage points after the Republican candidate's awkward debate comment last week that pregnancy resulting from rape is "something God intended."
Mourdock has scrambled to recover since the gaffe, but it has taken a toll in the closing days of a competitive race. The Howey/DePauw University Battleground poll also showed that the state treasurer isn't winning over women, independents and a percentage of Republicans.
"We're very hopeful about Indiana and other opportunities to win other Republican-held seats and help us keep the majority on election night," said Matt Canter, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. "Putting Republican-held seats in play is the key to success here."
Mourdock also has struggled to satisfy backers of six-term moderate Sen. Richard Lugar, the man he defeated handily in the May Republican primary. Lugar would likely have easily won another term, but the anti-tax, limited government tea party movement pushed for Mourdock.
"The only poll I'm talking about today is the new unemployment numbers," Mourdock told The Associated Press during a stop at his Indianapolis campaign headquarters on Friday.
The same poll showed Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney up 10 percentage points over President Barack Obama, who won pulled off a surprise win in Indiana in 2008 but is given little chance of repeating that this year. Republicans say Romney will help carry Mourdock to victory.
Another Republican candidate could be sunk by his explosive comments about rape and pregnancy. Republican congressman Todd Akin had been favored to win until he remarked in a TV interview that aired Aug. 19 that women's bodies have ways of avoiding pregnancy in "legitimate rape." Though he apologized, Akin refused calls by Romney and other top national Republicans to drop out of the race and has since fallen behind Sen. Claire McCaskill.
Without Romney's support, Akin has been campaigning with former Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich.
Tightening races, new ads and a final dash for votes marked the closing days of a Senate campaign with a dozen competitive races, a significant number that remained almost as close as the presidential race.
Republicans insisted that they had an opportunity in Pennsylvania to knock off first-term Democratic Sen. Bob Casey, though he has never trailed in the polls.
Democrats were hoping for a strong Latino turnout in Arizona to help Democrat Richard Carmona take a Republican-held seat in his race against Rep. Jeff Flake.
Republicans were counting on grabbing the Democratic-held Nebraska seat although the contest between Republican Deb Fischer and former Democratic Sen. Bob Kerrey was tighter, reflected in the sudden infusion of money and visiting campaign help.
The Democratic-leaning group VoteVets was spending $275,000 on ads for Kerrey, the former Navy SEAL and Medal of Honor recipient in the Vietnam War.
In Connecticut, Obama made his first appearance for a Democratic Senate candidate in a campaign commercial, urging voters to back congressman Chris Murphy in his race against wrestling empire executive Linda McMahon, who trails despite spending more than $42 million of her own money.
Associated Press writer Donna Cassata in Washington, Margery Beck in Nebraska, Tom LoBianco in Indianapolis and Susan Haigh in Connecticut contributed to this report.