GOP Vulnerabilities May Help Dems Hang On To 60 Senate Seats

January 6, 2010 1:20 p.m.

With the upheavals that have taken place from Democratic retirements in the past two days, are the Dems doomed to lose their 60-seat, filibuster-proof margin in the Senate this year? On close examination, this is not in any way a certain outcome — because the Republicans have a lot to lose this year, too.

There are of course some seats that Democrats could potentially lose, and we’ve all heard a lot about them: Blanche Lincoln in Arkansas, Michael Bennet Colorado, the open seat in Delaware, the open seat in Illinois, the open seat in North Dakota, and Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania — and Republicans even talk about Barbara Boxer in California. Sen. Chris Dodd’s seat in Connecticut used to be at the top of this category, but today’s events might well have put this seat out of the GOP’s reach again.

At the same time there is a comparable number, depending on how liberally you count it, of Republican-held seats that could shift to the Democrats. Keep in mind that 2004 was a very good Senate cycle for the Republicans, with them winning nearly every state they possibly could. Now, six years later, they have a lot of territory where they have to play defense, and a wide variety of outcomes are possible.

So let’s take a look at the states where the Republicans have something to lose.Missouri
Four-term Republican Sen. Kit Bond is retiring in this perennial swing state, which John McCain carried by about 4,000 votes out 2.9 million. The likely nominees are GOP Rep. Roy Blunt, a former House GOP Whip and father of former Gov. Matt Blunt, and Dem Secretary of State Robin Carnahan, the daughter of the late Gov. Mel Carnahan and former Sen. Jean Carnahan. Early polls have shown a close race, with a possible slight edge for Carnahan.

Two-term Sen. George Voinovich is retiring. The favorite for the Republican nomination is former Rep. Rob Portman, who served as Trade Representative and Budget Director under President George W. Bush. The Democratic primary is between Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher and Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner. The most recent polls have given Portman only a narrow advantage over the Dems, with high undecideds.

New Hampshire
Three-term Sen. Judd Gregg is retiring. This state used to be the GOP’s New England stronghold, but since 2004 it has swung dramatically to the Democrats, electing a governor, a Senator, both of its two members of the House, and the state legislature, as well as voting for Barack Obama by 54%-45%. Two-term Rep. Paul Hodes is the presumptive Democratic nominee. Former state Attorney General Kelly Ayotte is the frontrunner for the Republican nomination, though she does face a multiple-candidate primary field. The most recent polls gave Ayotte the lead over Hodes, but with very high undecideds.

North Carolina
First-term Sen. Richard Burr was elected in 2004 by a margin of 52%-47%, to the open seat that was vacated by John Edwards when he sought the presidency and vice presidency. Since then, the state has definitely shifted somewhat in the Democrats’ direction — Dems have picked up two House seats, defeated GOP Sen. Elizabeth Dole by a 53%-44% landslide, and narrowly picked up the state’s electoral votes for Barack Obama. Recent polling has shown that Burr is running below 50% against unknown Democrats, and has a peculiar problem in that he is neither popular nor unpopular — the state doesn’t have much of an opinion about him either way. He will rise or fall with the national and local climate in November 2010.

This open seat is held by George LeMieux, who was appointed to the seat by Gov. Charlie Crist — a candidate for the seat — after first-term Sen. Mel Martinez resigned. Crist, a relative GOP moderate, is battling in a primary against the more conservative Marco Rubio. Polls have shown both of them leading Democratic Rep. Kendrick Meek — but races in Florida tend to be close once the general election really heats up. The GOP is currently favored to hold this seat, but that could change if the primary is sufficiently messy and if the Dems are well-organized for the general election.

Sen. David Vitter was first elected in 2004, and would probably have no difficulties at all in this conservative state except for one thing: In 2007 he was implicated in a prostitution scandal, and publicly admitted to an unspecified “serious sin.” Early polls have put Vitter ahead against Blue Dog Democratic Rep. Charlie Melancon, but under 50%. Vitter could also be challenged in the primary by Secretary of State Jay Dardenne, who would if elected join House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-VA) as only the second currently serving Jewish Republican in Congress. The GOP is favored here, but we’ll see what happens.

This state might seem deep-red based on its hefty margins for Republican presidential candidates, but its Senate races have been close. Two-term Sen. Jim Bunning, who is retiring, only won by 51%-49% in 2004, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was held to a 53%-47% margin in 2008. The Republican candidates are Secretary of State Trey Grayson and conservative activist Rand Paul, with Lt. Gov. Dan Mongiardo and Attorney General Jack Conway on the Democratic side. A recent poll give the GOP a clear advantage in the general election, but the potential for a close race does exist.

To be clear, I am not predicting that the Republicans will lose all of these seats, or even necessarily any of them. Some of them are clearly longer shots than others for the Democrats. The point is that no firm prediction can be made about what is going to happen this November, and both parties have a lot to lose, or a lot to gain.

At today’s White House press briefing, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs brushed off a question about how the White House would handle having less than 60 Senate seats: “But I think to surmise what a strategy would look like based on an election that’s 11 months away from happening, like I said, it’s a little bit like predicting not who’s going to win this Super Bowl, but who’s going to win the next Super Bowl.” Obama might have to worry about this contingency, and he might not — but it won’t happen until the next Super Bowl, and a whole lot can happen between now and then.

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