A Sketch of the 2012 Senatorial Landscape

Going into this year’s elections, Democrats had such a numerical advantage in the Senate that it could not be flipped, despite the wave that swept the Republicans to control of the House.

Going into this year’s elections, Democrats had such a numerical advantage in the Senate that it could not be flipped, despite the wave that swept the Republicans to control of the House. In 2012, though, the Democrats will remain on the defensive, with many of their swing-state Senators vulnerable to challenge. If the dynamics of the next election cycle do not change dramatically from this past one, there is a good chance that Republicans will take complete control of Congress in 2012.

In 2010, the House had appeared susceptible to a GOP takeover early – perhaps as early as 2009, with gubernatorial flips in New Jersey and Virginia. Following Scott Brown’s improbable victory in the special Massachusetts Senatorial election, the Senate appeared to be up for grabs as well. The strength of the coming GOP ‘wave’ made every district and every state vulnerable to some degree or another. A question remained: how strong would the wave be and could it put the Senate in play? The answer turned out to be no; even in states like Colorado, where dissatisfaction with Washington was measurable, were surprisingly unmoved by the ‘wave’ this year. While the Senate remains in Democratic hands for now, the landscape in 2012 will continue to be favorable to Republicans. Even with Barack Obama at the top of the ticket in the next cycle, the Democrats will have trouble holding onto the Senate.

Democratic Senators who should be particularly concerned include the nine in states where the GOP won contested statewide races in 2010: Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, Sen. Herb Kohl of Wisconsin, Sen. Kent Conrad of North Dakota, Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida. Four additional Democratic Senators in semi-swing states up for reelection next cycle also have reason for concern: Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia, Sen. Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico and Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia. This makes 13 legitimately vulnerable Democratic Senators up for reelection in 2012.

The GOP, by contrast, is defending just three vulnerable Senators: Sen. Olympia Snow of Maine, Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts and Sen. John Ensign of Nevada. With its current crop of 47 Senators, the GOP could lose all three of these contests and still emerge with a majority if they unseat enough vulnerable Democrats. Even if the economy grows and Democrats in Washington move quickly to the middle, the GOP has a good chance to take the Senate seats in Montana, North Dakota, Nebraska, Florida, Missouri and Virginia. Even if the Republicans lost all their vulnerable seats, their gains would yield a split 50/50 Senate.

A presidential election, of course, has different dynamics from a midterm election. Vulnerable Senators will likely rise and fall based on their positioning vis-à-vis national issues and Democrats who have succeeded by localizing and personalizing difficult races in the past may not be able to do so as effectively in 2012. However, the President will be on the ticket, and his personal popularity could return to positive territory before the election. This will largely depend on the interaction between the White House and the Republican-controlled House of Representatives next year. The President appears to be hoping for a “do-nothing 80th Congress” to run against, as Harry Truman did so effectively in 1948. But the complications of a GOP House and a Democratic Senate could make this a difficult strategy to pull off. Further complicating matters, the strengths and/or weaknesses of the GOP presidential nominee will heavily influence the dynamics of the 2012 election cycle.

In any case, the issues that propelled many potentially vulnerable Democratic Senators into office are no longer as relevant. The unpopularity of the Iraq War, which propelled Senators Sherrod Brown and Jim Webb into office in 2006 (with a little “macaca” thrown in for good measure in the latter case) is not likely to be a pressing issue in 2012. Unless the economy improves significantly, dramatically high unemployment rates across the Midwest may threaten the careers of Sen. Claire McCaskill, Sen. Debbie Stabenow and Sen. Herb Kohl. Certainly, the conservatism nature of the states that Sen. Ben Nelson, Sen. Bill Nelson and Sen. Jon Tester represent is likely to present stiff challenges to their reelection. In short, it is hard to see, at this point, how the Democrats hold the Senate come 2013.

The 2012 election cycle is just getting going, and the key issues that will dominate it have no doubt yet to surface, but some of these states have a built-in political bias that had been swamped by two consecutive Democratic ‘waves.’ Those endangered Senators would be advised to vote in the express interests of their states, while Republicans should be wary of nominating unelectable candidates similar to those who doomed their chances in some 2010 races.  

It is reasonable to expect at least 16 Senate seats to be in play in 2012. Anyone who was hoping for a dull election year outside the presidential contest will surely be disappointed.

Noah Rothman is the online editor at C&E. Email him at nrothman@campaignsandelections.com

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