Of the nine races considered the most competitive, Democrats hold seven of the seats and Republicans hold two. Retiring Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad’s seat in North Dakota is already an anticipated loss, allowing for a two-seat margin of error if Democrats do not pick up any GOP-held seats. Republicans consider Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., the most vulnerable incumbent this cycle, arguably narrowing the margin of error to one seat unless Democrats are able to make inroads in Republican territory.
Murray classifies GOP-held seats in Indiana, Nevada, and Texas as potential takeaways, but nonpartisan election analysts currently consider only one of those, Nevada, to be competitive. Amid intraparty discord, Democrats have also yet to coalesce around a challenger to Republican Sen. Scott Brown in Massachusetts, a state that Obama carried in 2008 by 26 points and one that will be critical for Democrats’ efforts to maintain their majority. Murray has remained characteristically tight-lipped about the DSCC’s Massachusetts recruiting woes. “We believe that state is one that we will win,” she told reporters recently.
The Arizona field also remains unresolved as Democrats await further word on the recovery of Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords from a January 8 shooting. Party strategists privately concede that they do not expect Giffords to mount a Senate campaign, but respect for her has kept other potential candidates from stepping in. The silence is giving the Republican front-runner, Rep. Jeff Flake, an edge in the open-seat race in a state that already leans Republican. Democrats note, however, that the candidate filing date to qualify for Arizona’s August 2012 primary is nearly a year away.
The Medicare Advantage?
The situation isn’t totally gloomy. In many respects, Democrats have reason to feel better about their 2012 prospects today than they did at the start of the 112th Congress, just five months ago, when Republicans were riding high on the midterm wave that gave them a House majority and cost Democrats six Senate seats. “I think that anybody who looks at 2010 November and says 2012 November is going to be exactly like that is dead wrong,” Murray told NJ. She readily admits that some of her party’s best advantages are the opportunities that the GOP hands them. “The Republicans in the House have made the best case possible for why my candidates and the Democrats have a better agenda,” she said. “That’s helped nationally. We’ve seen it in our fundraising; we’ve seen it in our grassroots.”
The House Republicans’ budget, which includes a controversial plan to alter the Medicare system for Americans younger than 55 by turning it into a voucher program, has been a rhetorical boon to Democrats on the campaign trail. On May 24, Democrats won an upset victory in a special election for a House seat in New York, partly because of the Medicare issue. On that day, the DSCC’s website recorded more unique user visits than on any other day in the past four years, because of a solicitation to sign an online petition to support Democrats on Medicare. The issue has put Republican Senate candidates such as Heather Wilson in New Mexico, Josh Mandel in Ohio, and George Allen in Virginia in uncomfortable positions—or, as Murray would call it, “on defense.” The DSCC is using the Medicare issue against GOP Senate incumbents, including Nevada’s Dean Heller and Indiana’s Richard Lugar, who voted in favor of the House GOP plan.
In some key races, the DSCC has already solidified behind candidates, such as former Gov. Tim Kaine in Virginia, to head off expensive and divisive primaries. “What’s been most gratifying to me is the people who are saying yes,” Murray said, citing Kaine. Democrats have also benefited from Republicans’ weak candidate recruitment in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, and other states where the incumbent Democrat could be vulnerable against a top-tier challenger. In some respects, 2010 was a high-water year for the GOP in terms of recruitment. The six seats that Republicans netted left thin benches for statewide candidates this cycle.
Additionally, 2012 is a presidential reelection year, which will aid Democrats’ efforts to turn out a lot of their base voters who stayed home in 2010. Of course, the Republican nominee will also affect the down-ballot races, but at this stage, the GOP has no clear front-runner for the nomination and only tepid enthusiasm among Republican voters for the presidential field. Of the states with the nine most competitive Senate races, Obama carried five—Massachusetts, Nevada, New Mexico, Virginia, and Wisconsin—four of them by double digits. If the Obama campaign can reassemble the coalition that elected him in 2008, those voters are all but guaranteed to vote Democratic down the ballot.
Although Murray sounds optimistic when discussing money, recruitment, and motivating the grassroots, when asked if she believes that Democrats will keep the majority, she sidesteps the question. “I will tell you this: This is a very tough time for a country,” she said. “That sets up a difficult landscape for anyone up for reelection, and we have more people up for reelection than Republicans do.”