Don’t Expect the GOP to Roll Over in the Battle for the Senate

by Stuart Rothenberg November 10, 2005 · 8:54 AM EST

With one year to go until the midterm elections, Democrats believe that control of the Senate is at stake. They’re optimistic, and they should be. Their fundraising and recruiting have been strong, and national poll numbers show President Bush in a hole and voters looking for change.

But netting six seats when only 15 Republican-held Senate seats are up — and when seven of those are safe for the GOP — is a daunting task. It may even be an impossible one.

While Democrats are using 1994 as a model of what could happen next year, that cycle isn’t all that helpful for the party’s case. (Coincidentally, the Senate class up this cycle was also up 12 years ago.)

That year, with a Republican wave clearly under way, Democrats lost eight seats. But six of those came in open seats, while only two incumbents — Pennsylvania’s Harris Wofford and Tennessee’s Jim Sasser — were defeated. And Wofford had won a special election only three years earlier.

This cycle, there is currently one Republican open seat (Tennessee) with another in Mississippi possible. Neither state is particularly hospitable to Democrats in federal contests. So Democratic challengers will need to unseat Republican incumbents — a more difficult task than pilfering open seats.

Interestingly, a number of Democrats held on against the GOP wave in 1994 even though they had credible opposition. The list included then-Sens. Bob Kerrey (Neb.) and Chuck Robb (Va.) and Sen. Kent Conrad (N.D.).

Two better historical models for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee may be 1980, when Republicans netted 12 seats, or 1986, when Democrats netted eight. But even these precedents have limited applicability.

In 1980, a presidential election was under way, and voters were making a big statement about the role of government that November. Moreover, Democrats held seats in a number of Republican and/or conservative states (including Alaska, Alabama, Georgia, Idaho, New Hampshire, North Carolina and South Dakota), and those Democrats — incumbents such as George McGovern (S.D.), Frank Church (Idaho), Birch Bayh (Ind.) and even John Durkin (N.H.) — were far to the left of their state electorates.

Voters may want to make a grand statement next year about the two parties or the responsibilities of government — or they could simply say that they want change. Incumbents have a better chance of dealing with the second alternative.

And 1986 may not be particularly relevant either. Democrats netted eight Senate seats that cycle, knocking off six elected GOP incumbents and one who had been appointed. But many of those were weak Republicans who had been swept in six years earlier. This year’s Republican Senate class is not particularly weak.

So where do Democrats stand now?

Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) trails by double digits, an incredibly huge deficit for an incumbent. Challenger Bob Casey Jr. has a great name and will raise plenty of cash, but insiders acknowledge that he has some candidate weaknesses, which is probably why he has not made many media rounds yet.

Santorum will likely run a vigorous and effective campaign, but he simply starts too far behind to be anything but an underdog.

Elsewhere, Democratic prospects are less certain.

Their chances in Rhode Island, Montana and Ohio depend, to various extents, on the nature of the outcome of competitive primaries (including a GOP contest in Rhode Island).

Democrats regularly underestimate all three Republican incumbents in those states. In fact, Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.) fits his state well and benefits from his reputation and approachability in a small state, and Conrad Burns (R-Mont.), for all his self-inflicted wounds over the years, simply wins. He, too, reflects his state’s style and ideology.

The vulnerability of Ohio Sen. Mike DeWine (R) comes mostly from his state, where the Republican Party has taken some brutal hits on ethics in recent months. DeWine also has problems with his conservative base. But if control of the Senate comes down to Ohio, will conservatives really sit by idly while DeWine loses?

Even if Democrats win all four of those races, they still need two more if they are to net six seats. (This assumes that they hold all of their own seats, which now appears likely. While the Democrats’ open seat in Minnesota is a tossup, Republican Mark Kennedy will have trouble winning his race in the face of a strong Democratic breeze nationally.)

So where do those two more seats come from? In Missouri, polling shows Sen. Jim Talent (R) running only even against state Auditor Claire McCaskill (D). But Talent also fits his state well, and he will be hard to defeat. The same goes for GOP Sen. Jon Kyl in Arizona.

The Democrats are headed for Senate gains, and they now have enough quality challengers to give them an outside shot at 51 seats if the Democratic wave that seems to be building nationally continues to grow. But they are still likely to need something close to a clean sweep of competitive races — and that is never easy to accomplish, especially where incumbents are involved.