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The Senate and the Old Normal

Voters aren't likely to repeat the dramatic swings of recent elections this time around.

The electorate is more polarized than ever.(istock photo)

photo of Reid Wilson
June 14, 2012

After three successive wave elections, one might be forgiven for assuming that massive swings are the new normal. But with five months to go before Election Day, senior Democratic and Republican strategists alike agree that the country has reverted back to partisan parity, in which a polarized electorate is likely to deliver a narrow and divided verdict, much more akin to 2000 or 2004 than to 2006, 2008, or 2010.

In the pitched battle for control of the Senate, that means Democrats will struggle to maintain their slim 53-47 majority. Five months out, both sides agree they have about an even chance of winning the gavels in the 113th Congress. And like the presidential campaign, which pits a challenger in Mitt Romney who wants to nationalize the election versus an incumbent in President Obama who would rather fight hyper-local battles on narrow issues, the Senate races that will decide which party wins control feature candidates fighting to frame their own elections in the most favorable light.

The Senate narrative has evolved over the past year. Democrats, defending 23 seats compared with just 10 for Republicans, began the cycle with low expectations for keeping control. After Sen. Olympia Snowe's surprise retirement earlier this year and after strong candidates emerged in several competitive states, conventional wisdom switched sides; now Republicans are seen as running from behind. In truth, the landscape has never been that clear cut—Democrats were never as far behind as some made out, while Republicans aren't the underdogs they might appear to be. Examining the landscape on a race-by-race basis, Republicans are likely to make gains, but Democrats have created enough opportunities for themselves to mitigate some of their expected losses.


Republicans are mostly bullish about winning Democratic-held seats in North Dakota and Nebraska, two states in which Democratic incumbents are retiring. But Democrats are pleased with the way former Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp's race has developed in North Dakota—she's raising good money, and both public and internal party polling shows her tied with or narrowly leading Rep. Rick Berg—and though they admit Heitkamp's path is narrow, it does exist. Republicans are confident that, in a presidential year, Berg will benefit from Mitt Romney's coattails, and that Heitkamp will need too many crossover voters to eclipse Republicans' inherent advantage. Democrats are polling in Nebraska, but some privately admit that former Sen. Bob Kerrey starts the general-election race far behind state Sen. Deb Fischer.

Democratic retirements in Virginia, New Mexico, and Wisconsin show the divergent paths open seats can take. Former Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine has a structural and financial advantage over former Sen. George Allen, and Democrats see an advantage with white women voters in Richmond and the suburbs of Washington—voters who backed Obama in 2008 and Gov. Bob McDonnell, a Republican, in 2009 and who remain skeptical of Allen. In New Mexico, Republicans are bullish on former Rep. Heather Wilson, a relative moderate with a history of running ahead of her party's ticket in an increasingly Hispanic state; Democrats still see their nominee, Rep. Martin Heinrich, as the front-runner, but this could be a race that pops late.

Wisconsin is the great unknown for both parties; Rep. Tammy Baldwin is to the left of the state's electorate, but the late Republican primary and the conservative activists who will determine the nominee work to Democrats' advantage. Counterintuitively, the recall election that failed to unseat Gov. Scott Walker has bought Baldwin some time—the state's airwaves have been chock-full of gubernatorial ads, freezing out any Republican groups who might have wanted to dent Baldwin before she has the resources to respond. Those ads will start in earnest in coming weeks.

Sens. Claire McCaskill in Missouri and Jon Tester in Montana remain the most vulnerable Democratic incumbents. McCaskill's numbers have risen after her initial ad blitz, according to internal surveys, but Republicans haven't run their harshest attacks against her yet—attacks aimed at undercutting her image as a good-government former auditor. And while demographics suggest Tester should be in trouble, some Republicans are frustrated that Rep. Denny Rehberg hasn't begun undercutting Tester's image as a true Montanan and an independent vote in Washington.

Florida and Ohio are safer territory for incumbent Democrats Bill Nelson and Sherrod Brown. Nelson benefits from an ugly Republican primary, and the eventual winner—both sides expect that to be Rep. Connie Mack—won't get much outside help, given the amount of advertising already slated to dominate Florida's airwaves. Brown has a well-funded opponent in state Treasurer Josh Mandel, but Brown's topline poll numbers show he's hovering around the 50 percent mark, despite more than $6 million in outside spending against him already. Brown's strategy is to make Mandel, just 34 years old, look too young and to paint him as just another politician.

To defend against the potential for a Republican Senate, Democrats have five pickup opportunities of their own—albeit at greatly varying degrees of promise. Both parties say they will keep close tabs on Maine after Snowe's retirement; Democrats believe the front-runner, independent former Gov. Angus King, will caucus with them, while Republicans hold out hope that the eventual Democratic nominee catches fire and leaves their candidate vying to top a Democratic electorate divided between King and the nominee. National Democrats have made clear to their donors they back King.

After more than a month of bad press surrounding her self-reported Native American heritage, Democrats believe consumer advocate Elizabeth Warren has turned a corner. Sen. Scott Brown has made clear he has no intention of letting the matter drop as part of his strategy to drive up Warren's negative numbers. But Brown has to win over a huge number of Obama voters (Those undecided in the Senate race favor Obama over Romney by 30 to 40 points, according to both public and private surveys). Watch voter enthusiasm in this race; Warren already has an army of volunteers that will be difficult to match. Case in point: Her campaign held more than 50 canvassing events across the state last weekend—and it's only June.

Republican Sen. Dean Heller has established a clear, if slight, lead over Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley in Nevada. Perhaps no other race is as tied to the presidential outcome as the Silver State's, where crossover voters are likely to be scarce (though one can envision an Obama-Heller voter better than a Romney-Berkley backer). A pending ethics investigation looms over Berkley's head, though her campaign has planned a paid and earned media response once the case is resolved.

Indiana and Arizona are Democrats' opportunities to expand the map, though in both races Republicans are the favorites. Sen. Dick Lugar's primary loss makes Indiana more competitive, even Republicans will admit, but they believe the state's tilt still benefits Richard Mourdock over Rep. Joe Donnelly (Democrats admit Donnelly must prove he can compete here before he gets outside help). And Rep. Jeff Flake is watching his opponent, businessman Wil Cardon, surge in the polls, though the GOP is confident that Obama's purported interest in turning Arizona purple is still a few years premature.

In total, the battle for the Senate is being fought mostly on the same turf it was at the beginning of the cycle. Democrats have recruited well in some additional states, broadening the map to a slight degree, but Republicans are by and large playing on friendly ground. With five months to go, that static reality means voters aren't going to repeat the dramatic swings to which we've become accustomed. The new normal, as it turns out, was little more than a three-cycle aberration.

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