The Uneven Senate Landscape of 2012 (and 2014)

by Stuart Rothenberg April 15, 2011 · 9:30 AM EDT

Just over four years ago I wrote in this space that Democrats not only didn’t have to worry about losing their Senate majority in ’08, they needed to set their sights on 60 seats in 2010 because a “filibuster-proof majority would change the rules of the game on Capitol Hill.”

Well, Democrats did get to 60 seats, but they did it well before I thought that was likely. Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter’s party switch in April 2009 and Sen. Al Franken’s (D-Minn.) seating in July of that year ensured Democrats would hit the magic 60 mark, giving the party six months of a supermajority that Congressional leaders and the White House used to pass health care reform.

Now, the tables have turned.

Republican won 24 of the 37 Senate contests last year, giving them a head start not only on winning a Senate majority in 2012 but possibly winning a 60-seat supermajority two years later.

They will need to net 26 or 27 of the remaining 66 contests over the next two cycles to win a majority in 2014, or 36 of the next 66 to get to 60 seats during the next midterm elections.

The Senate is always a different kind of numbers game than the House. With unbalanced classes, Senate control — to say nothing about a filibuster-proof majority — hinges on which party has more seats up for election in a particular election cycle.

When one of the political parties has a huge election night, as Republicans did last year, it automatically gives that party an opportunity to take over the Senate, whether two years later or four.

The 2012 Senate class includes 23 Democrats and only 10 Republicans, and the stunning imbalance means that Democrats will be on the defensive throughout the cycle unless the political environment shifts dramatically to their party.

That’s possible, of course, especially if the proposed budget offered by House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (Wis.) alienates swing voters and seniors, putting GOP House and Senate candidates on the defensive for the rest of the cycle. But, at least early in this election cycle, the raw numbers look very challenging for Democratic Senate strategists.

At this point, at least five Democratic Senate seats are at great risk. Retiring Sen. Kent Conrad’s North Dakota seat is as good as gone. Ben Nelson’s Nebraska seat is more competitive, of course, but Democratic chances of retaining it in 2012 may depend on a nasty GOP primary producing a weak Republican nominee.

The Montana race, pitting incumbent Democrat Jon Tester against Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg, looks no better than even money for Tester, who won narrowly because of the huge Democratic wave in 2006.

Rising Obama popularity would help Tester’s chances, but Democrats probably need to be successful in their effort to paint Rehberg as an ethics basket case if they are to retain the seat next year.

The Missouri Senate race has changed significantly in the past few weeks. Sen. Claire McCaskill once appeared to be a savvy, well-positioned Democrat who was likely to have a competitive race simply because of the competitiveness of her state.

But recent revelations about a possible conflict of interest and unpaid taxes — issues that she used to attack a former primary opponent and that undermine her message of transparency and integrity — increase her vulnerability greatly.

Democrats note that one of McCaskill’s possible general election opponents, former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman (R), has her own problems, but the possible candidacy of Rep. Todd Akin (R) adds another dose of uncertainty to McCaskill’s prospects.

Virginia surely is a tossup, featuring two middleweight candidates — former Gov. Tim Kaine (D) and former Sen. George Allen (R) — who a few years ago would have been classified as political heavyweights.

Other than Massachusetts, where special election winner Sen. Scott Brown (R) will face a test because of his party, the Democrats’ best chance for a Senate takeover is Nevada, an open seat that looked more vulnerable when incumbent John Ensign (R) was still in the contest.

Even now, a GOP gain of 2 to 4 seats looks likely, with larger gains possible if Florida, New Mexico, Michigan, Ohio or others come into play.

Like this cycle’s Senate class, the 2014 class is also seriously unbalanced, with 20 Democratic seats and only 13 Republicans slated to be up that year.

Even worse for Democrats, the geography of that class is a particular problem, with Democratic Senators from South Dakota (Tim Johnson), Montana (Max Baucus), Louisiana (Mary Landrieu), Alaska (Mark Begich), New Hampshire (Jeanne Shaheen) and North Carolina (Kay Hagan) scheduled to face voters then.

For those Democrats, the re-election of President Barack Obama in 2012 would be a mixed blessing. It would keep a Democrat, with a veto pen, in the White House for four more years, but it would also create a so-called Six-Year Itch election in 2014, increasing the risk for Democratic Senators up for re-election then.

Second midterm elections are not always a disaster for a sitting president’s party — the Senate was a draw in 1998 and Democrats gained a handful of House seats in Bill Clinton’s second midterm — but they more often than not result in considerable gains for the party not holding the White House.

Recent Six-Year Itch losses include six Senate seats and 30 House seats by Republicans in 2006 (George W. Bush), eight Senate seats but only five House seats in 1986 (Ronald Reagan) and thirteen Senate seats and 47 House seats in 1958 (Dwight Eisenhower).

All of this means both short-term and longer-term concern for Senate Democrats, who will need a mood change in the electorate to feel more secure in 2012 and even 2014.