With the key primaries in the books, now is as good a time as any to take a look at the key Senate races. Some are more pessimistic than I am about the Republicans taking the Senate, but I’m a Cubs fan, so optimism is to be expected from me. I think the answer isn’t whether or not the Republicans will take the Senate, but by how much. As it stands right now, a swing of three seats would make it 50-50 (good enough if Romney and Ryan win), and four would give them outright control regardless of who wins.
As a note, if I don’t mention the race, you can assume I consider the incumbent safe.
Republican-Held Seats (10)
When a year goes as badly as 2006 did for the Republicans, any incumbent who survived it can be considered about as safe as can be. Such is the case here, as no Republicans who won their races in 2006 are even on the radar to be knocked off. There are still three races of interest for seats that are currently held by Republicans, though.
Nevada (Dean Heller): Jon Ensign resigned this seat, and Heller was appointed by Gov. Brian Sandoval to replace him. His opponent in this race, Rep. Shelley Berkley, is currently involved in an ethics investigation in the House, and in this climate, I do not consider her a significant threat. This one is on the watch list just to be safe, but I anticipate that Heller keeps the seat easily.
The Odd Race
Maine (Open): Olympia Snowe is retiring, and conservatives everywhere are crying in our drinks of choice over that one. OK, not really. Anyway, the three candidates to replace her are Republican Charles Summers, Democrat Cynthia Dill and independent Angus King, the former Governor. Odds are very good King wins this one. By all accounts I’ve read, King is quite liberal, but he has not stated who he will caucus with as of yet. On principle, it would seem he’d fit better with the Democrats, but he could also just be waiting to see who wins, or he could just be purely independent. We’ll just have to wait and see.
The Big Showdown
Massachusetts (Scott Brown): We all know by now how this came about: Ted Kennedy died, Massachusetts had a special election to fill the seat during the heat of the Obamacare debate in 2010, and Scott Brown shocked Democrat Martha Coakley, who ran an uninspired campaign assuming that she’d win easily. This should have been the “canary in the coal mine” for the Democrats in 2010, but they didn’t pay attention.
This time around, the Democrats are running the uber-liberal Elizabeth Warren, who is somehow managing to be an even worse candidate than Coakley. Coakley’s laziness is continually trumped by Warren’s habit of opening her mouth solely to change feet. Brown, meanwhile, is no Tea Partier by any means, and he’s liberal enough to represent Massachusetts, but he’s also conservative enough to provide a stark contrast to the uber-left Warren. While polls still indicate the race to be close, it will boil down to this: whatever you may believe about either of their views, Scott Brown is an excellent politician, and Elizabeth Warren is not. That’s why I believe Brown will win.
So to wrap that up, there are only three Republican seats in play, and the Democrats’ best chance of gaining a vote appears to be hoping that Angus King sides with them despite being an independent. I’ll say that he does, which means I project one Democrat pickup.
Democrat-Held Seats (24)
The situation here, of course, is precisely the opposite of the Republicans: with as well as the Democrats did in 2006, you know there will be a few places where someone won in a place you wouldn’t have expected. And if the circumstances are different six years later – which they undoubtedly are – then you can probably expect a bit of a “correction”. Such is the case here.
Locks To Flip (Barring Scandal)
Nebraska (Open): Ben Nelson signed his political death warrant by taking the infamous “Cornhusker Kickback” to break the Obamacare filibuster, and decided to retire instead of running again. Tea Partier Deb Fischer represents the Republicans, while the Democrats are running the reanimated corpse of Bob Kerrey since they have no one better to run. Polls have shown Fischer to be leading handily, and there’s no reason to think she won’t win.
North Dakota (Open): Four-term incumbent Kent Conrad is vacating this seat. The Republicans are running Rick Berg, while the Democrats offer up Heidi Heitkamp. North Dakota is pretty solidly red, and outside of one outlier poll in June that showed Heitkamp up one, Berg has led the polls by solid margins and should win easily.
Missouri (Claire McCaskill): Claire McCaskill appears to be the 2012 version of 2010’s Blanche Lincoln: the incumbent who should have bailed out, but decided to run again in what appears to be a futile effort. Prior to the recent Republican primary, all three potential challengers were leading McCaskill by anywhere from 5 to 11 points, and primary winner Todd Akin is currently polling very well against McCaskill, who is basically dead meat if nothing drastic happens.
