When political analyst Charlie Cook talked to the 2010 annual meeting of the Public Affairs Research Council, he accurately predicted the carnage among Democrats in the U.S. House that year, but he also noted that the U.S. Senate was a closer proposition.
However, he looked ahead to 2012, when Democrats had to defend many more seats in the upper chamber than Republicans. “There is a Republican Senate in our future, but probably not in 2010,” said Cook, head of the Cook Political Report.
In one of the big surprises of 2012, that reckoning is turning out to be more problematic for Republicans than Cook or almost anyone else expected.
About a dozen of the 33 Senate seats up this year are real political battlegrounds, and Democrats have some hope of holding on to a slim majority. Either way, though, there is a bit of a wild card: The vice president breaks ties in the Senate, so if President Barack Obama is re-elected, Joe Biden would continue to do that in the Democrats’ favor.
Further making the mix a little more interesting is Maine, where an independent is leading in the polls. The former Gov. Angus King is expected to vote with the Democrats if elected, but he’s not said so one way or the other.
Louisiana is not among the states with a Senate race this year, a political drama for which we’ll have to wait until 2014, when U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Democrat, seeks a fourth term. U.S. Sen. David Vitter, a Republican, won in 2010 a second six-year term.
But in other states, with a close presidential election suddenly leaning a bit toward incumbent Obama, the Democrats are more positive looking toward Nov. 6.
Even in Republican-leaning states of the past, including Virginia, North Dakota and Montana, races are unexpectedly close or leaning toward Democrats, reported David Hawkings in CQ/Roll Call’s rundown from Capitol Hill.
Of course, there are states where the party scripts aren’t running true to form: Former Sen. Bob Kerrey is behind in Nebraska, so the GOP would pick up a seat held by a retiring Democrat. But in Missouri the Democratic incumbent now benefits because of controversy-plagued GOP nominee Todd Akin, who was considered a bit too radical “even before his comments about abortion betrayed his fundamental misunderstanding about the social and biological nature of rape,” as Hawkings put it.
Interesting, some of the “blue” states are ones where Republicans are doing well, further scrambling the predictors. Incumbent Scott Brown in Massachusetts is holding on in a high-profile race against Democratic challenger Elizabeth Warren, and in Connecticut a wealthy GOP nominee is running pretty well in an open-seat race.
All this suggests that the Senate fortunes of each party may also be influenced by the tides of the presidential race. An energized vote for Obama might well help some of the party’s nominees in the northeastern states, for example. Vice-versa for a strong showing by GOP nominee Mitt Romney in Virginia and the Western states.
Whatever the outcome, a Senate so closely divided has implications for Landrieu, in particular, in the coming two years.
As one of the remaining centrists of the increasingly polarized upper house of the Congress, her role as a broker of compromises will be pivotal to passage of legislation. Vitter is a more generally reliable conservative vote, but if the GOP is in power he would be better-positioned to look after Louisiana’s interests.
A majority is important to senators, in large part because of their personal positions as chairmen of committees and other perks of the majority party. But with 60 votes needed to stop debate on major bills, a majority of 50 with the vice president, or 51 without him, isn’t really as significant: Persuading some of the swing votes, such as Landrieu, is vital to the legislative deal.
As Cook said, there might be a GOP Senate in our future. But the closeness of the current races suggests it would be by the slimmest of margins this year.
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