A Republican-controlled Senate in 2012 looks less likely than it did a few weeks ago, but the prospect for GOP gains is still quite solid.
Of the 33 Senate seats up for grabs this cycle, seven are occupied by Democrats or Democrat-leaning independents who are not seeking reelection, three are occupied by Republicans who are not seeking reelection, 16 are occupied by Democrats seeking reelection, and seven are occupied by Republicans seeking reelection. This is the class of senators last elected in 2006, a midterm election that almost could not have gone worse for the GOP.
A few recent developments may indicate good news for Republicans, however. Last week the House voted to repeal the IPAB portion of Obamacare, a 15-member panel that will, beginning in the 2015 fiscal year, make binding recommendations for cost-cutting in Medicare treatment. This is the potentially care-denying, unelected authority that some Republicans characterize as “death panels.” Four House Democrats running for the Senate this cycle — Shelley Berkley of Nevada, Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, Martin Heinrich of New Mexico, and Joe Donnelly of Indiana — all voted in support of IPAB. On paper, this represented a risk-free way for these Democrats to distance themselves from one of Obamacare’s more controversial provisions; instead, all four doubled down in support of the least popular part of the law.
Also, the issue environment — high unemployment, high gas prices, dissatisfaction with the direction of the country and Washington specifically — continues to be threatening for incumbents in presidential swing states, particularly Missouri, Florida, Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. Here’s a rundown of how things look today.
ALMOST RESOLVED ALREADY
NEBRASKA: “Bob Kerrey is probably the highest polling New Yorker to ever run for office in Nebraska at 38 percent,” dryly observes one GOP race-watcher. Kerrey’s inability to make the race competitive already has cheered Republicans, but some strategists are speculating that Democratic donors will end up dumping a lot of money and resources in this uphill battle before triaging funds to more winnable races.
Still, credit the Democrats; they needed a warm body when incumbent senator Ben Nelson announced his retirement after Christmas, and they found one in Kerrey. But Public Policy Polling recently found Kerrey trailing all of his potential GOP competitors by double digits: State attorney general Jon Bruning leads 54–37, state treasurer Don Stenberg leads 52–38, and State Senator Deb Fischer 48–38.
NORTH DAKOTA: One should never count one’s chickens before they hatch, and all of the standard caveats apply. But Democrats had a thin bench when Byron Dorgan announced his retirement more than a year ago, and former North Dakota attorney general Heidi Heitkamp is their only candidate. At the end of 2011, she faced a 10-to-1 cash-on-hand gap with the likely Republican nominee, Representative Rick Berg. North Dakota has only one congressional district, and so Berg has already won statewide, beating incumbent Democrat Earl Pomeroy in a 2010 House race, 55 percent to 45 percent.
FLORIDA: For months, Republicans saw little-known potential Senate candidates such as former (appointed, not elected) senator George LeMieux, Florida state-senate president Mike Haridopolos, and former state representative Adam Hasner polling weakly against incumbent Democrat Senator Bill Nelson. (Haridopolos and Hasner withdrew from the race in 2011.) The incumbent had mediocre approval ratings, and the Sunshine State shifted heavily to Republicans in 2010, but for some reason, the GOP upstarts couldn’t seem to get traction.
Enter Representative Connie Mack IV. Well-funded with a famous name (his father was a senator, and his great-grandfather was a baseball hall-of-famer), Mack has won every race he’s run with at least 59 percent of the vote. Rasmussen puts Mack ahead of the incumbent by seven points.
MAINE: Senator Olympia Snowe’s unexpected retirement announcement complicated matters for the GOP, and the interest in the seat of Angus King, an independent and former governor, is complicating matters for the Democratic party. At this point, beyond the independent King, there are four Democrats and six Republicans exploring bids, and the Democrats lead most of the head-to-head matchups. Republican options include national committeeman Rick Bennett, state attorney general William Schneider, secretary of state Charlie Summers, businessman Scott D’Amboise, and state senator Debra Plowman. While it’s nearly impossible to imagine a victorious King caucusing with the Republicans in the Senate, his presence could split the vote in ways that make it easier for a Republican to win.
MASSACHUSETTS: There have been a lot of interesting swings in the polling in this state, whose Senate race features stars of both parties: incumbent Republican Scott Brown vs. anti–Wall Street crusader Elizabeth Warren. Warren entered the race with a roar, but then three polls in February showed Brown coming back strong, leading by five to nine percentage points. Then, in mid-March, PPP showed Warren on top again (although Brown’s 41 percent seems awfully low compared with his support in other polls).
Republican strategists are noting that Massachusetts is a heavily Democratic state, but not necessarily a heavily liberal one, and that Warren — proudly describing herself as the one who created the “intellectual foundation” of the Occupy movement – may be too culturally liberal to connect with the white working-class voters outside of Boston who are key to any statewide win in Massachusetts. These voters are Brown’s bread and butter — and he’ll need to perform strongly in this demographic to keep his seat — er, the people’s seat — in November.
