2012 Senate Landscape Is Far From Finalized

by Nathan L. Gonzales January 10, 2011 · 8:40 AM EST

Senate race ratings make good headlines and cable news fodder, but two years out from an election, they can be poor predictors of what’s to come.

Looking back over the past decade, plenty of seats deemed safe in the off-year could be found later in the “lost” column while some tossup races didn’t even turn out to be a party’s biggest problem by the time the election came around.

At this point in the last election cycle, Republicans held roughly three-quarters of the most vulnerable Senate seats in the country, and there was talk of Democrats expanding their majority well past 60 seats.

In January 2009, Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) and Sen. Michael Bennet (Colo.) were the most vulnerable Democratic Senators in the country. Both of them won their races, even with historic odds against them.

“The 2012 map offers Senate Democrats opportunities to win Republican seats, and we expect to do so the same way folks like Michael beat back Republicans this cycle: Define our opponents early, and keep focus on getting people back to work,” Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Executive Director Guy Cecil told Roll Call. Cecil helped Bennet win re-election as the appointed Senator’s chief of staff.

Early ratings are often prisoners of the last cycle and fail to predict the future political climate. It’s easier to identify the key players rather than the playing field.

Two years ago, Republicans held a majority of the most vulnerable seats, including those of Sens. Jim Bunning (Ky.), Richard Burr (N.C.) and David Vitter (La.) and open seats in Florida and Missouri.

But over the next 20 months, political sentiment shifted against the party in power, and Republicans held all five of their initially most vulnerable seats by at least 10 points (three of them by close to 20 points).

Democrats also lost six seats overall, and almost all of them were initially thought to be safe.

Indiana and North Dakota turned from safe to retirements to open-seat losses that weren’t even close by Election Day. Republicans also picked up President Barack Obama’s former seat in Illinois and knocked off Sens. Blanche Lincoln (Ark.) and Russ Feingold (Wis.). None of the seats were thought to be at particular risk to Democrats in January of the off-year.

In addition, Democrats such as Sens. Barbara Boxer (Calif.) and Patty Murray (Wash.) were viewed as safe but ended up having to fight through tough re-election bids. Sen. Chris Dodd (D) was viewed as safe but was forced into retirement as his re-election chances hit the skids, and Democrats had to spend money in Connecticut to hold the open seat. Delaware was regarded as safe but would have been lost if Rep. Mike Castle (R) had made it out of the primary.

This was not the first cycle where early ratings differed from final results.

Early in the 2008 cycle, GOP Sen. Susan Collins (Maine) was one of the most vulnerable Senators in the country, but she won re-election by more than 20 points even though Republicans lost eight seats nationwide. Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.) was one of the losses even though she was regarded as safe in January 2007.

Similar to Democrats last cycle, retirements dramatically shifted races from safe to vulnerable in 2008, as the exits of GOP Sens. Pete Domenici (N.M.) and John Warner (Va.) led to easy Democratic victories in open seats.

In January 2005, President George W. Bush was inaugurated for his second term after a tough re-election race and Democratic Sens. Bill Nelson (Fla.) and Ben Nelson (Neb.) were thought to be at risk. But the environment dramatically shifted against the president by the time 2006 midterm elections arrived, and both Nelsons won re-election by 20 points. This cycle, Roll Call Politics rates both of their re-election races as Tossups.

In 2006, Republicans lost six Senate seats, and the majority, but the biggest surprise might have been in Ohio, where Sen. Mike DeWine (R) was thought to be safe but lost to Rep. Sherrod Brown (D) by 12 points. On the Democratic side, Sen. Paul Sarbanes (D) was at no risk of losing in Maryland, but his retirement made Democrats work to hold his seat as then-Rep. Benjamin Cardin (D) eventually defeated Michael Steele (R).

Early in the 2004 cycle, Sen. John Breaux (D) was considered safe, but he retired and Vitter won the seat, 51 percent to 29 percent. Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R) was safe in Colorado, but he retired and Ken Salazar (D) won the competitive open seat.

Early in the 2002 cycle, Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Texas) was viewed as safe, but after he retired, John Cornyn had to work to keep the competitive open seat in GOP hands.

Democrats start this cycle dramatically on defense (the party has 23 seats up compared with 10 for the Republicans), and with public polling showing multiple vulnerable incumbents, only time will tell which party gains seats in November 2012.

“Ratings are similar to polls; they are snapshots in time but not necessarily harbingers of things to come,” National Republican Senatorial Committee Executive Director Rob Jesmer said.

Wise advice indeed. 

*Corrected to change Sherrod Brown's margin of victory from 22 points to 12 points.