It's not exactly news that elections can be weird, but when it comes to U.S. Senate "classes," it's the norm. This has to do with Senators' six-year terms and the ups and downs of presidential and mid-term election cycles.
Here's why: Only 33 of the 100 Senate seats are up for re-election in 2012, and because of those presidential/midterm cycles, there's a distinct rhythm to these things. This is Class I, which picked up eight seats in the notable 1994 Republican Revolution election. This meant that when it came time for Class I to stand election again in 2000, Republicans were defending more seats, and lost four of them, knotting the Senate at 50-50. Then in 2006, the Democrats went on a mid-term tear and gained six seats and 51-49 control of the Senate.
Which brings us to today. Heading into 2012, Class I consists of 23 Democrats and 10 Republicans. From a political science perspective, that means Democrats are on the defensive, because a 23-10 majority means there just aren't that many seats to be gained, and lots of seats to protect .
But just how bad is it for the Democrats? I spent the bulk of my day reading up on the landscape of the 2012 Senate contest and building this spreadsheet so I could start doing some basic analysis (it's yours to use, take and adapt), and here's what I wound up with:
STATES WITH DEM INCUMBENTS: 23
STATES WITH DEM INCUMBENTS W/ OPEN SEATS: 7
STATES WITH DEM INCUMBENTS W/OPEN SEATS RATED LEAN-D OR TOSS: 4
STATES WITH DEM INCUMBENTS W/OPEN SEATS RATED AS FAVORING GOP: 1
POTENTIAL DEM LOSSES: 10
STATES WITH GOP INCUMBENTS: 10
STATES WITH GOP INCUMBENTS W/ OPEN SEATS: 3
STATES WITH GOP INCUMBENTS W/OPEN SEATS RATED LEAN-R OR TOSS: 1
STATES WITH GOP INCUMBENTS W/OPEN SEATS RATED AS FAVORING D: 0
POTENTIAL R LOSSES: 2
What does that mean? To put it in context, with their 53-47 advantage in the Senate, Democrats will relinquish control of the legislative body if they lose four seats. If they lose three seats, and the presidency, they'll also lose control of the Senate (because the new GOP vice president would cast the deciding vote).
If you can use that spreadsheet to describe a plausible scenario where the Democrats wind up with 21 or more of these 33 seats, please fill me in. Because it looks really unlikely to me.
My own baseline is probably overly optimistic (bias transparency note to first-time visitors: I am a liberal), based on my belief that Massachusetts is more of winnable a toss-up than the "Leans R" rating most analysts gave it. And my optimistic estimate (Democrats hold 18 of their 23 seats and pick up Scott Brown's) still gives the Republicans a one-vote majority. Practically every analyst I read today has already written off Democrat Kent Conrad in North Dakota, ranking his seat as either "Leaning R" or "Likely R," so the Democrats are probably already down one seat before the race even begins.
Anyway, it's pretty clear which states look to be the most likely battlegrounds:
Battleground States (toss-ups, purple)
- Massachusetts: R Scott Brown, incumbent. I think this is the Democrats' best chance at a pickup. Brown is relatively popular with voters, but he's unpopular with the Tea Party activists who helped get him elected in a special election to fill Ted Kennedy's vacant seat, and this is still a blue state. His likely challenger -- Elizabeth Warren -- is a progressive heroine who is sure to gather plenty of national fund-raising support and party backing.
- Missouri: D Claire McCaskill, incumbent. Missouri is a conservative state, and they call her "Obamaclaire" McCaskill there. A tough road, at best, and most likely a loss.
- Nebraska: D Ben Nelson, incumbent. Nelson is the most conservative Democrat in the Senate, and has never been a sure vote for anything on the party agenda. His only reliable value to the party is a vote for a Democratic majority, and given the conservative nature of his state, no one will be surprised if he loses next year.
- New Mexico: D Mark Bingaman, retiring. New Mexico is an interesting state politically, much stronger for Democrats than its neighbors. But it's still a marginally blue state, and the seat is open. Hispanic disdain for the GOP could help here, but the candidate is going to be the most important factor. And we don't have a candidate yet.
- Virginia: D Jim Webb, retiring. Webb -- a former Reagan administration official -- was a conservative who was also a tough opponent for Republican foolishness. His decision to retire moved this race from a Leans D ranking to a toss up. It's seen by most insiders as a likely match between Democratic Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine and former Sen. George Allen, who lost to Webb in 2006.
- Wisconsin: D Herb Kohl, retiring. Obviously, the candidates will have a lot to say about this one, but one trend that looks strong for 2012 is that statewide candidates in Wisconsin, Ohio and Michigan (where state-level GOP officials surprised voters with unannounced anti-union campaigns in 2011) are going to enjoy massive, energized, motivated union support. Recall elections -- running against GOP incumbents in GOP-favoring districts -- came within one seat of taking control of the Wisconsin state senate, and polls indicate statewide support for pro-worker Democrats will be solid.
Kinda-sorta battlegrounds (light red, light blue)
These are Lean D or Lean R seats... from a collection of enigmatic (to put it politely) states.
- Florida: D Bill Nelson, incumbent. Look, Florida is just a weird state. Wouldn't surprise me if Nelson won, wouldn't surprise me if he lost. Wouldn't surprise me if the peninsula broke off and floated away to the Bermuda Triangle, either.
- Hawaii: D Daniel Akaka, retiring. It's an open seat with no clear heir, but as several others pointed out, whoever runs for the Democrats will pick up HUGE coattails from Hawaiian native-son Barrack Obama. So it looks like the Democrats' seat to lose.
- New Jersey: D Bob Menendez, incumbent. New Jersey is a blue state with a popular Republican governor. I don't know what that means (I don't understand Jersey Shore, either), but the consensus is that it adds up to Leans D.
- Nevada: R John Ensign, retiring. So what if Ensign had to resign under a cloud of scandal? This is Nevada. Scandal is the state's second-largest export. Right behind vice. This one smells like Leans R to me.
- Ohio: D Sherrod Brown, incumbent. I left this one as Leans D instead of Likely D because Brown always seems to have strong opposition, but Gov. John Kasich's approval rating was down to 33 percent in May, and it just feels like a tough year to be a Republican in Ohio.
- West Virginia: D Joe Manchin, incumbent. The Mountain State is home to a bunch of conservatives who vote for Democratic politicians. This really seems to piss off national Republicans, who think they should own the vote of every white, blue-collar, social conservative by default. Here are four little words for them: Coal miners appreciate unions. I call it Leans D.
So what's the bottom line?
Since there's no realistic chance of the Democrats picking up the seven seats necessary to break the filibuster stranglehold the GOP has placed on Obama since February 2009 (when three Republicans voted for Obama's stimulus bill), on one level, who cares? The worst-case scenario is that Republicans take the Senate and then don't have the votes to over-ride Democratic filibusters.
But here's the depressing part.
Even as the Senate looks more like a Republican win in 2012, control of the House and the White House are well within the reach of Democrats -- because unlike the Senate, the presidential and House elections are truly national elections.
We've had divided government for the past two years, and nothing has gotten done.
Looks like we're looking at another two years of it... before Senate Class II stands for a vote in 2014.
Lord help us.