Last time, we talked about the losing campaign of Mexican-American presidential candidate Willard M. Romney. This time, let’s look through the other losing prospect facing Republicans — control of the U.S. Senate. Over the summer, especially prior to the conventions, back in June and July, all the speculation was that the GOP would wrest control of the Senate away from the Democrats. They needed to pick up four seats to do so. And initially, the math seemed to favor at least taking the idea seriously. There are 23 Democratic seats up for grabs in the Senate, and only 10 Republican ones. In addition, far more Democratic senators are retiring than Republicans, meaning the Dems have to defend more open seats. But that math no longer seems to matter when you compare it to the actual races and current events that have put some of these supposedly competitive races out of reach. Let’s run through these 33 races and see where we stand.
First, a great many of these seats aren’t real races. Because of statewide demographics, the incumbent will win, unless something staggering happens between now and the election. (We cannot rule out some Larry Craig-style implosion, but let’s just assume nothing like that will happen between now and the election.) So, of the Democrats’ 23 seats, California, Delaware, Hawaii, Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington, and West Virginia are all gimmes. That’s a dozen no-shows for the GOP. Some of these should have been competitive — West Virginia absolutely loathes Obama and he has no chance of victory there — but weak Republican candidates and other priorities for the money men of the GOP have put these seats out of competition. Meanwhile, on the Republican side, Mississippi, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, and Wyoming are all essentially done and over.
That leaves 10 Democratic seats and five Republican seats worth talking about. Now, a couple of these are actually gimme pickups for the other side. In Nebraska, retiring Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson left a very conservative state, and even former Democratic governor and senator Bob Kerrey stands no chance there, even though the Republican primary resulted in a victory for the outsider, tea party candidate, which often means a closer race or even a handout to the Democrats as mainstream, moderate voters flee from some mouth-breathing weirdo. (Think 2010′s Nevada Senate race, in which Harry Reid took apart Sharon Angle. We’ll also see the results of this later in this post, in races in Indiana and Missouri.) But in Nebraska, tea party-favored candidate and state senator Deb Fischer beat state attorney general Jon Bruning in the GOP primary and will still likely go on to an easy victory. This says a lot about how conservative Nebraska has become, certainly, but it also says a lot about Fischer as a candidate. She has managed to avoid the verbal diarrhea that has doomed so many other tea party candidates. (See: The aforementioned Angle and her “Second Amendment remedies,” this year’s Missouri race, featuring Todd Akin and his “legitimate rape” comment, and many, many others.)
So the Republicans have an easy pickup there. But the Democrats have one too. Over in Maine, Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe announced her retirement, and her seat will almost certainly be filled by former governor, independent candidate Angus King. King has said he won’t caucus with either party, but anyone who understands how the Senate works would recognize that as being very, very stupid. If King wants a committee assignment, if he actually wants to participate in the legislative process, he will have to caucus. Otherwise, he will be useless to Mainers and the country at large. And given his record, when he does finally caucus, it’ll be with the Dems.
So, one Democratic pickup and one Republican pickup. No harm, no foul. We’re down to nine Democratic seats, and four Republicans. Let’s go down the list of Democratic seats, in alphabetical order. Then we’ll check out the Republicans.
Connecticut: After Linda McMahon won the GOP primary, she enjoyed a sudden bounce that, for a couple weeks in late August and early September, even put her above Democrat Chris Murphy in the race to replace retiring independent Sen. Joe Lieberman. But the most-recent polls in Connecticut show that the post-primary bounce has completely evaporated. McMahon is now almost exactly where she was before the Aug. 14 primary, at 42 percent of the electorate. Murphy has fallen a bit and has yet to bounce back, but he’s now ahead of McMahon.
Florida: Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, a moderate’s moderate if ever there was one, is running for re-election against Rep. Cornelius “No, really, my name’s Connie Mack” McGillicuddy IV. It’s a deeply purplish state, as we all know, and so a middle-of-the-road candidate like Nelson, loathed as he may be on both the left and the right, can carry the state. McGillicuddy, whose name is not, and never has been, Connie Mack, led briefly in a couple of Rasmussen polls back in July — and Rasmussen tends to skew in favor of Republicans. Since then, Nelson has led in every poll, and the most recent ones have him in double digits.
Michigan: Back toward the beginning of the cycle, a lot of people pinned Michigan as being one of the Republicans’ best possible pickups among seats controlled by Democrats, as opposed to seats where Democrats are retiring and leaving an open seat. Speculation reached a fevered pitch when a poll in mid-August by as Democratic-leaning pollster found that Republican Rep. Pete Hoekstra led Democratic incumbent Debbie Stabenow by two points. But before and after, it’s been all Stabenow, all the time. She leads reliably by double digits at this point.
Missouri: Ah, Missouri. Where Republican dreams of Senate control come to die. From January through August, almost every single poll out of Missouri had Rep. Todd Akin ahead of Democratic incumbent Claire McCaskill by one to ten points. And then, the rape thing. The first poll taken after Rep. Akin put his foot in his mouth, from Rasmussen, had McCaskill ahead by 10 points. The lead has mellowed a bit since then, but Akin hasn’t pulled ahead since then.
