Could the Senate Flip in 2012?

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In the last three out of five elections one or both of the chambers of Congress has flipped. Are the waves over? And even if they are, could Dems lose the Senate in 2012 anyway?

On the face of it, Democrats have a tough cycle ahead of them. They hold the Senate with 53 seats right now, meaning Republicans only need to flip four to capture the majority – not an impossibly steep order.  Of the 33 seats up next November Democrats hold 23. The non-partisan Cook Political Report already rates six of those — Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Virginia and West Virginia — toss up. Another three — Florida, Missouri and Ohio – are in trouble. Five of these eight vulnerable seats are in states President Obama lost in 2008, rendering his coattails very short. Senate Dems have gotten off to sluggish starts in recruitment and fundraising. Thus far only two Democrats, North Dakota’s Kent Conrad and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut (who is an Independent who caucuses with the Dems), have announced their retirements. But Jim Webb in Virginia is mum on his plans for reelection and there’s speculation that Nebraska’s Ben Nelson may not run again – both tough states for Dems in 2012.

Republicans, on the other hand, have recruited some pretty good candidates already. The expected announcement of Montana-at-large Rep. Dennis Rehberg this week that he’ll seek the GOP nomination to challenge Senator Jon Tester throws the state into the toss up column from likely Democrat. Former Senator George Allen is running for his old seat in Virginia, State Senate President Mike Haridopolos is looking to challenge Senator Bill Nelson in Florida, and Jon Bruning, the Nebraska Attorney General, has announced he’s challenging Ben Nelson. “Republicans are enjoying something of a recruiting boom, which is not surprising after 2010,” says Jennifer Duffy, who tracks Senate races for the non-partisan Cook Political Report. “Democrats seem to be having a harder time, but it’s still early.”

Early it is, and the GOP still has the primary season to get through. “Republican primaries cost them Senate seats last cycle, and there’s no question it could happen again,” says Eric Schultz, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “Time after time, Republicans nominated unelectable candidates. It’s far too early for Republicans to declare any victories. Just ask [former Delaware GOP Senatorial hopeful] Mike Castle.”

There are also a few GOP seats in play, though Dems have yet to recruit any top tier challengers. Scott Brown is facing reelection in deep blue Massachusetts and John Ensign is trying to ride out a sex scandal in Nevada. Both are states Obama won in 2008 and, with the right Democratic recruiting, could help take in 2012. Also, Jon Kyl in whispered to be considering retirement in Arizona, which would be a tempting target for Democrats who’ve been trying to flip Arizona, with its enormous Latino population, for the last three elections. “The 2012 map offers Senate Democrats opportunities to win Republican seats and we expect to do so by defining our opponents early, and keeping a focus on getting people back to work,” Schultz says.

A lot will also depend on the atmosphere: 10% unemployment would be bad for Dems, but what would 8% unemployment mean? Will war and revolution have spread across the Middle East? Or will we be mostly out of Iraq and halfway out of Afghanistan? And how will voters feel about health care by then? Where will the Tea Party be? The most important factor – climate – is the most impossible to predict. Republicans are betting on an a similar electoral field to 2010. “Senate Democrats lost seven seats last cycle, while failing to win a single Republican seat, because their big government agenda is out-of-step with the views of many Americans, and particularly independent voters,” says Brian Walsh, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “And clearly they haven’t learned a thing because all we’re hearing from President Obama and Democratic leaders in Congress is more of the same – more government, more regulation and more spending.” Whereas Democrats argue that polls show the center is already coming back to Obama while the right remains gripped in a struggle for the soul of the Party. And then there’s the chance that there’s simply no wave this year. “There’s a decent chance, though, that 2012 could really be a ‘normal’ election that produces little changes,” Duffy notes. “Overall, the political climate matters most, but neither party has a lot of control over that.”

We are still 22 months away and much can change in that time. After the 2008 election some observers were predicting permanent Democratic majorities and in early 2009 others were looking at the spate of GOP retirements in swing states as a sign that Dems might even expand their power in 2010. So, predicting now that the Senate will flip in 2012 is about as useful as an astrologer mapping their stars. That said, Dems were aware enough of the distinct possibility that last week’s Senate rules changes were particularly sensitive to the minority – just in case that’s where they find themselves in 22 months’ time.

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