Wisconsin (Open): Herb Kohl concludes his unremarkable Senate career by retiring this year. The Democrats will run Tammy Baldwin, who plays well in Madison, but pretty much nowhere else, while the Republicans run popular former Governor Tommy Thompson. While Thompson isn’t the guy the Tea Party folks wanted, it can safely be said that Thompson is more or less a lock to defeat Baldwin, while Eric Hovde or Mark Neumann would have a tougher road. That’s not to say that either of them couldn’t have beaten Baldwin, but it would have been a tough race. Thompson, however, will have no trouble at all.
The Course Correction
Montana (Jon Tester): This is very much a case of, “Wait…that state has a Democratic Senator?” which falls into the category of “wins in odd places” from 2006 for the Democrats. Unlike Ben Nelson, Tester hasn’t done anything to embarrass himself particularly, but he has been a fairly reliable liberal vote in a decidedly non-liberal state, and that will likely be enough to be his undoing. The Republicans are running Rep. Denny Rehberg, a very solid candidate. The race hasn’t been heavily polled to this point, but most polls have Rehberg ahead by a small margin, and I anticipate that this will remain the case through Election Day, especially with Republicans being more enthusiastic about voting this time around.
Swing States And Coattails
Virginia (Open): Jim Webb is retiring instead of running again, and the battle here is between former Governor and DNC chair Tim Kaine (Democrat) and former Senator George Allen (Republican).
Ohio (Sherrod Brown): Brown, the incumbent, is being opposed by Ohio state Treasurer Josh Mandel, a Tea Party favorite.
Florida (Bill Nelson): Nelson is being challenged by U.S. Representative Connie Mack.
All three of these races are very close, two of the three challengers have won statewide election in the past, and all three are definite “swing states” in the Presidential election. Personally, I believe all three of these races are likely to mirror the Presidential outcomes. If Obama is to hold on, he probably needs to win two of these three states, and if he does, the incumbents probably remain. On the other hand, if Romney gains momentum and wins handily, all three challengers could ride the wave to victory as well.
New Mexico (Open): Jeff Bingaman is retiring, and the race to replace him is between Democrat Rep. Martin Heinrich and Republican former Rep. Heather Wilson. Only two polling firms have had any polls on this race to this point: Public Policy Polling (PPP), which tends to lean somewhat Democratic, has Heinrich up by about 5 points over average, while Rasmussen has Wilson within the margin of error. New Mexico is a bit less of a swing state than the other three above, but certainly far from a lock for Obama, and New Mexico elected Tea Party favorite Susana Martinez as its Governor in 2010. I’d place Heinrich as a slight favorite, but Wilson is by no means out of this race.
Hawaii (Open): Daniel Akaka is retiring here, and while this would normally be a thoroughly safe Democratic seat, the popular former Republican Governor Linda Lingle is taking a run at this seat, which definitely puts it in play. The Democrats offer up U.S. Rep. Mazie Hirono. Polling data shows Hirono ahead by a fairly safe margin, but it hasn’t been polled by many places other than Honolulu newspapers and PPP, so it’s hard to be entirely sure. Still, I predict this will likely be a Democrat hold, but it isn’t a safe one just yet.
Wild Card?: If the Presidential race turns into a Romney rout, is there another candidate we’re not talking about that could come out of nowhere to win? It’s possible. Who saw Ron Johnson beating Russ Feingold in 2010 at this point, for example? I can’t really name any names, precisely because we just don’t know them yet. There are always possibilities, though, and such an upset is far more likely to happen to a Democrat than a Republican this year based both on numbers and the general mood.
To wrap up the above, I’ve got four “locks”, one more that I feel good about, three that will hinge on the Presidential outcome, and two more “in play”, though one much more so than the other. That’s anywhere between five and nine Republican pickups (leaving out Hawaii), so we’ll split the difference and predict seven seats flipping for the Republicans. Combine that with the one pseudo-Democrat pickup predicted above, and we’re looking at a 53-47 Republican majority. That should be good enough to get things done.