Battle for the Senate
The President may be the head of government but without the support of Congress he isn’t going to accomplish very much. If you need any proof, just ask President Obama what important legislation he expects to get passed before November. As such, the battles taking place lower down on the ticket can be just as important as those taking place at the top.
In 2012, 33 of the 100 Senate seats are up for election. Below, you can find previews of all of these races. The contests are divided into the following categories: Safe Democrat/Republican, Likely Democrat/Republican, Lean Democrat/Republican, and Toss Up.
Unlike the previous three election cycles, the 2012 election doesn’t feature a political climate that clearly favours one party over the other. Still, the Democrats are at an immediate disadvantage because they are defending 22 of the 33 seats up for grabs. This is partially coincidental, but it’s also a result of the Dems strong performance in 2006. Six years ago, amid frustration with the Iraq war, several Democrats knocked off Republican incumbents. In 2012, these Senators are now facing re-election for the first time. Strictly based on numbers, there are a lot more opportunities for Republicans gains. Of course, incumbents usually have the upper hand, so Democrats will win most of these races.
Republicans will be making a hard push to pick up seats in Florida, Hawaii, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, New Mexico, Ohio, Virginia, and Wisconsin. Democrats have their sights set on Republican seats in Indiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Nebraska, and Nevada.
These races exist against the backdrop of national politics, but they aren’t entirely defined by what’s going on in Washington. You’ll notice Democrats representing more conservative states and vice versa. Of course, this phenomenon is becoming rarer in today’s increasingly polarised environment.
Currently, Democrats (including independents that caucus with the Democrats) control 53 Senate seats. If every race went according to our current projections, Democrats would win 18 races, Republicans would win 9, and there would be six tossups. This also assumes that independent John King ends up caucusing with the Democrats, as we predict he will.
In this hypothetical, Democrats and Republicans would each control 47 seats and Senate control would be determined by the final 6 races. Perhaps it would be fitting to include the presidential race in this list of toss ups as well. In the case of a deadlocked Senate, it’s the vice president who casts the deciding vote. In such a close contest, it’s not improbable that control of the upper chamber could come down to whether Obama or Romney ends up in the White House.
Still, it would be foolish to assume that races leaning in one direction are a safe bet to stay that way. While we may give a slight edge to Democrats in Florida or the Republicans in North Dakota, they could quite easily go in the other direction. And with the election still nearly six months away, our projections can and will change.
We’ll update the list regularly so be sure to check back. And if you want to look at other projections, check out the work of Nate Silver, Larry Sabato, and Charlie Cook. All of their forecasts were invaluable in putting together this page. Now, on to the races!
Tom Carper won re-election in 2006 with a margin of over 40 points. This election cycle won’t be as favourable for Democrats as that one was, but Carper will still hold on to his seat without a problem.
Another no-brainer: incumbent Ben Cardin should claim a second-term without breaking too much of a sweat.
With high approval ratings and a ho-hum list of challengers, Amy Klobachuar is a virtual shoo-in to win re-election.
Yawn. This looks like a safe seat for Kirsten Gillibrand and the Democrats.
Democratic incumbent Sheldon Whitehouse's chances of losing resemble the state he represents: very, very small.
Bernie Sanders is an independent who caucuses with the Democrats and is a proponent of European-style social democracy. He also will be re-elected this year.
Democrat Maria Cantwell is in “good shape” heading into November. She represents a reliably blue state, has fairly decent approval ratings, and isn’t facing any big name competition. As of right now, her path to re-election appears fairly straightforward.
Roger Wicker and the Republicans will hold this seat, no problem.
Bob Corker is up for re-election. Bob Corker will win re-election.
Even with the retirement of Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison, this Senate seat is a safe bet to remain in the GOP column. The question is who Republican voters will choose to take Hutchinson's seat. Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst has been the frontrunner but he's facing a strong challenge in the July 31st runoff primary from former state solicitor general Ted Cruz. The race has gotten much attention on the national stage despite the fact that the two candidates share very similair positions on almost all issues.
