When pundits began sizing up the battle for control of the U.S. Senate, most favored Republicans to gain control of the chamber. This wasn’t exactly going out on a limb; Republicans gained seven seats in 2010 and need to flip just four in 2012 — indeed, if Mitt Romney wins the presidency, they could control the Senate with just three more votes. Given that Democrats were defending 23 seats, while Republicans were defending just 10, it seemed highly unlikely that Democrats could manage to hold onto control of the Senate, even if President Barack Obama managed to win re-election.
But as Vizzini found out, inconceivable does not always mean what one thinks it means. As the election has moved off paper and onto the campaign trail, Republicans have found themselves facing an increasingly uphill climb if they hope to take power in the Senate for the first time since 2007. Indeed, Democrats now have a reasonably good chance of actually gaining seats in the Senate, something dismissed as nigh-impossible not long ago.
How have Democrats managed to gain the inside track? It’s a combination of unforced errors by the GOP and savvy politics by the Democrats.
Extremism Hurts GOP
Democrats have benefited tremendously from the GOP’s lurch to the right. One Republican seat now leaning Democratic is in Indiana, where Republicans defenestrated Sen. Dick Lugar in favor of very conservative State Treasurer Richard Mourdock.
Mourdock ousted the “too moderate” Lugar in the primary, and pledged to fight a bitter struggle against Democrats. “I hope to build a conservative majority in the U.S. Senate so bipartisanship becomes Democrats joining Republicans to roll back the size of government,” Mourdock said, embracing the take-no-prisoners ethos of the Tea Party.
Not surprisingly, moderates in Indiana balked at a candidate actively opposed to reaching across the aisle. Rep. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., holds a narrow lead over Mourdock, and is slightly favored to take a seat held by Lugar since 1977.
Meanwhile, extremism has hurt the chances of GOP pickups in two winnable states. When Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., announced that he was retiring, few gave Democrats much hope of holding the seat. The race has been much closer than expected, however, with former State Treasurer Heidi Heitkamp neck-in-neck with freshman Rep. Rick Berg, R-N.D. While polling has been hard to come by, recent internal polls by the Heitkamp campaign show her ahead, as did a June Mason-Dixon poll. Only Rasmussen has shown Berg ahead since the primary.
Of course, the biggest giveaway of a pick-up opportunity for the Republicans was in Missouri, where few gave Sen. Claire McCaskill much of a chance of winning reelection. Fortunately for McCaskill, Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., demonstrated that his parents probably should have been more clear about where babies come from. Since Akin declared that women can’t get pregnant from “legitimate rape,” the race has gone from a sure lose to a likely win for McCaskill, who has consistently led Akin since September.
Incumbent Women Running Strong
It’s not just McCaskill who’s likely to return to the Senate. Democrats have also benefited from the strength of their female candidates running for reelection.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, DFL-Minn., is running in a state that gave Sen. Al Franken, DFL-Minn., a win by less than a thousand votes in 2008. Right now, she’s running 26 points ahead of State Rep. Kurt Bills, R-Farmington. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., holds a 16-point lead over Rep. Pete Hoekstra, R-Mich., who thought it would be a good idea to launch his campaign with a racist ad. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., holds a 16-point lead. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., holds a 23-point lead. And Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., holds a ridiculous 39-point lead over challenger Wendy Long.
These races haven’t just helped Democrats by taking potential pick-ups off the table. They’ve also helped by allowing Democrats to focus their energy on tight races in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Indiana, Virginia and Arizona. Every dollar Democrats don’t have to spend in Minnesota can be spent somewhere else. The strength of female Democratic senators is helping the party as a whole.
Close Races Breaking for Democrats
There are still some very close races, of course. In Massachusetts, Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., has used his reputation as a moderate to try to hold off a stiff challenge by Elizabeth Warren. Former DNC Chair Tim Kaine is having to hold off a stiff challenge from former Sen. George Allen to hold on to the seat being vacated by Sen. Jim Webb. In Wisconsin, Rep. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., faces a tough challenge from former Gov. Tommy Thompson. In Connecticut, Rep. Chris Murphy is facing a tough fight from WWE executive Linda McMahon.
All of those races are very close, but at the moment, all lean toward Democrats. In Wisconsin, that lean is starting to get close to solid. Add in Montana, where Sen. John Tester, D-Mont., has pulled into a tie with Denny Rehberg, and Democrats are in very good shape.
GOP Path to Majority Narrow
Republicans now face an electoral map that is very unfriendly to them. Right now, only one state appears certain to flip into the GOP column — Nebraska, where State Rep. Deb Fischer, R-Valentine, appears likely to defeat former Sen. Bob Kerrey. Unfortunately for Republicans, that gain is offset by a likely win in Maine by former Gov. Angus King, who is running as an independent but who is expected to caucus with Democrats.
In order to win control of the Senate, Republicans will have to win all the toss-up states — Nevada, Montana, and Arizona — left on the board. In addition they’ll have to win at least three (and given the state of the presidential race, probably four) lean-Democrat seats. Even if Republicans manage to right the ship and hold on to Indiana, and even if Berg manages to beat Heitkamp in North Dakota, Republicans still have to find a way to win two of the three closest remaining states — Massachusetts (where Elizabeth Warren leads by about 4 percent), Connecticut (Where Murphy is up by 1-2 percent), and Virginia (where Kaine leads by more than 5 percent).
It’s a daunting task, and at this point, it’s just as likely that Democrats will manage to win in Arizona or Montana or Nevada (or all three), and end up expanding their majority to 55 or 56 seats. That result seemed inconceivable not long ago. Today it seems likely.
Image Credit: Gaffke Photography