With a rather small six-seat gain in the Senate elections last week – compared to some 680 state-house races, 65 House seats and what could have been seven governor’s races but for the Connecticut election shenanigans – if there’s a disappointment in the 2010 cycle for the GOP it’s the failure to make a larger dent in the Democrats’ control of that chamber.
But while the Republicans hold 47 seats as the smoke clears – four short of what’s needed for control – there’s a good reason to suggest the 2012 cycle could be the second half of the governmental realignment last week’s elections portended.
Consider that last week there were 37 Senate elections, and of those 19 are currently held by Democrats against 18 Republicans. The GOP held all 18 of their seats and took away six Democrat seats – posting a fairly impressive 24 wins in 37 Senate elections. That’s still not enough for conservatives hungry to wipe away whatever vestiges of left-wing control remain in Washington, but if a pattern of holding all Republican seats and taking away 32 percent of those seats held by Democrats were to remain Republicans would be holding a strong 54-seat majority at the end of the 2012 cycle.
That’s due to the makeup of the 2012 Senate field. Of the 33 seats coming up for a vote that year, Democrats currently hold 23; the GOP just 10.
And of that 23, there are more than seven Democrats who look vulnerable based on what happened last week.
Start with the winners of the special elections last week…
Joe Manchin, West Virginia – Manchin is a tremendously popular political figure in West Virginia, but he nevertheless trailed perennial GOP loser John Raese in the polls until shortly before Election Day. Manchin had to cut a TV spot shooting at a copy of the Cap And Trade bill in order to turn things around, and by the time last Tuesday came he was indistinguishable from a Tea Party Republican – which, in fact, is not an overt lie. Manchin was one of only five governors – and the only Democrat – to receive an “A” on the CATO Institute’s Policy Report Card for this year. The word is Manchin is going to get hit up hard by the GOP when he gets to the Senate, and he’ll be asked to switch sides. A spot on the Energy Committee is being dangled in front of him as bait, which is smart; the Democrats certainly won’t want to put a pro-coal Senator on that committee.
Manchin will likely be one of the most palatable Democrats even if he doesn’t switch given his odd ideological orientation in today’s Democrat Party. But if he’s pressured into supporting President Obama or Democrat majority leader Harry Reid on a few obnoxious votes – like for example if he votes no on an Obamacare repeal, or votes for a deal which taxes carbon – his fragile support from a conservative state could collapse. The question is whether West Virginia Republicans, who haven’t done a good job recruiting attractive candidates in the past, could put forth a viable challenger to Manchin if the opportunity arises.
Kirsten Gillibrand, New York – Gillibrand won comfortably against GOP retread Joe DioGuardi last week, but she’s not safe. Republicans picked up five House seats in New York state, and it’s not impossible that one or two of the new arrivals could emerge as a better challenger than the 70-year old DioGuardi was. She’s extremely vulnerable for her background as an assistant to then-HUD Secretary and now New York governor Andrew Cuomo, who oversaw the creation of the housing bubble while in the Clinton administration. Since the housing sector isn’t likely to be recovered by 2012 and it’s entirely likely the GOP House majority will address the role of the government in creating the bubble with hearings soon, Gillibrand is probably going to suffer a good deal of damage.
But like with Manchin, much depends on the quality of the Republican challenger. Will Larry Kudlow finally make a run at the Senate he’s been hinting at? Will Rudy Giuliani take a crack at the seat? Will George Pataki get off the bench?
Beyond the special election winners, there are lots of other Democrats in some extremely hot seats over the next two years…
Ben Nelson, Nebraska – Nebraska is about as Republican a state as there is, and yet Nelson was a yes vote on Obamacare – and embarrassed the state with the Cornhusker Kickback in the bargain. Virtually everyone in that state thinks he’s dead meat in two years. Don’t be surprised if Nelson is the subject of rumors about a party-switch, though the guess is he would get a primary challenge as a Republican in such a case. Either way, the chances of his retaining that seat aren’t good at all. Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning is already in the race.
Herb Kohl, Wisconsin – Kohl is a great candidate at this point – for retirement. He’s been in the Senate for a long time, Wisconsin has flipped hard to the GOP and the Republicans are developing a fairly strong bench in the state. Rob Johnson’s comfortable win over Russ Feingold is an indication that old-time Wisconsin progressivism is losing its luster – something which is made even more obvious by Scott Walker’s in the gubernatorial election, GOP majorities in both state houses and a couple of pickups in congressional races. If Feingold is seen as old and tired by the electorate, surely the decrepit Kohl – whose record is even more left-wing than Feingold’s – will be. If Rep. Paul Ryan decides to make the race, as it’s rumored will happen, Kohl would almost certainly retire.
