The Senate made some news this week by actually doing something, proving it’s not just an old folks’ home spending their retirement years collecting a government paycheck.
A measure to raise tax rates on the top bracket income earners at the end of the year barely passed by a 51-48 majority, while another measure to extend expiring tax breaks for all Americans failed 45-54. Also, despite passing the House by a widely bipartisan 327-98 majority, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has gone out of his way to declare he will not bring the Federal Transparency Act up for a vote in the Senate, even though he had supported previous efforts to audit the Federal Reserve for years.
This is a good opportunity to look at a preview of the upcoming 2012 Senate elections and take stock of which seats are flipping or in close contention.
There are 33 senate seats up for election in November, 23 of which are held by incumbent Democrats and 10 by incumbent Republicans. Of these, there are 13 that should be closely watched over the next three months:
REPUBLICAN PICK-UPS (LEADING BY 9 POINTS OR MORE):
Nebraska – Sen. Ben Nelson (D): When Nelson announced his retirement last December, most experts were expecting this one to swing red. The polls only confirm it with State Sen. Deb Fischer (R) holding an 18-point lead (56%-38%) over former U.S. Sen. Bob Kerrey (D).
Wisconsin – Sen. Herb Kohl (D): Not only did Gov. Scott Walker (R) win the recall election in June, but polls even show Wisconsin up for grabs in the presidential election. With that, it should then be no surprise that former Gov. Tommy Thompson (R) leads Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D) by a 16-point margin (52%-36%).
Missouri – Sen. Claire McCaskill (D): Incumbent McCaskill is in deep trouble, as all her potential GOP challengers lead her by 8 points or more, with her most likely challenger, State Treasurer Sarah Steelman (R), leading by 12 points (51%-39%).
North Dakota – Sen. Kent Conrad (D): Twenty-year incumbent Conrad is finally retiring and, like Nebraska, most expected North Dakota to easily flip. Rep. Rick Berg (R) currently leads former State Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp (D) by a 9-point margin (49%-40%).
Florida – Sen. Bill Nelson (D): In Florida, a critical swing state in the presidential election, two-term incumbent Nelson now finds himself trailing Rep. Connie Mack IV (R) by 9 points (46%-37%) for the seat previously held by Mack’s father.
DEMOCRATIC PICK-UPS (LEADING BY 9 POINTS OR MORE):
Maine – Sen. Olympia Snowe (R): Although technically not a Democrat, former Gov. Angus King (I) seems poised to win the seat held by Snowe for the last 18 years. Polls show him leading both Democrat and Republican challengers by getting 50%-55% of the vote. His positions and endorsements lead most to believe he’ll be caucusing with the Democrats if he wins.
TOSS UPS (WITHIN 4 POINTS OR LESS):
Ohio – Sen. Sherrod Brown (D): In another critical 2012 swing state, incumbent Brown is being challenged by State Treasurer Josh Mandel (R) in Ohio. While Mandel was trailing Brown by double digits earlier this year, he’s now managed to cut Brown’s lead down to 4 points (46%-42%).
New Mexico – Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D): Thirty-year incumbent Bingaman is finally stepping down, and Rep. Martin Heinrich (D) leads former Rep. Heather Wilson (R) by a slim 46%-42% margin.
Connecticut – Sen. Joe Lieberman (I): In the contest for Lieberman’s seat, former WWE CEO Linda McMahon (R), who unsuccessfully ran to win Chris Dodd’s old senate seat in 2010, will most likely win the GOP nomination again in 2012 (showing a 29-point lead in the primaries). Meanwhile, Rep. Chris Murphy (D) is expected to win his party’s nomination with a 30-point lead in the primaries. Assuming those are the candidates, Murphy currently holds a mere 3-point lead (46%-43%) over McMahon, with the campaign between them not even having started yet.
Montana – Sen. Jon Tester (D): Incumbent Tester is being challenged by Rep. Denny Rehberg (R), who has a razor-thin margin over Tester in the polls (49%-47%).
Virginia – Sen. Jim Webb (D): Two political veterans are after Webb’s seat – former Sen. George Allen (R) and former Gov. Tim Kaine (D), with every poll showing them virtually tied. This will definitely be an interesting race to watch, especially since Virginia will be a critical swing state in the presidential election as well, also showing that race virtually tied.
Massachusetts – Sen. Scott Brown (R): The contest for Ted Kennedy’s old senate seat is a dead heat between Brown and law professor Elizabeth Warren (D), despite the ongoing controversy over Warren’s past claims of Native American heritage. With only 12.5% of voters in Massachusetts registered as Republicans, Brown will have to focus on maintaining Independent voter favor. Having former Gov. Mitt Romney at the top of the ticket should also be interesting to see if it helps or hurt Brown in Massachusetts.
Indiana – Sen. Dick Lugar (R): Tea Party-favorite State Treasurer Richard Mourdock (R) upset 36-year-incumbent Lugar for the GOP nomination back in May, yet it may surprise some to find Mourdock is polling dead even with Rep. Joe Donnelly (D) in the Indiana senate election. Although President Barack Obama won Indiana in 2008 by merely 1 point, Romney currently leads the state by 6 points.
The Senate currently has a 53-47 Democratic majority. Let’s assume the Republicans win the five races where they are currently leading by 9 points or more, flipping it to a 52-48 Republican majority. Let’s also assume the Republicans lose both Massachusetts and Maine (a very likely possibility), then leaving a 50-50 split. I doubt the Republicans won’t be able to hang on to Indiana’s senate seat, especially if Romney wins the state.
The Republicans would then need to win only Montana or Virginia or Ohio or New Mexico or Connecticut to lock a 51-seat majority – one out of five.
With Sen. Brown gone (along with Sens. Snowe and Lugar), the only wild card Republican vote left would be Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), a fact that was reinforced this week when Brown and Collins were the only two GOP senators to vote against both tax break extension bills. The Republicans would then need to win two of the remaining five to cancel out Collins and lock a 51-seat majority.
And of course, if Brown maintains his seat, the GOP would then need to win three of the remaining five to cancel out Brown and Collins and lock a 51-seat majority.
Anyway you look at it though; odds are in the GOP’s favor. And if Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ken.) becomes the new Majority Leader, maybe the Senate can get back to real work, like passing its first budget in over 3 years.