Democrat control of the U.S. Senate is in serious jeopardy this November. Of the 33 seats up for election this Fall, Democrats are defending 22. The GOP needs a net-gain of 4 seats to take control of the chamber (3 if Romney is elected, as the GOP VP would provide a tie-breaking vote.) Of the 8 seats considered “toss up” by RealClearPolitics, Democrats are defending six. Moreover, though, Democrats are defending 8 seats in Presidential battleground states, linking their fates to the Obama/Romney contest.
In recent years, contested Senate races have tended to “break” in favor of one party. In 2006, Democrats picked up 6 seats and didn’t lose any. In 2008, Dems picked up 8 and again successfully defended every seat. Same too for the GOP in 2010, who picked up 6 seats without losing any they had held. If the election contest breaks discernibly for either Obama or Romney, the Senate races in the 8 battleground states will likely break towards the candidate’s party, delivering the Senate to the party of the Presidential victor.
Senate races will be hotly contested in the following battleground states: Pennsylvania, New Mexico, Ohio, Wisconsin, Missouri, Virginia, Michigan, Nevada and Florida. The GOP hasn’t settled on a candidate yet in 4 of these states: WI, MO, MI and FL. Recent polling has shown MO incumbent Senate Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) trailing all of her main rivals, but the outcome of primaries there and in the other states will determine how credible the GOP challenge will be for those seats. In 2010, Senate GOP primary winners who ran flawed general election campaigns prevented the GOP from further gains in the chamber.
Nevada is the only battleground state the GOP is defending in the Senate. That match-up pits appointed Sen. Dean Heller (R-NV) against Dem Rep. Shelley Berkley. That race, however, has moved recently in favor of the GOP amidst questions surrounding Rep. Berkley’s ethics. Because of the serious allegations against Berkley, this race will provide move independently of the Presidential contest.
Current polling gives the edge to Democrats in PA, NM, OH and MI, but I expect this will narrow considerably as the campaign heats up. The GOP has very compelling candidates in PA, NM and OH and Dem incumbents or candidates whose views may be out-of-step with the electorate this November. If PA and NM are competitive in the Fall, as certainly seems possible now, it will signal that Romney is running a strong general campaign and boost the GOP’s chances there.
There will probably be some talk about voters “splitting their ticket” in an exercise in “strategic voting”. In other words, they’ll vote for one party for President and another for Senate or House to act as a “check” on the Presidential victor. Its a compelling theory and may be true for a small number of voters, but evidence of it actually happening is scarce. In 2004, when then-President Bush won a very close reelection, the GOP picked up an additional four seats in the Senate. It is possible that if Obama looks likely to win reelection, voters would lean towards the GOP candidates, as voters two years ago loudly delivered a legislative “check” on him. Still, I think past elections suggest a “wave” breaking for the party of the victorious Presidential candidate the most likely outcome. If Romney wins the election, I expect the GOP will reclaim control of the Senate by a comfortable margin.
There are five Senate races to watch in states which will have bit-parts in the Presidential contest; MT, WV, ME, MA and HI. The GOP is defending two of these seats, ME and MA, and will need additional gains elsewhere if they lose either or both of these. The MA contest is a pure toss-up between Sen. Scott Brown and challenger Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA). The GOP is likely to lose the seat of retiring Sen. Olympia Snowe in ME, where Independent former-Governor Sen. Angus King (I-ME) is the presumptive favorite. A GOP win isn’t out of the question, though, as Democrat candidate is also running and could split the liberal vote.
There is no question how MT, WV or HI will vote in the Presidential contest. Romney will win MT and WV and Obama will take HI, all by wide margins. The only question is whether their margin of victory is enough to boost or smother the GOP candidate. Both Sens. Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) (MT) and Joe Manchin (WV) have tried to cast themselves as centrist, conservative Democrats. Manchin as aggressively challenged the Obama Administration’s policies on coal, a vitally important industry in his state. He is a popular former Governor from a state where, at least at the state level, voters’ historical ties to the Democrat party remain very strong. But Obama, who lost 40% of the vote in the Democrat primary to a prisoner, is going to get crushed in the state in November. Although Manchin should be considered the favorite, Obama’s land-slide loss in the state may overwhelm him.
Tester has a more significant problem. Unlike Manchin, he was in the Senate during the ObamaCare vote and, like every other Democrat, provided the “deciding vote” on its passage. Obama outperformed in MT in 2008, but is unlikely to do so again this year. Tester has a very credible challenger in GOP Rep. Dennis Rehberg. Expect this race to be very close.
Hawaii will no doubt vote overwhelmingly for native-son Barack Obama again. It is possible his margin of victory overwhelms what otherwise could be an interesting and competitive Senate race. The open seat is being challenged by Rep. Mazie Hirano and former Rep. Ed Chase for Democrats and popular former GOP Governor Linda Lingle. The Dem primary is August 11th and is turning increasingly nasty, with the outcome possibly alienating some portion of the Democrat base. Hirano, who is considered the favorite in the primary, leans very far left, while Lingle has a track-record of attracting votes from moderate Dems and Independents. Lingle is a good campaigner, but like Manchin in West Virginia, may simply get overwhelmed by the Presidential results.
In the coming days, I’ll more in-depth looks at the Senate races in the battleground states. With the House almost assuredly expected to stay in GOP control, the battle for control of the Senate will take center-stage along side the Presidential contest. And the outcome of both will be inextricably tied.
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