If I had my druthers, I’d just as soon wait a while before starting to think about 2012—let a decent interval elapse between the end of one election cycle and the beginning of another. But professional obligations dictate otherwise, so here’s an early look at the contours of the 2012 House and Senate races.
To state the obvious, we do not know yet what the economic and political climate will be, not to mention the performance of the candidates who will be on the ballot. But we do know some basic numbers and who will be up for reelection.
First, the numbers. In the Senate, Democrats are facing the first round of a two-part election ordeal that is the by-product of their netting six seats in 2006 and eight in 2008. In wave years such as those, some very bright and deserving people get elected; some moderately bright and somewhat-deserving people win; and some, well, let’s just say that some candidates are very fortunate to be running at the right time. Their victories, no doubt, amazed everyone in their high school graduating class.
So Senate Democrats will have the numbers against them in 2012 and 2014. In 2012, they will have 23 seats in play, compared with only 10 Republican seats. Four years from now, Democrats will have 20 seats up, compared with 13 for the GOP.
In the first round of The Cook Political Report’s 2012 Senate ratings, Democrats start with three incumbents whose races are classified as toss-ups: Ben Nelson in Nebraska, Jim Webb in Virginia, and newly elected Joe Manchin in West Virginia. Three Democrats are in the “Lean Democratic” column: Bill Nelson in Florida, Claire McCaskill in Missouri, and Sherrod Brown in Ohio. To that list you can add independent Joe Lieberman in Connecticut, who sits and caucuses with the Democrats. So, that’s seven incumbents in races expected to be competitive.
Five more Senate Democrats begin the cycle in the “Likely Democratic” column, essentially a watch list of contests that are not yet—but could well become—competitive. In that category are Debbie Stabenow in Michigan, Jon Tester in Montana, Kent Conrad in North Dakota, Robert Casey in Pennsylvania, and Maria Cantwell in Washington. The remaining 11 Democratic-held seats start off in the “Solid Democratic” category.
Senate Democrats will have the numbers against them in 2012 and 2014.
Republicans, meanwhile, go into the 2012 cycle with just two Senate seats in competitive categories, both toss-ups: Scott Brown in Massachusetts and John Ensign in Nevada. Of the eight remaining GOP senators up for reelection, the only one whose race is not currently in the “Solid Republican” column is Olympia Snowe of Maine, who might be more at risk in the primary than in the general election.
Thus, Democrats, who currently hold a 53-47 majority in the Senate, will go into 2012 with seven seats at real risk, against only two for the GOP. But keep in mind that these lists will likely change many times over the next two years.
In the House, the challenge for Democrats will be scoring a net gain of 25 seats to win a majority. That’s a tall order considering that Republicans enter this redistricting season in their strongest position in modern history, controlling the mapmaking process in states with about 195 districts. Democrats will run the show in states with just a combined 49 districts.
Those numbers will become concrete on Tuesday at 11 a.m., when the Census Bureau releases its official reapportionment numbers that tell each state exactly how many congressional districts it will have. The redistricting process will strengthen some House members, weaken others, and leave some unaffected. Obviously, the results will greatly change the way seats are perceived and rated.
While some prognosticators are throwing around big numbers about how many additional seats the GOP could gain through redistricting, remember that you can’t pick up a seat you’ve already won. The Republicans’ 63-seat gain this year limits what they can expect to pick up. The GOP’s redistricting focus should be on solidifying the seats it has just won instead of trying to spread Republican voters into more districts and thus gain more seats; such a strategy could jeopardize the seats the party has now.
Based on what little we know at this point, The Cook Political Report’s initial 2012 House ratings show six GOP seats as toss-ups and 14 in the “Lean Republican” column, for a total of 20 in competitive categories. The six Republicans in toss-up races are all freshmen: Allen West (FL-22), Robert Dold (IL-10), Bobby Schilling (IL-17), Ann Marie Buerkle (NY-25), and Blake Farenthold (TX-27). Conversely, House Democrats begin with four members in districts that are potential toss-ups: John Barrow (GA-12), Joe Donnelly (IN-02), Gary Peters (MI-09), and Betty Sutton (OH-13).
To be sure, all of these ratings will change as retirements, recruiting, redistricting, and other political developments occur. This is just a first-blush look.
This article appears in the December 18, 2010, edition of National Journal Magazine.