When one party has 23 Senate seats up for grabs and the other party has just 10, the side with more than twice as much exposure starts off with an enormous disadvantage. Nobody envies the predicament that Senate Democrats are in—clinging to a narrow 53-47 majority and defending seven open seats, while Republicans are defending just two. The Cook Political Report’s Senate expert, Jennifer Duffy, defines four critical races as “epic battles.” The outcome of this foursome will determine whether Senate Democrats will just have a bad night in November, holding their majority by the narrowest of margins, or a disastrous one, losing their majority before polls are even closed in some states.
The states that Duffy identifies as having contests likely to shatter their state records for Senate-race spending and remain very close through Election Day are: Massachusetts, Montana, Nevada, and Virginia. Two of the four seats in those battles are currently held by Republicans, Scott Brown in Massachusetts and Dean Heller in Nevada. The two Democratic seats are Jon Tester’s in Montana and the one in Virginia that Jim Webb’s retirement leaves open.
In Massachusetts, Brown won a January 2010 special election to finish the remainder of the late Sen. Edward Kennedy’s term. Although Brown ran a good campaign and had a message that resonated with voters, Democrats lost this race largely due to the incompetence of their nominee, state Attorney General Martha Coakley. It’s a loss that still stings Democrats—after all, this was Kennedy’s longtime seat.
The presumptive Democratic nominee in the 2012 race is Elizabeth Warren, a Harvard law professor who chaired the Congressional Oversight Panel for the Troubled Asset Relief Program. She was also charged with establishing the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Warren is a first-tier recruit, but she is also a first-time candidate for public office, which is sometimes problematic. In the two years Brown has served, his voting record has been moderate by Republican standards.
Brown had a fundraising head start and finished the fourth quarter of 2011 with $12.8 million in the bank. Even so, Warren’s fundraising has also been impressive: She had about $6 million on hand as of Dec. 31. But, as in the contests in Montana, Nevada, and Virginia, money won’t be a deciding factor.
President Obama will win or carry Massachusetts easily. But if former Gov. Mitt Romney is at the top of the GOP ticket, it could mitigate the undertow that Republicans often have to face there. Fifty-four percent of the Bay State’s voters are registered as independents, and seven of its last 12 governors have been Republicans.
The Montana contest is essentially a race between two well-known, statewide elected officials. Democrat Tester won this seat in 2006, defeating GOP incumbent Conrad Burns, who was hampered by ethics issues and a bad case of foot-in-mouth syndrome. But the race was close: Tester won with 49 percent of the vote to 48 percent for Burns. The GOP nominee this time is at-large Rep. Denny Rehberg, who served a term as lieutenant governor before winning the state’s lone House seat in 2000.
This contest is likely to be viewed through the prism of each candidate’s record, since they have cast votes on the same legislation.
As for Nevada, there are few places with as complicated a political landscape as this transient state in which elected officials have to introduce themselves to tens of thousands of new residents each time they are on the ballot. It is also a state that is hurting economically, with both the highest home-foreclosure and unemployment rates in the nation. Barack Obama carried Nevada in 2008 with 55 percent of the vote.
Republican Heller was appointed to the seat in May after embattled Republican John Ensign resigned. Heller had served two terms as Nevada’s secretary of state before winning a seat in the U.S. House in 2006. His likely Democratic opponent is Rep. Shelley Berkley, who has represented the Clark County-based 1st Congressional District since 1998—making both candidates well known to voters.
Virginia was once seen as a solidly conservative Southern state, but it has come to resemble a more moderate mid-Atlantic state. Democrats did well there in 2006 and 2008, when Obama carried the state, but Republicans have fared better since then. The GOP won the governorship in 2009 and picked up three House seats in 2010, giving them eight of the state’s 11.
The presumptive Democratic nominee is former Gov. Tim Kaine, and the likely GOP standard-bearer is former Sen. George Allen. Each has his liabilities.
After Kaine left office, he became chairman of the Democratic National Committee and spent the better part of 18 months defending the Obama White House. Allen lost his bid to retain his seat in 2006 after calling the Democratic tracker who was following him “macaca”—widely perceived as a racial slur against the man, who is of Indian descent. Still, the race was close, with Allen losing to Democrat Webb by just a point, 49 percent to 50 percent.
This article appears in the Jan. 17, 2012, edition of National Journal Daily.