Commentary Magazine


Topic: 2012 Senate Election

Presidential Race Will Determine Senate

Outlets like Politico continue to write about the race to control the Senate as one in which the Republicans have blown their chance to win an easy victory. It’s true that sure GOP wins have been lost. The Todd Akin fiasco will probably cost them a once-sure pickup of a seat in Missouri and Olympia Snowe’s decision to retire will likely mean a pickup for the Democrats. But a look at Real Clear Politics’ Senate map shows that there’s still plenty of doubt as to whether it will be Harry Reid or Mitch McConnell sitting in the majority leader’s chair next January. With 12 races rated as a tossups and with a Florida seat now called as a likely Democratic win, though still competitive, this is no time for either side to be making assumptions about the outcome on Election Day. Each race needs to be judged on its own merits and the particular circumstances in that state, but the impact of the presidential race will be crucial.

The odds are there will be no partisan sweep like the midterm victories of the Republicans in 1994 and 2010 or the Democrats in 2006. Nor does is seem likely that either presidential candidate will have the kind of coattails that will create a landslide that will radically affect the composition of Congress. But that doesn’t mean the fates of President Obama and Mitt Romney won’t materially impact the various Senate races. With so many Senate races too close to call, the ability of either candidate to create any kind of a groundswell down the ticket will probably be the difference. Though there are too many variables to be sure of anything this year, the party that wins the White House is likely to be the one that controls the Senate as well.

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Outlets like Politico continue to write about the race to control the Senate as one in which the Republicans have blown their chance to win an easy victory. It’s true that sure GOP wins have been lost. The Todd Akin fiasco will probably cost them a once-sure pickup of a seat in Missouri and Olympia Snowe’s decision to retire will likely mean a pickup for the Democrats. But a look at Real Clear Politics’ Senate map shows that there’s still plenty of doubt as to whether it will be Harry Reid or Mitch McConnell sitting in the majority leader’s chair next January. With 12 races rated as a tossups and with a Florida seat now called as a likely Democratic win, though still competitive, this is no time for either side to be making assumptions about the outcome on Election Day. Each race needs to be judged on its own merits and the particular circumstances in that state, but the impact of the presidential race will be crucial.

The odds are there will be no partisan sweep like the midterm victories of the Republicans in 1994 and 2010 or the Democrats in 2006. Nor does is seem likely that either presidential candidate will have the kind of coattails that will create a landslide that will radically affect the composition of Congress. But that doesn’t mean the fates of President Obama and Mitt Romney won’t materially impact the various Senate races. With so many Senate races too close to call, the ability of either candidate to create any kind of a groundswell down the ticket will probably be the difference. Though there are too many variables to be sure of anything this year, the party that wins the White House is likely to be the one that controls the Senate as well.

The fact there are an almost unprecedented number of competitive Senate races this year is a function of the Democrats’ big win in 2006 when they seized control of the upper house for the first time since 1994. That set up 2012 as a year in which they would have to defend far more seats than the Republicans, including some in states like Virginia, Montana, and Missouri where they would be underdogs. Thanks to George Allen’s problems in recapturing his old mojo in Virginia and Todd Akin’s unfortunate discussion of pregnancy and rape, things aren’t lining up quite so easily for the Republicans.

However, this campaign may turn out to have as many pleasant surprises for the Republicans as it has disappointments.

Joe Lieberman’s old seat in Connecticut was thought to be a layup for the Democrats, but thanks to Linda McMahon’s unexpected strength and a weak Democrat like Chris Murphy, it may turn out to be a GOP pickup.

In Ohio, Democrat Sherrod Brown looked to be a shoe-in against young Josh Mandel, but the Republican’s staying power in the polls is scaring Democrats.

Even in blue Pennsylvania, the Democrats have their Senate worries. Bob Casey beat Rick Santorum by a whopping 18 percentage points in 2006, but now polls show him with a slim lead over largely unknown Tea Partier Tom Smith. The Republican may not be able to close that gap, but if Romney, who is also trailing by only a few points, gains more ground in the coming weeks, Smith may be dragged along with him.

All three of these states may wind up staying in the Democratic column, but a strong showing for Romney in all of these states is likely to give a boost to all those Republican candidates. Even though he won’t win Connecticut, if he makes it close, that could be enough to also make the difference for McMahon, who is running ahead of the top of the ticket right now. The same is true elsewhere. If Romney’s surge isn’t derailed by the last debate, it will be interesting to see whether he is able to create a tide that will lift all GOP boats. All 12 of those tossups and even the Florida seat that Bill Nelson looks to be holding onto right now are as much in play as the presidency itself. Which means there is a good chance that the next president, no matter whether his name is Obama or Romney, will be able to count on a slim majority in the Senate next year.

