For the first time in three election cycles, the political landscape appears calm. Neither Democrats nor Republicans look poised to ride a wave to major wins this fall. For Democrats, who cling to a narrow Senate majority, the chances of keeping the gavel hinge on a number of states where GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney will win this year. Democrats must appeal to an increasingly rare species: the crossover voter, who considers candidates across party lines rather than sticking with one side straight down the ballot. Democrats’ chances, in other words, will depend on their Senate candidates’ ability to run ahead of President Obama.
In this hyper-partisan atmosphere, the number of true swing voters has diminished. But for Senate candidates who will raise and spend millions of dollars, bolstered by millions more in outside spending, it’s still possible to build an independent image.
“House races have less of a capacity to separate themselves from the dynamics … of the national environment, whether there’s a presidential race or not,” said Guy Cecil, executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “There’s more capacity for our candidates to make the election a choice between two people.”
In some cases, a Democratic Senate candidate need run only a few percentage points ahead. Even if Obama loses nationally, he is likely to keep the margins close in Virginia. Tim Kaine, the former governor, only needs to run ahead of Obama by a few points to build a winning coalition there. The same is true for Democratic Sens. Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Bill Nelson of Florida.
In all three states, it is easier to imagine a voter—a Dixiecrat in the Florida Panhandle, a suburban woman in Richmond, or a white working-class voter along the Ohio-West Virginia border—who picks Romney and the Democratic Senate nominee than it is to consider a voter who picks Obama and the Republican Senate candidate.
Other Democratic candidates face a much tougher lift. Obama is likely to lose Missouri by a wider margin than he did in 2008, and Romney will likely win North Dakota and Montana by double digits. So Sens. Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Jon Tester of Montana and former North Dakota Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp all must outperform Obama by 5, 10, or as many as 20 percentage points to win.
“We are preparing our races to be a choice between the two folks on the ballot,” Cecil said on Tuesday. “We don’t spend a lot of time paying attention to where the president’s individual numbers are in a state, because we have very limited impact on how those are going to change.”
Rob Jesmer, Cecil’s counterpart at the National Republican Senatorial Committee, sees only a small number of crossover voters, especially in hotly contested states where Obama and Romney are generating a lot of advertising. “This is going to be a parliamentary election. [The] overwhelming majority of people in Ohio are going to vote for Romney and [Republican state Treasurer Josh] Mandel, or [vote for] Obama and Brown,” Jesmer said.
At a Democratic convention event hosted by National Journal, The Atlantic, and CBS News on Wednesday, Cecil identified a few states—Indiana, Missouri, Virginia—where white, suburban female voters could tip votes in favor of Democratic candidates. He also said that the party is focusing on “maximizing the vote among African-Americans and continuing growth with Hispanics.”
Ironically, Democrats are having a harder time in states where Obama will be the strongest. Internal polling shows Massachusetts candidate Elizabeth Warren tied or slightly behind Sen. Scott Brown, Cecil said. Wisconsin Rep. Tammy Baldwin is running behind former GOP Gov. Tommy Thompson by high-single-digits, according to two independent surveys. And Republicans see an emerging prospect in Connecticut, where polling shows a tight race between former WWE executive Linda McMahon and Democratic Rep. Chris Murphy, even though Obama is expected to win the state by a wide margin.