Montana: Democratic Sen. Jon Tester is running for re-election for the first time, having beaten gaffe-prone Conrad Burns in 2006, which was, as you’ll recall, a pretty big year for Democrats. And even then, Sen. Tester only barely won. Now, he faces a re-election fight against Rep. Danny Rehberg. Due to Montana’s low population, it has just one House representative, meaning Rehberg has statewide name recognition, just like Tester. The polls have almost all been within the margin of error, but Rheberg has led in most of them. Call it a tossup, but give the edge to the GOP.
New Mexico: Because Democratic Sen. Jeff Bingaman retired, creating an open seat, this has been looked at as a possible pickup for the GOP. Two House representatives are competing for the seat, Republican Heather Wilson and Democrat Martin Heinrich. But New Mexico is a fairly Democratic state, and Wilson has trailed in every single poll, usually by between 5-10 points.
North Dakota: Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad is retiring, and the immediate assumption was that this, like Nebraska, was a Republican gimme. But the state’s lone congressman, Republican Rick Berg, has run into a surprisingly tough campaign at the hands of state attorney general Heidi Heitkamp. The edge still goes to Berg, but it’s a lot closer than people first thought.
Virginia: With Democratic Sen. Jim Webb retiring, former Republican Sen. George “Who, me? Racist?” Allen and former DNC Chairman and Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine are battling it out in a state that has only recently gone from reliably Republican to swing state as more and more Democratic voters have occupied the the northern part of the state, especially around D.C. The race has been essentially tied all year, but Kaine has now led every poll released in September, and Allen is going to get crucified with attack ads in the last month of the race. Republicans in Virginia need to come to accept the fact that Virginia is no longer the sort of state where one can toss out racial epithets, hang a noose in one’s office, and wrap oneself in the confederate flag and still get elected. Allen’s political career is finished, and the Virginia GOP needs to look for newer blood.
Wisconsin: Democratic Sen. Herb Kohl is retiring, leaving a void that will be filled by either Democratic Rep. Tammy Baldwin or former Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson. Thompson has the stink of Bush on him — he served as the former president’s Sec. of Health and Human Services — but he was always popular in Wisconsin and he led almost all of the polls there … until September. Now, in the most recent polls, Baldwin has a double-digit lead.
Overall, the Republicans could pick up two seats in North Dakota and Montana. And they could even pick up Virginia if I’m wrong about Virginia voters not being OK with an out racist as a senator. But they’re not picking up the four seats they need to take control of the Senate. And we haven’t even looked yet at the seats they have to defend.
For the Republicans:
Arizona: Republican Sen. Jon Kyl is retiring, and very conservative Rep. Jeff Flake is trying to replace him. The Democrats don’t have a lot of big names in the state, which has been Republican territory since the rise of Barry Goldwater back in the 1950s, and they’re relying on former surgeon general Richard Carmona. Even still, while Carmona has trailed in almost every poll taken, he has almost always been within five points.
Indiana: Here we have a fine example of what happens when Republican primary voters insist on nominating a complete whackadoo as their candidate. State treasurer Richard Mourdock unseated Republican institution Dick Lugar in the Republican primary, and now voters in Indiana, which is a reliably Republican state, are grappling with whether to send moderate Democratic Rep. Joe Donnelly to the Senate or else be represented by Mourdock, a man whose politics run just to the left of Mussolini. It says a lot about the state’s conservative bona fides that the race is essentially tied at this point.
Massachusetts: After the complete embarrassment of having a Republican replace Teddy K in the Senate, Massachusetts Democrats got serious and nominated populist candidate Elizabeth Warren, who may be the best thing to happen to Massachusetts politics since Joe Kennedy decided to get into bootlegging. It was a neck-and-neck competition — as in within one or two points — for most of the race, until Warren’s outstanding performance at the Democratic National Convention, which only gets better with repeated viewings. (In fact, my initial response to the speech was that Warren had lost a lot of what made her great, that she sounded too political.) Since then, Brown has trailed by about five points in almost every poll.
Nevada: With Sen. John Ensign having retired in disgrace, Rep. Dean Heller was installed as Nevada’s senator. Now, he faces his first election campaign as a senator against Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley. Nevada is a tossup state, and on occasion, it’s seemed as though the Republican Party here has been trying to lose. Between Ensign, Angle, and recently retired — and almost universally loathed — Republican Gov. Jim Gibbons, the GOP has had a hard time of it. With all of that in mind, it doesn’t come as much of a shock that polls of the Senate race here have almost all been within five points, with Heller barely leading in most cases.
In conclusion, Republican control of the Senate is a pipe dream. Even if they pick up North Dakota, Virginia, and Montana, it’s not enough — and that’s assuming they don’t lose Indiana, Nevada, or Massachusetts, which is a damned big assumption to make. After election day, it’ll be the status quo — a Democrat in the White House and a Democratic majority in the Senate. Next up: Let’s talk Democratic prospects of taking over the House. And then let’s laugh about them.