Tuesday, June 22, 2010

An Early Glance at the Senate Races

We're well into the nominating season for the 2010 midterm elections.

Some people have suggested that 2010 will be an anti–incumbent year, although there hasn't really been much evidence of this in the primaries — as cable TV's Rachel Maddow pointed out recently.

But political parties rarely reject incumbents. Instead, if an incumbent is going to be denied another term, it is likely to happen in the general election.

My argument — which, I must admit, was somewhat discredited by the results in Arkansas this month, although I'm sticking with it for now — has been that the parties, of late, have been pulled to greater extremes and nominate candidates who represent those views. Rarely, it seems, does a party nominate a self–proclaimed centrist for anything other than the presidency (and the "centrist" presidential candidates often turn out to be a lot less centrist than advertised).

Since there are no presidential nominations to be won this year, states will be holding their primaries through the summer months, even into the autumn, and we won't know until perhaps mid– to late September the identities of all the candidates who have been chosen by their parties to run for governor, senator, congressman. Voters in three states — the Carolinas and Utah — are going to the polls today.

My guess — keep in mind that we are barely past the first official day of summer, more than four months from Election Day — is that most of the nominees are going to reflect the views and values of the national party leadership. There will be some exceptions, but not many.

And, even though more Americans identify themselves as independents than Democrats or Republicans, most will have to choose between the candidates who were nominated by the two parties.

If the nation's independents truly are centrists, the elections may be decided by something as simple as which way the political wind is blowing.

And the prevailing wind seems to be blowing from the right.

Gallup reports that Republicans are very enthusiastic about voting in the midterm elections. Their level of enthusiasm smashes the numbers shown by either party since Gallup first asked respondents about their enthusiasm in 1994.

If Gallup's numbers imply anything, it is that enthusiasm usually translates to turnout because the party that has more enthusiastic members usually does better. And when one party has the edge in enthusiasm, it becomes a numbers game. If certain groups show up in greater numbers than other groups, their agenda, whatever it may be, is likely to prevail. And a party's agenda typically is embodied in its nominees.

If the majorities in either chamber are diminished, Barack Obama and the Democrats will have more difficulty enacting their initiatives than they have had in the first 1½ years of the Obama presidency — when the numbers in both chambers have been so favorable to the Democrats that it is hard to understand why anything in their 2008 platform has not been voted into law.

It is good news that jobs are being added to the economy, but the pace is too slow for many Americans who have already been asked to be patient long enough. Right now, it is barely keeping pace with the growth of the working–age population. Admittedly, that's better than the constantly–losing–enormous–amounts–of–ground cycle that we were in, but we aren't reclaiming those jobs we lost or creating jobs to replace them nearly as rapidly as we lost them.

Think about it. Millions of Americans have been left jobless since the recession began in December 2007, and we are often reminded that the number of long–term unemployed (six months or more) is higher than it has ever been.

I think it is safe to assume that many of the long–term unemployed have been out of work since before Obama was elected president. For them, the prospect of a "lost decade" is not theoretical. It is frighteningly real.

And it's the kind of reality that influences a working man's vote. A working man who isn't working has time on his hands to think about his predicament. Democrats tell him, "It was Bush's fault that you lost your job," and he may agree with them.

But that man who is unemployed and may have a family to feed and clothe may then reply, "But I voted for your guy to fix things. And things aren't fixed."

The fact is that the Democrats can continue to control the agenda in the House, even if their majority is reduced. But Senate Democrats will be in serious trouble if they don't have the votes to break a Republican filibuster.

So, barring the kind of political tidal wave that swept in Republican majorities in both houses of Congress in 1994, this year's Senate races hold the keys to federal legislative power in the next two years.

Midterms typically go against the party in power — especially if the party in power seems to be controlled by events and not in control of events. How Democrats are perceived in November may well depend on how (and if) the oil spill in the Gulf is resolved or how many more jobs have been added to the economy (and whether enough have been added to bring unemployment down significantly) — or events yet to come.

Things may be better or worse — or unchanged — by the time the voters go to the polls this fall. Many had already come of age or were coming of age when Ronald Reagan summarized the perpetual question facing Americans — are you better off than you were four years ago? For far too many, the answer to that question seems likely to be a resounding "No!" (Interestingly, Bob Herbert of the New York Times warns today that "the greatness of the United States ... is steadily slipping away.")

With that in mind, here are the Senate seats I think Democrats are most likely to lose in November. A lot can happen in 4½ months, but if nothing of any positive significance occurs — like a dramatic decline in the unemployment rate — these are the seats Democrats need to worry about.
  • Arkansas: Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln won the battle with Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, but I think she will lose the war.

    Different polls report different results, of course, but Arkansas has been trending more to the right in recent years, and I'm inclined to believe the GOP will take Lincoln's seat in November. The only poll I've seen so far since the June 8 runoff showed Lincoln's opponent, Rep. John Boozman, leading by nearly two to one. His margin was smaller in a couple of polls I saw before the runoff — one co–sponsored by liberal–leaning Daily Kos, the other commissioned by Arkansas News Bureau — but Boozman seems likely to win Arkansas in what is shaping up to be a Republican year.

  • Colorado: When Barack Obama picked Democratic Sen. Ken Salazar to be his secretary of the Interior, Colorado's governor picked Michael Bennet to complete Salazar's term, which is about to conclude. According to a Denver Post survey, Bennet and Republican Ken Buck are likely to win their parties' nominations and face each other in the fall.

    If that comes to pass, the same survey (which concluded last week) suggests Buck has a slight advantage that almost falls within the margin of error.

