Is The Senate Also In Play?

Is The Senate Also In Play?

By Sean Trende - January 25, 2010

Last Tuesday I challenged the conventional wisdom that the House of Representatives is not in play. After Scott Brown’s five-point victory in Massachusetts, it is worth asking wheter the Senate is in play as well. If a Republican can win in a fairly high turnout election (with about as many ballots cast as in the 2006 gubernatorial election) in Massachusetts, is there anywhere they can’t win?

The answer is that the Senate is competitive – but barely. There are seven Senate seats that Republicans have an excellent shot at winning. After that, the going gets very tough. Still, there’s at least some chance that Republicans can pick up the additional seats needed to get them to 50, which would give them at least partial control of the Senate. The odds are long. But at this point in 2006, no one thought Democrats could retake the Senate, and at this point in 2008 no one thought a filibuster-proof majority was even plausible. Let’s go through the Republican seats up in 2010, and then address the Democratic seats in more detail.

Republican Seats

Safe Republican
The seats of Senators Bennett (UT), Coburn (OK), Crapo (ID), DeMint (SC), Grassley (IA) (assuming he doesn’t retire), Isakson (GA), McCain (AZ), Murkowski (AK), Shelby (AL), Thune (SD), and the open seat in Kansas are all safe. Senator McCain has a primary challenger, but McCain leads, and it is difficult to see his seat flipping in this environment even if Hayworth is the nominee.

Likely Republican
Florida (Open):
Regardless of whether Charlie Crist or Marco Rubio wins the Republican primary, Florida’s seat is favored to remain in GOP hands. The state is still a tick or two to the right of center, and the Democratic candidate, Kendrick Meek, probably has a voting record that is too liberal to win a Senate race in Florida, especially in a year that leans to the GOP (and probably even in a year that leans to the Democrats). (Florida Polls)

Louisiana (Vitter): Sleeping with a prostitute would usually be a kiss of death for a politician, especially in the South. But conservative Democrat Charlie Melancon picked the wrong year to gun for a promotion. Keep an eye on it, but it is hard to imagine Louisiana sending a Democrat to Congress this cycle. (Louisiana Polls)

Lean Republican
New Hampshire (Open): The Granite state moved left in 2006 and 2008, but it seems to be coming back to the center in 2010. Attorney General Kelly Ayotte has led state Rep. Paul Hodes in every poll taken since June, with numbers approaching 50%. You would like a statewide officeholder to be above 50% before you give them the edge, but this state is much more conservative than Massachusetts, especially in a year where the GOP’s message is likely to have a more libertarian tinge to it than in recent elections. If conservative Ovide Lamontagne upsets Ayotte, it could make for a more competitive race, but this is still in many ways the same state that sent Bob Smith to the Senate for two terms. (New Hampshire Polls)

Kentucky (Open): This one could be classified as a “Slight Lean Republican,” especially if libertarian Rand Paul (son of Congressman Ron Paul) gets the GOP nod. In a way, Kentucky is the opposite of libertarian-ish: Socially conservative, fiscally more liberal. Paul has led in primary matchups against Secretary of State Trey Grayson, but also leads Democratic Attorney General Jack Conway and Lieutenant Governor Dan Mongiardo. My guess is that Paul will have a tough time once Conway or Mongiardo starts explaining what libertarianism really means to Kentucky voters, and this race will look more uphill for the GOP. Grayson, a more conventional GOP politician, would probably have an easier road to the Senate. The biggest problem for the Democrats in all of these close races is that the Republican will be running on a message of “do you really want to give Obama 60 votes again?” in some fairly right-of-center states. This will make the sale pretty tough for the Democrat in the end. (Kentucky Polls)

North Carolina (Burr): Like Kentucky, the temptation is to rate this “Slight Lean Republican.” Burr has been below 50% for most of the past year, and his approval ratings are pretty tepid. Democrats have a couple of decent challengers. North Carolina’s demographics are changing, but the overall environment makes it unlikely that Burr will really lose. To my mind, this race is like New Jersey or Washington in 2006 – a race that looks favorable for the Democrats on paper for most of the cycle, but which fades down the stretch. (North Carolina Polls)

