We've already talked quite a bit about the upcoming presidential race. It may turn out to be less than enthralling, though, if the GOP nominates a dud and Obama finds himself on solid ground as the campaign heats up. The odds that the race will be competitive have increased with the seemingly accidental anointing-by-attrition of Mitt Romney, who is both the only remaining viable contender and the only one with a realistic shot at the incumbent. Regardless, the Senate races may end up being the more interesting story in 2012.
Way back in 2006** I noted that the terrain was unfavorable for the GOP because it was forced to defend a considerably greater number of Senate seats compared to the Democrats. Well, given the success of Democratic candidates that year it is now the Democrats who are disadvantaged by high levels of exposure in 2012. There are 33 races scheduled. Retirement is taking six Democrats but only two Republicans (both in safe seats). Of incumbents seeking reelection, the Democrats must defend 17 seats compared to only 8 for the Republicans. Obviously these numbers are subject to some change if additional incumbents retire, although most of the official announcements of candidacy have already been made.
The Democrats currently hold a 53 seat majority in the chamber including the two caucusing independents (with the high likelihood of replacing a retiring Joe Lieberman with a real Democrat). Most of the early analysis treats the loss of the chamber as a foregone conclusion. Is it?
Of the six retiring Democrats, one (Kent Conrad, ND) is a Republican lock. North Dakota's odd all-Democrat congressional delegation as late as 2009 was an anomaly the party could not expect to enjoy forever. That leaves 52.
In Nebraska, Ben Nelson is highly unlikely to be elected to a third term. The GOP field is weak but it may not matter in a state like Nebraska. Though Nelson is not 100% dead in the water, the vultures are circling. That leaves 51.
The four tightest, most exciting races this year will be a group of toss-up seats currently held by Democrats: WI (Kohl retirement), VA (Webb retirement), MT (Tester vs. Rehberg), and MO (Clare McCaskill). The Democrats would have to win three of those just to hold a 50-50 tie in the chamber, and that's not even counting additional races that are likely to be competitive like Florida (Bill Nelson), New Mexico (Bingaman retirement), Minnesota (Amy Klobuchar), and Ohio (Sherrod Brown). The odds of the Democrats winning seven or eight of the eight races mentioned here seem poor unless A) Obama somehow wins in a 2008-type landslide, or B) the Tea Party saves them by nominating unelectable tools in key races.
But wait! There are two Republican-held seats that will be a challenge to hold. Scott Brown must run for a full term in Massachusetts, and in a presidential election year his odds are not good – 60%+ of that state is going to be casting an Obama vote in all likelihood and Brown's seat is tenuous to begin with. Second, John Ensign's retirement in Nevada has set up a Congressman vs. Congresswoman race between Dean Heller (R) and Shelly Berkeley (D). That will be a barn burner, especially if Obama does well in Nevada again.
Republican moderates are getting primaried as well. In Indiana, Dick Lugar is a lock for re-election but Teatard Dick Mourdock is currently polling ahead for the GOP nomination. If Lugar is unseated the statewide race could be competitive. The same is true in Maine where Olympia Snowe has two Tea Party Express challengers. Neither will be a strong general election candidate.
In short, the Democrats are fighting a the war of 2012 on about 12 different fronts. It is unrealistic to expect that the party can prevail in so many tight races and toss-ups unless Obama somehow achieves a 1984-style blowout victory at the top of the ticket. That does not appear likely. At this early stage the odds are good that the Republicans will net a gain of at least four seats, giving them the Senate majority. If Obama returns to the White House alongside that outcome, we can expect gridlock on a biblical scale for at least two years. If the Senate and the White House both switch party control, then America can look forward to the kind of solid political leadership that Wisconsin and Florida have been enjoying since the 2010 midterms.
(**Holy shitballs. I have been writing this thing five times per week for eight years at this point. I can't tell if that shows impressive levels of commitment or if it's just pathetic.)