MISSOURI: The bid to unseat Claire McCaskill could slip to the “Almost Resolved Already” category soon. Missouri was one of the few swing states that preferred McCain to Obama, and the state detests Obamacare. McCaskill is underwater in her job-approval numbers and tied with or trailing all of her potential GOP challengers in PPP’s latest. Those potential challengers are front-runner and former state treasurer Sarah Steelman, Representative Todd Akin, and John Brunner. Crossroads GPS just aired two weeks’ worth of ads hitting McCaskill on standing with Obama on Obamacare and tax hikes.
MONTANA: The advantages of incumbency is likely to help keep Democratic senator Jon Tester competitive, but polling in this state puts him consistently slightly behind his GOP challenger, Representative Denny Rehberg.
NEVADA: The polls matching up incumbent Republican Dean Heller against Democratic representative Shelley Berkeley have bounced around a lot in 2011, but only one has been done so far this year, and Rasmussen put Heller ahead, 47 percent to 40 percent. As another presidential-race battleground, Nevada is another state that is likely to see the airwaves filled with ads from now through November.
NEW MEXICO: With Lieutenant Governor John Sanchez choosing to withdraw to prevent a bitter primary fight, former representative Heather Wilson is the clear front-runner and is garnering praise as one of the potential stars among the GOP’s Senate candidates this cycle. “Well positioned to be the surprise on Election Night,” concludes one Republican watching the Senate races closely. Wilson’s poll numbers have steadily improved against those of both her potential rivals, Representative Martin Heinrich and state auditor Hector Balderas, but no Republican should presume this race will be easy, as New Mexico is likely to get quite a bit of attention in the presidential race as well.
OHIO: Representing a perennial swing state that saw big Republican wins in 2010, incumbent Democrat Sherrod Brown demonstrated healthy leads against most of his potential GOP challengers — until a Rasmussen poll this week showed him tied with Josh Mandel, the Ohio state treasurer and GOP nominee. Was this just a blip, or a sign that the real race is on, in a state sure to be awash in presidential-campaign advertising in the summer and fall? Knocking off an incumbent in a swing state like Ohio was never going to be easy, so Republicans should be pleased that they might have a shot here and will hope for the best.
VIRGINIA: The commonwealth will host a battle of well-known titans, former governor and senator George Allen and former governor and DNC chairman Tim Kaine. Most polling has suggested an extremely tight race; when one candidate takes a lead in one poll, the other takes the lead in the subsequent one. For example, when Allen managed an eight-point lead in the Roanoke College poll, Kaine led by nine points in the NBC News/Marist poll. Both candidates will be well-funded, and the state is likely to be one of the key battlegrounds of the 2012 presidential race. Expect this one to stay close all the way to the end; it’s easy to forget that retiring incumbent Democratic senator Jim Webb beat Allen by the skin of his teeth in 2006.
WISCONSIN: Expect a hard-fought primary in the state, which has risen to national political prominence in the past year. Former governor and Health and Human Services secretary Tommy Thompson is the best-known candidate, but former congressman and gubernatorial candidate Mark Neumann is not far behind. (Neumann ran for governor in 2010 and may have left bad blood after his contentious primary with Scott Walker.) Don’t overlook state representative Jeff Fitzgerald.
Democrats are probably going to nominate Representative Tammy Baldwin, one of the most liberal members of the House. At this point, Wisconsin appears to get quite a bit of attention in the presidential race, and there is still the potential gubernatorial recall election between now and then. Will Wisconsinites succumb to election fatigue?
COULD GET COMPETITIVE
CONNECTICUT: Things did not look good for Republicans when Joe Lieberman announced his retirement, but recent polling shows former congressman Chris Shays running close or ahead of all his potential Democratic rivals: Representative Chris Murphy, former Connecticut secretary of state Susan Bysiewicz, and state representative William Tong. But first Shays would have to beat 2010 GOP senatorial nominee Linda McMahon, who stirred the pot a lot in her bid last cycle but ultimately fell short. When Shays was in the U.S. House, he ranked among the Republican party’s most moderate members, but that may not be such a liability in deep-blue Connecticut.
HAWAII: Have no illusions; this will be an extremely difficult race for Republicans to win, and the polling so far looks ominous. But in former governor Linda Lingle, Republicans have the one candidate who stands a chance of making the race competitive, and she has a solid fundraising network. If nothing else, Lingle ensures the GOP has a serious candidate if a scandal or gaffe engulfs one of the Democratic candidates.
