Heading into 2012 elections, the Democratic Party has a huge task in trying to hold onto the US Senate. They must defend 23 of the 33 seats up for grabs, and roughly half of those races are shaping up to be quite competitive.
Republicans have just 10 seats to defend in 2012. Of those, they will be favored to win eight, lose one, and the other is a pure tossup. (Full analysis of the GOP-contested seats can be found here.) Overall, the GOP needs to pick up a net of four seats to take control of the Senate. If Mitt Romney is elected President, the party will need a net pickup of three seats as the vice-president acts as the tiebreaker in senate votes.
Easy Democratic Holds
With 23 seats to defend, the Democrats will take as many easy seats as they can. The sure bets should include California (Dianne Feinstein), Delaware (Tom Carper), Maryland (Ben Cardin), Minnesota (Amy Klobuchar), New Jersey (Bob Menendez), New York (Kirsten Gillibrand), Pennsylvania (Bob Casey Jr.), Rhode Island (Sheldon Whitehouse), Vermont (Bernie Sanders), Washington (Maria Cantwell), and West Virginia (Joe Manchin). While the status of those races can change, for now they seem pretty safe.
On the other hand, the Democrats have 12 seats that are especially competitive to varying degrees, and they will probably need to win two-thirds of these to keep control of the Senate. Here, we will review the seats up for grabs, in order from least to most competitive.
Linda Lingle is a former two-term Republican Governor. She beat one of her possible general election opponents, Mazie Hirono, 52-47% in a 2002 gubernatorial race. Lingle was re-elected with a solid 63% in 2006. A moderate, Lingle has a shot in an otherwise reliably blue state.
Pete Hoekstra is a former Republican congressman from Michigan. After a series of mis-steps, polls had show Hoekstra trailing Democratic incumbent Debbie Stabenow badly. But two August polls actually showed the race tightening and Hoekstra with a small lead. Michigan has been moved into "competitive" status.
Sen. Jeff Bingaman is retiring and former GOP congresswoman Heather Wilson is taking on current congressman Martin Heinrich. Polls have showed a close race, and New Mexico - like most states on this list - saw a number of tea party victories in 2010.
Ohio is a key battleground state for President Obama in 2012 and he as unloaded an unprecedented amount of cash into the state early. The GOP had significant victories in 2010 when they picked up many seats, including for senate and governor, in the big tea party sweep year. Josh Mandel won statewide in 2010 to become State Treasurer, has raised a good chunk of money, and is well-positioned to challenge freshman incumbent Sherrod Brown. Polls have shown Mandel fairing well against Brown as he continues to travel the state.
Claire McCaskill is a US Senator in a state where 71% of voters approved a referendum refudiating the individual mandate provision that was part of Obamacare. While she is trying to distance herself from the Obama agenda - andeven skipping the 2012 DNC convention - there is no escaping that one, pesky little vote. Todd Akin was way up in the polls (and a seeming lock for the upset) until making a number of unforced errors that had the whole of the GOP aiming for his ouster. He refused, and the once-probably takeover is now a toss-up. The question is if Akin's comments will subside by November and if McCaskill's leftists votes will do her in despite her opponents missteps.
Joe Lieberman, an Independent who caucuses with Democrats, is retiring. Polls have shown mixed results depending on who the eventual nominee of each party is. Linda McMahon, who lost a race for the other US Senate seat 55-43% in 2010, is up against liberal Republican Chris Shays in the August 14th GOP Primary.
Bill Nelson has survived in Florida by positioning himself as a moderate “blue dog” Democrat. Casting a vote in favor of Obamacare erases that image, and Nelson is vulnerable in a state that has a Republican-heavy tilt in local elections and went all-in with Marco Rubio and the tea party in 2010. Congressman Connie Mack IV, the son of a popular former Governor, is his likely GOP challenger.
Since Obama’s election in 2008, tea party
candidates have dominated the elections in the state. Ron Johnson defeated liberal senator Russ Feingold, the GOP netted two seats in the congressional delegation, and Scott Walker won two gubernatorial elections. Now, three Republicans are looking to win the seat being vacated by Democrat Herb Kohl.
Democrat Jim Webb is calling it quits after one-term. George Allen, the once-popular former senator, is looking for his old seat back after narrowly losing it 6 years earlier. Virginia has a Republican lean and recently voted in a boatload of GOP candidates.
John Tester, like Jim Webb in Virginia, was elected in a Democratic sweep year in what should have been a safe-GOP seat. Both candidates won by less than 1% after their GOP opponents were hammered for a variety of real and manufactured scandals. Denny Rehberg is the lone congressman from the state and has won six straight statewide elections, usually with over 60% of the vote. Rehberg is a popular figure in the state, Tester broke through with less than 50% of the vote. Rehberg should be favored here.
Kent Conrad is another red-state Democrat who opted not to face the voters following his votes for Obamacare and the Obama agenda. Rick Berg won statewide election in 2010 when he easily ousted longtime Democratic rep Earl Pomeroy in the state’s lone congressional district. The other US Senate seat also went Republican in 2010 when Democrat Byron Dorgan saw his re-election chances in the state slip from slim-to-none.
Ben Nelson is another Democrat incumbent who refused to face the voters following his vote in favor of Obamacare. Running as a “moderate Democrat” has little value these days in conservative states where voters gave Democrats the benefit of the doubt. Sarah Palin-backed Republican Deb Fischer came out of nowhere to win the GOP nomination and looks a clear bet to win the seat in November.
Republicans have far fewer seats
to defend in 2012. In their 10 contests, only one is strongly favored to flip, one is competitive, and the rest lean or are safe Republican. Meanwhile, the GOP should be strong in currently Democratic-held seats in Nebraska, North Dakota, and Montana with break-even shots in Florida, Wisconsin, New Mexico, Ohio, Michigan, Missouri, and Virginia.