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Extreme Need: The Races Where Democratic Votes Will Matter Most

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For Democrats, preserving control of the House looks like a lost cause. For Republicans, a Senate majority is still within reach -- but barely. Where Congress is concerned, that means the big question for election day is: How many nut jobs are we going to be stuck with in the Senate for the next six, 12, or 18 years?

Some of the damage is already locked in: Tea Party darling Rand Paul? Barring a major upset in Kentucky, that’s going to be Senator Aqua Bhudda to me and you. In Pennsylvania, right winger Pat Toomey appears to be holding off a late surge by Democrat Joe Sestak, the former Navy admiral. Knocking off Toomey could still be a great win for Democrats: Sestak is a genuine progressive in the Russ Feingold mold, and keeping a state like Pennsylvania blue would counter claims of a GOP tsunami. But in the latest polling, Toomey, the former president of the rabidly-anti-tax Club for Growth, has stretched his lead to more than four points.

Two years ago, an anti-government ideologue like Toomey would have screamed "fringe candidate." But in this election cycle he looks almost mainstream -- even in comparison to some of the Democrats running for Senate. Case in point: Joe Manchin, who has opened up a four-point lead of his own in a tight race in West Virginia. Normally, that'd be grand news for Democrats. But it's hard to cheer a candidate who is vowing to repeal Obamacare and literally putting a bullet through climate legislation in his campaign ads:

 

That brings us to the five Senate races that look like genuine toss-ups today. Two of the very closest, Washington and Illinois, are vital contests for the Democrats -- big blue states where GOP pickups would not only hobble Obama legislatively, but also fuel the narrative of a nationwide backlash against the president and his policies. As unusual as it is for Republicans to have a shot at these seats, the GOP candidates who’ve brought them within reach for their party -- neither of them fire breathers -- also don't fit the norm, especially for this cycle. In Illinois, Mark Kirk gets an 'F' from the NRA. In Washington, Dino Rossi defeated the Sarah Palin-endorsed Republican in the primary. These are good, tight contests with reasonable GOP candidates -- Mounds bars compared to the Almond Joys running in Colorado, Nevada and Alaska.

The good news? It's still not too late to keep these nut bars out of the U.S. Senate.

Colorado: The Senate race in this purple state is exceptionally tight, despite the fact that Republican, Ken Buck, is staking out positions that would make him at home in blood-red Oklahoma. According to Buck, homosexuality is a choice, "like alcoholism." Buck also believes that the “evidence just keeps supporting” Senator James Inhofe's insane stance that "global warming is the greatest hoax that has been perpetrated." The Republican is also no friend of college students, arguing, "I don't think our Founding Fathers ever intended the federal government have student loans." Buck's opponent, Sen. Michael Bennet, was appointed in 2008 to fill the seat vacated by now Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. He's a competent, if flavorless, Democrat -- but at least he can cut a decent attack ad: 

 

Nevada: Let's face it -- Nobody likes Democrat Harry Reid. He's been a feckless Senate Majority Leader, and he's an even worse candidate. But Sharron Angle is a menace. She believes Medicare is "wicked" -- and lumps it in with abortion, gay marriage and (odd for a Nevada politician) divorce. Angle refers to Social Security as a form of "welfare" -- one that she nonetheless believes should be privatized. The Tea Party favorite also calls for abolishing the Department of Education, opposes abortion even in the case of incest and rape, argues that there's no constitutional separation of church and state, and wants the United States to withdraw from the United Nations. Most offensive, Angle is a shameless race-baiter. Her recent campaign ad on immigration -- painting Reid as a race traitor -- would have made Jesse Helms blush:

 

Alaska: Backed by Sarah Palin, Joe Miller scored an insurgent victory over incumbent (and Palin nemesis) Senator Lisa Murkowski in the GOP primary. Miller is a bearded Tea Party pamphlet: He opposes unemployment benefits as unconstitutional. He would phase out Medicare, privatize Social Security, end the minimum wage and even repeal the 17th Amendment -- returning the selection of U.S. Senators to the state legislatures. One of his top consultants runs "Hope for Homosexuals" which purports to cure "that destructive lifestyle."

Like his political mentor Palin, Miller has a troubling history of ethics violations, and has such a contemptuous attitude toward the press that one reporter who tried to question the candidate at a public event found himself tossed to the ground, shackled by one of Miller's goons, and detained until the Anchorage police showed up to set him free. Alaska is the least predictable senate race in the country. Murkowski -- a moderate by the standards of today's GOP -- is running as a write-in candidate. And with two Republicans on the ballot, even the Democrat Scott McAdams could conceivably come away the winner.

These races matter. They matter because Senate seats are sticky things. Wave elections always install candidates who have no business on the national stage. In the House, they often get washed out by a counter-wave just two years later. But the Senate is different. Indeed, the case of Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe is instructive. Inhofe was swept to power in the wave election of 1994 as the original "god, guns, and gays" candidate. Sixteen years later, he's still a canker on our body politic.

If you live in one of these states -- or have any influence on voters who do -- it's still up to you whether Miller, Angle, or Buck get a hand in steering the government they hate so much. Don't sit this one out.

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