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A dozen Senate races for rural America to watch

Note: This is the first of two analyses of congressional races that are important to rural America. Today we will take a look at the Senate. On Tuesday we will feature the House races.

By JERRY HAGSTROM

There are so many senators from key rural states up for election on Tuesday that party shifts in who holds those seats could produce dramatic changes in farm leadership in the Senate. But in reality, only a dozen of the 33 races are both competitive and likely to be important to rural America.

Several key political analysts have said they expect the Democrats to retain control of the Senate. Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia said today he expects the numerical makeup of the Senate to remain exactly the same, with the Democrats holding 51 seats, independents holding two seats and caucusing with the Democrats and the Republicans holding 47 seats.

Of the 21 members of the Senate Agriculture Committee, five are up for re-election on Tuesday, and there are races to fill the seats of three committee members who are leaving. Several other senators also have an impact on rural and agricultural policy and some of their races are competitive.

First, let’s note the key senators who are running for re-election who have no serious opposition.

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Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand

Democratic Sens. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, both members of the Senate Agriculture Committee, are cruising to victory.

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Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Sen. Maria Cantwell, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Sen. John Barrasso

Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein of California, Maria Cantwell of Washington, independent Bernie Sanders of Vermont, and Republican Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming are not members of the Agriculture committee, but all are often important on agricultural issues and are expected to win re-election easily.

Following are Senate races of interest to rural America with some of level of competitiveness, starting with three incumbents serving on the Senate Agriculture Committee.

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Sen. Debbie Stabenow and former Rep. Pete Hoekstra

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Debbie Stabenow’s race for re-election is by far the most important in agriculture, but she appears to be far ahead in the polls. Former Rep. Pete Hoekstra, R-Mich., was expected to give her a tough race, but it has not turned out that way.

Stabenow shepherded a farm bill all the way through the Senate, while the Republican-led House declined to act. The usually Republican-leaning Michigan Farm Bureau gave her its endorsement, citing both the farm bill and her work in providing disaster assistance.

The Cook Political Report has rated the race “likely Democratic.”

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Sen. Sherrod Brown and Josh Mandel

Ohio


Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown has the toughest re-election race of the Senate Agriculture Committee members, but he is still expected to win.

He faces Republican state Treasurer Josh Mandel, who has given him a run for the money, but is only 35 years old. Polls are close, however, and the outcome of the right presidential race could affect it.

The Cook Political Report rates the race “lean Democratic.”

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Sen. Bob Casey and Tom Smith

Pennsylvania


Democratic Sen. Bob Casey, also a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, has not been considered to have a tough race all year, even though wealthy Republican nomine Tom Smith has run a barrage of advertising against him. But the tightening presidential race in Pennsylvania over the weekend before the election could make the Senate race more competitive.

The Cook Political Report rating is “lean Democratic.”

Other Senate races of importance to rural America:



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Richard Carmona and Rep. Jeff Flake

Arizona


The race to succeed retiring Republican Sen. John Kyl pits Rep. Jeff Flake against former U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona.

Flake is known for questioning and opposing farm programs as part of his campaign to reduce federal spending. Carmona has appeal to the Hispanic community but has made some mistakes.

Arizona has long been a reliably Republican state but Democrats believe the growth in the Hispanic population is turning it into a swing state. The race is a toss-up.

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Rep. Joe Donnelly and Richard Mourdock

Indiana


The Indiana Senate race became competitive when Republican Sen. Richard Lugar, a former Senate Agriculture Committee chairman, lost his primary to state Treasurer Richard Mourdock, a tea party advocate.

Indiana is so Republican that Mourdock had the advantage over Democratic candidate Rep. Joe Donnelly, until Mourdock said that he could not support abortion in the case of rape because he believes that God creates all life.

Lugar was a staunch supporter of ethanol but Mourdock has said he opposes federal mandates including the one for ethanol.

Late polls show Donnelly in the lead. The Cook Political Report rating is “toss-up.”

