Republicans Hold Edge In Battle For Senate Control
For two election cycles now, the Republican Party has seen the hope of regaining control of the Senate slip through its grasp after appearing to be close. In 2010, despite a wave election that brought a net change of 63 seats in the House of Representatives, Republicans fell short of retaking the body after devastating losses in 2006 and 2008 in no small part thanks to bad candidates in states like Delaware, Nevada, and Colorado. Two years later, with the GOP only four seats short of gaining the majority, Republicans actually ended up losing ground thanks to an election loss in Indiana and the fact that moderate Republican Olympia Snowe retired and was replaced by Angus King, an Independent who ended up caucusing with the Democrats. This year, Republicans face another opportunity to grab control of the upper chamber and, as Chris Cillizza notes, for the moment at least things seem to be looking quite favorable for them:
The Senate playing field has shifted in Republicans’ favor over the last several weeks thanks to recruiting successes in Colorado and New Hampshire, as well as a national political environment that looks increasingly treacherous for Democrats.
That shifting has led to rising confidence among Republican strategists about the party’s chances of retaking the six seats the party needs to regain the Senate majority in 2014.
“After the last two Senate elections, this will be the year Charlie Brown finally gets to kick the football,” predicted prominent Republican pollster Glen Bolger. “Republicans have more opportunities than they have in the past, the terrible candidates are not catching the better general-election candidates napping like they did in cases like Christine O’Donnell and Richard Mourdock, and the [National Republican Senatorial Committee] is doing a good job ensuring candidates have a stronger digital presence than GOPers have had in the past. And yes, in this analogy, Harry Reid is Lucy, crabby as ever.”
Even Democrats have begun to acknowledge the problems in the fight for the Senate — albeit privately.
“There is no doubt that the Senate outlook has deteriorated significantly in the past six weeks,” admitted a prominent Democratic strategist. “Between the map and the [Affordable Care Act's] unpopularity in the states on the map, it has gone from being a jump ball to advantage Republicans.”
Viewed broadly, there are now 11 Democratic-held seats in varying levels of peril — and 12 if you consider the Virginia seat held by Sen. Mark Warner. (Republicans argue Democratic-held seats in Oregon and Minnesota belong on that list as well.) That is a significant expansion of the playing field from even a few months ago — thanks largely to decisions by Rep. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) and former U.S. senator Scott Brown (R-Mass.) to run in Colorado and New Hampshire, respectively. In each case, races that were not considered competitive immediately became so thanks to Republican recruits. (Something similar happened in Virginia, where former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie’s candidacy gives Republicans a credible and serious candidate — although, unlike in New Hampshire and Colorado, there is almost no sign that Warner is in any trouble as of yet.)
That broader playing field matters for two big reasons. First, it gives Republicans a wider margin for error. They need a six-seat pickup and you’d much rather try to win six out of 12 than six out of six or seven. (Trying to run that sort of inside straight to the majority is where Republicans found themselves in 2012 — and they wound up lozzsing rather than gaining seats.) That means that even if Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D) wins in New Hampshire — and most polling shows her with a comfortable edge over Brown — Republicans have lots of other pathways to the majority. Second, a broader playing field — particularly in expensive media markets like Boston’s, which covers the southern half of New Hampshire, Denver and, possibly, Washington, D.C. — means that Senate Democrats and their corresponding outside groups will have their dollars stretched as they attempt to retain the majority. Remember that the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee’s prime mission is to reelect its incumbents; so, if the committee has to spend money in New Hampshire, Virginia and Colorado, that means less money for, say, the open seat in Georgia or Alison Lundergan Grimes’s challenge to Sen. Mitch McConnell in Kentucky.
And, it’s not simply that there are more Republican opportunities on the board. It’s that a closer look at the 11/12 competitive seats suggests that where and how the races are playing out makes the GOP’s hand even stronger. In three states — Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia — independent handicappers like Charlie Cook and Stu Rothenberg rate Republicans as favorites to take over. If you accept that premise — and we do, although Montana has the potential to be more competitive than the other two — that means Republicans must win three out the following eight states to win back the majority: Arkansas, Alaska, Colorado, Iowa, Louisiana, Michigan, New Hampshire and North Carolina.
Of those eight states, Mitt Romney carried four of them — Arkansas, Alaska, Louisiana and North Carolina — in his unsuccessful bid for president in 2012. He won 45 percent in Michigan in 2012 and 46 percent in Colorado, Iowa and New Hampshire. In short, none of this octet of states are solidly Democratic. And, if Republicans were only to win the states that Romney carried in 2012 – a reasonable prospect given the national political environment (more on that below) — they will be in the majority come 2015.
The 2014 midterms were looking favorable for Republicans all along, of course, thanks both to the fact that the Senators up for re-election this year were last elected in the Democratic wave election of 2008 and to the fact that many of those Senators are representing states that Mitt Romney won in 2012. Additionally, retirements in states such as Montana, South Dakota, and West Virginia along with favorable candidate selection virtually guarantee that at least those three states will be turning red in 2014. If that happens, it means that Republicans only need to flip three more states from blue to red out of a list that includes states such as Louisiana, Arkansas, Alaska, and North Carolina, all of which Romney won in 2012.
As I’ve noted in the past, though, up until now there wasn’t very much margin for error for Republicans in 2014. If the field of play is limited to those seven Romney 2012 states, then Republicans would need to win at least six of those states in order to gain control of the Senate, and then it would only be by a razor-thin margin of 51 seats to 49 seats. Additionally, such a scenario requires absolutely no losses of seats currently held by Republicans. This is an important proviso given the fact that there is at least the potential, albeit one that I consider unlikely, that Mitch McConnell could lose the Kentucky Senate race to Alison Lundergan Grimes, or that Michelle Nunn could defeat whomever the GOP nominates in Georgia. Even if the GOP ultimately ends up holding on to both those seats, the party will likely be required to engage resources there that otherwise could have been used in one of those seven Romney states.
If Cook, Cillizza, and others who have argued in recent weeks that the field of competitive Senate races is expanding are correct, then Republicans will be in a far better position than they would have been otherwise. Even if they don’t win states like Michigan, Iowa, Colorado, or New Hampshire, the fact that Democratic Senators in those states are now vulnerable means that they will be forcing Democrats and their supporters to devote resources on races that might have otherwise been safe. Additionally, a victory in one or more of these states reduces the need to nearly sweep those seven Romney 2012 states or potentially offsets the unlikely loss in Kentucky or Georgia.
So, yes, as things stand now it does appear that Republicans have a slight edge in the battle for the Senate in 2014. If they pull it off, it’s likely only to lead to a slight 52-48 majority, but that will be sufficient to create a political earthquake, and to effectively make Barack Obama a lame duck for the remainder of his Presidency.