Most electoral attention in the past few months has been on the developing presidential election of 2012, but there is another important political story next year which may dramatically shape the term of 2013-2017 regardless of whom is elected president.
There are 23 Democrats and Democratic-leaning independent seats up next year, and only 10 Republican seats. Moreover, many of those Democratic seats are vulnerable while few, if any, of the GOP seats are.
If President Obama remains in as much political trouble as he is in now, and the economy fails to make a clear rebound, including unemployment continuing at levels of 6-10%, the results in the U.S. senate and house elections will dwarf even the remarkable outcome of 2010 when the GOP took decisive control of the U.S. house and made major gains in the U.S. Senate. It would be easy to predict conservative control of the U.S. senate in that scenario, even a level of GOP control that would close off cloture debate (60 seats).
I would like to suggest, however, that even if the economy turns around sufficiently, and the Republican ticket is weak, a re-elected Barack would face not only another GOP-controlled U.S. house, but a GOP-controlled senate as well.
How could that be possible? I have two major reasons. First, historically, presidential elections do not often produce equivalent results in the house and senate races. A review of recent “landslide” presidential elections demonstrates that, although the party of the winning candidate makes gains, those gains are often much more modest than the popular or electoral presidential vote. Second, even in a best-case scenario for Mr. Obama in 2012, there is very little evidence that he would have any notable coat tails in the congressional elections. Mr. Obama’s re-election, however narrow, would be a personal triumph for him (and a damning comment on Republicans for selecting such a weak ticket to oppose him), but a state-by-state appraisal indicates that many Democrats running for re-election or election to fill the seats of retiring members will be running on their own (as many did in 2010).
Let me be specific, although this is only a preliminary look at races not yet fully formed:
Six incumbent senators have already announced their retirements. Of these, only retiring Democratic seats are vulnerable.
The ten Republican seats up in 2012, including incumbents running for re-election, show so far none in the “vulnerable” category, although the seat of retiring Senator Jon Kyl (Arizona) and recently appointed Senator Dean Heller (Nevada) could become competitive by next year. In addition, Senator Richard Lugar (Indiana) is being challenged by conservatives in his own party.
In contrast, several Democratic seats are already quite vulnerable. Retiring Senator Kent Conrad (North Dakota), retiring Senator Herb Kohl (Wisconsin), retiring Senator Jim Webb (Virginia) and retiring Senator Jeff Bingamon (New Mexico) could easily be replaced by Republicans. Incumbents running for re-election, including Senator Ben Nelson (Nebraska), Senator Claire McCaskill (Missouri), and Senator Bill Nelson (Florida) are in deep trouble, and, as matters look now, will be replaced by conservative Republicans. Additionally, Democratic incumbents either retiring or running for re-election in Hawaii, Michigan, New Jersey, Ohio, Washington and Connecticut appear to have strong Republican challenges ahead.
I realize that predictions this far away from election day (15 months) are always very speculative, and that historical events can always intervene to change a political environment relatively rapidly. We also do not even know who will be on the Republican ticket. So I am not predicting specific numbers in the GOP pick-up pf the senate. On the other hand, the remarkable imbalance of incumbent seats being contested in 2012, the vulnerability of so many Democrats, the prospects of the economy, and the lack of vulnerability among the few Republican seats up for election, enables me to predict this far ahead that there will be a new majority leader of the U.S. senate that first week of January, 2013, and many more gains for the conservatives no matter the outcome of the presidential election.