Claire McCaskill, Missouri – Roy Blount won big in the race for Missouri’s other Senate seat last week, and the state also turned out long-time Congressman Ike Skelton. That would indicate McCaskill is in more than a little bit of trouble in two years. Consider that Missourians voted by 71 percent to fight Obamacare in a state constitutional referendum during the summer, and it’s looking like a purple state turning red in a hurry. Former Missouri treasurer Sarah Steelman, a major deficit hawk, is reportedly going to be running against McCaskill. That’s a bad race for the incumbent.
Sherrod Brown, Ohio – The Ohio Democrat Party is in a shambles after Ted Strickland’s lost re-election bid and five House seats flipping to the GOP. And Brown isn’t a particularly engaging or charismatic figure; he’d be a lot safer in a more left-leaning state than Ohio is trending to be. A quality Republican challenger like former Secretary of State Ken Blackwell or current state treasurer Josh Mandel would likely be tough for Brown to beat.
Kent Conrad, North Dakota – Many believe Conrad is heading for retirement in two years, given the fact that North Dakota is a firmly red state at present and Democrats just lost the other Senate seat (badly) and the state’s at-large House seat last week. Conrad has presented himself as a centrist, but he was a yes vote on Obamacare. That hasn’t been seen by the electorate as a particularly centrist position, and less-conservative jurisdictions than North Dakota’s have punished such a vote accordingly. Conrad would have to be considered an endangered species at this point.
Bill Nelson, Florida – Florida Democrats were largely wiped out last week, as the GOP now controls the governor’s mansion, four new House seats and both houses of the state legislature. What’s more, the message voters in the Sunshine State seem to be sending is the more conservative the candidate, the better – as Rick Scott and Marco Rubio proved by beating establishment candidates in primaries on the way to comfortable wins in the general election. Nelson, who will be 70 in 2012, isn’t as irritating as an Alan Grayson or Ron Klein, but his stock in trade has been pandering to senior citizens. The Rubio election showed that playing the Social Security card doesn’t work anymore, and that’s an indication that a strong conservative challenger – as opposed to another retread like Bill McCollum, who lost to Nelson four years ago – could take Nelson down. Interim Sen. George LeMieux, appointed by Gov. Charlie Crist but who turned on his benefactor and endorsed Rubio when Crist left the GOP, could be a player in that race; Rubio owes LeMieux a favor and he generally got good reviews for his time in the Senate.
Debbie Stabenow, Michigan – Michigan has been safely Democrat for a good while, but Republicans are coming on strong there now. Rob Snyder crushed Virg Benero in the gubernatorial race last week, the state houses flipped hard to the GOP and Bart Stupak’s seat is now in Republican hands. Stabenow’s seat is likely next; word has it that orthopedic surgeon and health-care expert Dr. David Janda will run against Stabenow, and if Janda does make that run things could get ugly. Think Blanche Lincoln. Former GOP Gov. John Engler is also reportedly mulling a run, though a hypothetical poll back in March on an Engler-Stabenow matchup was a virtual tie.
Jim Webb, Virginia – Webb’s election in 2006 was a freakish event in the first place, as before George Allen’s “macaca” scandal bore fruit nobody thought it was possible. In the meantime Webb has emerged as one of the least likable or influential senators on Capitol Hill, and since 2008 the Democrats have been getting hammered in Virginia with regularity. What’s more, the Republicans have a rising star in attorney general Ken Cuccinelli, and there are rumors it will be the champion of the state’s legal fight against Obamacare rather than a comeback-seeking Allen who could be the GOP’s nominee before it’s over. Either would be favored over Webb. There’s also talk that House Minority Whip Eric Cantor might run; Webb can’t beat Cantor.
Jon Tester, Montana – Montana is very much like the nearby Dakotas or Wyoming; it’s a bright red state which nevertheless seems to have a number of Democrats in positions of high office. But the takeover of the national party by the Soros/Obama crowd is bad news for a guy like Tester, and in two years he might well pay the price. Rep. Danny Rehberg is a rising star there, and he might well be an instrument of Tester’s demise. Tester, after all, won election in 2006 with just 49.6 percent of the vote.
Robert Casey, Pennsylvania – Pat Toomey and Tom Corbett weren’t the only indications of a GOP stampede last week – the Republicans made major gains in the state houses and landed five House seats. Casey is a faux moderate who touts a pro-life stance as evidence he’s a conservative Democrat – but votes for stimulus, bailouts and Obamacare will trump the abortion issue. He’ll raise a ton of money and he’ll be something of a hill to climb, but a quality GOP candidate will beat him in 2012.
