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Democrats Could Be At High-Water Mark Democrats Could Be At High-Water Mark

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OFF TO THE RACES

Democrats Could Be At High-Water Mark

The Party Needs To Shore Up Its Senate Majority Next Year -- An Increasingly Unlikely Prospect

One of Vice President Joe Biden's long-standing and endearing qualities is his gift of hyperbole. The Washington Post recently quoted Biden as saying at a Democratic fundraiser that, of the 54 House seats Democrats have flipped in the last two elections cycles, "If [Republicans] take them back, this is the end of the road for what [President Obama] and I are trying to do."

While he overstates the case, Biden's worry applies at least as much in the Senate. The Democrats' majority status next year is not in doubt, but their 60-seat majority is in grave danger and the odds of their maintaining control after 2012 and 2014 are increasingly remote.

 

The Senate seats up in next year's midterm elections are evenly split, with 19 on each side. But in 2012, Democrats have 23 seats at risk (counting Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.) compared to only nine for the GOP. In 2014, it's 20 Democrats up, to only 13 for Republicans.

There is a real chance that Democrats won't flip any GOP Senate seats.

With Democrats having just short of twice the number of exposed seats as Republicans up in 2012 and 2014 -- 43 vs. 22 -- it is important for Democrats to hold the line and, if possible, expand on their majority in 2010. When their big classes elected in 2006 and 2008 come around in the next two elections, they might be hanging on for dear life. Conversely for Republicans, if they chip away a few seats this time, it increases their odds of retaking their majority.

 

Months ago, when Democrats were riding high from their second consecutive wave election and an unusually large number of Republican senators were deciding to retire, it looked plausible that Democrats would hold the line in 2010 and possibly even add a seat or two. With the political climate and the circumstances in key states now very different, those odds have changed.

Next year there are seven Republican retirements compared to only three for Democrats, but none of the open GOP seats are in Democrat-friendly states. The only ones in states Obama carried -- Florida, New Hampshire and Ohio -- are fickle and more purple than blue. Additionally, the likelihood of young and minority voters turning out in large numbers for Democrats like they did last year is low. This makes Democratic hopes in each of these states problematic at best.

And Democratic attempts to knock off the two GOP incumbents who might be vulnerable -- Sens. David Vitter in Louisiana and Richard Burr in North Carolina -- appear to be slim and diminishing. It's not very likely that many Republican incumbents will lose re-election in the South these days. If Vitter behaves himself and Burr very visibly hits every county a couple times in the next year, Democrats have virtually no chance in either state.

Basically, there is a real chance that Democrats won't flip any GOP Senate seats. This is not -- repeat, not -- to say that Democrats can't pick up any Republican seats, but their chances certainly aren't what they used to be.

 

At the same time, things look very tough for Democrats in three toss-up races: Neither Sen. Christopher Dodd in Connecticut nor Majority Leader Harry Reid in Nevada is polling well, and the GOP has a chance in the Illinois open seat contest. Appointed Sen. Michael Bennet in Colorado and party-switcher Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania have to deal with formidable primary challenges before they can even get to what are likely to be tough general election campaigns.

In California, it's unclear how tough the re-election challenge will be for Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer. The biggest question there is whether Carly Fiorina, the former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, is ready for prime time politics.

Finally, add to that list Sen. Blanche Lincoln in Arkansas, who is looking more and more vulnerable, despite a lack of name-brand competition.

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That's seven Democratic Senate seats in real danger, and that doesn't include the Delaware open seat if GOP Rep. Michael Castle runs, or if Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand in New York faces a top-drawer challenger.

In Delaware, it's anyone's guess what Castle will do. If he declines to run, it's probably close to a cinch for Democrats.

New York is also very murky. Former Republican Gov. George Pataki might run. Remember that he knocked off Democratic Gov. Mario Cuomo in 1994, the last really bad year for Democrats. There are other first-tier Republicans -- former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Rep. Rick Lazio -- who are looking at the gubernatorial race but might be enticed to take on Gillibrand.

The bottom line is that while most recent 2010 speculation has focused on the House, the situation in the Senate for both parties is not all that cheery, either. Even the net loss of two or three Democratic seats next year would be hard to take, particularly with the tougher 2012 and 2014 cycles looming. In short, the current Democratic high-water mark of 60 seats might be fleeting.

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