History Working Against Senate GOP

by Nathan L. Gonzales January 21, 2008 · 11:40 PM EST

While voter sentiment about the parties and the top issues may change between now and November, one thing will remain: The Republicans’ historic disadvantage in the number of Senate seats they are forced to defend this cycle.

From the beginning, the playing field was stacked against them. Coming into the cycle, the Republicans held 21 seats up for re- election, but the death of Sen. Craig Thomas (R-Wyo.) and the resignation of Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) spawned special elections in those states.

So Republicans are now defending 23 seats, the most the party has ever had to defend in a cycle.

In comparison, Democrats are defending 12 seats. And at 35 total seats, this year is the largest Senate class since 1994.

“We are very aware of the overwhelming hurdles we have in front of us,” said National Republican Senatorial Committee Communications Director Rebecca Fisher, who stressed that GOP candidates are well-positioned on the issues.

The 11-seat difference is the largest since 1980, when Democrats defended 24 seats compared with 10 seats for Republicans. And not surprisingly, over the last 60 years, when the partisan breakdown of a particular class dramatically tilts against one party, that party almost always has lost seats.

In the 1980 elections, Democrats lost a dozen seats, along with the White House. Six years later, when Republicans had to defend that same class and the playing field was tilted against them (22-12), they lost eight seats. More recently, in 1994, Democrats defended nine more seats than the Republicans (22-13) and lost a net of eight seats in the Republican wave.

Going further back, Democrats defended the overwhelming number of seats in 1970 (24-10) and lost three seats, in 1968 (23-11) and lost five seats, in 1960 (23-12) and lost one seat, and in 1950 (23-13), when they lost five seats.

Over the last 60 years, the only time a party has faced a significant structural disadvantage and gained seats was in 1964. Democrats defended more seats (26-9) but gained two more, further evidence of the anti-Goldwater landslide.

In 1976, Democrats defended more seats (21-11) and fought Republicans to a draw in Senate races. That year, when the Democrats were winning their first presidential election since 1964, 14 seats changed partisan hands with no net change. (Harry Byrd of Virginia was re-elected as an Independent.)

But for Republicans, the problem is not only the number of their seats in play, but the type of seats. The GOP is defending five open seats while all of the Democratic incumbents are seeking re-election. Up to this point, the Republicans are solid favorites to keep Idaho and Nebraska in their column. But Virginia, New Mexico and Colorado are three of the most vulnerable seats in the country.

The five-seat disparity in open seats hasn’t occurred since 2000, when Democrats defended five open seats to the Republicans’ zero. Democrats managed to hold onto four of those seats, but lost Nevada when now-NRSC Chairman John Ensign won the seat vacated by Richard Bryan (D).

Republicans are also suffering from a lack of Democratic opportunities that could potentially balance out any losses. Over the past 50 years, no party has ever been shut out of the takeover column for two consecutive cycles. Since they didn’t take over a seat in 2006, Republicans will have to defeat Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), or pull off an upset somewhere else, to avoid setting a modern political record.

Despite the fact that President Bush carried Arkansas, Iowa, Montana, and West Virginia in 2004, none of them looks like a great opportunity for Senate Republicans with less than 10 months to go.

The NRSC’s financial disadvantage compared with the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee makes it difficult for them to “force” additional seats into play. Democratic incumbents Frank Lautenberg (N.J.), Dick Durbin (Ill.) and Carl Levin (Mich.) sit in three of the dozen most-expensive states in the country in which to advertise, according to Media Strategies and Research. Through November, the DSCC held a $25.5 million to $10.4 million cash advantage over the NRSC.

Democrats will have to spend a considerable amount of money if they hope to defeat Sen. John Cornyn (R), since Texas is the fourth-most-expensive state. Virginia also could be expensive, but Democrats are hoping that former Gov. Mark Warner can maintain his early lead and allow the committee to spend elsewhere.

On the other hand, Republican incumbents such as Susan Collins (Maine) and Ted Stevens (Alaska) make attractive targets because they represent two of the cheapest advertising states. Democratic Sens. Tim Johnson (S.D.) and Jack Reed (R.I.) sit in the fifth- and sixth-cheapest states, but Republicans don’t yet have serious challengers against them.

Republicans can take some solace that this particular class of Senators has been very stable and hasn’t been prone to dramatic partisan shifts. In fact, this class hasn’t yielded a net change of more than three seats for either party in over 50 years. But there is always a first time for everything.

The immediate news doesn’t get any better for Republicans, who will be defending more seats (19-15) in 2010 as well. But in 2012, Democrats will be defending 23 seats (24 counting Joe Lieberman) compared with only nine Republicans, the smallest GOP Senate class in at least 60 years.

This story first appeared in Roll Call on January 16, 2008. Copyright 2008 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.