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2012 Senate Elections — Are Democratic Troubles Overstated?

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Several hours ago,  Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson announced he would not seek re-election to his seat.  Nelson’s seat was seen as crucial in holding onto the US Senate, where they currently have a 53 seat majority.   Democrats can only lose 2 to 3 seats and retain their majority (3 if Obama is re-elected, 2 if Republican is elected President), 3 loses would give Democrats a 50-50 tie, but a Democratic VP gives control to the Dems, so a 50-50 Senate is dependent on how the Presidential election works out.  With Democrats being forced to defend 23 seats, several in red states, compared to Republicans 10 seats, only a few of which are competitive.   Four of the Democratic seats are from states Obama lost in 2008 (Nebraska, N. Dakota, Montana, West Virginia), and the media sensibilities is that the sheer numbers indicate a Democratic loss of the Senate is likely.  However, after looking this over for the day, I get the feeling that Democratic troubles are greatly overstated.

The Current Situation

Different organizations are ranking the senate contests different ways, and I agree with some and disagree with others.  The fact is that several supposedly toss-up seats are leaning blue consistantly in every to most polls released.   States like Ohio, West Virginia, and New Mexico are considered tossup, but in reality are highly likely to be Democratic holds based on the polling out there.

Lets start off with a map of what I think the polling reflects for the current US Senate races.

This map reflects looking at the polling results out of these states.   In no way are polls from 2011 a guarantee of results for 2012, but I will explain my reasons as i go through each state.

Lets take a quick look at each states rank and why I rank it that way.

Safe Republican Holds (5)

  • Utah (with Democrat Jim Matheson rulling out a run, their is no strong challenge to Senator Hatch)
  • Wyoming (poll shows that even the former Democratic governor loses by 20 points, so this isn’t happening)
  • Texas (no strong candidate running, Democrats have little hope)
  • Mississippi (every polls shows Wicker way ahead of any Democrat, not to mention the terrible terrain of the state)
  • Tennessee (No major democrats aiming for this seat)

Likely Republican Holds (2)

  • Maine (Democratic hopes are largely dependent on Senator Snowe either retiring or losing her primary, neither likely to happen)
  • Indiana (If Lugar loses his primary, then we could have a chance, but even then its a likely uphill fight)

Safe Democratic Holds (6)

  • New York (Senator Gillibrand is a fundraising powerhouse and their are no serious Republican challengers)
  • Vermont (technically independent, but whatever… Sanders is loved in his state, loved by Democrats, and totally safe)
  • Minnesota (Senator Klobachar is one of the most popular Senators in the country)
  • Maryland (Maryland GOP has no pulse at all)
  • Delaware (Same as Maryland, and Senator Carper is well known and popular)
  • California (red wave stopped at walls of California in 2010, unlikely to be any better for GOP in 2012)

Likely Democratic Holds (7)

  • Rhode Island (consistant good polls for Democrats, only slightly competitive if there is a Republican nominee)
  • Michigan (strong poll results, but I make this “likely” due to bad economy in the state)
  • Washington (elections often not blow-outs in the state, but no serious Republican challenger)
  • Pennsylvania (no strong Republican challengers, Casey as support of moderates and independents, consistently good poll results)
  • Connecticut (Lieberman retiring is of course awesome news, and in a Dem v Rep battle, Dems are in good shape to win).
  • New Jersey (Polls show Sen Menendez with consistant leads, and no strong Republican challengers)
  • West Virginia (Senator Joe Manchin has his tough fight in 2010, and is unlikely to have a serious challenger again after a decent win in a red year)

Lean Democratic Holds (4)