Six-term incumbent Orrin Hatch faced a fierce primary challenge from former state senator Dan Lijenquist. However, while other politicians have been caught off guard by Tea Party challenges, Hatch had been preparing for a primary fight for quite some time. Hatch's foresight served him well and he now is all but assured a seventh-term in office.
Fun Fact! Wyoming holds its presidential caucuses over the course of month to allow ranchers to attend during the height of the calving season. And in this sparsely populated state, the event provides a chance for friends and relatives who don’t see each other often to meet up.
This fact is far more interesting than the Wyoming Senate race, where John Barrasso should easily hold on to his seat.
Republicans had high hopes of unseating Democrat Debbie Stabenow, but so far it hasn’t quite gone according to plan. Republican Congressman Peter Hoekstra got into hot some water when he ran a campaign ad showing an Asian women speaking in broken English and thanking the US for borrowing so much money from the Chinese. The Hoekstra campaign eventually pulled the ad.
On paper, this is a race Republicans could theoretically win, but so far they don’t seem to be putting it together as Hoekstra trails Stabenow by a decent margin in the polls.
Republicans face an uphill battle in the liberal state of New Jersey where Democratic Senator Robert Menendez holds a 10 point lead over his GOP opponent, state Sen. Joseph Kyrillos. Kyrillos suffers from a complete lack of name recognition, but this does provide him a chance to “define himself before the campaign begins in earnest.” Menendez is a sizeable favourite, but we don’t consider him a lock at this point.
Democrat Bob Casey, Jr is up for re-election for the first time after crushing Rick Santorum in 2006. In a swing state like Pennsylvania, a first term incumbent probably shouldn't get complacent. But, as Nate Silver notes, Casey's approval ratings are fairly high, and, more importantly, the Republicans nominated a relative unknown in businessman Todd Smith. Unless something major changes, Casey appears safe. However, we’ll be cautious for now, and keep this seat as likely Democrat.
West Virginians aren't exactly in love with Barack Obama. Case in point: a federal prison inmate in Texas got 41 per cent of the vote in the state's Democratic presidential primary last month. However, just because they don't like the current Commander in Chief doesn't mean they’re unwilling to vote Democrat. Joe Manchin III — who won a special election in November 2010 to fill the seat of the late Robert Byrd — remains popular within the state. Expect plenty of split ticket voting in November as Manchin wins re-election and Obama loses handily to Romney.
Moderate Republicans are a rare breed, and they’ve become rarer still with the departure of Olympia Snowe from the Senate. Frustrated with the bitter partisanship in Congress and facing a primary challenge from the right, Snowe shocked the political world — and her own staff — by deciding to call it quits . Like Republican Dick Lugar, Snowe would have won handily in November. But Maine, unlike Indiana, is a reliably blue state, meaning the GOP will have a tough time holding onto Snowe’s vacated seat.
The early favourite in the race is independent Angus King, who served as Governor of Maine from 1995 to 2003. King is considered left-leaning, so Democrats are understandably cautious in putting forward a strong nominee who might split the vote and hand the election to the Republicans. As such, the two most likely Democratic nominees declined to enter the race.
King supported Obama’s stimulus plan and pushed for an even more comprehensive health care plan than the one that ultimately passed, but also says he parts ways with Democrats on some issues like Wall Street reform.
We figure King is the heavy favourite to win the election, and while he’s firmly refused to speculate on which party he’d caucus with, it seems much more likely that he’d side with the Democrats. It’s possible that control of the Senate will be decided by which party Young decides to align himself with.
