It’s hard to imagine a situation much worse than the one that Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray and Executive Director Guy Cecil will face in the 2012 elections. The numbers are pretty ominous—23 Democratic seats at risk against only 10 for Republicans. The Democratic seats in this class were last up in 2006, a year when the party had the political equivalent of a 70 mph tailwind. The 10 Republicans who won that year were a hardy breed, elected in the face of a strong headwind.
Given last November’s six-seat loss for Democrats, which left them with a 53-47 advantage (independents Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut caucus with the Democrats), their hold on the majority looks extremely precarious heading into 2012. In truth, the party’s losses would have been worse had it not been for the aggressive effort waged by the DSCC under the stewardship of then-Executive Director J.B. Poersch.
Twenty-three Democratic seats are at risk in 2012.
As grisly as the “macro” picture appears for Senate Democrats, it’s premature to extend that view to individual seats. In this business, surprises always seem to be just around the corner. One need look no further than last year’s election returns to see some examples of where, despite a horrific political environment, Democratic senators managed to hold on to seats that looked like goners.
When I met New Castle County Executive Christopher Coons, the Democrats’ Senate nominee in Delaware, it was universally assumed that he would be facing then-Rep. Michael Castle, a moderate and the most popular Republican in the state, in the general election. Coons was extremely impressive; it was not hard to believe that he would make it to Congress someday, just not in 2010. Castle was the only Republican who could—and almost definitely would—defeat him. Delaware Republicans had other plans, though. Instead of tapping in the political equivalent of a 1-inch gimme putt, they pulled out a Callaway driver and slammed the ball as far into the woods as they possibly could, nominating Christine “I am not a witch” O’Donnell.
Or take Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. His job-approval numbers were so horrific for so long that it looked like he had no plausible path to another term. In retrospect, Reid won reelection on filing-deadline day when, by hook or by crook, he avoided facing a first- or even second-tier Republican challenger. It wasn’t by chance; Reid clearly intimidated more-established Republicans who knew how scrappy he was.
Murray, of Washington state, herself has a good tale to tell. Republicans got their first-choice nominee in Dino Rossi, who twice had fallen just short of getting elected governor. He was exactly the candidate that the GOP wanted. But a combination of the incumbent’s first-rate campaign, Rossi’s heart seemingly not being in the race (he should have held off and run for governor in 2012 instead), and the GOP wave not quite reaching the West Coast contributed to an easy reelection victory for Murray.
Finally, there is the story of Cecil, the DSCC’s new executive director. He took over as chief of staff for appointed Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado, a very bright former investment banker and Denver school superintendent. Critics noted that Bennet had never been elected as much as dog catcher and that he was an intellectual with questionable political instincts; many suspected he would not even survive the Democratic primary, where he faced a former speaker of the Colorado House. Bennet dispatched the more experienced pol with ease, and then went on to win the general election, skillfully exploiting an unexpectedly weak Republican who ran an unimpressive campaign. Bennet turned out to be a much stronger candidate than almost anyone imagined, and Cecil designed and guided what many pros say was the most sophisticated Democratic Senate campaign of the cycle.
To be sure, Democrats face enormous challenges in 2012 and 2014, and it’s pretty unlikely that their Senate majority will survive. The party will undoubtedly lose a lot of races over the next two elections, but as last year’s experience shows, tenacious candidates and perfectly executed campaigns, with an assist from unexpectedly weak GOP candidates, provide opportunities that are not obvious this early in the cycle.
This article appears in the March 19, 2011, edition of National Journal.