WASHINGTON — The Indiana Senate candidate Richard E. Mourdock’s reintroduction of rape and abortion into the political dialogue this week is the latest in a series of political missteps that have made the Republican quest to seize control of the Senate a steeper climb.
Once viewed as likely to win the Senate, Republicans are now in jeopardy of losing seats in Massachusetts and Maine. If they do, they will need to win at least five seats held by Democrats and hold three other Republican seats at risk to net the three needed to take the Senate if Mitt Romney wins the presidency.
If President Barack Obama prevails, Republicans will have to win at least one additional seat in a state where they are seen as slightly behind — either in Connecticut, Florida, Ohio, or Pennsylvania.
“Republicans can do it,” said Jennifer Duffy, a Senate political analyst at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “It’s just getting a lot harder.”
Rob Jesmer, executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said Thursday that Republican candidates were within reach of victory in 10 to 12 competitive races, with Mitt Romney’s improvement lifting candidates in states that were out of play six weeks ago.
But time is dwindling. The implications for the next two years cannot be overstated. If Obama wins a second term, his hand would be much strengthened by a Democrat-led Senate — even a narrowly divided one — as opposed to unified Republican majorities in the House and the Senate.
At the moment, Democrats are given little chance of winning the net 25 seats they would need to take the House, though they could well gain House seats.
If Romney wins the White House, even a one-seat Democratic majority in the Senate could thwart his domestic ambitions, from an immediate repeal of Obama’s health care law to his proposed 20 percent, across-the-board tax cut.
Those proposals rely on both a Republican majority and the use of a parliamentary budget procedure that would negate a Democratic filibuster. But a Democratic majority leader could keep the proposals from coming to a vote without substantial Democratic changes. An opposition majority would also ensure leverage in the fight over the fiscal cliff, what to do with the expiring Bush-era tax cuts and looming, across-the-board spending cuts, called sequestration, that go into force in January.
Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, chairwoman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, predicted Democrats would hold on.
“If you look back two years ago, not one person thought we would be able to keep the majority,” she said, adding, “Our prospects are very good.”
Republicans recognize that the climb back to the majority has become much harder than it appeared a year ago. Some of the difficulty was just bad luck. The unexpected retirement of Sen. Olympia J. Snowe of Maine changed the math early.