INDIANA: Democrats are telling themselves that if tea-party favorite Richard Mourdock beats six-term incumbent Dick Lugar in the GOP primary, then their man, Representative Joe Donnelly, has a shot. It’s not an entirely implausible theory, although the state’s brief dalliance with the Democrats appears to be ending and Donnelly himself barely won reelection in 2010. Few House Democrats put as much effort into distancing themselves from the national party as Donnelly did last cycle, and he will have to do the same this year, unless President Obama can orchestrate a wholesale renewal of his party’s reputation sometime in the next six months.
MINNESOTA: This is not the friendliest turf for Republicans, and polling puts incumbent Democratic senator Amy Klobachar in strong position. But rookie candidates don’t come much better than Pete Hegseth, Army National Guard infantry officer, two-time Bronze Star winner, and former executive director of Vets for Freedom, a group dedicated to electing veterans to higher office. His group helped elect six Republican Iraq and Afghanistan veterans to Congress in 2010. (Hegseth is also a contributor to National Review Online, as if he didn’t have enough sterling qualities.)
MICHIGAN: Debbie Stabenow persistently earns mediocre approval numbers, but she tends to do well in head-to-head matchups against Republican opponents, a pattern that has remained consistent since her election to the Senate in 2000. Republicans thought they at last had a top-tier challenger to run against her in former representative Pete Hoekstra, but he caught a great deal of flak for an ad, run during the Super Bowl in Michigan, that featured an actress depicting a Chinese woman gloating in broken English. Stabenow’s head-to-head numbers have only improved in the weeks since the ad controversy.
WEST VIRGINIA: If it feels like incumbent Joe Manchin just won reelection, it’s because he did. After being appointed to fill the seat once occupied by longtime incumbent Robert Byrd, he won a 2010 race to complete the final two years of Byrd’s term. This year, he’s running for his first full term — and he appears to be a favorite in a rematch against the man he beat in 2010, John Raese. But one new factor from last cycle is having Obama at the top of the ticket; few states disdain the president the way West Virginia’s electorate does.
COULD GET COMPETITIVE, BUT PROBABLY NOT
ARIZONA: For several months, Democrats speculated that former representative Gabrielle Giffords might not merely return from her injuries, but could run for the Senate seat as well against the expected GOP nominee, Representative Jeff Flake. Instead, Democrats are likely to nominate former surgeon general Richard H. Carmona. Flake faces some little-known GOP primary competition and is likely to enter the race with a significant financial advantage and a conservative wind at his back as polling shows him ahead comfortably.
CALIFORNIA: At this point, incumbent Democrat Dianne Feinstein remains the heavy favorite in a phenomenally expensive state, one that the Republican wave largely bypassed in 2010. But Elizabeth Emken brings an unexpected profile to the race; she is an advocate for developmentally disabled children at the national organization Autism Speaks, she has worked as an executive at IBM, and she unsuccessfully ran for the House in 2010.
MARYLAND: Incumbent Democrat Ben Cardin begins as a heavy favorite in deep-blue state, but keep an eye on Daniel Bongino, a former U.S. Secret Service agent. Note that Cardin has never been a particularly charismatic candidate and his approval ratings are unspectacular. Bongino will be financially outgunned in a state predisposed to return Democrats year after year, but on a debate stage, he could easily prove to be the more appealing candidate.
NEW YORK: Another tough state that is all but impossible for a Republican to win in a presidential year, but at least the GOP has an intriguing candidate with a proven ability to win on Democratic turf in Representative Bob Turner. He won the special election in the aftermath of Representative Anthony Weiner’s resignation, but he saw few options when his House seat was redistricted out of existence. Conservative litigator Wendy Long and Nassau County comptroller George Maragos are also contending for the seat.
PENNSYLVANIA: Incumbent Democratic senator Bob Casey has mediocre approval ratings (high 30s), but most of his Republican challengers are entrepreneurs have little or no name ID at this point. Former miner and coal-industry entrepreneur Tom Smith has by far the most cash on hand in a field that includes veteran Dave Christian, state representative Sam Rohrer, Marc Scaringi, and Steve Welch. The Republican candidates are calling Casey “Obama lite,” as the president has been polling quite weakly in the state. Welch is running a video asserting, tongue-in-cheek, that Casey and Obama are twins who were separated at birth.
WASHINGTON: The Pacific Northwest has proven a challenging lock to pick for the Republicans even while they have roared to big gains elsewhere in the country. A PPP poll last month put incumbent Senator Maria Cantwell — enjoying job approval ratings in the high 40s — ahead of her only announced challenger State Senator Michael Baumgartner, 51 to 36 percent, with 15 percent undecided. Baumgartner begins the race facing an enormous financial disadvantage.
UNLIKELY TO BE COMPETITIVE
This category includes the reelection bids of Democrats Tom Carper in Delaware, Bob Menendez in New Jersey, Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, and Bernie Sanders of Vermont; the reelection bids of Republicans Bob Corker in Tennessee, Orrin Hatch in Utah, and John Barrasso of Wyoming; and the open-seat race in Texas.
— Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot on NRO.