Washington Matters


GOP Gains in Bid to Retake Senate

Richard Sammon

More Democratic seats are in play as Republicans gain momentum.



Republican gains in the Senate are certain in November, but can the GOP retake control? It’s possible if they can build on the momentum of recent months. Democrats are already bracing for losses, but with a 59-41 edge, they remain cautiously optimistic about holding on.

To win back the Senate, Republicans require a broad national wave of anti-Washington and anti-incumbent voter sentiment come November. That’s just what produced the shock wave of the special election victory of Scott Brown (R) in Massachusetts and GOP wins in the Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial races late last year. In all three contests, independent voters leaned strikingly toward the GOP. That augurs well for Republican prospects.

A slow economic recovery, marked by months yet of high unemployment, flat wages, more home foreclosures and business retrenchment, is helping to fuel voter anxiety. All indicators point to an election that will be nationalized in theme and rooted in voter angst two years into the Obama presidency. Add to it the lack of a spirited Democratic base or the presence of a large Internet-based effort that marked President Obama’s 2008 campaign.

We give Republicans a one in three chance of winning a majority. Our review of the field shows that the GOP would need to score just about every lucky break to pick up the 10 seats they need. That’s a tall order, but not unprecedented. In the last half century there has been a shift of at least 10 seats only once, in the 1980 election led by Ronald Reagan. But in that historic election, Democrats were defending 24 of 34 Senate seats. Of the 36 seats up this year, 18 are currently held by Democrats and 18 by Republicans. As many as 20 races could be decided by single digits.

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A GOP Senate would upend almost every large Democratic policy initiative. Senate Republican leaders would control the Senate floor, deciding which bills even came up for a vote. That would make it almost impossible --instead of just very difficult -- for Obama to put his mark on health care, energy, immigration and the federal budget. It would also give Republicans the launching ground to set and promote a full GOP agenda ahead of the 2012 elections. Even if they don’t regain the majority, Republicans are bound to narrow the margin of power significantly, forcing a weaker Democratic caucus to scale back legislative goals and seek Republican support in order to pass anything of import. Obama would have extremely few legislative victories.

Figure on four or five GOP pickups of seats currently held by Democrats. North Dakota. The open seat race caused by the retirement of Sen. Byron Dorgan (D) is a solid bet for Republicans with popular Republican Gov. John Hoeven running for the vacancy.

Delaware. Moderate Republican Mike Castle, a former governor and the state’s single House representative, looks good to win the seat once held by Vice President Joe Biden. The decision by Biden’s son, state Attorney General Beau Biden, not to run moves this race into likely Republican territory.

Illinois. Rep. Mark Kirk, the GOP nominee, has very good odds of beating state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias (D) and replacing appointed Sen. Roland Burris, who is not running. The seat was previously held by Obama. Giannoulias has several ethics issues weighing down his candidacy.

Arkansas. Incumbent Democrat Blanche Lincoln is running against a GOP tide in Arkansas. She has tilted right, especially on spending and the deficit, health care and energy, but her approval rating is still well below 50%. A large Republican field of candidates, including Rep. John Boozman, is assembled for the May 18 primary.

Colorado. Incumbent Michael Bennet (D), who never held elected office before and was appointed to the Senate, can count on a tight race if he manages to survive a stiff primary challenge from former state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff. The winner will likely face former Lieutenant Governor Jane Norton, who is leading a large field of Republican candidates. The party primaries are Aug. 10.

Nevada. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D) is struggling and sinking in statewide approval ratings. He’s arguably the largest target for Republicans. Reid still has some advantages: He may spend $25 million to $30 million in the race, a remarkable amount for a small-population state, and the GOP field is scattered and weak. But Reid faces a very tough contest.

Indiana. Democratic incumbent Evan Bayh, a key centrist in the caucus, is playing a defensive campaign early on, distancing himself from Obama and mainstream Democrats. He may face a challenge from former GOP Sen. Dan Coats, though Coats will have to overcome unfavorable publicity calling attention to the fact that he’s a registered lobbyist and now votes in Virginia.

Pennsylvania. Incumbent Sen. Arlen Specter, who switched parties to become a Democrat in part to avoid a very difficult GOP primary against former Rep. Pat Toomey, is in plenty of political difficulty. Even before he goes up against Toomey in the general election, Specter faces a tough May 18 Democratic primary against Rep. Joe Sestak, a former Navy admiral. Toomey is probably more conservative than the largely moderate and centrist state, but he is well financed and already has a large statewide organization.

California. Incumbent Barbara Boxer (D) can count on a strong turnout of liberal supporters in the largest and most populous state in the nation. She may encounter trouble, though, from either Republican Carly Fiorina, former CEO of Hewlett-Packard and cochair of John McCain’s presidential run, or from former Rep. Tom Campbell. Boxer has the advantage for now, but the race could tighten by November.

Keep an eye on three more states with seats now held by Democrats. They don’t face strong opposition yet, but that could change in the next few months as Republicans look to recruit competitive challengers. Incumbents Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, Patty Murray of Washington and Ron Wyden of Oregon could each face closer races than they currently envision. Republicans have their own, albeit smaller, set of vulnerable seats, mostly in these four open seat races. Any losses will make it that much harder to inch closer to the majority.

Missouri. Rep. Roy Blunt, who’s trying to move over to the Senate, faces a strong Democratic opponent in state Secretary of State Robin Carnahan, the daughter of former Sen. Jean Carnahan and late Gov. Mel Carnahan. Missouri is almost evenly split in party registration.

Kentucky. Democrats have at least even odds of a pickup here. Either Lieutenant Governor Dan Mongiardo or state Attorney General Jack Conway will face the likely Republican nominee, Trey Grayson, Kentucky’s secretary of state, to replace retiring Sen. Jim Bunning.

New Hampshire. The GOP will have trouble holding the seat of Judd Gregg, who is retiring. Democratic Rep. Paul Hodes will likely face Republican state Attorney General Kelly Ayotte, who was appointed to her position and has never before run for public office. The early advantage goes to Hodes, who polls well with the state’s numerous independents.

Florida. Republicans have better than even odds for now to retain this open seat, either with Gov. Charlie Crist or with former state House Majority Leader Marco Rubio, the favorite of conservatives. The primary is Aug. 4. Democrats are likely to nominate Rep. Kendrick Meek, who could be helped considerably if Republicans remain sharply divided after what is shaping up to be a brutal primary contest.

Two Republican incumbents who have an edge now still bear watching in what could be close reelection efforts: Richard Burr of North Carolina and David Vitter of Louisiana.




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