Republican Jon Kyl, the number two ranking Republican in the Senate, announced in 2011 that he would not seek a fourth term. Congressman Jeff Flake is the most likely Republican nominee, but he will have to fend off businessman Wil Cardon in the primaries. Former US Surgeon General Richard Carmona is the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination. Flake has strong name recognition within the state and Arizona has traditionally been favourable territory for the GOP, making it very likely that Republicans will be able to hold onto Kyl’s seat. Changing demographics have made Democrats optimistic that they can begin to compete more seriously within the state, but it would take a quite an upset for them to win this race in 2012.
The retirement of the conservative Democrat Ben Nelson gives Republicans a terrific chance to pick up a seat. The GOP nominee will be state senator Deb Fisher. Fisher is relatively unknown, but used some Tea Party endorsements to help propel herself to victory in the primary. The Democratic nominee, Bob Kerry, is well-known within the Cornhusker State. Kerry served as governor in the early 1980s, and then as a US senator from 1989 through 2001.
Nebraska is extremely conservative, and the early polls show Kerry trailing by large margins. Still, between Kerry’s strong credentials and Fisher’s relative lack of name recognition, there is at least some potential for an upset. We wouldn’t bet against Fisher, but could also see this race shifting more towards the Lean Republican category in the coming months.
Joseph Lieberman — an independent who caucuses with the Democrats — is stepping down at the end of the current term. The Democratic nominee is Congressman Chris Murphy . The Republicans will put forward either forward WWE CEO Linda McMahon.
Recent history doesn’t favour the GOP. McMahon was the Republican nominee for the other Connecticut senate seat in 2010. That was also an open seat and the 2010 midterm was an ideal political climate for Republicans. McMahon lost by 12 points.
But low and behold, a recent poll shows McMahon with a narrow lead over Murphy. Connecticut is blue enough that we aren't quite ready to move this race into toss-up category. But if these trends continue this race could get pretty interesting.
Florida is not only a key swing state in the presidential race, but also in the battle for control of the Senate. The economic recovery in the Sunshine State has been especially slow, which could spell some trouble for Democratic incumbent Bill Nelson. Still, despite mediocre approval ratings, Nelson holds a double digit lead in polls over Republican Congressman Connie Mack IV, his likely competitor in the general election. Nelson also has a comfortable fundraising advantage, with more cash on hand than any Senate Democrat up for re-election.
The Obama and Romney campaigns will both be very active in the state, devoting substantial resources to making sure their supporters turn up to the polls. As such, the outcome of the Senate race may well turn on how the state votes in the presidential election. We’ll make Nelson the slight favourite at this point, but expect this race to be a close one.
Hawaii has only once elected a Republican Senator, but a GOP victory in November is not beyond the realm of possibility. The state isn’t used to selecting new members in general: Daniel Akaka has held his seat since 1990 and Daniel Inouye is in his 9th term. However, Akaka is stepping down this year and Republicans are looking to take full advantage. The GOP will be putting their hopes squarely on the shoulders of Linda Lingle, who served as governor from 2002 to 2010. Electing a conservative in the Aloha State is no easy task, but Lingle has the name recognition and political chops to make things interesting.
Some pundits have this race as a tossup, but we’ll give the early edge to the Democrats in this deeply blue state with a native Hawaiian at the top of the ticket.
For a while, things were looking good for Republicans in the Show-Me State. Democrat Claire McCaskill isn't especially popular in a state that's become increasingly conservative. Sensing she needed to reshape the race, McCaskilll ran an 'attack ad' labeling Republican primary candidate and congressman Todd Akin as the true conservative in the race. Akin was by far the weakest of the GOP contenders and McCaskill wanted to do what she could to make him her opponent in the general election
Mission Accomplished. Akin won the primary and promptly set off a firestorm with his comment that women rarely get pregnant from "legitimate rape" as the body has ways of "trying to shut the whole thing down." National Republicans have been pressuring him to drop out and the Karl Rove backed Super Pac American Crossroads has says they will cut off all funding to him. So far, Akin has vowed to stay in the race. He has until September 25th to change his mind.
