If the contours of the Republican presidential race remain fuzzy, the picture of the coming battle to control Congress is decidedly more clear: Democrats face a brutal uphill battle in retaining control of the Senate next fall, one that was only made more complicated this week when conservative Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson decided to retire rather than seek re-election.
The fundamentals are all wrong for the Democrats hoping to maintain their already-narrow 53-47 majority in the world’s most deliberative body. With 33 seats up for election, they have 23 of their own spots to defend to the Republicans’ 10. What’s more, Dems are suffering a litany of retirements in GOP-leaning states, and there are few ripe opportunities for them to snag seats currently held by the other party.
With Nelson’s retirement, many are writing off Nebraska as a pick-up for the GOP. Ditto in North Dakota, where Democrat Kent Conrad is retiring. Retirements in other states like Connecticut, New Mexico, and Hawaii are less damaging, as Dems have a good shot at retaining their seats in more friendly territory.
Of course, Barack Obama will be at the top of the national ticket, and in swing states like Virginia and Nevada, where he boosted minority and youth turnout to defy history and win by impressive margins in 2008, Democratic Senate candidates hope to ride his coattails to victory.
In Virginia, former Governor Tim Kaine won a majority in 2005 by cultivating a centrist image in the mold of his predecessor, former Governor and now Senator Mark Warner. He tried to appeal to the blue-collar white conservatives in the Southwest of the state, and touted his strong support for gun rights.
Having wholeheartedly embraced the Obama White House from his perch as chair of the Democratic National Committee, however, Kaine’s strategy this time around is likely to mirror Obama’s: rack up big margins in Northern Virginia and the Tidewater region, do well in Richmond and other metropolitan areas, and limit the slaughter everywhere else in the state. Polls show Kaine running slightly of or dead even with former Senator George Allen, who hopes to overcome his infamous “macaca” incident and get a second crack at political life.
In Nevada, Las Vegas Congresswoman Shelley Berkley is a shoe-in for the Democratic nomination to take on Dean Heller, the former U.S. representative who was appointed to replace John Ensign when an adultery and bribery scandal forced him to resign earlier this year. Despite Obama winning the state by double digits in 2008, early polls find Berkley and Heller neck-and-neck. Her challenge will be to break out from her Clark County stronghold; Obama won big there but also took Washoe County in the west, a 55 percent margin of victory there mirroring his statewide total.
Wisconsin, scene of raucous labor protests in February that helped pave the way for the Occupy Wall Street movement, has a seat opening up with the retirement of Democrat Herb Kohl. Progressive champion Tammy Baldwin is sure to win the Democratic nod, and former Governor Tommy Thompson is the likely Republican candidate. This one is a tough call, with a popular and experienced former governor trying to get back into the game facing off against a young (openly gay) liberal who stands for change and progress in a state that may (or may not) be experiencing a labor resurgence. Since Obama is likely to carry the state, and Scott Walker has fired up the labor community with his anti-union theatrics, Baldwin has a great opportunity here.
A new twist to the Senate races will be the Super PACs that have sprung up in the wake of Citizens United and other court rulings invalidating campaign finance restrictions. These independent, privately funded committees can accept unlimited donations and as long as they do not directly coordinate with candidates, can be as effectively supportive of individual politicians as they like.
“The question about the money and Super PACS is: Can Democrats keep up?” said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor with the Cook Political Report, which closely tracks Senate races. “Initial reports are that they’re struggling, but we’ll see what happens when things get more serious [down the road].”
Though Super PACs have mostly received attention thus far in the context of the Republican presidential race, they are certain to spend big in the marquee Senate campaigns. Perhaps nowhere will they leave a greater mark than in Massachusetts, where consumer advocate and Wall Street reformer Elizabeth Warren is already locked in what promises to a brutal slugfest with incumbent Republican Senator Scott Brown.
So far, Karl Rove-backed American Crossroads GPS has spent over a million dollars attacking Warren for being too close to ‘Occupy’ protesters and also to Wall Street bankers at the same time. Environmental groups have spent millions of their own criticizing Brown’s record on their issues.
In Ohio, Republicans and supportive Super PACs have spent big attacking Sen. Sherrod Brown, but the victory of unions and progressives in overturning Governor John Kasich’s anti-union law — and early polls — suggest he’s likely to edge State Treasurer Josh Mandel.
Montana sees Jon Tester, the first-term Democrat, take on Representative Denny Rehberg. This will be a tight face, and Tester won’t have much help from Obama, who is unlikely to seriously contest the state. Also hurting Tester is that Rehberg’s voting record is less easily pigeonholed than he (and his admakers) might like: Rehberg voted against Paul Ryan’s Medicare privatization scheme.
Florida‘s race pits incumbent Bill Nelson against Congressman Connie Mack — or perhaps a Tea Party insurgent. Nelson has weak approval numbers but does well in head-to-head match-ups. He’ll likely need the president’s reputed 2008 get-out-the-vote operation to boost Latino and black turnout again if he’s to comfortably get past the finish line.
Finally, Claire McCaskill, a moderate first-term Democrat in Missouri, hopes to win another term. Obama came up short in the Show-Me state last time, and his campaign is unlikely to make as aggressive a push there next fall. McCaskill is also sure to face repeated attacks over revelations she used taxpayer money for private plane travel. On the other hand, Republicans have a divided primary field and will need to coalesce around a nominee to focus their fire on McCaskill, who has proved an effective campaigner in a red state.
The overall picture, then, is one of Democrats on the defensive.
“The thing about the Browns, McCaskills, Testers, they won races in 2006 under optimal circumstances,” said Duffy. “And those circumstances aren’t gonna be there this time. They’re really gonna have to win this thing on their own.”
Without an unpopular Republican president to run against, Democratic Senate candidates will have to decide how closely to align themselves with Barack Obama.
The best national Democrats can hope for is to narrowly hang on to a majority, possibly with the help of Vice President Biden, who can vote with them to break 50-50 ties, including the vote to keep Nevada Senator Harry Reid as Majority Leader. What this means is that an Obama victory (and the slim possibility Democrats will win the House) will once again be overshadowed by gridlock in the upper chamber. 60 votes — the minimum needed to end debate and bring legislation to a vote — remains the name of the game, and it is nearly certain Democrats will be even further from that number in January, 2013.
“There are 4 races that may divide the majority: Nevada, Montana, Virginia, and Massachusetts,” added Duffy. “The races started in the margin of error, and they’re going to end that way. And you’re going to see incredible amounts of money spent by outside groups. There will be TVs flying out windows by October.”