Early votes exceed 15 million _ but who benefits?

Republicans pointed to a strong early-vote performance in Iowa as evidence that state Sen. Joni Ernst was a step ahead in her bid to capture the seat occupied by retiring Democratic U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin for the GOP.

“I feel real good about it,” said Republican Gov. Terry Branstad, who was campaigning with Ernst.

But in Georgia, Democrats said a strong early turnout by African-Americans in the counties around Atlanta was a good sign for Michelle Nunn,who is running for a seat long out of the party’s reach.

As candidates headed into a final weekend of campaigning, Democratic hopes of holding a Senate seat in Arkansas appeared to be fading, and Republicans already appeared assured of gains in West Virginia, South Dakota and Montana. They need a net gain of gain six to come away with the election’s biggest prize — control of the Senate during President Barack Obama’s final two years in office.

Strategists in both parties agreed privately that races in Louisiana and Georgia were probably headed for runoffs, and several Republicans expressed concern about Kansas, where polls showed Sen. Pat Roberts was in a tough race to keep a seat held by Republicans for decades.

Democratic incumbents in Alaska, Colorado and New Hampshire also faced difficult tests, as did Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky.

The early vote turnout varied from state to state, exceeding 2010 levels in Louisiana, Wisconsin, Maryland, Florida, Iowa and Georgia. Most of those states are holding intensely competitive races for the Senate or governor or both.

In Louisiana, where Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu is in a difficult three-way fight for re-election, the early vote was 80 percent higher than in the 2010 midterm elections. Officials in both parties say they expect Landrieu and Republican Rep. Bill Cassidy to advance to a Dec. 6 runoff.

In Iowa, figures provided by state election officials showed Democrats had cast 41 percent of the early vote, Republicans 39 percent and independents nearly 20 percent. Four years ago, Democrats held a double-digit advantage.

“We’re doing a lot better than we did four years ago, and we won big four years ago,” said Branstad, who was elected handily in 2010.

In Georgia, though, Democrats said early voting in the heavily African-American areas around Atlanta outpaced pre-Election Day returns elsewhere in the state. In addition to Nunn’s race against Republican businessman David Perdue, Jason Carter is challenging Republican Gov. Nathan Deal in the state with the highest unemployment in the country.

Wisconsin voters exceeded their 2010 early vote totals by 10 percent, and the total was still growing. Democrat Mary Burke is challenging Republican Gov. Scott Walker in one of the country’s most closely watched elections. No party breakdown was available for early votes in the state.

The early vote in Kansas was just shy of the 2010 totals, about 153,000 overall. Nearly 55 percent were cast by Republicans and less than 31 percent by Democrats, but GOP officials privately expressed nervousness nonetheless.

Sen. Roberts isn’t the only Republican with a tough fight. Gov. Sam Brownback, whose agenda has been so conservative that it sparked a rebellion within his own party, is running against Democratic challenger Paul Davis.

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