    Elections often seem to be close in Colorado. I'm guessing this one will be, too.

  • Delaware: The seat that was once held by Vice President Joe Biden was expected to remain in the family, but Biden's son decided not to enter the race.

    I haven't seen any polls lately, but I've heard and read commentaries that suggested that Republicans are favored to win the seat.

  • Illinois: Does it seem strange that Obama's old Senate seat is in jeopardy? Perhaps. But the corrupt governor, who was responsible for appointing Obama's replacement, did the new president no favors by virtually auctioning the seat to the highest bidder. And then Obama's replacement made the situation worse with his own ethical issues.

    The good news for Democrats is that the replacement won't be on the ballot. That's also the bad news. Because, although the seat is currently held by the Democrats, it is an open seat — and that, I'm guessing, will work in the favor of the Republicans.

  • Indiana: It was my opinion, when I watched the election returns in November 2008, that Indiana's support for Obama was an aberration. Indiana has a long Republican history, and it makes sense that Republican Dan Coats enjoys a solid lead over Democrat Brad Ellsworth — Rasmussen says he's up by 14 points — in the campaign for the seat being vacated by Democrat Evan Bayh.

  • Nevada: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is in trouble, and everyone seems to know it.

    His opponent, a Christian conservative and a darling of the Tea Partiers, Sharron Angle, leads him by 11 points, says Rasmussen in a survey that was published a couple of weeks ago.

  • Pennsylvania: Here is a rare example of an incumbent being voted out by his party. But that isn't the whole story. Arlen Specter had been a member of the Republican Party most of his adult life. But he switched parties last year and ran for the Democratic nomination this year. He wasn't the first party switcher to run into problems with his new party. He wasn't even the first this year. Alabama Rep. Parker Griffith suffered the same fate when he left the Democrats to join the Republicans.

    Anyway, Joe Sestak, the guy who beat Specter in the Democratic primary, is even with Republican Pat Toomey, according to Public Policy Polling. Rasmussen says Toomey has a seven–point lead. Daily Kos' findings are nearly a month old, but they showed Sestak with a narrow lead.

    I anticipate a close race.
Well, the Democrats currently hold 59 seats in the Senate so they could lose all seven of those seats and still maintain a majority. But such a majority would have much more in common with the majority Democrats enjoyed following the 2006 midterms, not the "filibuster–proof" majority they had when Al Franken was declared the winner in Minnesota at the end of June last year — and then lost when Republicans won Ted Kennedy's Senate seat in January's special election.

As I say, events in the next four months will influence things in ways we can't imagine right now, but, assuming nothing changes dramatically, Republicans will need to win three additional seats to seize control of the chamber. Is that possible?

On the surface, I would say no. A couple of seats that are currently held by women — Barbara Boxer of California and Patty Murray of Washington — could be in jeopardy. Recent polls suggest that both Boxer and Murray have seen early leads shrink in recent weeks.

And Republicans are not free of anxiety seats, either. Take, for example, the Ohio Senate seat currently held by George Voinovich, who is retiring. A couple of weeks ago, Rasmussen reported a tie between Republican Rob Portman and Democrat Lee Fisher. If Republicans lose that seat, it means one more seat will be needed to accomplish a takeover.

Presumably, the same thing could be said of Florida's race for a Republican–held Senate seat. At one time, Gov. Charlie Crist was a candidate for the Republican nomination. But, apparently convinced he could not win, Crist withdrew and decided to run as an independent. Now, Rasmussen reports that Crist is locked in a tight race with his former GOP rival, Marco Rubio.

In Florida, the Democrat appears to be far behind. And, given his background, I would expect Crist to vote far more often with the Republicans than the Democrats if he should win the election. So, while it is possible the Republican Party will lose technical control of the seat, it is unlikely that the Republican philosophy will lose control of it.

But, even if the Republicans hold on to Voinovich's seat in Ohio, and Boxer and Murray are upset in California and Washington, that would mean a 50–50 split. Joe Biden would get the deciding vote, which would give the Democrats the same kind of control over the Senate that the Republicans had in the first few months of George W. Bush's presidency.

Republicans would still need one more seat, but where would they get it? Wisconsin, perhaps. Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold appears to face a stiffer challenge from Ron Johnson than Bob Westlake, but Feingold won't know the identity of his opponent until the primary is held in September. Feingold is accustomed to tight races. He is seeking his fourth term; in his previous three victories, his share of the vote was 53% (in 1992), 51% (in 1998) and 55% (in 2004).

Other than the Wisconsin seat, I can't really think of any Democrat–held seats that would make viable targets for Republicans, but that, I suppose, can change, depending on whether the voters think they are better off now than they were a few years ago.

Still, there is that Gallup survey that shows enthusiasm at an astonishingly high level for Republicans this year. Maybe that will affect the outcome in Wisconsin — or in Connecticut, where Chris Dodd's seat is up for grabs.

But even a tidal wave of voter discontent seems unlikely to dislodge any other Democratic senators in 2010 — at the present time.

We'll see how things look at the end of the summer, when we probably will have some answers to some questions, such as ...
  • Has the leak been plugged in the Gulf?

  • If it has, how is the cleanup progressing?

  • Is the economy still adding jobs ... or has it been stumbling?

  • Is the American military presence in Iraq really winding down?

  • And what about the military mission in Afghanistan?
At National Review, Jim Geraghty wonders if Democrats can re–create the magic that led to Obama's victory two years ago.

It's still a little early to reach a conclusion on that, and there is plenty of time for both parties to influence the answer, but, right now, I would have to say that answer will be the same as it was to Reagan's question 30 years ago.

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