"There's a path there, depending on how things go."
It was a gutsy, somewhat rare statement made Tuesday from the top staffer at the Senate GOP campaign committee, particularly since his boss, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Tex., works over time to tamp down expectations that the path to a GOP majority in the Senate is a more a "two cycle effort." Typically, these aides like to downplay their chances, playing the underdog role, so as not to dampen momentum and drive, which tends to turn out more voters.
But that was not the case Tuesday. Rob Jesmer, executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), clad in GOP uniform red tie, defiantly grabbed the expectations game firmly in hand and owned it, as he jousted with his Democratic counterpart, J.B. Poersch, of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) at National Journal's midterm campaign forum.
Poersch, who is surprisingly on his third turn heading up the Dems' re-election effort, was much more low key, telling reporters, "I still feel pretty humble," though he conceded no race that was mentioned.
With many prognosticators predicting at least a seven-seat loss for his Dems this year and most leaving the door wide open to a GOP majority, maybe that's the right kind of attitude to have at this point. Jesmer then reached back into a 1980 campaign suitcase and pulled out a question President Ronald Reagan artfully asked of voters back then as bested Democratic President Jimmy Carter, "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?" That year was a landslide for Reagan's party.
Poersch was having none of it, shooting back a favorite Dem "contrast" line of the season that voters have a choice: return to failed Bush policies that "got us into this mess" or move forward. Some Democrats have used this to great effect.
But Jesmer cried foul. "I just love this argument of 'return to the polices of the past'," Jesmer chided, "Democrats have been in power for four years...They have to take responsibility at some point," as he slammed Democrats for approving the stimulus and health care bills.
Bush as Boogeyman is not as good an argument for Democrats as it was in 2009 when the season started, either. Recent polling show Bush and Obama fairly close in voters' esteem, with the current president maintaining a slight advantage.
The two campaign heads agreed that there are about a dozen races in play this cycle, but Poersch includes Kentucky in his line-up. Not surprisingly, Jesmer disagreed.
"The best surprise is happening in Kentucky," Poersch grinned, adding, "Polls remain pretty close there...Kentucky voters are pretty befuddled by (GOP Senate candidate) Rand Paul...You've got a real race down there - one to watch."
Jesmer, who said off the top that "there isn't a Republican opponent who's in real trouble," said there was "no way" Paul would lose to state attorney general Jack Conway. Though Poersch said Conway is up by two or three points, a Real Clear Politics (RCP) average of polls has Paul up nearly six.
And where does Jesmer see a surprise coming on Nov. 3? "I believe both Dino Rossi and Carly Fiorina are going to win."
Rossi, a businessman and two-time losing candidate, is neck and neck with incumbent Democratic Sen. Patty Murray out in Washington state. And Fiorina, former head of HP, is running a close race against Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., though RCP has Boxer ahead by five points at this stage.
Next up, a race that has many in the Democratic establishment scratching their heads - Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold's re-election fight. An average of polls in this race puts billionaire businessman Ron Johnson nearly eight points ahead of the liberal maverick.
Despite that reality, Poersch called the race a "tossup," saying voters had "no idea who (Johnson) was," chiding Johnson for global warming comments he made linking the phenomenon to sunspots. Poersch predicted that Feingold "is going to prevail," but Jesmer begged to differ.
"I just think (Feingold's) act is up. He talked about going to Washington to shake it up, and he hasn't done it. People aren't buying what he's selling anymore," Jesmer said, forecasting a Feingold loss as he praised Johnson for running a successful business that put people to work.
Poersch said Democrats would prevail in states where tea party candidates, like Sharron Angle in Nevada, are calling for the phasing out of Social Security and Medicare. This, of course, is the years-old argument that started under President Bush where many Republicans maintain that the private sector is better suited to save the two fiscally-strained government programs.
Jesmer commended Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's campaign against Angle, but he noted that Reid "had an opportunity to knock her out and didn't" just after the GOP primary. Still, though the two are in a dead heat, Reid has narrowed the gap significantly. This race was once deemed a gonner by nearly everyone in Washington, with many turning to talk of who would succeed the leader in the Senate among Democrats.
In a rare moment of agreement, the campaign heads predicted that this would be one of the night's closest races, a real nail biter. Poersch, for his part, said it's going to be "close," but "I think the leader has had a lead and will hold it till Election Day." Jesmer - not so much.