Jeff Bingaman, New Mexico — Republicans won the governorship and a key House seat in New Mexico this year, and the party is extremely excited about rising star governor Susana Martinez. The abject corruption of Bill Richardson’s administration has badly damaged the Democrats in the Land of Enchantment; that could put Bingaman in a tough race in two years. In fact, there are rumors he’s considering retiring
Robert Menendez, New Jersey – New Jersey seems to be swinging back to the right thanks to Chris Christie’s becoming a cult figure and some GOP gains in the House. Menendez is the representative of the teachers’ unions and old-fashioned Democrat machine politics Christie is making so much hay in tearing apart, so his re-election bid will be a referendum on the direction the state will pursue. There are a host of Christie acolytes waiting in the wings to take Menendez on, but don’t sleep on former CNN newsman Lou Dobbs, who it’s rumored is a likely candidate for the race. A Dobbs-Menendez election would be a fascinating thing to watch.
Amy Klobuchar, Minnesota – Klobuchar won election with 58 percent of the vote, but Minnesota is turning more purple these days despite what looks like a close Democrat flip in the race for the governor’s seat being vacated by Tim Pawlenty. Should Pawlenty’s presidential campaign not bear fruit, he might decide to refocus on the Senate and Klobuchar would have some trouble beating him.
That’s 15 seats the Democrats will have to hang onto, all of which are in states where Republicans either dominate or are ascendant. The field is much more advantageous for GOP challengers than it was last week, when Republicans were able to take down six of 13 reasonably attainable targets. With 13 pickups, a Republican majority could get to the 60 seats necessary to make hard legislative choices without bipartisan agreement.
But other Democrats are safer…
Dianne Feinstein, California – California is lost, generally speaking, to the Republicans. Maybe if the state completely goes bankrupt by 2012, which is possible, Feinstein might be vulnerable. But if Carly Fiorina, with all the money she poured into beating an unpopular Barbara Boxer, couldn’t win it’s hard to imagine anyone emerging who can take down Feinstein.
Tom Carper, Delaware – Delaware is generally regarded as a hopeless cause for Republicans, though it will be interesting to see whether Christine O’Donnell’s quirky candidacy has blazed a trail at all. Carper has made noises about potentially retiring, and the word is his health isn’t good. In fact, it was Carper’s health which was the reason why state Attorney General Beau Biden opted not to run this year when Mike Castle was considered as unbeatable before O’Donnell took him down in the GOP primary. The scenario the insiders say is likely is Carper retiring, Biden getting into the race and no Republican of any note emerging to challenge him.
Daniel Akaka, Hawaii – Akaka, who will be 88 in 2012, is another reported candidate for retirement, and if he’s out of the mix things could get interesting. Republican Linda Lingle, the outgoing governor, supposedly has her eye on this seat. If Akaka isn’t in the mix, this might become a winnable seat. That said, Hawaii is a very safe blue state. It would take an unusual turn of events for the GOP to take this seat.
Joe Lieberman, Connecticut – Lieberman isn’t vulnerable to a GOP challenge, but it’s entirely possible he might have trouble in a primary again. When he lost to Ned Lamont in the 2006 Democrat primary and survived as an independent, it infuriated the left wing of the Democrat Party in that state and the lefties have promised to get him ever since. Rep. Chris Murphy, who survived a challenge from Republican state sen. Sam Caliguiri last week, is apparently the next Lamont. The question is whether such a development would make a Republican candidacy more viable in a state which gave Linda McMahon 43 percent of the vote.
Sheldon Whitehouse, Rhode Island – Rhode Island is beginning to look a little more conservative-friendly, but there is no indication Whitehouse is in any trouble.
Bernie Sanders, Vermont – Sanders is the only admitted socialist in the Senate, but in Vermont that actually makes him more popular.
Maria Cantwell, Washington – If Dino Rossi couldn’t beat Patty Murray, there is no reason to think the Washington GOP can beat Cantwell. Rossi carried the eastern two-thirds of the state and the far northwest and southwest, but got killed in the Seattle metro area which represents the majority of the state’s population. It’s going to take someone of extreme charisma to upset that dynamic. Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers is the most high-profile potential candidate, though in a hypothetical poll Cantwell beat McMorris Rodgers 49-37.
Ben Cardin, Maryland – Cardin is a hack whose election belies the hard-core Democrat character of the electorate in federal-employee-rich Maryland; he got 54 percent of the vote against Michael Steele in 2006 and now that Steele is the RNC chairman a hypothetical rematch goes to Cardin 58-28. That said, Cardin will be 69 years old in 2012, and the same poll only gives him 51 percent in a generic matchup. It’s an uphill battle but if a really good Republican candidate – like Charles Lollar, who gave Steny Hoyer a good race this year for Hoyer’s House seat – were to emerge, this one might not be hopeless after all.
