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Public Mood Will Shape Senate

The numbers are with the GOP, but the political environment puts the battle for control up in the air.


Brown: Senate seat a toss-up.(Tim Sloan/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

Numbers don’t lie. When it comes to the outlook for next year’s 33 Senate races, numbers represent Democrats’ biggest hurdle in their effort to hold on to their majority.  

Of the 33 seats up this cycle, Democrats must defend 23, compared to 10 for Republicans. Retirements have created eight open seats; six are held by Democrats and two by Republicans. And, when it comes to the most competitive races, The Cook Political Report has seven Democratic-held seats in its “Toss Up” column and another (North Dakota) in the “Likely Republican” column. By contrast, Republicans have just two seats that are rated as Toss Ups today.


So, if numbers don’t lie, does that mean it is a foregone conclusion that Republicans will pick up the four seats they need to win the majority? Close, but not quite.

To state the obvious, the election is 16 months away, and as we’ve seen cycle after cycle, a lot can, and will, happen between now and November 2012.  

The numbers are more than a little problematic for Democrats, but the political environment is full of uncertainty. Voters are both furious and pessimistic. According to the most recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, conducted July 14-17 with 1,000 adults and a 3-point error margin, 67 percent of those surveyed said that the country is headed in the wrong direction, compared to just 25 percent who believed it is on the right track. Further, just 26 percent said the economy would get better in the next 12 months, compared to 31 percent who said it would get worse, and another 41 percent who believed it would stay the same.


Generally speaking, one political party more than the other pays the price when the political environment is drowning in negativity. But it seems that voters are disgusted with both parties. A Pew Research Center survey of 501 adults, conducted July 20-24 and with a 3.5-point error margin, showed that 60 percent disapproved of the job congressional Democrats are doing while 30 percent approved. Congressional Republicans are slightly worse off, with 66 percent disapproving of the job they are doing and only 25 percent approving. Given the three-ring circus that has played out under Washington’s big top over the past three weeks, it’s hard to see these numbers improving.

Moreover, assuming that Congress and President Obama pass a deal that pulls the nation from the edge of default by raising the debt ceiling, will there be any winners, or will voters simply look upon both parties and the president with great disdain for their inability to play nice in the sandbox? The answer to this question may well hold the key as to Democrats’ real chances of holding their majority.

Of course, the blame game is in overtime, and what will become most important is the messaging that both parties will employ on the campaign trail next year. Democrats will no doubt accuse Republicans of an uncompromising stance that created a deal at the expense of the middle class, seniors, and veterans. Republicans will undoubtedly say that Democrats put their genetic love of tax hikes ahead a weak economy and spending cuts.  The argument that voters embrace likely holds the answer to next year’s election results.

Back to the numbers. Democrats’ vulnerability is not limited to their open seats in states like New Mexico, North Dakota, Virginia, and Wisconsin. There are also a number of Democratic incumbents in serious trouble, and all hail from red or swing states. Sens. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Jon Tester of Montana, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, and Joe Manchin of West Virginia are all likely to face very competitive contests. Sens. Bill Nelson of Florida and Sherrod Brown of Ohio are currently rated as “Lean Democrat,” meaning that they hold an advantage today, but both are likely to end up in the Toss Up column at some point next year. There is a good chance that Sens. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan and Robert Casey of Pennsylvania, both currently rated as “Likely Democrat,” could find themselves in competitive races. This means that Democrats could be looking at as many as 12 truly competitive contests.  


Republicans are looking at just two toss-up races today: Sens. Scott Brown of Massachusetts and Dean Heller of Nevada. Harvard law professor and former special adviser to the Treasury secretary, Elizabeth Warren, is contemplating a challenge to Brown, but she has yet to commit. While she would be competitive, Warren is untested as a candidate. Republicans are much better off in Nevada without disgraced former Sen. John Ensign on the ballot and are in somewhat better shape with the appointed Heller as their standard-bearer, but this will be a very competitive contest. There are a couple of GOP seats that might become competitive, including Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, and the open seats in Arizona and Texas, but a lot will need to go right for Democrats for that to happen.

If numbers don’t lie, then Republicans are favored to win the majority next year. If the political environment and messaging are important, then the GOP will have to fight very hard for that majority.


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EDITOR'S NOTE: Charlie Cook is off this week. The Cook Report's Jennifer Duffy is filling in.

This article appears in the August 2, 2011 edition of NJ Daily.

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