A 2012 Sneak Peek: U.S. Senate Edition


Here’s the good news for Democrats as I unveil my very first sneak peek at the 2012 U.S. Senate races – I’m not quite ready to project “Shellacking Part Deux.” In fact, as it stands, I only feel comfortable in predicting a single Democrat to Republican flip. That exchange is in Nebraska, where incumbent Sen. Ben Nelson appears to be in awfully rough shape heading into the next election cycle. He’s a Democrat running in a state which’ll vote against President Obama’s re-election by a hefty double-digit margin (even if Palin’s the GOP nominee). And, despite Nelson’s seniority and bonafides, Obama will probably drag the incumbent down with him.

In terms of Democratic horror stories that I feel confident about, that’s really it.

The problem is, even if Democrats aren’t necessarily doomed looking to 2012, they’re still in for a fairly uphill climb in retaining the U.S. Senate. After all, just look at the make-up of 2012 incumbents up for re-election – there are 21 Democrats, 10 Republicans, and 2 Independents (who caucus with the Dems) who will have to defend seats in the next cycle.

For Democrats, that might seem like an incredibly daunting environment, and, while to some extent it is, it’s nothing to completely freak-out about. If they fight hard enough, the Democrats can surely hold on to majority control. What leads me to that conclusion is that, of those 23 U.S. Senators who caucus with the Democratic Party, I believe 8 of them are virtually safe from being ousted from office. On top of that, I project that another 6 are “likely” to win re-election. So, right there you have 14 out of 23 Democratic caucus members that are either absolutely or likely to win. I have another 2 Democrats who I categorize in “Lead D” position. These are incumbents who, while vulnerable, I would feel fairly comfortable in betting on for re-election. So, there’s 16 out of the 23 in good shape.

From there, however, the Democrats will have to fight hard. I’ve already stated my prediction that Ben Nelson will lose re-election, so that would bring the Dems down to a 52-48 majority advantage. There are 5 Democrats who I have listed in “toss-up” territory – that is, their race is a complete jump ball and extraordinarily difficult to predict this far out. If the incumbent Republicans held onto every single seat, Democrats would need to hold 4 of the 5 “toss-up” seats to retain a majority. 3 of the 5 would result in a tie, giving the next vice president (Biden or the Republican) the tie-breaking vote.

The good news for Democrats is that I do see a few vulnerable Republicans in the 2012 cycle, most notably John Ensign and Scott Brown. Democratic pick-ups there would help big time and ensure majority control, with or without winning a majority of those “toss-ups.”

As it stands, I feel comfortable in laying out the following seat allocations…

Democrat – 47

Republican – 47

Toss-up – 6 (5 Ds, 1 R)

A tough, but hardly impossible environment for the U.S. Senate Democrats. If hard-pressed to make a prediction, I would say the Republicans, in all likelihood, do take control.

Safe Democrat (20%+ lead):

California – Sen. Dianne Feinstein

Delaware – Sen. Tom Carper

Maryland – Sen. Ben Cardin

Minnesota – Sen. Amy Klobuchar

New York – Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand

Rhode Island – Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse

Vermont – Sen. Bernie Sanders (I)

Washington – Sen. Maria Cantwell

Likely Democrat (10-20% lead):

Connecticut – Sen. Joe Lieberman (I) (presuming Lieberman again runs for re-election as a third-party, does outgoing GOP Gov. Jodi Rell jump in?)

Florida – Sen. Bill Nelson (decent approval ratings, but the GOP bench in Florida is strong.)

Hawaii – Sen. Daniel Akaka (will outgoing GOP Gov. Linda Lingle run?)

New Jersey – Sen. Robert Menendez (with surprisingly low approval, does Lt. Gov. Kim Guadango run?)

New Mexico – Sen. Jeff Bingaman (how will his vote against the tax cuts play here?)

Pennsylvania – Sen. Bob Casey, Jr. (popular incumbent, but the GOP bench is decent, and this could be a GOP target in the presidential race.)

Wisconsin – Sen. Herb Kohl (does Russ Feingold’s loss hint at a shift to the right?)

Lean Democrat (5-10% lead):

Michigan – Sen. Debbie Stabenow (with low approval, if she wins it’s because Obama drags her across the finish line in an otherwise-blue state.)

West Virginia – Sen. Joe Manchin (Obama will lose here by double-digits…does he drag Manchin with him?)


Missouri – Sen. Claire McCaskill (D) (mediocre approval and a very strong GOP bench, but it’ll be close no matter what.)

Montana – Sen. Jon Tester (D) (his vote against the DREAM Act signals his vulnerability in this purple state.)

Nevada – Sen. John Ensign (R) (Democrat Shelley Berkley is strong in a state Obama will likely win, but should Rep. Dean Heller oust Ensign in the primaries, this becomes tough for Dems.)

North Dakota – Sen. Kent Conrad (D) (does he pull a Byron Dorgan and just outright retire?)

Ohio – Sen. Sherrod Brown (D) (Obama might win Ohio, but Brown is way to the left of this state and may underperform Obama.)

Virginia – Sen. Jim Webb (D) (if George Allen wins the GOP nod with ease, this becomes a tough one for Dems.)

Lean Republican (5-10% lead):

Maine – Sen. Olympia Snowe (if she survives the primaries, this becomes Safe R. If not, Likely D.)

Massachusetts – Sen. Scott Brown (Brown remains very popular, but the registration make-up ensures this’ll be a close one.)

Nebraska – Sen. Ben Nelson – D->R FLIP (my one and only party change projection here. Nelson posts decent approval, but Obama’s loathed here and looks destined to drag Nelson down with him.)

