GOP Senate Prospects Still Lagging

At the start of the year, conservatives opposed to ObamaCare believed there were two realistic paths to overturning the administration’s signature piece of legislation from the president’s first term. The first was a decision by the Supreme Court to invalidate the legislation. The other was for the GOP to retain control of the House in the 2012 election, take back control of the Senate,  win the White House, and then use the budget reconciliation process in 2013 to undo much of the law. It now appears that for a brief period in the spring the Supreme Court was ready to rule the bill unconstitutional, until Chief Justice Roberts flipped his vote to preserve the law.

The remaining electoral path does not, at the moment, appear promising.

Early in 2012,  the Republicans seemed to have a good chance of holding the House and winning back control of the Senate. Taking back the White House was  always a tougher challenge, running against a well-funded, personally popular incumbent. Now, less than four weeks from Election Day, the GOP appears to be in good shape in terms of maintaining its majority in the House, even if Republicans lose a few seats from the current majority, most likely in Illinois, New York, Florida, and California. Mitt Romney has mounted a strong comeback after a tough September and pulled about even in the presidential race, after a wipeout of the president in their initial head-to-head debate in Denver. But the Romney comeback has not been matched by any apparent improvement in the chances for several GOP Senate contenders who have slipped badly in recent months.

Starting with Scott Brown’s upset victory in the special election in Massachusetts, the Republicans went on to gain seven Senate seats in the 2010 cycle to get to 47. Some of the gains were in blue states such as Illinois and Pennsylvania. Three more winnable seats -- in Delaware, Nevada, and Colorado --  were  lost due to weaker candidates winning Republican primaries and then losing in the general election. The worst of the blown opportunities were  in Delaware and Nevada.

To win a Senate majority, the Republicans started the year needing to win a net of three seats, assuming a Republican won the White House (with the VP breaking a 50-50 tie), or four if Obama held on and won re-election. With 33 Senate seats being contested, 23 of them held by Democrats, it appeared that 2012 was a target-rich environment for Republicans.

Only two Republican-held seats appeared to be in serious jeopardy: Dean Heller (an appointed senator) in Nevada and Scott Brown in very Democratic Massachusetts. Then Olympia Snowe, Maine’s popular Republican senator, announced she would not run for re-election and former Governor Angus King entered the race as an independent (but one likely to caucus with Democrats if he wins). Maine is a state where independents  run very well, and King shot out to a big lead. While Republican Charlie Summers has run a good campaign, he  trails by over 10 points, as Democrats in the state have abandoned their own nominee, Cynthia Dill, and moved to support King to prevent a GOP victory.

Two other GOP-held seats that seemed safe in the spring, in Indiana and Arizona, are now very competitive. The GOP nominees -- Richard Mourdock in Indiana (who took down longtime Senator Richard Lugar in a bitter primary battle) and Jeff Flake in Arizona -- are each very narrowly ahead. Mourdock appears slightly  more at risk running against Congressman Joe Donnelly, as many former Lugar backers have refused to move to Mourdock.

In Arizona, the Democrats nominated Richard Carmona, a Puerto Rican, to run in a 30% Latino state. As a former surgeon general in the Bush White House,  he has crossover appeal running against Flake, a staunch conservative on the budget. Big money is pouring into both races from each party’s Senate campaign committee and outside groups. Mitt Romney may win each state by 10 or more points, which may be the best thing going for both Mourdock and Flake, though so far the Romney coattails are not helping much.