Six years ago, Democrats rode a wave of voter discontent with President Bush to claim nail-biter wins and a Senate majority that few prognosticators expected. This time around, they’re facing an electorate that’s just as angry as it was back then—only now, much of the anger is directed their way.
The Democrats’ uphill battle to hold their narrow Senate majority will hinge on their ability to minimize voter discontent with President Obama and the economy—particularly among whites—and to maximize two factors in their favor: the rapid growth in the minority population since 2006, and the tendency of minority voters to turn out in far greater numbers in presidential election years than in off-years.
This dynamic will play out in key states, including Arizona, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Ohio, Virginia, and Wisconsin, where Democrats hope the growth in minority voters offsets the decay of Democratic support among whites.
Republicans need to net just four seats to guarantee a 51-seat majority in the upper chamber. Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson’s retirement likely puts his Nebraska seat in Republican hands. Democratic open seats in Connecticut, Hawaii, New Mexico, North Dakota, Virginia, and Wisconsin, plus vulnerable incumbents in Missouri and Montana, give Republicans enough opportunities to make their taking over the Senate a possibility bordering on a probability.
Democrats have their own opportunities this year in Massachusetts and Nevada, where GOP incumbents Scott Brown and Dean Heller face their first regular elections (Brown won his seat in a 2010 special election; Heller was appointed to his seat in 2011 after Republican John Ensign resigned). But even if Democrats win both seats, the number of vulnerable seats they must defend puts their majority at serious risk.
BREAKING THEIR WAY
When they ran for office six years ago, Senate Democrats couldn’t have scripted a more favorable political climate. George W. Bush’s approval rating stood at just 38 percent on Election Day. The public had lost confidence in his handling of the Iraq war and saw no end in sight to the conflict. Memories of the bungled federal response to Hurricane Katrina remained fresh. Bush’s second-term attempt to revamp Social Security garnered little public support. Red-ink government spending was irking fiscal-minded independents. Throw in missteps by Republican incumbents, such as George Allen’s “macaca” moment in Virginia and Conrad Burns’s serial intemperate remarks in Montana—and Democrats were able to pick up six seats, just enough to eke out a 51-seat majority.
Now, of course, the tables are turned. Obama’s approval rating stands somewhere between 46 percent (in the latest Gallup survey) and 48 percent (in an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll last week); although those figures are not as low as Bush’s, they are weak enough to give Senate Democrats the jitters. Just under two of every three Americans say that the country is on the wrong track. The unemployment rate has topped 9 percent for most of Obama’s presidency; although it’s been dropping in recent months, the number of long-term unemployed has remained stubbornly high. The federal government’s debt is $15.3 trillion—and climbing. And more than 80 percent of voters disapprove of the job that Congress is doing, hardly a reassuring number for incumbents.
Some Senate Democrats will attempt to distance themselves from Obama and make the case that they’re independent actors in Washington, but they may not fare any better than Senate Republicans who followed the same strategy in 2006. In competitive Senate races that year, the usual pattern was that more than 80 percent of voters who approved of Bush’s job performance voted Republican, while more than 80 percent of those who disapproved cast Democratic ballots. The same dynamic was largely evident in 2008 and 2010 as well. If that pattern holds in 2012, it creates a clear threat for Democratic prospects in red-leaning states where Obama will likely run below his national approval ratings; in key states such as Montana and Missouri, Democrats face the likely prospect that more voters will disapprove than approve of Obama, which means that the Democratic incumbents can survive only by attracting a larger share of voters who disapprove of their party’s president than most candidates have been able to win in recent years.
The bright spot for Democrats’ tenuous majority is the steady growth of minority voters as a share of the electorate. When Democrat Claire McCaskill of Missouri defeated Sen. Jim Talent in 2006, she took 82 percent of the vote among minorities, who made up 16 percent of the state’s electorate. Her margin of victory was just 48,000 votes out of more than 2.1 million cast. But the minority segment of Missouri’s electorate has increased since then, to 18 percent in 2008 and 19 percent in 2010.
This article appears in the February 4, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.