At this point, we're putting Missouri into the leans Democrat cateogry. A lot depends on whether Akin stays in the race, and whether Republican organisations stand by their pledge to not provide financial assistance to his camaign.
The retirement of Democrat Jeff Bingham opens the door for an interesting race in the Land of Enchantment. Congressman Martin Heinrich is the Democratic nominee and will face former GOP Congresswoman Heather Wilson in the general election. Wilson previously ran for Senate in 2008, losing in the general election to Democrat Tom Udall. When Wilson stepped down from Congress to run for the Senate, it was Heinrichs who ended up winning her seat. Small world.
Anyways, this race figures to be a close one, but we agree with the analysis of Larry Sabato and Kyle Kondik: “New Mexico looks to be squarely in Barack Obama’s camp in November and we don’t see a huge crossover vote boosting the Republican Wilson,”
Give the early edge to Heinrichs, but keep an eye on this race.
Ohio is the key swing state in the presidential race, but the Senate is getting a lot of attention as well. Outside Republican groups are pouring money into the state, hoping to deny Democrat Sherrod Brown a second term. Brown has been voted one of the most liberal members of the Senate, which might spell trouble in a swing state like Ohio. However, his easygoing nature and populist rhetoric have allowed him to maintain fairly high approval ratings.
The Republican challenger is state treasurer Josh Mandel. Mandel is only 34 and looks about two decades younger. However, the fresh faced former Mariner has won tough elections in the past and has a reputation as a skilled fundraiser. So far though, things haven't gone quite according to plan. Mandel's campaign has recieved a large amount of bad press and he's been frequently accused of making misleading statements.
There's a lot of factors at play here. Can Brown's likability insulate him against attacks that he's too liberal? How will the heavy spending on the Senate and presidential races effect the outcome? Can Mandel get the kind of on the job training neccessary to make him a better campaigner? For a while, this race straddled the line between Toss Up and Leans Democrat but it's firmly in the latter camp now.
The Tea Party pulled a shocking upset in early May when Richard Mourdock soundly defeated six-term incumbent Richard Lugar in the Republican primary. Mourdock — the current state commissioner — criticised Lugar for being out of touch with his home state and for his past co-operation with Democrats such as President Obama.
Lugar could have spent the general election campaign playing harmonica in a clown suit and still have been re-elected with votes to spare. However, Mourdock’s victory gives Democrats a chance of picking up the seat.
Current Congressman and Blue Dog Joe Donnelly will carry the torch for the Democrats. If he wants to win he’s going to have to effectively portray the Tea Party candidate as too extreme to represent the interests of the Hoosier State. The task won’t be easy though. Obama’s victory in 2008 notwithstanding, Indiana is still a red state. And, while some voters may be turned off by Mourdock’s far right views, he has more political experience than many previous Tea Party candidates. Mourdock’s the favourite for now, but stay tuned.
Republicans must have let out a few cheers when Democrat Kent Conrad announced that he wouldn't seek re-election. North Dakota hasn't voted Democratic in the presidential election since 1964 and the Dems certainly had a better chance of holding the seat with Conrad — who was first elected in 1986 — on the ticket.
Still, this won't be a cakewalk for the Republicans. North Dakotans aren't allergic to electing Democrats to the Senate. Conrad served alongside fellow Dem Byron Dorgan for nearly twenty years.
Former Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp is the nominee for the Democrats, while the Republicans counter with their Congressman Rick Berg. The polls show a close race, but this state is too conservative for Berg not to be the favourite.
Wisconsin has recently found itself at the centre of some intense political battles. Last year’s decision to strip government workers of most collective bargaining rights set off a wave of massive protests whose effects reverberated across the US. Opponents of the bill got enough signatures to force a June 2012 recall election for Governor Scott Walker. There is a lot of bad blood between Democrats and Republicans in the state right now, and this will certainly spill over into the 2012 Senate race.
