Democrats Relieved? Not So Fast, My Friend

As a late Election Night of 2010 turned slowly into The Day After, the sighs of relief from Democrats and their pals in the media were clearly audible. Although they had lost the House of Representatives in overwhelming fashion, the “firewall” of Senate seats, mostly in notionally Democratic states, had held. Harry Reid would not only retain his own seat, but also return to the majority leader’s office. The horde of (in their eyes) vicious Tea-Party revolution had been stopped at the last barricade.

Or so they assumed. As sports personality Lee Corso likes to say, “Not so fast, my friend.”

There’s no stasis in electoral politics; the end of one election simply means it’s time to start thinking about the next one — and a number of Democratic senators who didn’t have to stand for re-election on Tuesday are thinking very hard indeed today.

Of the 21 (!) incumbent Democrats in 2012, nine are in deep-blue “safe” states and their seats are likely to remain Democrat even in the case of retirements (Feinstein-CA and Akaka-HI lead that potential list). Four more are in normally Democratic states that shifted to the GOP in the 2010 cycle -- Stabenow-MI, Klobuchar-MN, Menendez-NJ and Bingaman-NM -- and as such could be considered as possible takeover targets. Assuming Herb Kohl (who will be 77 in 2012) retires, you can likely add an open seat in Wisconsin to that count — but realistically, those seats would only be in danger of flipping in a really big GOP year.

I count seven incumbent Democratic senators up for re-election in 2012 who are, today, in serious trouble: Nelson-FL, McCaskill-MO, Tester-MT, Nelson-NE, Conrad-ND, Brown-OH and Webb-VA. Most if not all of the above, if they had been on the ballot Tuesday, would probably have lost to a GOP opponent — and they know it.

You can also add to the deep-trouble list the newest senator from West Virginia, Joe Manchin, who eked out a special election win this week only by doing a fair imitation of Ted Nugent. Manchin will be back on the ballot in 2012, and running as hard to the right as he can manage in the interim.

What’s interesting here is not so much a long-term prediction for 2012. The political ground will, of course, shift between now and then in ways that no one can anticipate. If the last four election cycles have proven anything, it’s that one who makes long-term predictions based on a single election is liable to look very foolish sooner or later.

But don’t consider 2012 yet, simply consider 2011 and what’s just happened in 2010. If you are one of those eight Democratic senators, how will you react the first time Harry Reid wants your vote on an issue your state’s majority can’t stand? Would you be willing to take the chance of following Blanche Lincoln and Russ Feingold — plus Evan Bayh and Byron Dorgan, who jumped before they could be pushed — right (or more accurately, left) off the cliff?

The numbers are as interesting for the Republicans as for the Democrats. The large boost in Republican numbers gives Mitch McConnell a lot of room to operate. Stripping away the odd Maine lady or 2012-challenged Scott Brown won’t provide nearly enough votes for anything to pass.