My prediction: The next Senate will be Democrats 56 Republicans 44 (D + 3). The Democratic numbers include two independents expected to caucus with the Democrats. If I had made this prediction a year ago it would have been laughed at as utterly insane. As it is, I’m predicting two to four more Democratic seats than do most pundits. The RCP “no tossups” map shows the Democrats up 54 – 46.
Going into 2012 it looked certain that the Republicans would gain the majority in the Senate. Math was on their side – Democrats had 23 seats to defend, the Republicans only 10. This was the result of the skewed wave election of 2006, when anti-war sentiment led voters to give Democrats a huge midterm victory. With the Senate at 53 to 47 the GOP needs to pick up only four to have a majority (or three should Governor Romney win the Presidency).
Safe seats: Each party has a number of “safe seats.”
Republican safe: Utah, Wyoming, Texas, Mississippi, Tennesse (5)
Democratic safe: Washington, Minnesota, California, Michigan, West Virginia, New York, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Maryland, West Virginia and Delaware. (11)
That leaves 17 “real” races out there. If they were split 50-50 the GOP would gain three to four seats and yield a 50-50 Senate or even a Republican majority. However, the Democrats look to outperform expectations actually pick up seats in a year that had looked disastrous to them. State by State:
Likely Democratic Holds
NEW MEXICO: At one point Heather Wilson looked to mount a strong challenge to Democrat Martin Heinrich for the seat being vacated by Democrat Jeff Bingaman. Although one poll shows her down in the high double digits to Heinrich, most show Heinrich leading comfortably. Given Obama’s popularity and the likelihood of high Latino turnout, I call this for Heinrich.
FLORIDA: Bill Nelson was seen by many as likely to fall to Connie Mack this year, as Nelson suffered low job approval and doesn’t appear a “natural” politician. Connie Mack seemed more charismatic and energized. Nelson has managed to lead most polls, often in the double digits. Nelson should hold his seat.
Toss up states likely to stay Democratic:
CONNECTICUT: At one point Linda McMahon hoped to use her wealth along with experience from her narrow 2010 defeat to overwhelm Democrat Chris Murphy. However, Murphy has shown a steady 4 to 6 point lead in the polls, and despite a self-financed last minute ad-blitz by McMahon, Murphy looks likely to win this seat being vacated by Joe Lieberman.
MISSOURI: Although I’m not certain Akin won’t come back — a lot of late money has flowed into this race — Republican Todd Akin, a tea party favorite who defeated moderates Sarah Steelman and John Brunner in the primary, is consistently down in the polls by 4 to 5 points. This was an easy GOP pick up for anyone by Akin. If he hadn’t made his controversial comments about “legitimate rape,” causing a queasy GOP to abandon him (at least until near the end), he’d have won. His rape comments, however, now make it probable McCaskill will hold her seat.
MONTANA: This race has bounced back and forth, and Democratic incumbent Jon Tester appears slightly up against Denny Rehberg. It could go either way, but I think late momentum is with Tester and he’ll pull it off. This is a state Republicans really hope to pick up. I struggled with this pick.
NORTH DAKOTA: Late polls show this race a toss up, and Democrat Heidi Heitkamp seems to have momentum. That said, Republican Rick Berg has had consistent leads of about 5 points. I think Heitkamp plays well to the independent Dakota mentality and I predict she’ll pull it off, holding for the Democrats the seat vacated with Kent Conrad’s retirement.
OHIO: Incumbent Sherrod Brown has suffered low approval ratings and a genuine decline in popularity, and if he had been on the ballot in 2010, he’d surely have lost. Republicans thought they had a very good shot at this, but so far Josh Mandel seems to be falling short. Brown should hold his seat.
PENNSYLVANIA: Bob Casey is a new deal liberal Democrat who many considered very vulnerable in this election cycle. Lately challenger Tom Smith has been closing the gap and I’m not as convinced now as I was two weeks ago that Casey will win. He remains the favorite.
VIRGINIA: This is a very close race, both in the polling and due to the fact there are two popular candidates. Tim Kaine has polled better in the more reputable polls than Republican George Allen. They are contesting the seat Democrat Jim Webb decided to abandon after one term. Very close, but Kaine should win.
