There’s no question that Sen. Olympia Snowe’s unexpected retirement gives Democrats improved prospects at holding onto the Senate, but the decision doesn’t change the underlying reality for both parties’ paths to a majority. The main takeaway from Snowe’s departure is that Republicans can’t simply rely on winning seats on the most conservative turf.
But Republicans are still on the offense in many more states. The biggest question is whether Republicans will pick up any seats in the traditional battleground states—Ohio, Florida, Virginia, New Mexico, Wisconsin, Michigan, even Pennsylvania—and hang onto Sen. Dean Heller’s seat in Nevada.
Here are four important questions surrounding key races:
1. Is Maine the Democratic slam dunk that conventional wisdom suggests?
Anyone expecting one party to have a clear advantage is mistaken. Democrats cheered at the news of Snowe’s decision—for good reason—but it’s far from a sure thing that the party will be favored to pick up her seat. Maine has a long tradition of quirky, independent-minded politics, and its elections rarely go the way of the national environment. The state’s Democratic nominee for governor only won 19 percent of the vote in the 2010 gubernatorial race, despite being a respected leader in the state Legislature. Go back to 1994, a wave year for Republicans, and now-Sen. Susan Collins only won 23 percent of the vote in a failed bid for governor, losing to Independent Angus King.
King has now reemerged as a candidate for Snowe’s seat, and all indications are he could start the race as a front-runner. King, who governed as a fiscal conservative, won reelection with a whopping 59 percent of the vote in 1998, and he retains cross-party popularity. Some Democrats are holding out hope that King could caucus with their party, but a more likely scenario is that he’d stay independent if he won.
With less than two weeks until the filing deadline, the major-party fields are still unclear. Democrats are looking at Rep. Chellie Pingree, a progressive favorite. But with King in the race, Pingree could get pushed to the left and lose voters to the independent candidate. She may not even run. Four Republicans with statewide profiles—Secretary of State Charlie Summers, state Treasurer Bruce Poliquin, Attorney General William Schneider, and former state Senate President Richard Bennett—are all looking at the race and would have a shot at holding the seat.
2. Does Scott Brown have momentum?
Don’t buy into the recent hype that Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., has suddenly reemerged as the clear favorite to win reelection, fueled by several polls showing him in the lead. His race against Democrat Elizabeth Warren will likely go down to the wire, and his success will be dependent on whether he’s able to disqualify Warren as out of the mainstream in the eyes of Massachusetts voters.
Brown’s biggest challenge is the composition of the electorate, which will be significantly more Democratic this year than in his 2010 special-election upset. But his victory provided clues to a winning coalition—peeling off enough blue-collar Democrats and middle-class moderates.
As her impressive fundraising has shown, Warren is a formidable candidate who has sparked a connection with the party’s activists. The big question is whether she can win over working-class voters and not get caricatured as an ivory-tower elitist.
3. Which Republican recruit has the most on the line?
Few Republican challengers have generated as much hype as Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel, but he hasn’t yet displayed the promise that has gotten certain Republican strategists excited about his campaign against Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio. Mandel, a 34-year-old former Marine who won election to the state Legislature in a solidly Democratic Cleveland-area district, has a ways to go to prove he can be a viable challenger. He’s received bad press back home for announcing a Senate campaign just after becoming state treasurer. In an interview this week with The Atlantic’s Molly Ball, he stuck nervously to his talking points. It’s not for lack of knowledge; it’s that he’s desperately trying to avoid making any gaffes as he works overtime to ramp up on all the issues.
Mandel’s the type of candidate who will either become an instant star or prove the maxim that the first time isn’t always the charm.
4. Why is Virginia the most unpredictable Senate race in the country?
Senate races traditionally have been as much about the quality of candidates as the underlying national environment, but rarely have two candidates been as dependent on the top of the ticket as Democrat Tim Kaine and Republican George Allen. This race will be determined on whether President Obama can turn out as many college-aged and nonwhite voters as he did in 2008, or at least come close.
When Obama carried the state in 2008, 30 percent of those who voted were minorities and 22 percent were under 30. When Gov. Bob McDonnell swept into office a year later, only 22 percent of those who went to the polls were minorities and just 11 percent were under 30—a huge drop-off. Kaine needs the Obama turnout machine to succeed in order to win.
This article appears in the March 7, 2012, edition of National Journal Daily.