Slight Lean Republican
Missouri (Open): Many observers see this seat as more vulnerable than the Ohio seat. I disagree. Don’t get me wrong, in a change election, the GOP is running . . . Roy Blunt. But Robin Carnahan, daughter of a Governor and a Senator Carnahan, granddaughter of a Representative Carnahan, and sister of a Representative Carnahan, is not exactly a fresh face either. The state went for John McCain in a horrible Republican year, and the President has a 45% approval rating in Missouri. The Democrats’ path to victory in Missouri is to beat the heck out of Republicans in Saint Louis and Kansas City, and then hold down the Republican margins in the rural areas. With black voters unenthusiastic, the first prong is problematic, and with Roy Blunt’s abilities to turn out the vote in southwestern Missouri, I think it’s an uphill battle for Carnahan at this point. (Missouri Polls)

Ohio (Open): This is probably the GOP’s single most vulnerable seat. The state is a point or two to the right of center, but it is still a populist state with a history of electing more “establishment” GOPers. Against this background, Republicans have nominated Bush’s OMB director and Trade Representative, Rob Portman. Free trade is not the most popular stance in the rust belt, and being in charge of the Bush budget is a millstone. In a more neutral environment, I’d probably put the thumb against Portman, but he’s led in most polls and is probably the favorite for now. (Ohio Polls)

Democratic Seats
The GOP is presently favored to hold all of its seats. This may change if the political environment shifts somewhat toward the Democrats. But for now, the question is whether the GOP can pick up at least nine more Democratic seats. It’s a tall order. Remember, the GOP picked up Ted Kennedy’s seat with an obscure state Senator, but the GOP didn’t actually defeat Ted Kennedy with an obscure state Senator. There are a number of Democratic incumbents whose seats are more-or-less untouchable, absent a retirement or major scandal. Nevertheless, there are probably a few whose seats are at risk who are not used to running a competitive race.

Safe Republican (R+1)
North Dakota (Open): In all honestly, it’s pretty hard to see how John Hoeven loses this race. It’s a Republican year in a Republican state with a Republican candidate with no competitive Democrat on the horizon. (North Dakota Polls)

Likely Republican (R+2)
Delaware (Open): If Attorney General Beau Biden chooses to run, this will probably slide down a few notches. Castle has held statewide office in Delaware since 1980, and while he runs competitively with Biden, he’s below 50%. But Biden hasn’t been making any movement toward a race just yet. If Biden ends up not running, you can probably move this over to safe. (Delaware Polls)

Leans Republican (R+5)
Nevada (Reid), Arkansas (Lincoln), Colorado (Bennett): In a lot of ways, these are identical races. All three Senators represent states that are usually red at the Presidential level, but that Democrats presently dominate at the state level. None of them have truly top-tier challengers, with former Lt. Gov. Norton in Colorado being the only one to have held previous statewide office. And yet all three Senators are mired in the high thirties or low forties against their challengers. All three face pretty steep climbs in their re-election challenges, and if polls start showing their challengers above 50%, these races would go into the “Likely Republican” category. (Nevada, Arkansas, Colorado Polls)

Slight Lean Republican (R+6)
Pennsylvania (Specter): How ironic. Arlen Specter switched parties to avoid one strong primary challenge, only to gain another one. To top things off, he hasn’t gotten to 50% in a poll against his old Republican primary challenger, Pat Toomey, since June, and trails in some polls. Toomey is probably too conservative for the state (which is probably close to as economically liberal as Massachusetts) in normal years, but in this year, he still gets the edge. Specter may right the ship, but he’s the underdog for now. (Pennsylvania Polls)

Slight Lean Democratic
Illinois (Open): Mark Kirk is a good Republican candidate, and a lot will depend on how the Democratic primary shakes out. Still, Kirk hasn’t exactly been lighting the world on fire in polling, although state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias should probably be doing better as a statewide candidate. Kirk probably wins on intangibles, but the Democratic lean of the state probably argues for putting a thumb on the scale for Giannoulias. Against David Hoffman or Cheryle Robinson Jackson, I think Kirk will have a better shot. I can hear Republicans now – if we can win in Massachusetts, we can win here easily. There’s some truth to this: Illinois and the next two states I analyze – California and New York – are on balance more Republican than Massachusetts. There’s a trick though. Massachusetts is 79% non-Hispanic white. Illinois, California and New York are 65%, 42%, and 60% non-Hispanic white, respectively (though the electorates will probably be whiter in the election). This is important, because the Democrats’ main problem this cycle has been retaining middle class and working class whites. Obama’s approval among minorities remains robust. A coalition of minorities and liberals isn’t quite enough to win Massachusetts, but it may well be enough in Illinois, California and New York. (Illinois Polls)

