The oft-stated maxim that a week is an eternity in politics must have rung true with Senate Republicans as February drew to a close. With the surprise retirement of Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine, what once had seemed assured—that enough Democratic seats were vulnerable to strong Republican challenges for the party to take back the majority—now seems much less likely.
Snowe’s exit throws a once-safe Republican seat up for grabs. In a state where Barack Obama won 58 percent of the vote in 2008, Democrats seem to have the height advantage, although independent former Gov. Angus King’s entry into the race could complicate things. Democrats don’t have many strong opportunities to play offense this year, but the few GOP-held seats they will target offer good odds: Along with Maine, challenges to Sens. Scott Brown in Massachusetts and Dean Heller in Nevada are among the most-pressing Republican worries.
But that’s not to say that Republicans should completely abandon hope of controlling the upper chamber, which would require a net gain of four seats if President Obama is reelected or three if Republicans take the White House. The races for Democrats’ open seats in Nebraska and North Dakota lean heavily toward the GOP; Sens. Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Jon Tester of Montana are running in states that Obama will likely lose; and Democratic retirements in New Mexico, Virginia, and Wisconsin—as well as the possibility that Sen. Sherrod Brown could find himself in a tougher-than-expected race in Ohio, leave the GOP with alternate paths for amassing a majority.
To keep track of the battle for control of the Senate, National Journal will feature updates on the 10 races at the heart of that fight—the NJ Big 10. Our coverage of key races will stretch across platforms, including daily updates in National Journal Hotline, snapshots and analysis on Hotline On Call and in National Journal Daily, and broader looks at the factors that will capture the national mood in National Journal.
The 10 Senate races—currently those in Maine, Massachusetts, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Ohio, Virginia, and Wisconsin—may change as the year progresses (the same way the Dow Jones industrial average sometimes drops a stock that no longer proves representative of the market). But the number of competitive races in a year that has seen more Senate retirements than any since 1996 underscores just how fluid the dynamic remains.
As we kick off our coverage, the two most dominant national trends are working at cross-purposes. On one hand, the number and breadth of competitive Democratic-held seats in play in the Senate conspires to tilt the odds in Republicans’ favor. On the other, an improving national economy, Obama’s growing strength in the polls, and the very real prospect of some states’ bitterly divided GOP primaries producing weak and perhaps overly conservative nominees all auger well for the tenuous Democratic majority.
In Missouri, Nebraska, and Wisconsin, the GOP primary choice can be cast as a longtime insider (Rep. Todd Akin of Missouri, Nebraska Treasurer Don Stenberg, and former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson) pitted against a younger firebrand (former Missouri Treasurer Sarah Steelman; Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning; and Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald) and a relative outsider (Missouri businessman John Brunner; Nebraska state Sen. Deb Fischer; and former Rep. Mark Neumann of Wisconsin). As the Republican Party struggles to find its post-George W. Bush identity, the outcome of all three primaries will affect GOP chances to take back the Senate.
The two constants across all 10 states are the presidential race and the uneven economic recovery. The president’s approval ratings are still too anemic to provide Democrats with any significant advantage in all but a few states. And even though the economy continues to turn around, most Americans still say they don’t believe that things are getting better.
Both of those factors are likely to decide the ultimate makeup of the Senate.
In a hyper-partisan atmosphere, fewer voters are casting split-ticket ballots, meaning that Democrats such as McCaskill and Tester and Republicans such as Brown and whoever emerges in Maine will have to take the most of a small slice of independents to hold their seats. Generally more party-line voting should benefit Democrats in states such as Florida, Wisconsin, New Mexico, and Virginia. But the Senate Democrats who won in 2006 almost uniformly benefited from widespread dissatisfaction with President Bush; now they will have to contend with the choppier waters of mixed reactions to Obama that vary considerably from state to state.
Perhaps no Senate race will demonstrate the pull of the presidential contest better than Virginia, where Democratic former Gov. Tim Kaine and Republican former Sen. George Allen are facing off; the two are close in the polls, and a boost in turnout driven by the presidential contest could have a determinative impact.
Obama’s reelection bid and the slowly improving economy will stand tall amid the battle for the Senate. Whether those two factors will provide coattails for Obama’s fellow Democrats or cast shadows over their chances remains to be seen. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s job security and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s chances for a promotion will depend on outcome of the NJ Big 10.
This article appears in the March 10, 2012, edition of National Journal.