WASHINGTON (AP) — If Rep. Connie Mack scores an upset over Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson in Florida's Senate race, he'll probably owe Mitt Romney a thank you. Should former Gov. Tim Kaine hold off former Sen. George Allen in the Senate contest in Virginia, President Barack Obama may deserve a share of credit.
The fates of Obama and Romney in November are likely to impact more than the White House. They will help shape a number of key Senate and House races. The prospect of presidential coattails — or the opposite, a drag — is factoring into the way races down the ballot are being run, especially in close contests.
"There's obviously a down-ballot impact from the performance of the top of the ticket," said Sen. John Thune, the No. 3 Republican in the Senate. So Senate Republicans are pulling for Romney and doing all they can to help him, Thune said. Of Romney, he added: "We need him to do well."
Democrats feel the same about the top of their ticket. Leaders in the Senate, including Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York and Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, said Democratic Senate candidates were certain to benefit from a stronger Obama performance in November. They said they'd also benefit if Romney stumbles.
"One of the reasons our Senate numbers have gone up in the last few weeks is distaste for Romney," Schumer said last week.
The impact and potential of coattails is less clear in the House, though both parties are using the stances of Obama and Romney as political cudgels, evidence that the presidential race is having at least a tangential effect.
Romney's struggle to overcome his remarks at a meeting with donors offered an early demonstration of how the top of the ticket can quickly shake other races.
His comment, secretly recorded at a Florida fundraiser in May, that 47 percent of Americans think they are "victims" entitled to government help and that he doesn't worry about "those people," sent Republican Senate candidates scrambling. In Massachusetts, Connecticut, Nevada and Hawaii, Republicans respectfully but surely disavowed Romney's remarks.
There are, after all, a lot of Republicans in that 47 percent — seniors, for example, who depend on government programs like Medicare and Social Security after paying into them for decades. Working-class Americans, too, who may be out of work in an economy that has many voters jittery and angry.
Are they the moochers Romney described? The very question opened up a round of sniping that reached from vulnerable Republican Senate candidates all the way to Romney's wife, Ann.
"I disagree with Governor Romney's insinuation," GOP Senate candidate Linda McMahon said in Connecticut.
"That's not the way I view the world," said GOP Sen. Scott Brown, who's getting a stiff challenge from Democrat Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts.
In Wisconsin, GOP Senate candidate Tommy Thompson, a former governor, lamented a possible draft from the top of the ticket.
"You know, whether you're a Democrat or a Republican, if your standard-bearer for the presidency is not doing well, it's going to reflect on the down ballot," Thompson told WKOW, a Madison, Wis., TV station, last week.
Democrats, meanwhile, are left to defend Obama on broader issues — his stewardship of the slowly recovering economy, the stubbornly high 8.1 percent unemployment rate, his health care overhaul that struck even some in his own party as a too-big government power grab.
That's easier for some than others. In Wisconsin, Democratic Rep. Tammy Baldwin has hugged Obama tightly, appearing before him at a campaign rally on Saturday, practically gushing.
"This is such an exciting end to such an exciting week. I never thought I'd be able to say that I would open for the president of the United States," Baldwin said.
In the crucial Senate battleground of Montana, though, a recent survey of the state from Mason Dixon polling showed Democratic Sen. Jon Tester down by 3 percentage points, 45 percent to 48 percent, to Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg. Obama trails Romney in the same state poll by 9 percentage points, and the poll shows Montanans are divided on more partisan lines than 2006, when Tester won his seat.
As a result, Tester has worked hard to put distance between himself and Obama. In one TV ad airing during the summer, Tester bragged that he "took on the Obama administration" and noted his votes against the auto and Wall Street bailouts, which Obama supported, and his support for the Keystone XL oil pipeline, which Obama has opposed.
If either Obama or Romney has coattails, it's most likely to show up in the race for the Senate. Republicans need to net four seats to take control of the chamber. The GOP has the potential to pick up four seats in states that Obama and Romney are fiercely contesting: Virginia, Ohio, Florida and Wisconsin. Republicans must also hold onto a Senate seat in Nevada, another presidential swing state.
Some potential for coattails shows up in polling.
In Virginia, Kaine's numbers have tracked closely with Obama's polling in the state. Last week, a poll released by The Washington Post had Obama up over Romney in Virginia by about 8 percentage points and Kaine over Allen by a similar margin. Another Virginia poll, from Fox News, had Obama up 7 points and Kaine up just 4 points.
In Wisconsin, two recent polls, one from Quinnipiac University and The New York Times and the other from NBC News, The Wall Street Journal and Marist University, showed Obama with leads of 6 and 5 percentage points, respectively. Those polls also showed Baldwin improving her position against Thompson.
Retiring GOP Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona said he expected the presidential contest to factor into a handful of races.
But, as Kyl noted, several key Senate battlegrounds are less likely to feel the impact of the presidential race. Romney is expected to romp in North Dakota and Montana, but both states' Senate races are close. On the other side, Obama should sweep Massachusetts, even as Warren and Brown go to the wire in a tight race.
In House races, the connection to the top of the ticket is inescapable — Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan is a Wisconsin congressman. For weeks, Democrats have seized on Ryan's budget plan in an effort to tie Republican candidates to changes to Medicare that could prove unpopular, especially with seniors.
For example, in a close upstate New York contest, vulnerable Democratic Rep. Kathy Hochul has sought to tie Ryan's budget to her opponent, Republican Chris Collins, to the GOP-backed budget. Collins has been forced to publicly withhold support for the Ryan plan.
Republicans, in turn, have tied Democrats to Obama and specifically the president's health care law, unpopular with many voters. The National Republican Congressional Committee recently released eight ads in key districts focused on the health care issue.