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The 2012 Senate Race Improves for Democrats

May 19, 2012

Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight this week ran his first comprehensive look at the 2012 Senate race since last December, and the news is good for Democrats.

In the current Senate, Democrats hold 51 seats, and both of the Independents in the Senate caucus with the Democrats, giving them a 53 – 47 majority over the Republicans.  Last December, Silver’s analysis pointed to a Republican gain of four or five seats, decisively shifting control of the Senate from Harry Reid to Mitch McConnell.  But this week’s analysis suggests a Republican pick-up of three seats, leaving a much more ambiguous situation.

The most important change from December to now is that some strong Republican candidates have taken themselves out of contention, or have been taken out of contention by the current Republican propensity to favor purity over electability.

Probably most important is Maine, which was in Silver’s “likely Republican” column in December, when incumbent Republican Senator Olympia Snowe was thought to be running for re-election.  Following her retirement announcement, the leading candidate to succeed her is Independent Angus King, a popular former governor.  He’s keeping his options open, but his politics would suggest that he’s at least as likely to caucus with the Democrats as with the Republicans.

Meanwhile, Republican voters have made a pair of bone-headed primary selections that certainly didn’t help their chances.

Indiana Republicans opted for Richard Mourdock over the emininently electable six-term incumbent, Richard Lugar.  Lugar’s record is solidly conservative, but Mourdock was able to turn Lugar’s ability to work with Democrats to get things done into a liability.  Mourdock’s stated definition of bipartisanship is surrender by the Democrats to the Republicans.  Mourdock will probably win the election, but the campaign won’t be the cakewalk it should have been for Republicans, and resources will have to be diverted from other races to prevent a Republican embarrassment.

Nebraska Republicans opted for Deb Fisher to run against Bob Kerrey in November, apparently because Sarah Palin endorsed her.  Fisher is likely to win because Nebraska is so deeply red, but the race isn’t the Republican “gimme” that it should have been.

If Silver’s current projection holds, and Republicans pick up three Senate seats in November, then two tie-breakers will decide control of the Senate.  First is Angus King:  if he caucuses with Republicans, they hold control.  If he caucuses with Democrats, the Senate is tied at 50 – 50, and the tie-breaker is the vice president – who will be either Joe Biden or Mitt’s Minion, as-yet-unnamed.

So the good news is that Democrats have come from behind, where they were in December, to a dead heat today.  As of now, the balance of the Senate is likely to be decided in the six “toss up” states, where by definition the Democrats are competitive.

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