Leans Democratic
California (Boxer): If Tom Campbell wins here and Rand Paul wins in Kentucky, the GOP will have two libertarians in the Senate. Campbell (who leads a three-way primary in the latest poll) got blown out against Dianne Feinstein in 2000, but 2000 wasn't a good Republican year for the Senate. 2010 is almost certainly going to be a good Republican year. More importantly, Feinstein is a San Francisco circa 1960s/70s Democrat, when the city had a pretty big blue collar base still. That means that she is more of a centrist Democrat than Boxer is. She's ideologically a decent fit for the state. Indeed, Campbell was placed in the awkward position of running to Feinstein's left on a number of issues in 2000. Boxer is a Marin County liberal. That actually places her pretty far to the left of the state. And while she and Feinstein have had their approval ratings converge around 40% of late, she typically has lagged Feinstein by about 5-10% in approval ratings. (Boxer, Feinstein). Combining the conservatives in the non-coastal portions of the state with enough socially liberal, fiscally conservative voters from places like CA-10 (which we saw in November have moved toward the GOP substantially) and in the LA suburbs could give him a majority. Carly Fiorina could probably put together a similar coalition; her voting positions are to the right of Campbell’s but I think she’ll be perceived as being more moderate. Of course, Fiorina and Campbell could split the moderate GOP vote, allowing assemblyman Chuck DeVore to get the nomination. A similar situation developed in 1992, when Campbell and Bono split the vote, and conservative commentator Bruce Herschensohn received the GOP nomination. Herschensohn went on to lose narrowly to Boxer, but this is shaping up to be a considerably better year for the GOP than was 1992. Polls have Boxer below 50%, with Campbell (and his other GOP competitors) right behind her. (California Polls)

New York (Gillibrand):  In New York, Kirsten Gillibrand’s polling numbers are pretty horrendous. She’s below 50% in Democratic primary against a guy who ran as a Christian social conservative in Tennessee. The problem the GOP has is finding a candidate. New York is a large, expensive state with several media areas to cover. That makes it harder to do the “Scott Brown and his pickup truck” campaign. If former Governor Pataki gets in, this will move up considerably. (New York Polls)

Likely Democratic
Indiana (Bayh), Wisconsin (Feingold), Washington (Murray): I spent a lot of time on California and New York because they illustrate the basic problem that Evan Bayh (IN), Russ Feingold (WI), and Patty Murray (WA) have. In normal years, they would be safe, but this is not a normal year. Gillibrand and Boxer have been polled, but none of these three have. My intuitions here may be way off, but I wouldn’t be surprised if all three are showing weakness in polling this year. Bayh’s state is five or six points to the right of the country, and with his support of the stimulus and health care bills, I would wager a large sum of money that his polling numbers aren’t abysmal, but also aren’t good. (UPDATE: Lo and behold, Rasmussen is out with a poll this morning showing Evan Bayh trailing Mike Pence by three points and under 50% against all three possible GOP challengers). (Indiana Polls)

Feingold is awfully liberal for a state that is pretty close to the center of American politics; he nearly lost against a strong challenger in the good Democratic year of 1998, and had pretty tepid results against a weak challenger in 2004. If a credible challenger got in, he could have problems this year. Finally, Patty Murray has always been something of an underwhelming Senator. Her state has inched to the left since she was elected, but her approval ratings are pretty lukewarm and stories like this could be an early warning sign of possible vulnerability. If the situation deteriorates further for Democrats, this could become a problem.

Safe Democratic
Hawaii (Inouye), Vermont (Leahy), Maryland (Mikulski), New York (Schumer), and Oregon (Wyden).  It's hard to envision any scenario under which these Democrats lose. Some will disagree, but I also put the Connecticut seat in this category – until Blumenthal’s approvals come down from the 70s, he’s solidly on track to become the next Senator from Connecticut.

The Bottom Line
Getting to 47 or 48 seats for the GOP isn’t that difficult. It is getting those last two seats that will be exceedingly  hard. Nevertheless, for the first time this cycle it is possible to see a scenario where the GOP gets those seats. I’d put their odds at doing so around 1 in 30. Then again, that’s where I put their odds of taking back the House a year ago. And that’s when things get interesting. The Democrats got their filibuster-proof majority by doing well in a year where they probably should have lost a seat or two (2006). The 2008 playing field was much more forgiving, and allowed them to post big numbers. In 2012 there are 23 Democrats and 10 Republican up for election, including nine Democrats in states Bush or McCain carried (versus four Republicans in Kerry or Obama states). In 2014, 20 Democrats (11 from Bush/McCain states) and 13 Republicans (1 from Kerry/Obama states). If Republicans make substantial gains this cycle, they could be in a position for a supermajority of their own in a few years.

Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.


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