Perhaps the one lesson that most needs to be relearned from one election cycle to the next is the tendency of campaign politics to surprise. This cycle is no exception, especially when it comes to Senate races.
For the first 13 months of the cycle, Republicans seemed poised to pick up the four seats they need to take the majority. All the important factors were working in their favor. Democrats were defending more seats—23 to just 10 for Republicans. Democrats had more retirements in their ranks, giving them seven open seats compared with just two for Republicans. And Democrats had more vulnerable seats than the GOP.
In late February, though, Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine announced she would retire, giving Republicans a third open seat, and one that is especially vulnerable. Then, just last week, Rep. Todd Akin, the GOP nominee who will take on Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill in Missouri, uttered the words “legitimate rape” and very likely doomed his party’s chances against McCaskill, the most vulnerable incumbent seeking reelection this cycle.
Now, the prospect of a Republican Senate majority in 2013 doesn’t look as inevitable as it did just seven months ago. Snowe’s retirement put Republicans’ chances of winning a majority at 50 percent, down from 65 percent to 70 percent. Akin’s reprehensible comment further lowered those odds, at least as long as he opts to stay in the race. This seems to be his intention today, despite the near-universal call from fellow Republicans for him to put party ahead of personal ambition.
The reality is that the straightest path to a Republican majority goes through Missouri. As long as Akin is the nominee, the GOP can’t win the seat. And, thus, the party’s route to 51 seats is steeper and a bit more circuitous.
Republicans have many ways to solve the math problem to get to 51 seats, but what follows is the simplest equation. For the sake of argument, let’s stipulate that they pick up the Democratic open seat in Nebraska. Let’s also assume that independent candidate Angus King wins the Republican-held open seat in Maine and opts to caucus with Democrats. This leaves Republicans in search of four seats.
Six Democratic-held seats are currently in the Toss-Up column: the one held by Sen. Jon Tester in Montana and the open seats in Hawaii, New Mexico, North Dakota, Virginia, and Wisconsin. To win the majority, Republicans would need to win four of these. Democrats currently have leads outside the margin of error in Hawaii and New Mexico; Republicans are ahead in Wisconsin. The races in Virginia and North Dakota are statistically tied.
Republicans would also have to hold on to their own vulnerable seat in Massachusetts, where Sen. Scott Brown is running for a full term, and in Nevada, where Sen. Dean Heller is doing the same.
Without Missouri in the mix, Republicans will likely try to put another Democratic-held seat or two in play. The most likely targets are in Florida, where Sen. Bill Nelson is seeking reelection, and in Michigan, where Sen. Debbie Stabenow is seeking a third term. A longer shot would be the open-seat contest in Connecticut.
Meanwhile, though, Democrats are also hoping to expand the playing field of vulnerable Republican seats, and are looking to make the open seats in Indiana and Arizona into Toss-Ups.
Again, there are many ways to do the math to get to a GOP Senate majority, but—SURPRISE—it looks a lot harder today than it did in February.
Jennifer Duffy contributed contributed to this article.
This article appears in the August 28, 2012, edition of NJ Convention Daily.