Senate Majority Still Up for Grabs in November

by Stuart Rothenberg June 22, 2012 · 11:42 AM EDT

A slew of retirements and a changing presidential election landscape have made for some ups and downs for the two parties in this year’s fight for the Senate. But the basic contours of the cycle remain the same: The Senate is up for grabs in November.

Republicans who last year looked at the number of seats up in 2012 and assumed that a gain of at least four seats was a slam dunk now surely feel depressed. Conversely, Democrats who sensed doom last fall now have reason to smile.

All of this has caused some to say that the Senate is likely to remain Democratic after November. But before anyone gets carried away with a new round of predictions, it’s best to state the obvious: Neither party is in the position to claim victory. Too many Senate races are still up for grabs for anyone to guarantee that one party or the other will have a majority in the chamber come January.

Where do things stand now?

Republicans still look certain to gain a seat in Nebraska, where Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson is retiring. State Sen. Deb. Fischer won the GOP nomination in an upset, and she is a very difficult target for ex-Sen. Bob Kerrey (D), whose years as a college president in New York City make him a candidate whose time has passed. Early polls and the state’s partisan bent suggest the race ended before it began.

Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill (D) is doing what she can to win a second term, but her prospects have not improved dramatically recently. Rep. Todd Akin, businessman John Brunner and former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman are fighting it out for the GOP nomination. Either Brunner or Steelman would be favored over McCaskill, whom Republicans will tie closely to President Barack Obama. Again, the polls and the Senator’s early embrace of the president in a state where he will do poorly undermines the incumbent’s prospects.

North Dakota is an interesting contest, in part because former state Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp (D) is such a well-known commodity and likable candidate. Heitkamp is personable, smart and down-to-earth, and she’ll get the votes of many North Dakotans who otherwise wouldn’t vote for a Democrat this year. While the race now looks very close, Republican Rep. Rick Berg probably will benefit from GOP voters “coming home” in the final weeks of the campaign, giving him an advantage in an otherwise competitive race.

The latest public opinion survey shows that Democrats are likely to pick up the open seat in Maine, with Independent Angus King more likely than not to vote with Democrats to organize that body. And in Massachusetts, despite Harvard professor Elizabeth Warren’s early stumbles, she has at least an even chance of knocking off Sen. Scott Brown, whose Republican label remains a real problem in a federal race. Brown is running a strong race and certainly has a chance to win a full term. But the hill he needs to climb isn’t an easy one.

If those five races flip parties, Republicans would net one seat, getting the GOP to 48 seats in the Senate. The party would then need two more to get to 50 and three more to get to 51 and an absolute majority.

Four other states seem extremely competitive: Democratic-held seats in Montana, Virginia and Wisconsin, along with a GOP-held seat in Nevada.
Recent polling in Montana is contradictory. But some Republican insiders privately admit that freshman Democratic Sen. Jon Tester is running the best re-election race in the country, and they are less than optimistic about GOP Rep. Denny Rehberg’s ability to take the seat from him. Still, the race is a tossup.

Virginia continues to look tight. Republican George Allen easily won his party’s nomination to face Democrat Tim Kaine, but many savvy observers predict that Kaine will run slightly ahead of Obama in the state, so the strength of the president and Mitt Romney could be a key factor in which nominee wins the Old Dominion’s Senate seat.

The Wisconsin Senate race also looks very competitive. Former Gov. Tommy Thompson maintains a lead over Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D) in polls, but it’s far from clear that Thompson will be the GOP nominee or that Baldwin can’t overtake him. The Republican race is crowded, and Baldwin’s appeal in the statewide race is uncertain.

The fourth competitive race is in Nevada, where appointed Sen. Dean Heller (R) and Rep. Shelley Berkley (D) are already on TV. Berkley is a strong, aggressive fundraiser and campaigner, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) will likely pull out the stops to take over the seat for his party. A close presidential race is expected there. The question is whether Berkley can appeal to voters outside her Las Vegas-based district.

Another race, in New Mexico, is worth watching because former Rep. Heather Wilson (R) has the potential to appeal to some Democrats and to independent voters. But she starts as a slight underdog against Rep. Martin Heinrich (D), given the state’s generally Democratic bent and the expected strength of Obama in the state. Polling has her behind.

A handful of second-tier or long-shot races continue to be worth watching because of the candidates or state fundamentals. The list includes Democratic-held seats in Ohio, Florida and Hawaii, and Republican-held seats in Arizona and Indiana. But at this point, the incumbent’s party has the advantage in each.

If voters decide they want change and blame the president for the status quo, Democratic Senate candidates in competitive races could well receive a shock that they are not now expecting. But it probably won’t be until after the presidential nominating conventions that the final direction of the election cycle starts to become clear. If and when that happens, the outlook for the Senate will start to clear up as well.