Democrats for the first time are acknowledging that Republicans could retake the Senate this November if everything falls into place for the GOP, less than two years after Democrats held a daunting 60-seat majority.
Leaders of both parties have believed for months that Republicans could win the House, where every lawmaker faces re-election. But a change of party control in the Senate, where only a third of the members are running and Republicans must capture 10 seats, seemed out of the question.
That’s no longer the case. The emergence of competitive Republican candidates in Wisconsin, Washington and California—Democratic-leaning states where polls now show tight races—bring the number of seats that Republicans could seize from the Democrats to 11.
Democrats now control the Senate 59-41—after the death of Democratic Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, who was replaced by Republican Sen. Scott Brown—including two independents who usually vote with them. That means Republicans need 10 seats to take a 51-49 advantage.
Republicans would have to win virtually every competitive race to retake the Senate, without losing any seats of their own—clearly an uphill climb. The trouble for Democrats is that many trends are against them. Surveys show that Republicans are more motivated than Democrats to go to the polls, and that voters are looking for new leadership in Congress.
“I think there is definitely a chance” of losing the Senate, said Democratic strategist Gary Nordlinger, a Washington-based media consultant. “I wouldn’t call it a probability, but there is certainly a chance.”
“Republicans still have to [win] all the competitive races in order to get to a majority, but at least there are enough seats on the table to pull it off,” said Nathan Gonzales, political editor of the non-partisan Rothenberg Political Report.
Democratic politicians have been saddled with an economy that they’d hoped–and predicted–would be doing much better by now. And if Republicans retake one or both chambers of Congress, it would create a serious roadblock for President Barack Obama’s agenda. But Republicans would also have greater responsibility for tackling stubborn problems such as the economy, energy and immigration.
As the races warmed up this spring and summer, Republicans raised more money than Democrats. In a dozen of the closest Senate contests reviewed by The Wall Street Journal, the GOP candidates as a group claimed 58% of contributions raised during the three-month period ending June 30. Democrats in those races, as a group, had a slim lead in total cash on hand.
Former Sen. Norm Coleman, a Minnesota Republican who lost his seat to onetime comedian Al Franken in 2008, is CEO of American Action Network, a conservative group that is spending about $750,000 to defeat three-term Sen. Patty Murray in Washington State. “Races like Wisconsin, California and Washington are clearly in play,” Mr. Coleman said.
Many Democrats dismiss the notion that they’re in danger of losing the Senate. “I believe that is wishful thinking,” said Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, who coordinates the Democrats’ Senate campaigns. He added that the chances are minimal that Republicans would win so many of the seats in play while losing none of their own.
The math and the map show why Wisconsin, Washington and California are important.
Many Democratic strategists consider three seats all but lost—in North Dakota and Delaware, where popular Republicans are running for seats left open by Democratic departures, and in Arkansas, where Sen. Blanche Lincoln is trailing significantly in polls. Additionally, an Indiana seat, also open after a Democratic retirement, will be hard to retain.
Four other Democrat seats are tossups: in Pennsylvania, Illinois, Colorado and Nevada. If Republicans capture those eight seats, and win two of the three newly competitive races in Washington, Wisconsin and California, they would retake the Senate.
But Republicans also can’t afford to lose any of their current seats. Democrats are mounting energetic campaigns in Missouri, Ohio, New Hampshire and Kentucky, where Republican senators are retiring. Then there’s Florida, where Gov. Charlie Crist, after leaving the GOP to run as an independent, holds a lead. Senate Democrats believe he will align with them if he wins.
Democrats say that GOP primary voters boosted Democratic chances by selecting several tea party-inspired candidates who are proving to be too conservative or anti-government for the general electorate.