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Upside-down Kansas, other surprises, enliven races

October 12, 2014

WASHINGTON (AP) — Just three weeks from Election Day, the 2014 campaign has become less predictable and full of surprises.

When the run toward the 2014 election began, it seemed certain that Republicans would easily hold Senate seats in states that President Barack Obama lost badly in 2012. But no one could have predicted that Senate races in Kansas and South Dakota — where Republicans had been heavily favored — would be in doubt so close to the Nov. 4 election.

In the Senate, Republicans still seem on track to pick up the six seats they need to take control. They recruited good candidates and focused on several states Obama lost. Democratic retirements made West Virginia and South Dakota almost guaranteed pickups.

Democrats facing re-election offered big targets in Arkansas, Louisiana, Alaska and North Carolina — all of which Republican Mitt Romney won in the 2012 presidential election.

But with Senate control so tantalizingly close, Republicans find themselves investing time, staff and money into protecting a three-term senator in Kansas — one of the most conservative states.

“Anyone who predicted that last year is either psychic or psychotic,” said Matt Bennett, a veteran of Democratic campaigns.

Even if Republican Sen. Pat Roberts survives the challenge from independent Greg Orman, Republicans also must lock down South Dakota, a once-unthinkable concern.

Democrats are pouring $1 million into TV ads attacking Republican Mike Rounds, a former governor. Driving the uncertainty is third-party candidate Larry Pressler, who spent 18 years in the Senate as a Republican. Republicans answered quickly with $1 million worth of TV ad buys.

If Republicans lose either of those states, and fall one seat short of controlling the Senate, it will rank among the most crushing failures in recent political history. Especially with a 2016 map that strongly favors Democrats in Senate contests.

Other 2014 campaign surprises include:

— The “incredible disappearing Obamacare debate,” as described by Dan Schnur, a former top Republican aide who now teaches at the University of Southern California.

For the third straight election, attacking Obama’s health care law is the Republicans’ go-to tactic. But strategists in both parties say the relentless criticism is losing punch as millions of people acquire insurance under the law. Many Republican candidates have broadened their denunciations to Obama’s overall competency and tying their Democratic opponents to him generally.

— The rise of fear — of terrorism and disease, especially — as an issue.

Neither was a topic of discussion during the months of state primaries. But the rise of Islamic State militants, Obama’s decision to order airstrikes against them, and the Ebola outbreak have roiled the final weeks of the campaign.

Several Republican candidates are replacing their ads attacking the health care law with sometimes frightening warnings about the risks and threat of the Islamic militants and the virus.

Obama, they argue, isn’t doing enough, or isn’t competent enough, to keep Americans safe.

Democrats call the claims grossly exaggerated and fear-mongering. Yet they worry about the impact.

“Democrats are once again being seen through the old lens about the party on security issues: as weak, indecisive, and afraid to use force,” Bennett said.

— The power of one TV ad. Joni Ernst was struggling in Iowa’s crowded Republican primary for the seat being vacated by retiring Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin. Then she appeared in a TV ad cheerily saying: “I grew up castrating hogs on an Iowa farm. So when I get to Washington, I’ll know how to cut pork.”

The ad helped push her to an easy primary victory, and her rise began. She’s now in a neck-and-neck race with Democrat Bruce Braley, a congressman who started the race as a clear favorite.

Both candidates have stumbled at times. But Ernst proved that a pitch-perfect ad can break through the din and transform a race almost overnight.

— The role of third-party candidates. They run in every election, but rarely play much of a role. Not this year.

Orman refuses to say whether he would align himself with Senate Democrats or Republicans. But he still shook up the Kansas Senate race by driving out the Democratic nominee and possibly consolidating the anti-Roberts vote.

In South Dakota, Pressler didn’t scare away the Democrats’ nominee, but he has rattled Republicans with his rise.

Third-party Senate candidates in Louisiana and Georgia could force runoffs that might leave control of the Senate in doubt until December, or even January. Both states require a runoff if no one exceeds 50 percent on the November ballot.

In Maine, Republican Gov. Paul LePage has angered many voters, but could still narrowly win re-election with less than 40 percent of the votes because a liberal independent candidate is once again siphoning off votes from the Democratic candidate.

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Associated Press writer Charles Babington in Washington contributed to this report.

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