2012 was looking like a rough year for Senate Democrats.
They had to contend with retirements in hostile, Republican-leaning states, were facing a resurgent conservative movement nationally, and found themselves defending more seats than the GOP as they sought to preserve a tenuous 53-47 majority.
But in just a matter of days, things have started to look up in a major way.
First, there was the announcement from centrist Maine incumbent Republican Olympia Snowe that the polarization of Washington was too much: she had to retire. An impossible pick-up became a likely gain for Democrats in a state that leans their way in presidential election years.
Then came Bob Kerrey, the Democrat who was Nebraska governor and senator for some years, declaring he will seek the seat opening up from Democratic incumbent Ben Nelson’s retirement in that state, making an impossible hold plausible. And even if he comes up short, Kerrey’s candidacy will force the GOP (and its Super PAC allies) to spend millions on what would have been safe terrain.
Finally, there’s the politics of contraception throwing a wrench in Mitch McConnell’s Majority Leader dreams. The Blunt amendment, which was narrowly defeated by the Senate this week, would have allowed employers to deny contraceptive coverage to their female employees for basically any reason — presumably including spite — under the banner of “free speech” and the right to freely practice religious faith.
Scott Brown, the Republican senator facing a vigorous challenge from consumer advocate Elizabeth Warren, has seen his poll numbers rise over the past month or two as he has sought out moderate positions to the left of even some Democrats. But he voted for the amendment, and with moderate Republicans like Snowe voting no, he finds himself between a rock and a hard place, forced to explain to liberal Massachusetts voters why he sided with the extremists in his own party.
To be sure, the economy could still nosedive, and Republicans will come close to taking control of the upper chamber. But what was an uphill slog for Democrats has become a fairer fight, and with Barack Obama’s poll numbers recovering as well, November 2012 might not be so miserable for Dems after all.