The only thing for certain is that come January 2012 Wisconsin will have a new senator. In May of last year, Democrat Herb Kohl announced he would retire rather than seek a fifth term. Democrats hope that Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin, one of the more liberal members of the House, will be the one to replace him. Former governor Tommy Thompson emerged from a contentious Republican primary. That's good news for the GOP's general election prospects. Thompson is a big name in Wisconsin and was more moderate than his competitors.
Given the open seat and the intense political climate, this has the makings of a close race. But the choice of Thompson pushes the race into the lean Republican category.
Scott Brown pulled off the ultimate upset when he managed to win a special election for the late Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat in January 2010. Brown’s victory required the perfect storm; skillful campaigning, public frustration with the Democratic health care bill, and a serious of inexcusable blunders on the part of his opponent.
As such, one would expect the Republican Brown to be a sizeable underdog in 2012. Somehow though, the moderate conservative has used his everyman charm to hold his own in the polls in the extremely liberal state of Massachusetts.
Brown’s opponent in November will be Harvard Law professor Elizabeth Warren. Warren achieved notoriety when the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau she had long advocated for was set up under the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act of 2010. She also became a poster child for modern liberalism when a video of her passionately arguing for fair taxation went viral.
However, Warren got a bit of the wrong type of attention when it was revealed that Harvard listed her as a minority professor when she may or may not be 1/32nd Cherokee. Republicans are also trying to paint her as a hypocrite for championing populism while accepting large campaign donations from Hollywood elites.
In any case, this race will be an important one to keep an eye on. Brown has consistently lead Warren in the polls, so we give him the slight edge at this point, but in a state like Massachusetts it’s hard to see the contest as that far from 50-50.
Democrat Jon Tester rode a wave of anti-Bush sentiment into the Senate in 2006. In 2012, he will defend his seat in a much less hospitable political climate. Montana is a dark red state that does not think especially highly of President Obama or his policies. Tester’s opponent, Congressman Denny Rehberg, will do everything he can to draw connections between the Senator and the President. This intersection of dog-eat-dog Washington politics and Montanan rural blue-collar charm was illustrated perfectly by a Republican attack ad that showed Tester shaking hands with President Obama. The problem: Tester lost three fingers while working in a butcher shop, but the ad showed him with all of his appendages intact.
Recent polls have the candidates neck and neck.
It’s tough to know exactly what to make of the Nevada senate race. Republican Dean Heller is the incumbent, and being the incumbent is usually a good thing. However, Nevadans may see this as more of an open seat given that Heller was only appointed a year ago when Jon Ensign resigned in the wake of a political scandal.
Democratic Congresswoman Shelly Berkley is tasked with defeating Heller. It’s likely that Nevada will end up in the Obama camp in November, but Heller has a narrow lead in the polls thanks to support from independents and some Democrats. This race should be close, and while Heller has the slight edge for now, the better Obama’s polls numbers are, the worse Heller’s chances become.
Another Democratic incumbent is retiring. After only one term, Jim Webb decided to hang up the… well whatever a senator hangs up when they decide to retire. In fairness, Webb has had a long career in politics so it's understandable that he wanted to do something else.
Former governor George Allen served a term in the Senate before narrowly losing to Web in 2006. Now, he’s looking to pull a Grover Cleveland and reclaim his former seat. Democrats will have a big name of their own on the ballot in Tim Kaine. Kaine also served as governor and was considered a possible running mate of Obama's in 2008.
Polls have the two candidates neck and neck, and every election expert has this race as a toss up. Here are a couple of things worth keeping an eye on: according to a May poll, "Allen is taking 83% of Republicans while Kaine gets just 77% of Democrats," and Kaine is "leading only 68-21 with African Americans." Kaine could certainly pad his numbers by solidifying his standing amongst these two groups. On the other side of the coin, Allen is hanging in despite Obama leading Romney in the state by about 8 points. If the presidential race tightens up in Virginia, as it almost certainly will, Allen could benefit. This will be a fun race to watch.