Republicans Gain Advantage in 2012 Battle for Senate Majority

Senator Scott Brown of Massachusetts
Senator Scott Brown of Massachusetts. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

As the parties prepare for the 2012 congressional elections, Republicans have an advantage in the fight for control of the U.S. Senate.

Fewer than a dozen Senate seats now appear to be in play, and almost all of them are held by Democrats, said Jennifer Duffy, an analyst at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. Two Senate Republicans face competitive challenges, Nevada freshman Dean Heller and Scott Brown of Massachusetts, who in 2010 broke Democrats’ 60-vote majority bloc after winning a special election to replace the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy, a Democrat.

“Right now, they’re favored to take control of the Senate, but it’s not a done deal yet,” said Duffy, referring to Republicans.

Both parties are saddled with high disapproval ratings. According to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll conducted Aug. 27-31, 82 percent of respondents disapprove of the job Congress is doing compared with 13 percent who approve. Forty-six percent of respondents disapprove of the Republicans’ job performance while 32 percent approve. Congressional Democrats’ disapproval rating stood at 44 percent in the NBC/Wall Street Journal compared with 33 percent who approved of their job performance. The poll has a margin of error of 3.1 percentage points.

In addition, Republicans haven’t recruited candidates yet in several states, including West Virginia and Pennsylvania, where Democratic Senators Joe Manchin and Bob Casey respectively appear to be vulnerable. Crowded Republican primary fields may create expensive intra-party fights that lift re-election prospects for some targeted Democratic incumbents, such as Claire McCaskill in Missouri and Ben Nelson in Nebraska.

Democrats Express Confidence

Guy Cecil, executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in Washington, said those developments have put his party “in a pretty good place” to start the campaign season. “We’re bullish about our chances of retaining the Senate, even in a cycle where the map looks initially lopsided,” he said.

If Republicans hold their House majority, a Senate takeover would give them control of the legislative agenda and blunt Obama’s second term initiatives, if he’s re-elected, or buoy the prospects for a new Republican president. There are 240 Republicans in the House, 192 Democrats and three vacancies. The Senate has 47 Republicans, 51 Democrats and two independents who caucus with the Democrats.

Seats on Ballot

In all, there are 33 Senate seats on the ballot next year, with 23 held by Democrats and 10 by Republicans. The majority of the races to fill those seats aren’t likely to be competitive.

According to the Cook Political Report and the Rothenberg Political Report, another Washington-based, nonpartisan analysis group, Democratic incumbents whose re-elections are most threatened include McCaskill, Nelson and Montana’s Jon Tester, who came to office in 2006 with just 49 percent of the vote.

Also, there are six open seats created by retiring Democrats, including one in North Dakota that Duffy and other analysts say is almost certain to flip to Republicans and three others that are rated “toss-ups” by both the Cook and Rothenberg political reports. Those seats are in Wisconsin, Virginia and New Mexico.

That means Democrats have to defend at least nine vulnerable seats, and a net loss of four would put Republicans, who haven’t held a Senate majority since 2006, back in control.

Seats in Play

“There are enough seats in play, and I think the Republicans are well-positioned to take the Senate next year,” said Nathan Gonzales, political editor of the Rothenberg report.

With such high stakes, targeted candidates, such as McCaskill, are bracing for an explosion of campaign spending.

In 2010, the 10 most expensive races saw rival candidates raise a combined sum of at least $23 million. The costliest -- a Connecticut race won by Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal -- produced combined candidate spending of $59 million, according to the Washington-based, nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks political fundraising.

Independent groups, including the relatively new committees that raise and spend unlimited sums to sway election outcomes, also are raising money in preparation for taking on major roles. Those groups showed their strength in a half-dozen Senate races in 2010, including in Colorado where they spent $12 million in the contest won by Democratic Senator Michael Bennet.

Expand the Field

Both political parties are working to expand the field of races and shape the contours of the debate. Democrats say the election will be focused on unpopular budget cuts sought by Republicans, including a proposal to privatize Medicare. Republicans insist the contests will become referendums on Obama’s policies and the lagging economy.

Democrats consider the retirement of Republican Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona another opportunity to pick up a seat. Former Arizona Democratic Party Chairman Don Bivens and former U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona, a declared Democrat now who served under Republican President George W. Bush, are considering runs. Representative Gabrielle Giffords, the Democratic congressman who is recovering from a gunshot wound earlier this year, is also a potential candidate.

Republicans say Democratic Senators Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan may become vulnerable if the jobless rate in the Midwest remains elevated.

“There are still a lot of places where the unemployment rate is very high and, frankly, with the president’s sinking approval ratings, that doesn’t bode well for Democrats running in those states,” said Senator John Cornyn of Texas, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Brown a Target

Among incumbent Republicans, Brown has so far emerged as the top target, in part because of the Democratic leanings of Massachusetts voters and because his moderate voting record has cooled support from the Tea Party movement. Elizabeth Warren, a Harvard Law School professor who Obama once considered to name as the first head of the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, is among those exploring a Democratic bid.

The influence of the Tea Party this cycle appears to be more muted than in 2010, when the anti-deficit and anti-tax movement’s candidates defeated Republican frontrunners in primaries in such states as Delaware and Nevada and paved the way for Democratic victories in the general election.

Indiana Senator Richard Lugar, the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, is at risk from a Tea Party insurgence in his 2012 primary, Duffy said. He is facing a challenge from Indiana State Treasurer Richard Mourdock, who is supported by the movement. The winner of their primary will face Democratic Representative Joe Donnelly in the general election.

Fizzling Threat

Other Tea Party threats are fizzling. Representative Jason Chaffetz, a Utah Republican who is backed by the movement, said last month he won’t challenge six-term Senator Orrin Hatch. “Hatch dodged a huge bullet,” Duffy said.

While Senate Republicans say they will look to Obama’s low approval ratings for an edge, polls show voters also aren’t very happy with them, said Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center in Washington.

Just 22 percent of Americans approve of the job performance of Republican congressional leaders, according to an Aug 17-21 Pew Center survey of 1,509 adults. Democratic leaders score slightly better, with 29 percent approving of the job they’re doing, the poll found.

Kohut said Republicans received lower ratings because the public disapproved of their handling of this summer’s debate on raising the U.S. debt ceiling. After failing to reach a broad deal cutting the deficit, Congress in August voted to lift the $14.3 trillion debt ceiling and create a bipartisan supercommittee that is charged with identifying $1.5 trillion in cost savings by November.

Taking a Hit

“They took more of a hit with respect to the debt ceiling debate,” Kohut said. “Republicans would be in a much-stronger position with a troubled president if their image were better and not worse. The climate of opinion isn’t so good for the Republicans all of a sudden.”

Duffy said the sour mood of voters could become a drag for both parties.

“We can’t rule out something we’ve never seen before -- which is a truly anti-incumbent election where incumbents in both parties get hit fairly equally,” Duffy said. “Just because it’s never happened before doesn’t mean this won’t be the first time.”

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