Of the 10 Republicans up for re-election, only three look vulnerable to Democrat challenges…
Scott Brown, Massachusetts – Brown’s election early this year was supposed to herald a Republican comeback in the Bay State, but the GOP did absolutely nothing last week in House races and a third-party challenge killed a chance for a Republican defeat of Deval Patrick, one of the country’s worst Democrat governors. Brown will therefore be the Democrats’ biggest Senate target, and he’d better get his kneepads out – because he’s going to need to raise $15 million to survive and the begging will need to start right away. RealClearPolitics says Rep. Ed Markey is the top Democrat candidate aiming for Brown; Markey is just obnoxious enough that Brown can beat him.
John Ensign, Nevada – Ensign, who got caught having an affair with a staffer and then trying to cover it up, is likely to find himself in a tough re-election battle. In fact, that battle might start in the primary, as GOP Rep. Dean Heller, who is very popular in Nevada, is considering running against Ensign after passing on the race against Harry Reid this year. The Democrats’ bench is a bit thin; if Heller were to end up as the GOP nominee this seat ought to be an easy hold. But if it’s Ensign, he’s going to need to take several pages out of David Vitter’s book in order to pull out a victory.
Olympia Snowe, Maine – Snowe has long been considered a best-of-all-possible-worlds Republican in traditionally left-leaning Maine, but those assumptions might be losing validity. Maine is turning red; Republicans just won the governor’s mansion and both state houses, there, though Dean Scontras’ insurgent candidacy against Democrat Rep. Chellie Pingree fell short last week. A Tea Party activist, Scott D’Ambroise, has already announced he’s running against Snowe on the GOP side. It’s also a possibility that Snowe, who will be 67 in 2012, might retire.
Snowe and Ensign aren’t the only GOP incumbents who might retire or face tough primary challenges…
Orrin Hatch, Utah – Many conservatives believe what happened to Bob Bennett should happen to Hatch. In their view he’s been there too long and made too many shady deals. Utah is conservative enough that somebody can be found to knock Hatch off, though the 34-year Senate veteran is out defending his record as a conservative. Word is that freshman Rep. Jason Chaffetz, who really likes TV cameras, is mulling a primary run. The Democrats have virtually no chance to beat Hatch.
Kay Bailey Hutchison, Texas – Hutchinson, who has a reputation as an incorrigible RINO, vowed to quit the Senate when she challenged incumbent Rick Perry in the GOP gubernatorial primary earlier this year. That hasn’t been forgotten by anyone. The question now is whether she’ll honor her secondary commitment to retire at the end of her term. She’s going to get a primary challenge if she doesn’t, as the contenders – Texas Railroad Commissioner Michael L. Williams, Republican fundraiser and former state Secretary of the State Roger Williams, and state Railroad Commissioner Elizabeth Ames Jones – are already lining up to have a whack at the seat. The Democrats don’t appear to be a viable party statewide in Texas anymore after last week.
Richard Lugar, Indiana – There is a wealth of good young Republican talent bubbling up in Indiana, including a pair of recent Congressional-seat winners in Marlin Stutsman and Todd Young, and Democrats no longer appear to be competitive statewide in one of the brightest-red states in the newly-red Midwest. As a result, Lugar – who has long prided himself as a moderate Republican and a deal-maker – could be looking at a stirring among the conservatives in his state. He’ll be 80 in 2012 and he’ll be running for his 7th term.
Roger Wicker, Mississippi – Wicker’s seat is quite safe from a Democrat challenge based on the current direction of Mississippi politics, where even long-time Democrat Gene Taylor found himself out of a job after last week. As such, Wicker – whose voting record is fairly conservative but whose profile is lower than some might hope for – was singled out as one of two top potential Tea Party GOP primary victims by Redstate.com’s Erick Erickson.
Then there are the safe Republican seats…
John Barrasso, Wyoming – Wyoming is safe Republican territory and Barrasso is generally well-regarded inside the state. Unless something changes he looks safer than any Democrat other than Feinstein or Sanders. Republican hold, in all likelihood.
Bob Corker, Tennessee – Corker generally gets mixed reviews, as many think he tends to the RINO side but others tout his skill at legislative maneuvering and his acceptable lifetime 83 percent voting record score from the American Conservative Union. There’s talk Hank Williams, Jr. might run against him in the Republican primary; no offense to Bocephus, but if that’s the toughest competition Corker gets he’s home free.
Jon Kyl, Arizona – Kyl’s running for re-election in a state where Democrats are no longer competitive statewide and he doesn’t appear to have any competition from the right.
It seems almost impossible, based on the above, for the GOP not to gain control of the Senate in the 2012 cycle. The question is whether Republicans gain a slim majority of seats, or whether they’re able to bring legislation to a floor vote without Democrats having the ability to filibuster it.