Could Republicans Win the Senate?

Polls show the Republicans easily retaking the House but falling short in the Senate. But 2006 showed us that wave elections can produce shocking outcomes.

WaPo’s Chris Cillizza thinks Republicans may shock us and win control of the Senate, too.

Since 1930, party control of the House has flipped seven times. And each time, Senate control has also switched.

The reason is simple: Wave elections are, well, wave-y. If the voting public wants to send a message to the majority party, it tends to send it across the board, not just in a single chamber.

In 2006, for example, most pundits expected Democrats to win back the House. (They did.) But, few thought the party would gain the six seats it needed to reclaim the Senate majority; narrow victories by candidates such as James Webb (Va.) and Jon Tester (Mont.), however, put Democrats back in charge for the first time since they won back the chamber in 1994.

While acknowledging that the polling doesn’t support the idea (RealClearPolitics has the Dems with 49, the GOP with 46, and 5 toss-ups), Cillizza explains how a wave might occur:

  • The first tier: Democratic-held seats in North Dakota, Indiana and Arkansas are near-certain Republican pickups. Democrats aren’t even seriously contesting the open Senate seat in North Dakota, of which Gov. John Hoeven (R) is the de facto winner. And although Rep. Brad Ellsworth (D) is a quality Senate candidate in Indiana, he’s running in a very tough year to win an open seat in the Hoosier State. Polling consistently shows Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D) behind Rep. John Boozman (R) in Arkansas. So that’s plus three for Republicans.
  • The second tier: Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) is in deep trouble in his reelection bid against wealthy businessman Ron Johnson. Feingold, who has spent 18 years in the Senate cultivating an outsider image, has watched as Johnson has taken the outsider mantle from him with ease. In Pennsylvania, Democrats insist they are on the comeback trail – and recent polling shows the race tightening somewhat – but former congressman Pat Toomey (R) had opened up a steady edge over Rep. Joe Sestak (D). Give Republicans both seats and they are halfway to the majority: plus five.
  • The third tier: Polling in Colorado, Nevada, Illinois and West Virginia suggests each of those races is a genuine tossup; in a year in which the national winds are blowing strongly in Republicans’ favor, it’s not unreasonable to assume that GOP candidates in each will get just enough benefit from that breeze to win (a la Webb and Tester in 2006). That makes plus nine for Republicans – still one short of the majority.
  • The fourth tier: The majority then comes down to three states in which Democrats have heavy demographic advantages: California, Connecticut and Washington. (Barack Obama carried that trio by 24, 23 and 18 percentage points, respectively.) Connecticut appears to be the weakest opportunity of the three, with polls showing state Attorney General Dick Blumenthal (D) ahead of former World Wrestling Entertainment executive Linda McMahon (R) by double digits. And the cost of running for office in California may well keep Barbara Boxer (D) in the Senate. That means that the race in Washington between Sen. Patty Murray (D) and former state senator Dino Rossi (R) could be the linchpin on the narrow hopes Republicans hold out for control of the chamber. Both national parties are pouring millions into the race – and will continue to do so until Election Day. Polling averages give Murray a six-point edge, and those may be the most important six points in the country for Democrats right now.

All of the above assumes that Republicans lose none of their own seats, a possibility that is becoming more likely by the day. GOP Sens. David Vitter (La.) and Richard Burr (N.C.) appear to be on relatively solid electoral footing, and the open-seat Missouri contest has moved in GOP Rep. Roy Blunt’s favor. That leaves the Kentucky race between state Attorney General Jack Conway (D) and ophthalmologist Rand Paul (R) as Democrats’ best and only real pickup opportunity.

So, to summarize, to win back control of the Senate the GOP needs to win every seat it’s expected to, every seat for which it’s an even contender, and get one big upset.  That seems . . . unlikely.

But Cillizza is right about wave elections:  The Democrats did precisely that in 2006.   And I didn’t see that one coming, either.

Is 2010 a repeat of 2006?   In some ways, the situation for the Republican challengers now is actually better than it was for the Democrats then.  The economy is much, much worse.  And Democrats are holding a lot of seats in states that lean Red.   But Barack Obama is much more popular now than George W. Bush was then.   And we’re not likely to see another Macaca incident or an indictment of a long-serving Senator on election eve.

Cillizza leaves himself an out:

The possibility of a wild card – say, Alaska, where a three-way race could create chaos – always exists and could change everything.

There seems to be no realistic chance of the Democrat winning that race.  But the wheels seem to be coming off the campaign of Republican nominee Joe Miller. The beneficiary would seem to be incumbent Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski, who was defeated in the primary and is now running as a write-in candidate.    One presumes she would caucus with the GOP if they’ve got enough votes to retake the majority.  On the other hand, if they’re one vote short, she may well strike a deal with the Democrats.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. sam says:

    “But the wheels seem to be coming off the campaign of Republican nominee Joe Miller.”

    Yeah, and this isn’t helping, I’d think: Miller security guards handcuff journalist

  2. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    But what about Patty Murray of WA. She voted for Obamacare and it seems Boeing will be increasing the cost to about 90,000 workers for their health care due to increased costs?

  3. Muscle X says:

    WHEN, Any country his republic day than country do all work full security … and all country member celebrate with joy..