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Cynthia Dill, Angus King and Charles Summers

Maine


The race to replace retiring Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe is a three-way. Former independent Gov. Angus King is running against Cynthia Dill, a Democratic state senator, and Republican Secretary of State Charles Summers.

King appears to be dominating the race, and is the most likely of the three to win the opportunity to speak up for the Maine potato industry.

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Elizabeth Warren and Sen. Scott Brown

Massachusetts


Massachusetts senators never pay much attention to agriculture, but if Harvard Law School professor Elizabeth Warren, who helped set up the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, wins this election she will undoubtedly become a strong advocate in the Senate for strong regulation of the financial services industry, including commodity futures.

Warren is trying to unseat Republican Sen. Scott Brown, who won a special election after the death of Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy.

Polls give Warren the edge.

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Sen. Claire McCaskill and Rep. Todd Akin

Missouri


Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill is not on the Agriculture committee, but Missouri is rural enough that no senator there can ignore the rural vote. The Cook Political Report rated McCaskill the most vulnerable of the 16 Democrats seeking re-election this cycle, as a result of her support for Obama’s health care initiative and some personal issues.

But her opponent, Republican Rep. Todd Akin, severely damaged his campaign in mid-August when he used the phrase “legitimate rape.” National Republican leaders distanced themselves and asked him to leave the race but when Akin stayed in, some returned to his fold.

McCaskill has the advantage.

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Sen. Jon Tester and Rep. Denny Rehberg

Montana


Democratic Sen. Jon Tester, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, is being challenged by Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg, a member of the House Appropriations Committee.

Both Tester and Rehberg have farm backgrounds, but Tester is an organic farmer while Rehberg has ties to ranching and conventional agriculture. This may be the closest Senate race in the country.

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Former Sen. Bob Kerrey and Deb Fischer

Nebraska


In the race to succeed retiring Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson, former Democratic Sen. Bob Kerrey is facing Republican state Sen. Debra Fischer, who won a three-way primary.

Kerrey, the co-author of the modern crop insurance program with Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., was a major player on Capitol Hill. But he has had a hard time reconnecting with Nebraska voters — his state has become more conservative while he has spent the last 10 years living in New York City as the head of the New School for Social Research.

Kerrey may have been helped by last-minute endorsements from former Republican Sens. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Alan Simpson of Wyoming.

But Republicans still have the advantage.

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Heidi Heitkamp and Rep. Rick Berg

North Dakota


In the race to succeed retiring Democratic Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, Rep. Rick Berg, R-N.D., and the Democratic candidate, former Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp, are in a tight race.

North Dakota unseated Democratic Rep. Earl Pomeroy in 2010 and also elected Republican Sen. John Hoeven, but Heitkamp has mounted a competitive campaign. Heitkamp has raised questions about Berg’s ethics while he has called her a rubber stamp for President Barack Obama’s policies.

In the past week former President Bill Clinton campaigned in the state for Heitkamp and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., campaigned for Berg. Heitkamp questioned the value of McCain’s presence, however, noting that he has opposed the farm bill, the sugar program and the Renewable Fuel Standard.

On Sunday, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney cut an ad for Berg, but the Obama-Biden campaign sent out a national news release saying that Romney was aligning himself with Berg, “who voted for legislation that would criminalize abortion, even in cases of rape or incest, and subject women to a maximum sentence of life without the possibility of parole.”

The Cook Political Report has rated this race “a toss-up.”

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Rep. Tammy Baldwin and Tommy Thompson

Wisconsin


In the race to succeed retiring Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Herb Kohl, Democratic Rep. Tammy Baldwin is running against former Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson.

Thompson started out as the much better known candidate state-wide, but Baldwin used television advertising to raise her profile while Thompson went through a divisive primary. Thompson’s private sector business activities have also come under criticism, making the race more competitive for Baldwin.

Either would be under pressure to take Kohl’s place as an advocate for the state’s dairy industry.

• The Cook Political Report