The 2012 national election is likely to be a threshold election. The 2010 election points to it, just as the 2006 election signaled what would happen in 2008. The Republicans now control the U.S. house by a large margin, and although anything can happen, the GOP advantage in redistricting, as well as the momentum from 2010, points to the election in 2012 likely resulting in that party keeping control.
Control of the U.S. senate is very much another story. Republicans made dramatic gains in 2010, narrowing the Democratic total from the “magic” number of 60 (including two independents who organized with them) to 53. Republicans might have won 1-2 more seats if they had better candidates, but as the results turned out, they would not have easily won control (4 more seats).
The same advantage the GOP had in 2010, that is, many more Democratic incumbents up for re-election than GOP incumbents, will be repeated in 2012. (23 Democratic-held seats vs. 10 Republican-held seats.) A very early assessment of these races indicates that Republicans could well take control of the senate. Of course, this will depend a great deal on the presidential race, the state of the economy, and the political mood across the country, but the GOP does not have to win the presidency to take control of the senate and keep control of the house.
Incumbent GOP Senator John Ensign of Nevada has announced he will resign his seat in a few days. His seat would be up in 2012, although Ensign had earlier announced he would not seek re-election. Nevada has become a “swing” state recently, and this news actually enhances the GOP’s prospects to hold the seat. The Republican governor will likely appoint Congressman Dean Heller, already the frontrunner for the GOP nomination in 2012, and this should greatly strengthen his chances to keep the seat.
Elsewhere, the pattern of Republican strength is evident. Of course, surprising events could change this, but patterns tend to continue in cycles.
States that favor GOP pick-ups (some are currently rated as toss-ups) include Nebraska (Democratic incumbent Ben Nelson), Missouri (Democratic incumbent Claire McCaskill), Montana (Democratic incumbent Jon Teeter), Virginia (Democratic incumbent retiring), Florida (Democratic incumbent Bill Nelson), and probably New Mexico (Democratic incumbent retiring). The seat held by retiring Democratis Senator Kent Conrad already appears as a very possible pick-up for the GOP. In addition, incumbents Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown in Ohio and Democratic Senator Joe Manchin in West Virginia could face very serious challengers. (Manchin, incidentally, is the most conservative Democrat in the senate, and already votes with the GOP much of the time.) Finally, incumbent Democrats in Washington (Cantwell) and Stabenow (Michigan) are vulnerable if there is a GOP landslide. In Hawaii, the long-time Democratic incumbent (Akaka) is retiring, but if former GOP Governor Linda Lingle were to enter the race, this seat would be competitive. If aging (and lackluster) incumbent Senator Herbert Kohl of Wisconsin (he will be 77 in 2012) were to retire, that seat would be competitive. Democratic seats in New York (Gillibrand), Pennsylvania (Casey), New Jersey (Menendez), now rated safe for the Democrats, also might become vulnerable. Thus, if all its stars were to fall into place, the Republicans might come close to 60 seats.
But Republican have some vulnerabilities of their own. Incumbent Richard Lugar of Indiana faces a serious Tea Party challenge in his primary. A Democrat could win the seat of retiring incumbent John Kyl (Arizona), especially if Gabrielle Gifford recuperates sufficiently. An open seat in Texas, now held by the GOP, might become competitive, as might the seat recently won by Republican Scott Brown in Massachusetts (who already often votes with the Democrats). Surprise GOP senate retirements might also change safe GOP seats to vulnerable.
Nevertheless, just a look at the numbers indicate that the best prospects of the Democrats are to prevent the Republicans of winning so many senate seats that they approach the 60 needed to prevent filibustering.
From the senatorial elections point of view, the 2012 elections will likely be less about the presidential election than about whether voters in the states still want to overturn Obamacare, and continue to favor the GOP agenda of lower spending, lower taxes and smaller government. The fulfillment of that agenda is currently thwarted by Democratic control of the White House and the senate. An economic recovery during the next 15-18 months obviously helps the Democrats. But if the feelings that marked the 2010 election are revived and intensify, and the Republican candidate for president is quite strong (and wins), then a new political threshold in American politics will be reached.
Either way, 2012 should be one for the books.