From the start of this midterm campaign season, about 11:01pm on November 4, 2008, the Republican’s aim was to retake both chambers of congress. At that time, even the House was a long shot as pundit’s nation-wide, from Democratic Strategist James Carville to Columbia journalism professor Thomas Edsall, had proclaimed an end to the Republican-era for perhaps a generation or more. While control of the House appeared to be in play as early as September, 2009, flipping control of the Senate was a bridge too far. Now, however, the Senate is not only in play but Republican majority control is not even unlikely.
Historically, control of the House has meant control of the Senate. The House has flipped control from one party to another four times since 1945, and three of those four flips have occurred in midterm elections. Each time the House has flipped in the modern era, the Senate has gone with it. So in a historical sense, the Senate has always been in play in 2010. Until recently though, this has looked like the year that history would not repeat itself.
As the Republican “wave” began to build strength in 2009, with the elections of Republican governors in New Jersey and Virginia, the Democratic majority in the House began to appear endangered. The Democratic leadership in Washington truly began to sweat in January, 2010 with the election of Scott Brown to succeed the late Sen. Ted Kennedy as the Junior Senator from Massachusetts. Republican exuberance was tempered, albeit fleetingly, by the loss of special elections for House seats in New York’s 23rd District in November, 2009 and Pennsylvania’s 12th District in May, 2010. Many of the Senate seats up this year are in traditionally Democratic-friendly states on the East and West Coasts which seemed beyond reach for most of the year. For a time, reality tamed wild expectations on the GOP side. Nevertheless, a measurement of the national temperature at any point this summer revealed that there was a legitimate chance that the House could flip control to Republicans for the first time since they lost control in 2006, but most predicted that the Senate would remain just out of reach for Republicans.
The GOP needed 11 Senate seats at the start of this year – that would shrink to 10 after Scott Brown became the self-proclaimed “41st vote.” The conventional wisdom that the Republicans would fall short of control in the Senate held until early September when the Republican-leaning contests began to mount up. Open Republican seats in Ohio, Florida, New Hampshire, Kentucky and Missouri, while certainly not locks for the GOP, began to look like relatively safe holds. Meanwhile, several Democratic incumbents and open seats began to look wobbly – Illinois, Arkansas, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Nevada and Colorado became possible Republican takeovers. Delaware’s seat, a likely Republican pickup until the primaries, was quickly replaced by West Virginia. Today the Real Clear Politics projected election results, with no tossups, has for the first time reached the 50/50 split in the Senate; Republicans registering 9 new seats in November based on polling averages.
All that is left to complete the Republican puzzle and retrieve control of that body from the Democratic party is a seat from some of the Bluest of Blue states – California, Washington, New York or Connecticut. If Republican’s can take a seat in any of these states it will be a significant rebuke of the Democratic party, any candidate in these Democratic bastions would necessarily need to win over Democrats as well as Republicans and Independents in order to overcome their lopsided Democratic registration gaps. Caveats aside, the GOP has a chance in all of them.
The races in Connecticut, California and Washington are genuine tossups. Only Connecticut Democratic Senate nominee, Richard Blumenthal, has polled consistently outside the margin of error in the last two weeks. California’s liberal bent and it’s entrenched defending incumbent, Sen. Barbara Boxer, would make flipping this seat a long shot. The best chance that Republicans have right now at flipping that illusive 10th seat is in Washington.
The polls in Washington over the last 6 weeks have varied wildly. A CNN/Time poll from September 10-14 gave Sen. Patty Murray a 9 point lead over her opponent, Dino Rossi. A September 26-27 poll from the Republican firm American Action Forum gave Rossi a 6 point lead over Murray. In between are Rasmussen Reports, Fox News and SurveyUSA that vary from a five point lead for Murray to a three point lead for Rossi. This race is a true tossup. Both Rossi and Murray are on the air with positive and negative ads. While Murray’s went up on Labor Day, Rossi has held back until the middle of September. Both candidates’ polling bumps may be accountable to their mutual domination of the airwaves.
There are at least 6 tossup Senate races as of this writing. The Republicans would need to win 5 to take control – no small feat. There is still plenty of time left in the campaign season, but at the end of the first week in October, when sideline voters tune in and undecideds commit, Republican challengers across the board are picking up steam. Polls in almost every race show that independents are breaking for Republicans, in most states by almost 2 to 1 margins. The state of Washington is no different.
If Republicans do take the Senate, President Obama told the host of a radio program this week that it would mean “hand-to-hand combat” on Capitol Hill. That does not sound quite like ‘triangulation.’ If you were nervous that exciting political developments were the exclusive province of 2010, just wait until 2011.
Noah Rothman is the online editor at C&E. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org