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Possibility of a Republican Senate Grows

Possibility of a Republican Senate Grows

By Sean Trende - February 16, 2010

Evan Bayh's surprise announcement that he would not seek a third term has sent shockwaves through the pundit class on an otherwise quiet President’s Day.  It also upset a year’s worth of comfortable predictions that Republicans would never take back the Senate in 2010.  This, combined with other recent political developments, places a 50-50 Senate within reach for the Republican caucus.

The immediate impact of Bayh’s announcement is that it leaves Democrats scrambling for a candidate. Bayh's bombshell comes right before the filing deadline, with a murky process unfolding for the Democrats. Right now, the only declared Democratic candidate is restaurant owner and activist Tamyra D'Ippolito, though it seems unlikely that she will gather the additional 1,000 signatures that she needs to qualify for the ballot (Conservative websites are already mounting an effort to "help" her). The state Democratic committee will likely fill the empty slot on the ballot this spring.

Right now speculation is focusing on two conservative Democrats from downstate: Brad Ellsworth and Baron Hill.  Ellsworth has represented the Eighth district since 2006 and has compiled a conservative voting record, while Hill represented the Ninth from 1998-2004 and again from 2006 through the present.  Ellsworth in particular has a pro-life, pro-gun record that would seem to fit the profile of the state well.

But no Democrat running will have the stature of Evan Bayh.  Having served statewide since 1986 and having developed a moderate reputation over the course of that twenty-five year career, he is virtually irreplaceable in a reddish state like Indiana.  Indeed, Hill was showing weakness in polling in his own district, much less statewide.  Regardless of whom Democrats nominate, they’ll certainly lack the reputation and recognition that would accompany a Bayh candidacy, in the worst possible year for this to happen to the Democrats.  This race almost certainly starts out at least leaning to the Republicans.

Bayh's announcement obviously has a signifcant impact on the larger Senate landscape as well. Republicans already have an edge in all of their vulnerable Senate seats this November. Six Democratic Senate seats already lean toward the Republicans - and Blanche Lincoln's and Harry Reid's positions have probably deteriorated further since we looked at them in late January. Picking up these six seats plus Bayh's would put the Republicans at 48 seats, needing only two more seats to split power with the Democrats starting in 2011.

At the same time, Democratic prospects for holding President Obama's former Senate seat in Illinois have deteriorated somewhat. Democratic candidate Alexi Giannoulias limped out of the Democratic primary with 36% of the vote. He begins the general election trailing Republican Mark Kirk by six points in a Rasmussen Reports survey taken after the February 2nd primary, and unable to get above 42% of the vote in any recent trial heat (not a good sign for a statewide officeholder). While I wouldn't put this in the "Leans Republican" category by any stretch, right now the edge has moved slightly to Kirk.

That leaves Republicans needing to pick up one more seat. The most likely targets are New York (Gillibrand), California (Boxer), Wisconsin (Feingold) and Washington State (Murray). In California, Boxer continues to struggle against her opponents. The most recent polling shows her with leads of between four and eight points against her various opponents. Boxer still has an edge, especially given the demographics of the state, but any three term Senator with an upside-down approval rating and a 48% cap in head-to-head polling is in trouble.

Recent polling has also shown Russ Feingold trailing former Governor Tommy Thompson, 47%-43%. Thompson hasn't made his mind up on a run yet, and doesn't seem likely to run. But the filing deadline isn't until July, and Feingold's poor showing against Thompson indicates potential weakness against other candidates, if one should emerge (or if Republicans persuade one of their two gubernatorial candidates to switch races).

Similarly, former Governor Pataki in New York has polled well against appointee Kirsten Gillibrand, but it remains to be seen if he'll run.

Washington state Republicans remain in search of a candidate against Senator Murray, but if they can entice former gubernatorial candidate Dino Rossi into the race, Republican polling has shown him capable of pulling out the victory; nonpartisan polling is nonexistent on this race.

Republican have a relatively clear path to 48 seats, and probably a somewhat better than 50-50 shot of defeating Giannoulias in Illinois. The California, New York, Washington and Wisconsin seats remain longshots, and most of that shot is entirely dependent upon the GOP's ability to get their preferred candidate in place.

If the GOP does manage to get to 50 seats, then another variable enters the picture: Joe Lieberman. Would Lieberman caucus with the Republicans in order to deny the Democrats a Senate majority? He's made noises about running as a Republican in 2012, so it is certainly possible.

Bottom line, control of the U.S. Senate looks likely to be in play come election day in November.

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 strende@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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