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US Elections 2012 Feature: The 7 Senate Races to Watch --- and Why They Are Important for the Next President

After this election the President, whoever it may be, will need to work almost immediately with the new Congress to avert the dire consequences of America's looming "fiscal cliff". The lame-duck legislature between November and January may yet surprise everyone and deal with the pressing problems facing the American economy, but it is unlikely. So this that when the newly-elected Congress sits for the first time next year, there will need to be some co-operation between the respective parties for a deal to keep American from plunging into a recession.

The problem for the President, whomever it may be, is that he will struggle with a split Congress. The House of Representatives will remain in the hands of the Republicans after this election, and unless the polls are very wrong, Democrats are going to retain their advantage in the Senate.

Still, there is an outside chance for the Republicans to overturn the Democrats' slender majority in the Senate, and that means that a few Senate races are worth watching tonight.

Counting seats which are not contested this year or those with an unassailable favourite, Republicans have a hold on 44, and the Democrats are locked in for 49, including the two Independents who caucus with them. Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Missouri could conceivably end up Republican on the coattails of an overwhelming Romney victory, but if the polls are anywhere near correct, this is a long-shot for consideration.

So this leaves seven toss-up races, which Republican would need to sweep to gain a majority.

Indiana: This should not be a contest. In a solidly-Republican state, and Richard Mourdock should be trouncing his Democratic rival Joe Donnelly easily. However, Mourdock's comments that abortion should be illegal, even in cases of rape, has raised questions whether he is suitable for office.

The problem for the Democrats is that Joe Donnelly is going to need a lot of people to split their ticket and vote Romney-Donnelly for him to win.

Massachusetts: Republican Senator Scott Brown, who took the seat with Tea Party backing two years ago in a special election, has to hold his seat in a state which will overwhelmingly vote for Obama.

Brown has not overly alienated voters in Massachusetts, but his rival, the progressive champion and Democratic rising star Elizabeth Warren, has also managed to avoid any major errors in her campaign.

Montana: This is another state where the sitting Senator, Democrat John Tester, represents a party which is a heavy underdog in the Presidential race.

Tester does have the advantage that at the local level Democrats can and do win office, and the limited polling shows a tight race. However, his opponent, Congressman Denny Rehberg, has represented Montana in the House of Representatives since 2000 and his recognition should see him to victory on a Romney-Rehberg vote.

Nevada: This is a swing state for the Presidential election so neither candidate necessarily has the advantage of a top of the ticket boost.

Republican Dean Heller, appointed to fill a vacant seat, has held a steady if small edge over Representative Shelley Berkeley in the polls since September. However, in 2010 the pollsters incorrectly predicted a win for the Tea Party candidate Sharron Angle over Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. A similar error by the pollsters or a stronger Obama-Berkeley showing than expected, and the Democrats could win.

North Dakota: This barely qualifies as a toss-up race as the Republican candidate, Representative Rick Berg, holds a handy lead over his rival, former Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp.

Heitkamp is more popular personally than Berg, but the Republican has done nothing along the lines of a Todd Akin in Missouri to throw away his advantage.

Virginia: Not only is this a swing state, but the two candidates are politicians with a rich history. Republican George Allen, trying to regain the Senate seat he lost in 2006, faces former Governor Tim Kaine.

Kaine has held a slight lead in the polls recently, but this as much as any race could be conditional on the national outcome. A high turnout for Romney, or a depressed turnout for Obama, and Allen wins. If the polls have gauged turnout correctly, however, Kaine should hold off Allen's challenge.

Wisconsin: Progressives hope that another of their standard-bearers, Tammy Baldwin, can retain this Democratic seat, opened up by the retirement of Senator Herb Kohl.

As in Virginia, Baldwin holds a small but consistent lead over Republican Tommy Thompson, and the same caveat --- a significant Democratic turnout for Presidential and Senate races --- applies here.

The overall picture for the Senate then is that the Democrats should win Virginia, Wisconsin and Massachusetts to give them 52 seats. There are enough reasons to doubt Republican chances in Indiana and Nevada to suggest a Democrat might win one of those states, leaving a 53-47 majority.

But this is a Presidential election year, where Senate races are not as safe to call as in off-Presidential campaigns where the candidates stand or fall a bit more on their own merits. Republican faith in their theory of a lacklustre Democratic turnout may be nothing but a fantasy, but until the results start to confirm Obama's lead in the polls as reality, then Democrats face the possibility of losing the Senate as well as the White House. It is unlikely, but stranger results have happened in recent American political history.

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