Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Battle for the Senate

If I've heard it once, I've heard it a thousand times.

Practically since the last vote was counted in the 2010 midterm elections, supporters of the administration have bemoaned the difficulty of accomplishing anything with this Congress. Barack Obama can't do anything with this do–nothing Congress, they say.

I find myself struggling to follow the logic.

If the administration has been unable to accomplish its objectives because the Congress — more specifically, the House because that is the chamber that is controlled by the Republicans — has been obstructing its efforts, then it seems to me there are really only two options:
  1. Change the president to one who will work with the Congress or

  2. Change the majority in Congress to one that will work with the president.
If the American people decide collectively that they want cooperation between the executive and legislative branches of the federal government, the former seems more likely than the latter.

I mean, for Democrats to control both chambers of Congress, they would need to reverse the outcome of the midterm House elections, and that's a very tall order.

In 2010, Republicans took 64 seats from the Democrats. It wouldn't be necessary for Democrats to win that many to reclaim control of the House — unless the objective was not merely to win control of it but to regain the margin Democrats enjoyed in Obama's first two years in office.

To seize an extremely narrow majority (but a majority nevertheless) in the House, Democrats would need to increase their total by 25 seats in November. That certainly isn't impossible. Americans have taken at least 21 House seats from one party and given them to the other in the last three elections — but two of those elections were midterm election years, not presidential election years.

Historically, such turnover in Congress typically happens in midterm elections.

The party of an incumbent president who is seeking another term usually wins a few House seats in the process, whether the president wins or not, but only one such incumbent in the last 60 years has seen his party win as many seats as Democrats need to capture the House in 2012.

And no one has been suggesting that Democrats are likely to do that.

Larry Sabato's Crystal Ball indicates that Republicans currently are likely to hold 234 seats, which is 16 more than they need to ensure a majority in 2013 and 2014. Democrats can expect to hold 186. A total of 15 seats are regarded as tossups.

The Rothenberg Political Report says only six House seats are "pure tossups" — and there are five more, although Rothenberg indicates that those seats are leaning, however slightly, to one party or the other.

Well, one thing is certainly clear. Barring the development of something totally unexpected, the numbers just don't seem to be there to flip the House back to the Democrats.

That doesn't faze some of the Democrats I know.

It's no secret that Congress isn't popular, but many Democrats appear to be gambling that, because of that unpopularity, not only will Obama be re–elected but the voters, frustrated by gridlock, will give him a Congress that will work with him.

Don't hold your breath — at least on the latter — writes Alan Abramowitz for Sabato's Crystal Ball.

"[D]espite the abysmal approval ratings that Congress has been receiving," Abramowitz writes, "2012 will not be an anti–incumbent election. That's because opinions about the performance of Congress and opinions about whether most congressional incumbents deserve to be re–elected have little or no influence on the outcomes of congressional elections."

Sweeping losses in the House in a presidential election year (in which a 25–seat turnover is possible) tend to happen when the president (or his surrogate) is in trouble with the voters — in 2008, for example, when Obama was elected after eight years of Republican rule, and in 1980, when Jimmy Carter lost in a landslide.

If a change is going to come in Congress, it seems more likely to come in the Senate, where the Democrats' once filibuster–proof majority was reduced significantly in the 2010 midterms but they still clung to a bare majority.

Only 51 members of the Senate are Democrats, and two independent members of the chamber typically vote with the Democrats, giving them 53 seats. Forty–seven members of the chamber are Republicans.

It's safe to say that — numerically, at least — the bar for success is much lower in the Senate.

If Obama is re–elected, Republicans would need to win four Senate seats to have control of both chambers. That might be easier said than done, but incumbents who win re–election have been known to lose some ground in the Senate simultaneously. Bill Clinton's Democrats lost three Senate seats when he was re–elected in 1996, and Ronald Reagan's Republicans lost a single Senate seat in 1984.

If Obama is defeated, Republicans would need to win only three seats. That would produce a 50–50 tie, but the Republicans would have effective control of the chamber because the new vice president, who would be responsible for casting any tie–breaking votes, would be a Republican.

The fortunes of the individual presidential nominees in certain states could influence the outcome of the battle for the Senate. Rothenberg observes that ticket splitting, in which someone votes for the nominee of one party at the top of the ticket but votes for nominees from the other party in races down the ballot, is "increasingly rare" in America.

Thus, the trend to straight–ticket voting should work in Obama's favor in places like Hawaii and Massachusetts. Both states have long histories of supporting Democrats for president, and both will have Senate races this year. Logically, both seats should be in Democratic hands after the votes are counted, but both are a bit shaky.

In Hawaii, Democratic incumbent Daniel Akaka is retiring, and in Massachusetts, Scott Brown is running for a full six–year term after winning last year's special election to succeed Ted Kennedy. Obama's presence on the ballot could help his party retain — or regain — those seats.

But Obama could just as easily hurt Democratic prospects in states like Missouri, Montana, Nebraska and North Dakota, Rothenberg says. Presently, Democrats hold all four seats, but two are retiring, and those seats are regarded as likely to flip to the Republicans. The incumbents are running in the other two states, and those races are regarded as tossups by both Sabato and Rothenberg.

Nebraska was already likely to elect a Republican senator before incumbent Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson opted to retire, Sabato writes, so that didn't significantly alter the terrain, and that certainly makes sense, given the state's electoral history. But Nelson's decision "makes a Republican takeover of the Senate a little more likely," Sabato observes.

The task could be made even easier in the weeks and months ahead — and Rothenberg points out that it all could come down to half a dozen states that are considered battlegrounds in the presidential race — and also happen to have Senate races on the ballot: Florida, Nevada, New Mexico, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin.

Five of those seats (all but Nevada's) are currently held by Democrats, and three of those Democrats (the ones from New Mexico, Virginia and Wisconsin) are retiring.

New Mexico may be small, but it bears watching. With a reputation for being a bellwether (it's been on the winning side in 23 of the last 25 elections), it might be the most accurate political barometer on Election Night — in more ways than one.

Virginia, as I wrote last month, had been in the Republican column for more than 40 years until it voted for Obama in 2008. But his popularity has declined there, and I am sure that the state will vote Republican in November. The next question would be, will the Republican nominee's coattails help the GOP retake the seat it lost in 2006?

I don't know what to expect in Wisconsin. The state has supported Democratic presidential nominees in the last six presidential elections, and it has seldom sent Republicans to the Senate since the days of Joe McCarthy — but it voted for a Republican over three–term Sen. Russ Feingold i 2010, and it has frequently elected Republican governors, including the one who was elected in 2010.

Both Obama and his eventual opponent can be expected to spend a lot of time and money in those states. It remains to be seen what kind of an effect the presidential race has on the Senate campaigns there.

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