  • Ohio (Sherrod Brown has sported respectable approval ratings, and has strong single digit or double digit leads over his opponents.  No doubt helped by flaws for Republican challengers, and the negative approvals of Governor Kasich, Brown’s re-election prospects have continued to improve)
  • Florida (Senator Bill Nelson has led challengers in the polls throughout 2011, and his approval ratings show he can win over independent’s needed to secure re-election.  Rep Connie Mack’s entry took this from likely to lean Dem, but even Mack will have trouble overtaking Nelson in the polls.  Nelson has done a good job of attacking unpopular Governor Rick Scott, and can also hit Mack for being part of the Republican house caucus, a group that has pretty low approval ratings right now)
  • New Mexico (While its an open seat, democrats retain around a 7 point lead in the polls, and with Obama likely to win the state (up by 15 in latest polls), I’d say Dems are in a good position to hold this seat).
  • Hawaii (Democrats are only in trouble if Democrat Ed Case gets the nomination, where he could fall to the former Republican Governor who is running.  However, Case likely won’t win, and with Obama on the top of the ballot, I’m pretty confident in this race)

Lean Democratic GAIN (1)

  • Massachusetts (Democrats got a big win when Elizabeth Warren announced she would run against Scott Brown, who seemed to be avoiding major challengers until that point.  Warren has proven to be a great campaigner, strong fundraiser, and great as articulating the liberal vision.  Polls show Warren with a lead of a few points, to high single digits, with the latest having her close to 50%.  Brown has a tough state to hold his seat in, and with Obama on the ballot, and Warren likely to tie Brown’s voting record around him, I think Warren is the favorite to take the seat)

Tossup Democratic Seats

  • North Dakota (Everyone thought N. Dakota was out of range for Democrats to hold on to when Kent Conrad announced he was retiring.  However, Democrats got former state AG Heidi Heitkamp to run for the seat, while Republicans have Congressmen Rick Berg.  Problem for Republicans is that Berg has bad approvals (as does congress has a whole), while Heitkamp has decent approvals.  Polls show back and forth leads for both sides.  Democrats do have the issue that Obama is unlikely to do well in the state, which could drag down the Senate race.  Regardless, this is not the blowout Democrats feared and Republicans hoped)
  • Missouri (Senator Clair McCaskill won a tough and close race in 2006, and this race will be just as tight.  Polls have small leads or losses for the Democrat, and with Obama aiming for the state, it will be a big battleground)
  • Virginia (this is a battle of heavyweights in a state Obama will be aiming to win in his re-election.  Former Governor Tim Kaine will take on former Senator George “Macaca” Allen, who lost this seat in 2006 after the famous Macaca incident.  Polls show a dead heat, with Kaine pulling a lead in a recent poll)
  • Montana (Like McCaskill of Missouri, Jon Tester won a tight race in 2006, and has a tough challenge from the state’s at-large Congressman.  It will be a tough fight, and with Obama unlikely to come as close to a win in the state has he did in 2008, Tester has to work hard to win)
  • Nebraska (this race will go to deep red really quick if Bob Kerry doesn’t run for the seat.  Its a tough seat. a tough state.  Not much more to say till we see if Kerrey runs)
  • Wisconsin (this will be a hard fought fight, Democratic congresswoman Tammy Baldwin is the presumptive Democratic nominee, and has liberals united strong behind her.  Baldwin is ranked the most liberal congressperson in the house, and gay rights groups no doubt want to help her get elected the first GLBT Senator.  The likely Republican in Tommy Thompson.  Thompson led Baldwin by 2 points in an October poll.  However, Thompson is at risk to a primary from his right, and the race is early, with Baldwin having limited name recognition.)

Tossup Republican Seats

  • Nevada (Democrats have a shot at winning the Nevada seat, with Senator Dean Heller having gotten the job via appointment.  He is challenged by Congresswoman Shelly Berkley, who is tied or narrowly leads Heller in the polls.  Obama will aim to win Nevada again in 2012, and the Hispanic community will go Democratic for sure.  The only question is will the lagging economy in Nevada bring down Democratic hopes in the state.
  • Arizona (While Democrats thought only Congresswoman Gabriel Giffords could put the seat in play for Democrats.  However, polling shows that Democrat, and former Surgeon General Richard Carmona, is pulling only two points behind Republican Jeff Flake.  The controversial actions of Republican Governor Jan Brewer could drag down Republicans, and Obama seems to have a shot at winning the state depending on the nominee and how the next year goes.  Its early in this race, time will tell.