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Romney Isn’t Losing the Senate for the GOP

Republicans not otherwise occupied by the prospect of Mitt Romney slipping further behind President Obama have the option of being equally pessimistic about their party’s chances of retaking the Senate. A Politico feature and an analysis in the New York Times by blogger Nate Silver both highlight the raft of recent polls that show that the GOP’s once bright hopes of capturing the upper chamber from the Democrats have declined precipitately in the last month. But any attempt to pin the blame for this trend on the party’s presidential candidate is probably a mistake. There are states in which Romney will not help the rest of the ticket, but if Republicans wind up losing the Senate it will not be his fault alone.

That the odds have now shifted in favor of the Democrats retaining control of the Senate is not in dispute. As we all know, a certain GOP pickup in Missouri became a likely Democratic hold the moment Todd Akin opened his mouth to talk about rape victims. But the Akin fiasco highlights an important truth about imposing a national narrative on what is essentially a series of separate elections. Attempts to wrap a number of different races with different candidates in different states are almost always something of a stretch. When you break down what is happening in the various Senate races, what we are seeing often has more to do with local factors than with Romney’s problems.

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Republicans not otherwise occupied by the prospect of Mitt Romney slipping further behind President Obama have the option of being equally pessimistic about their party’s chances of retaking the Senate. A Politico feature and an analysis in the New York Times by blogger Nate Silver both highlight the raft of recent polls that show that the GOP’s once bright hopes of capturing the upper chamber from the Democrats have declined precipitately in the last month. But any attempt to pin the blame for this trend on the party’s presidential candidate is probably a mistake. There are states in which Romney will not help the rest of the ticket, but if Republicans wind up losing the Senate it will not be his fault alone.

That the odds have now shifted in favor of the Democrats retaining control of the Senate is not in dispute. As we all know, a certain GOP pickup in Missouri became a likely Democratic hold the moment Todd Akin opened his mouth to talk about rape victims. But the Akin fiasco highlights an important truth about imposing a national narrative on what is essentially a series of separate elections. Attempts to wrap a number of different races with different candidates in different states are almost always something of a stretch. When you break down what is happening in the various Senate races, what we are seeing often has more to do with local factors than with Romney’s problems.

Republicans came into 2012 with a decided advantage in the battle for the Senate, as Democrats had to defend 23 seats to the Republicans’ 10. Democratic seats in Nebraska and Missouri were seen as likely losses while six others were toss-ups.  On the GOP side of the aisle, only Scott Brown’s hold on Teddy Kennedy’s old seat in Massachusetts was considered questionable.

Since then, Olympia Snowe’s retirement has moved one GOP seat from a likely hold to a likely Democrat pickup. Along with the Akin fiasco in Missouri, Democrat seats in Florida and Hawaii that were seen as very competitive races are now starting to look like easy Democrat victories. But even if we accept those outcomes as set in stone, that still gives us a Senate tally that is current 48 likely Democrats and 44 likely Republicans, leaving eight seats that are still very much in play for both parties.

That means there is plenty of room for a number of different possible outcomes. But while the remaining tossups in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Virginia, Indiana, Wisconsin, North Dakota, Montana and Nevada are bound to be affected by the Obama-Romney battle, the outcome in each will be more a function of the individual candidate’s strengths than any coattail or drag effect coming from the top of the ticket.

If Romney does fade in the final weeks, the assumption is that the impact in the two New England battlegrounds where Republicans never expected to win at the presidential level, Connecticut and Massachusetts, could be disastrous. But both Linda McMahon (who has put a Connecticut seat in play that most had assumed was safe for the Democrats) and Scott Brown are already running on the assumption that ticket-splitting Democrats are the key to victory. If anything, the perception that Obama is a shoe-in could help rather than hurt them since it would put less pressure on wavering Democrats to stay in the fold.

If Republican hopefuls are fading down the stretch in other tossup states, it will be equally hard to pin their troubles on Romney. The inability of GOP challengers in North Dakota and Montana to oust seemingly vulnerable Democratic incumbents in red states has to do with their own weaknesses, not those of Romney. In Nevada, the problem may be the resilience of Democrat Shelley Berkley, whose popularity seems to have withstood an ethics investigation, even though Republican Dean Heller still holds a small lead. And in Indiana, the failure of Tea Party favorite Richard Mourdock, who ousted longtime GOP incumbent Richard Lugar in a primary, to win over independents has placed that seat in jeopardy for the Republicans, though they are still ahead there.

That leaves two seats where the Romney factor might be decisive.

Both Wisconsin and Virginia are presidential tossups. Currently President Obama leads in both and it is arguable that his strength is helping Tammy Baldwin and Tim Kaine stay ahead of Tommy Thompson and George Allen. Should the Democrats win both these seats it will be reasonable to assume that distaste for Romney and enthusiasm for Obama helped make the difference there.

However, even there the results will be more about the inability of Thompson and Allen to seal the deal with voters than anything Romney does.

When there is a decisive result in Congressional and Senate races, the impulse is to always assume a national trend. But even in years when there is such a trend, such as 1994, 2006 or 2010, it is important to remember that such party victories are usually the aggregate result of an assortment of local factors more than one national issue. That’s why a Republican failure to take the Senate this year will have a lot more to do with Akin, Allen and Thompson than it does with Romney.

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