WISCONSIN: This seat looked to be trending strongly towards Democrat Tammy Baldwin, who emerged as a surprisingly strong contender against former Governor Tommy Thompson. Thompson was rusty on the campaign trail and seemed to lack the energy for a tough fight. Lately Thompson has been closing in and polls vary. Baldwin seems to be holding her slight lead, and so I predict she’ll keep Democratic the seat open due to the retirement of Herb Kohl.
Toss up states likely to stay Republican
NEVADA: Dean Heller was appointed to replace scandal ridden Senator John Ensign. Shelly Berkley has mounted a decent challenge, but has not performed as well as Democrats hoped. Still, it remains close. In 2010 polls had Sharon Angle at a similar advantage over incumbent Harry Reid, but Reid prevailed due to strong Latino turnout. It might happen again, though I suspect pollsters have learned there lesson. Heller’s small lead has been consistent.
Predicted Democratic pickups
ARIZONA: This is my long shot pick, Democrat Richard Carmona upending Congressman Jeff Flake. Carmona, Attorney General under President Bush, has mounted a behind the scenes insurgency to catch up to Flake. This race got no notice until a few weeks ago when Carmona zoomed ahead in some polls. Though the Republicans have responded with lots of money and support, Carmona could be bolstered by a better than expected Hispanic turnout. I’m going to bet Carmona here – it just feels like he’s going to emerge on top.
INDIANA: This was the safest Republican seat in the country (other than Maine) going into the election cycle. Richard Lugar’s re-election was assured. Then tea partier Richard Mourdock upended Lugar in the primary to face conservative Democrat Joe Donnelly. Like Akin, Mourdock tripped over comments about rape and women’s rights, and now appears unlikely to win. Surprisingly, Indiana should be the most easy Democratic pick up this cycle.
MAINE: Maine was also a sure bet for the Republicans before Senator Olympia Snowe announced her retirement. At first people expected a hotly contested race, but then two things happened. First, Independent former Governor Angus King got in the race, and second very liberal Cynthia Dill won the Democratic primary. This has assured that King will retain solid Democratic support. Though coy on which party he’ll caucus with, King will be unlikely to embrace a Republican party that has viciously attacked him throughout the campaign. Maine and Indiana will be two Democratic pick ups, both unthinkable two years ago, but now close to sure things.
MASSACHUSETTS: Scott Brown won Ted Kennedy’s seat back in 2010 and despite being a tea party favorite at the time, he’s been a traditional New England Republican – moderate and reasonable. Despite amassing a fortune for this contest, Elizabeth Warren has bested him in debates and appears poised to take back the seat for the Democrats. Ted Kennedy would be pleased.
Predicted Republican Pickups:
NEBRASKA: Up until a couple weeks ago this was a no brainer. Bob Kerrey as an elder statesman no longer had the appeal he had when he was Nebraska’s favorite son twenty years ago. He’s lived too long outside the state and was no match for Republican Deb Fischer. Recently some polls showed the contest tightening to within 3 to 5 points (others see Fischer retaining her lead). Chuck Hagel and Joe Lieberman have endorsed Kerrey. Some Democrats are hopeful, especially given Kerrey’s history of late minute comebacks. But it is a tough task – Fischer should win, a GOP pick up of the seat being vacated by Democrat Ben Nelson.
Analysis: It could have been even much rosier for the GOP. If the Republicans had chosen the moderate, establishment Senate candidates in Colorado, Nevada and Delaware in 2010, the Senate would be sitting at 50-50 right now. In this cycle extreme candidates threaten a GOP seat in Indiana and could squander the best Republican pick up opportunity of the year in Missouri. Given that partisanship led Olympia Snowe to retire and give up her safe Republican seat in Maine, between 2010 and 2012 six seats that would be certain Republican are now possible or probable Democrat — all because the GOP chose to go with ideologues over moderates.
In any event, the idea that the Democrats could emerge from this election cycle remaining in control of the Senate, let alone potentially gaining seats, is perhaps the most amazing story from this election cycle. The races are close enough that the Republicans could still gain a majority — but unless the polls are way off, that’s unlikely.