In 2009, the political talk was all about how the GOP was going to make major gains in the House and Senate, making it even more difficult for President Obama to pursue his agenda. The number of competitive seats just didn’t leave much room for talk of a Senate takeover. That has changed. The political landscape since 2006 has been turned upside down and the GOP is certain to make any Democratic majority razor-thin, and if current polls hold, they will take the Senate — possibly with a seat or two extra.
The Democrats currently hold 57 seats in the Senate and two independents caucus with them, giving them a 59-seat majority. The Republicans obviously hold the remaining 41 seats, requiring a pickup of 10 seats to win a majority. A 50-50 split is a distinct possibility, but since Vice President Biden casts the tie-breaking vote, that is still a majority for the Democrats. If that scenario unfolds, Lieberman holds the key and will likely caucus with the Republicans to give them a majority.
Right now, it is safe to say that the GOP will pick up six seats based on the Real Clear Politics poll averages and political trends. In Nevada, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is behind his GOP challengers by nearly nine points. In Delaware, Beau Biden’s decision not to run gives Rep. Mike Castle a strong lead. In North Dakota, Governor John Hoeven is defeating his rivals by between 24 and 36 points. In Arkansas, Democratic Senator Blanche Lincoln is behind by as much as 19 points. And in Colorado, Democrat Michael Bennet trails Jane Norton by 14 points and Ken Buck by four points. Evan Bayh’s decision not to seek reelection in Indiana has resulted in most political commentators rating that seat as a likely Republican pickup as well.
Based on those numbers, the GOP is very likely to have at least 47 seats. Only three of the remaining races need to be won, as independent Joe Lieberman will caucus with the Republicans if a 50-50 split is established. It is hard to see Lieberman staying loyal to the party that kicked him out and to the president that he crossed party lines to oppose. There are six races remaining from which those three pickups can come.
In Illinois, Rep. Mark Kirk is currently ahead by an average of six points. In Pennsylvania, Pat Toomey is ahead by an average of 7.6 points over Arlen Specter and an average of 11.6 points over Joe Sestak. That means that if the Republicans win the races where their declared candidates are currently ahead, they are at 49 seats.
If the most promising candidates run, the GOP could relatively easily get the majority in the Senate. Should Tommy Thompson be persuaded to run in Wisconsin, his prospects are bright as he currently leads Russ Feingold by four points. Given his past presidential ambitions, it’d be assumed that he’d jump at this opportunity, but his recent decision to join the advisory board of a private equity fund indicates he may be leaning against it. If this is the case, the GOP can still win as the Thompson-Feingold poll shows there is room for a challenger, but few will have the popularity and name recognition of Thompson.
George Pataki is ahead of Kirsten Gillibrand in New York by an average of 2.7 points, and that is with Democratic favorability still declining and before a potentially bruising primary fight between Gillibrand, Harold Ford Jr., and possibly Mort Zuckerman. However, Pataki is not making obvious moves to run and has been reported to say privately that he’d rather run for president in 2012. He’s also visiting New Hampshire to host a dinner and meet “with political folks he got to know during his short-lived presidential effort in 2007.”
If Dino Rossi runs in Washington against Patty Murray, he could win as he is currently leading by two points in a hypothetical matchup. She currently has double-digit leads over the declared candidates. This means that under the most ideal scenario, Republicans would lead in 11 Senate races right now. One more race is currently tight and, if the current anti-incumbent and anti-Democrat trend is not reversed or stopped in its tracks, will be a Republican pickup and that is the race against Barbara Boxer in California. She is only ahead of her challengers by four or five points in the latest poll.
It is hard to see how Republican fortunes are reversed. The only conceivable scenario is a massive economic boost, but after all the recent turmoil, it will take a long stream of positive news to make the nervous public feel at ease and supportive of the ruling party. The outlook for Democrats is bleak and several credible paths to a Republican majority in the Senate can be envisioned.
Republicans should remember that their victory is more of a vote against the status quo than for their agenda. Any gain will result in increased responsibility. The opposition will have the ability to complicate President Obama’s agenda, but if they are seen as the party of reflexive objectors, they will see their numbers fall as quickly as the Democrats’ have, and President Obama will be able to deflect some of the public’s dissatisfaction upon them. Republicans will rejoice this November, but the public has become impatient and disenchanted, and they may be the victims of that anti-incumbent sentiment during the next congressional elections.