Likely Republican (10-20% lead):

Arizona – Sen. Jon Kyl (Arizona’s trending more and more red, but Kyl’s hardly as popular as McCain here.)

Indiana – Sen. Richard Lugar (if he survives primary challenge, Safe R. If not, it’s still probably Likely R, unless a really out-there Tea Partier beats him.)

Safe Republican (20%+ lead):

Mississippi – Sen. Roger Wicker

Tennessee – Sen. Bob Corker (watch out for a primary challenge.)

Texas – Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (ditto.)

Utah – Sen. Orrin Hatch (ditto.)

Wyoming – Sen. John Barasso


56 thoughts on “A 2012 Sneak Peek: U.S. Senate Edition”

  1. I’m put Bill Nelson (FL) as lean-D (at best) He’s a solid fit for the state, but his numbers are still soft and as long as the GOP primary doesn’t turn bloody or nominate a complete freak show I think this race goes down to the buzzer. (BTW if I had to bet I’d put money on Connie Mack IV as the eventual nominee).

    Stabenow as a toss-up, I’m surprised any incumbent in Michigan being favored, in fact I’m surprised they’re only getting voted out and not tarred a feathered.

    Scott Brown as a toss-up, the guy is incredibly talented and should be able to position himself in the middle, but the Massachusetts voter demographics are just brutal for a Republican in a Presidential year. If anyone can do it, he can, but it’ll be a tight fit.

  2. 1. Why is Manchin vulnerable to Obama doing poorly in the state? He already beat a Republican, admittedly a crappy one, by double digits in what is likely the best year for Republicans in some time. He’s leaving the governor’s mansion hugely popular, perhaps the most popular governor in the country. And as we saw in 2008, the state doesn’t have a problem heavily splitting its tickets for the Senate and for the presidential race. Are we expecting Obama to do so poorly in the state (i.e. a 40-point loss) that he kills Democrats everywhere? I don’t see that happening.

    2. On the same note, why is Stabenow likely to win only if Obama drags her across the finish line? She’s not not particularly popular, but she’s also not really unpopular. About a fifth of her state doesn’t seem to register an opinion on her. I don’t doubt that she’ll be helped by Obama, but I am not sure she’s entirely dependent on him, either.

    3. Like with Manchin, I could see ticket splitting helping Nelson, but in the opposite direction. I don’t doubt he’s unpopular in the state, but is anyone who is so strongly against Obama going to consider voting for Nelson anyway? In other words, isn’t the anti-Obama sentiment already factored into the race? It could see it making a difference in the end, but only if it’s an unusually close race. And on the other hand, if the anti-Obama sentiment is already affecting the results, perhaps the solution is to have him do what he can in order to drive the sort of voters that would support him, who would also likely support Nelson. Maybe there just aren’t that many of those voters there, but would it hurt to find out?

    4. Why do you think Arizona is becoming redder and redder? It was a good year for the Republicans in that state, sure, but none of the candidates won by unusually large margins (30-plus points), besides the ones that usually do. It’s still a red state, even as it’s becoming bluer, but I don’t see anything that indicates it’s on its way to becoming Mississippi.

    5. I am not sure what to make of polls that say someone is slightly unpopular or basically even, because that seems to be the norm for all politicians these days.  

  3. This would be very close to my point. A little difference would be what I see not J Manchin in higher risk than H Kohl, R Menendez or W Nelson. He is a little safer for me.

    Many of the democratic incumbents can be able for keep out the race the most dangerous republicans.

    I would not rule out O Snowe switching party. Maine would be not as hard for her as Pennsylvania for A Specter. If she wish survive she need to switch before show high weakness in a republican primary.

  4. Nebraska: I think it’s really early to just write Ben Nelson off, especially given that he first won his senate seat in 2000 when Al Gore was losing the state by 30 points to George Bush. I don’t doubt that this is going to be a tough hold, but I’d wait a little bit (and watch for polls from non-Republican pollsters) before simply counting Ben Nelson as a guaranteed loss.

    Montana: The race is tough only if Rehberg runs, and it’s not a given that he’s planning on running this time around (especially if there are signs that Baucus is retiring in 2014). I’d call it Leans Democratic until Rehberg makes a decision (otherwise, I’d actually call it Likely Dem, Tester is quite popular in Montana).

    Ohio: Brown won’t under-perform Obama, he has much stronger support in southeastern Ohio than Obama does, and that alone is going to give him a cushion. If Obama wins Ohio, Brown wins it, end of story.

    Wisconsin: Feingold has always been vulnerable, that he lost this time around doesn’t really say anything about the much more popular Herb Kohl’s chances.

    North Dakota: I think Hoeven’s victory in North Dakota obscures something, he’s always won by those kinds of margins, he’s absurdly popular. There isn’t another candidate like that in North Dakota, and Kent Conrad is still quite popular.

    Hawaii: Lingle’s a paper tiger, she left office not all that popular and Obama will be winning Hawaii by over 30 points. Even if Akaka retires, I don’t see Lingle winning (especially given Hawaii’s deep bench).

  5. The Republicans could win this seat if it were open, but I don’t see who could beat Bingaman at this very instant.

    We already saw Steve Pearce run in two statewide bids before, once losing in the primary and once getting smashed by Udall.

    Domenici Jr. showed he faltered pretty badly in the Republican primary this year for Governor, which was his to lose. Allen Weh might be able to make a bid, but he lacks huge name recognition and has some bad dirt from the one attorney that was fired after a conversation with a White House aide.

    I can only think of one candidate who could really make the race immediately competitive. That would be ex-Governor Gary Johnson, but he appears bound and determined to run for President.

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