Democrats Are Not as Desperate in the Senate

May 18, 2010 · 9:00 AM EDT

One year ago, Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter switched parties and gave Democrats 60 seats in the Senate. President Barack Obama and his party were riding high in Washington, and an early batch of Republican retirements gave Democrats an opportunity to expand their majority, even in the midterm elections.

Then the tide started to turn.

The continued economic uncertainty has created a volatile electorate, and the resulting climate has put Democrats on the defensive. Republicans are poised to pick up several seats and could, if they run the table on Election Day, eke out a 51-vote majority.

There’s widespread talk of a sweeping change in House elections in November, but Senate races are much less susceptible to national movements. In statewide races, there is an increased importance on the strength of the candidate and on his or her campaign operations.

Senate races tend to be easier to localize, which should help Democrats who are otherwise carrying the baggage of unpopular Congressional leaders. But the political wind is decidedly not in favor of Democrats, and party leaders aren’t getting the favorable breaks they had been getting in recent cycles.

The Senate playing field started to shift early this year with unexpected retirements of strong Democratic incumbents in North Dakota and Indiana, two states that favor Republicans. Republican Sen. Jim Bunning’s retirement in Kentucky actually helped GOP prospects as well.

Adding to the advantages for the GOP was the fact that Republicans succeeded in getting their top recruits in North Dakota, Delaware and Illinois while Democrats failed to get their top choices in North Carolina, New Hampshire, Delaware and Illinois.

And now, instead of midterm gains, the Democratic forecast is for heavy losses with a chance of a minority.

The saving grace for Democrats may turn out to be that they have the opportunity to play offense in a number of states and could compensate for some expected losses. Republican open seats in Missouri, New Hampshire and Ohio are still on the table, and Democrats caught a break in Florida when Gov. Charlie Crist decided to run as an Independent, giving Rep. Kendrick Meek (D) his best chance of winning by creating a three-way race where he could claim the seat without a majority of the vote.

Sen. Roland Burris’ (D-Ill.) decision not to seek a full term and Sen. Chris Dodd’s (D-Conn.) decision not to see re-election helped their party’s prospects, but Illinois is still in an extremely vulnerable position. Democrats may look for a way to replace nominee Alexi Giannoulias after his family’s bank failed.

But even if Republicans hold all of their own seats, win the four Democratic open seats in Delaware, Illinois, North Dakota and Indiana, and also win Nevada, Colorado, Pennsylvania and Arkansas, the party still falls two seats short of a majority.

Republicans need to net 10 seats in order to get to a true majority of 51. A 50-50 split would go to Democrats because Vice President Joseph Biden holds the tie-breaking vote. But winning races in the next tier of opportunities is a significantly steeper challenger.

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) seems like the next best opportunity if former state Sen. Dino Rossi (R) decides to run. Republicans believe Sen. Russ Feingold’s (D-Wis.) numbers are soft but don’t have a top tier candidate against him.

Sen. Barbara Boxer’s (D) polling numbers are never spectacular, but Republicans have to prove they can win statewide in California. Popular state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal starts with the clear advantage in Connecticut, but Republican strategists believe former World Wrestling Entertainment executive Linda McMahon could give him his first real race.

With five and a half months to go, most of the remaining unanswered questions lie in primaries.

There is no guarantee that McMahon will even be the GOP nominee, for instance, and primary outcomes in Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Kentucky, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina and Pennsylvania could solidify the final Senate playing field to look much as it does today. Or those races could completely redefine it.

Money is always important, but it’s not as likely to make a difference on the Senate side compared with the House. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee doesn’t have enough of an advantage over its Republican counterpart, and it’s defending too many states to pull challengers through primaries and across the finish line like it did in North Carolina and Oregon last cycle.

Through March, the DSCC had $17 million in the bank compared with $14.6 million for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

The Democratic base is likely to turn out on Election Day (although not at the 2008 levels they may like), but the party’s bigger problem is likely to be with independents. Independents have the same pessimistic outlook on the direction of the country as Republicans, and they’re primed to vote against the party in power.

Over the past two election cycles, independent voters weren’t even listening to Republicans. Now, from the New Jersey and Virginia gubernatorial elections to the Senate special election in Massachusetts, independent voters are acting and voting like Republicans.

The two parties (and their pollsters) have very different expectations about the makeup of the midterm electorate. Democrats are banking on a substantial number of Obama surge voters to come back this fall. Republicans expect the midterm electorate to be older and whiter.

There is plenty of talk about this being an anti-incumbent election. Even though Republicans already lost Sen. Bob Bennett (Utah) in a quirky nominating convention, Democrats shouldn’t kid themselves. Voter displeasure is more focused on Democratic incumbents than on all incumbents when it comes to November.

Democratic Senators are considerably more at risk in November, and some may not make it out of their primaries.

Even if they fall short of a majority, Republicans could take home some significant trophies. They could make history by taking over both the president’s and vice president’s former seats and defeat a Majority Leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, for the second time in four election cycles.

While it’s easy to say Election Day is an eternity away, it would take an extraordinary event to change the trajectory of the cycle on the Senate side. Even though the playing field is fairly evenly split in terms of the number of seats, Republicans are more likely to win a disproportionate share of the tossups (just like Democrats in 2006 and 2008) in the election shaping up now.

At this stage in the cycle, Republicans have a scenario for a majority but no room for error. If anything, they’ll reclaim much of the territory they lost over the last four years and have the opportunity to get over the top in 2012 when Democrats will start on the defensive.