This gives Democrats 48 seats with 8 undecided.  Democrats will only need to win 2 or 3 of the 8 to hold control of the Senate, not so bad, and doable.  Now, lets try and narrow that field down a little further and eliminate some swing seats.

I took other factors into account to try and make decisions on the last 8 swing seats, and came up with a new map.

I narrowed the map down even further with 3 seats, 2 went to Democrats, and 1 went Republican, lets take a closer look.  I did so by doing my best to take into account the over-arching factors involved in the remaining races, however, several races are too undeveloped to narrow beyond “tossup”

Democrats

  • Nevada (while the polls are a dead heat, I think certain factors give Congresswoman Berkley an edge of Senator Heller.  First off, the hispanic population has no love for the GOP right now, which will help all Democrats of Nevada in 2012.  In addition, I am inclined to believe that the polling problems of 2010 are still evident now.  What I am talking about is the pollsters not tapping into the spanish-speaking population, a population the goes Democratic.  The Harry Reid campaign’s internal polling had Reid winning his seat while everyone else saw him losing because of this key overlook of the Spanish speaking population.  In addition, Reid built up a powerful election machine for his 2010 seat, and will no doubt use it to help Berkley get the seat from Heller.  The ground game will be a big boost for Democrats in Nevada in 2012.
  • Virginia (I have been saying this for about a year now, George Allen is weak in Virginia.   He has been damaged by the “macaca” incident and his voting record in congress, and in every hypothetical poll done, couldn’t get to 50% even with the weakest challengers.  Kaine will benefit from a recent and good run as Governor, and Obama’s decent numbers in the state.  At the end, I think this will be close, but Kaine winning seems to be the likely bet.

Republicans

  • Nebraska (even if Bob Kerrey runs, we will have tough fight to hold this seat, and I am not sure Kerrey will run, and I think he won’t if I had to make a call.)

Remaining Tossups

  • Arizona (this race is too new and undeveloped to really make a strong call either way on how it can go.  I need more polling and need to see if Obama will make a move for the state to get a better feeling about the race)
  • Montana (I almost made this a Republican gain, as Tester has been down by 2 points for two polls in a row, but I believe Tester’s centrist image and good approvals can pay off against a Republican who can be tied to his unpopular leadership in the house.  This is a race with two popular opponents, and is gonna be close all the way till election day)
  • North Dakota (Like Arizona, this race needs more polls and more details, but I really think it could be a sleeper where Democrats can hold the seat thanks to a flawed Republican candidate.  Still too early to tell)
  • Missouri (This is gonna be close up and till election day.  A bitter GOP primary could help McCaskill, while Obama could be a problem for her if he doesn’t do well in this state that he lost in 2008.  When the Republican primary is done, I’d have  a better understanding of the edge for either side in this race)
  • Wisconsin (My big question is when the recall for Governor Scott Walker takes place in 2012.  I am worried that is a recall happens in the spring/summer, it could burn out the money and energy of local democrats, while a loss at the recall booth could be a body blow, and win could cause Democrats to be less enthusiastic about voting in November.  However, if the recall is IN November, this creates a great show for Democrats to have alot of enthusiasm for November (Senate, Pres, and Gov recall).  How the recall moves forward could have dramatic effects on this Senate race, which will be close if Tommy Thompson is the Republican nominee.)

Conclusion

So where does this leave us, well I stress that predictions one year out can be hard and can change.  In 2010, Democrats didn’t think Russ Feingold was at risk in Wisconsin, and in 2008 Republicans didn’t think North Carolina was at risk, but actions by their opposing parties and nation wilds changed all the predictions.  However, what this article aims to combat is this notion that Democrats are almost sure to lose the Senate due to the sheer numbers.  This article shows that Democrats likely have at least 48 seats, and another 2 or 3 can easily be attained from the 8 toss-up races.  Democrats with the right allocation of resources and willingness to play a little offense in at least Nevada and Massachusetts give them a decent shot at holding the Senate.  The rumors of their doom are greatly exaggerated.

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