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Odds Favor GOP Gaining Senate Control in 2012

Odds Favor GOP Gaining Senate Control in 2012

By Sean Trende - September 28, 2011


The Senate and House races are usually undercard matches in presidential years. But 2012 may be different. Republicans are expected to hold the House, and are probably slight favorites to win the White House at this point. If Democrats are going to keep a toehold in Washington, their only hope is retaining the Senate. This is especially true because much of what the Republican Congress will probably focus on in 2013 is spending cuts, which can -- and almost certainly will -- be done through budget reconciliation (which only requires a majority vote).

But the Democrats’ chances of holding the Senate aren’t particularly good. Right now Republicans hold 47 of the 100 seats; if they win the presidency, they would need to pick up three more seats to have a majority. As of today, they are favored to pick up two Democratic seats. Two Republican seats are tossups, along with six Democratic seats. If we assume Democrats pick off one of the two Republican tossups, and that Republican pick off half of the Democratic tossups, Republicans would have a 51-49 majority.

Of course, Senate tossups have tended to break hard toward one party or the other, which suggests that the Republicans have much more upside than Democrats. If Republicans were to sweep the tossups, they would have a 55-45 majority, tying them for their largest advantage since 1928. With a large number of Democrats up for re-election in 2014, many of whom occupy seats in red states, that would probably give Republicans working control of the chamber.

For right now, though, it is safe to say that Republicans are favored to take control of the Senate. A seat-by-seat analysis follows:

CURRENT REPUBLICAN SEATS

Safe Republican: Roger Wicker (Miss.), Orrin Hatch (Utah), Bob Corker (Tenn.), John Barrasso (Wyo.). These seats are among the safest in the Republican caucus. Hatch could face some trouble at the state GOP convention, and some polls have shown Democratic Rep. Jim Matheson faring well in a general election, especially if Hatch loses the nomination. But at this point, you can’t really consider these seats up for grabs.

Likely Republican: Dick Lugar (Ind.), Texas (open; Kay Bailey Hutchison is retiring). Lugar and Hatch are the two most senior Republicans in the Senate, and both are at some risk of losing their party’s nomination this cycle. But Lugar’s challenge from state Treasurer Richard Mourdock is much more serious than the nominal challenges to Hatch. If Lugar loses, Democratic Rep. Joe Donnelly could be a formidable opponent in the general -- if the national environment improves for his party. As for Texas, Democrats always claim to be on the verge of winning a statewide race, and often come up short. It’s a crowded Republican field, but whoever emerges with the nomination will be a heavy, though not prohibitive, favorite.

Lean Republican: Arizona (open; Jon Kyl is retiring), Olympia Snowe (Maine). Democrats are still holding on to hope that Congresswoman Gabby Giffords will be able to make the Arizona race. If so, her story could make her very difficult to beat. If she doesn’t, Rep. Jeff Flake is the favorite to be the Grand Canyon’s State’s next senator. Snowe is lucky that she’s only attracted nominal opposition for her primary. But Mike Castle was probably thinking the exact same thing in last year’s Delaware Senate race before losing to Christine O’Donnell. If Snowe survives her primary she will almost certainly win in the fall, but it is far from certain that she will win the nomination.

Tossup: Scott Brown (Mass.), Dean Heller (Nev.). The fragility of Brown’s position was underscored by the recent PPP (D) poll showing him trailing consumer advocate Elizabeth Warren by two percentage points. PPP is polling “voters” in this survey, rather than registered voters or likely voters, and its results have tended to move rightward once a likely-voter screen is imposed. Still, Brown could very easily lose, especially if the GOP presidential nominee becomes radioactive in Massachusetts. The recent special election in Nevada’s 2nd District seems to suggest that Nevada is moving rightward, and that should help the Senate’s newest member, Dean Heller. At the same time, his polling against Rep. Shelley Berkley hasn’t been impressive, and appointees don’t have the best track record when seeking full terms.

CURRENT DEMOCRATIC SEATS

Safe Democrat: Tom Carper (Del.), Hawaii (open; Daniel Akaka is retiring), Ben Cardin (Md.), Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.), Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.), Bernie Sanders (Vt.). Of these, the Hawaii seat could become more competitive if former Gov. Linda Lingle declares for the Republicans, while state Auditor Tom Salmon could conceivably make a race of it in Vermont. But neither of these scenarios looks particularly likely right now, and the Democrats shouldn’t have any real difficulty holding on to any of these seats.

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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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