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The Senate Stays Democratic

November 7, 2012

Even as President Obama led Mitt Romney in opinion polls early this year, the Democrats’ position in the Senate looked dire. Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell was predicting a Republican take-over, and Democratic candidates across the country were struggling.

Then some Democratic bright spots emerged. When Olympia Snowe, the moderate Republican Senator from Maine, announced her retirement, former Independent Governor Angus King entered the race and quickly took a lead in the polls. Elizabeth Warren decided to take on the incumbent Republican Senator from Massachusetts, Scott Brown. A popular former North Dakota attorney general, Heidi Heitkamp, decided to run for retiring Democrat Kent Conrad’s seat.

And Republican primary voters made some bone-headed moves, like nominating Todd “Legitimate Rape” Akin in Missouri, and Richard “Pregnancy by Rape is God’s Will” Mourdock in Indiana.

Like President Obama, Democratic Senate candidates had a strong summer. Not until August did I think that the Democrats were likely to retain their Senate majority. Unlike the President, Democratic Senate candidates did not take a dive in popularity after the Denver presidential debate. And like Obama, Democratic Senate candidates had a great ten-day lead-up to Election Day.

As expected, Democrats picked up Republican seats in Indiana and Massachusetts, and Democratic-leaning Independent Angus King picked up a Republican seat in Maine.

Republicans expected an off-setting pick-up of three Democratic seats in Montana, Nebraska and North Dakota. But things didn’t pan out entirely as Republicans expected. Republican Deb Fischer beat former Democratic Senator Bob Kerrey for the Nebraska seat held by retiring Democrat Ben Nelson. But Montana and North Dakota have not fallen, with Democrats holding small leads – Montana incumbent Democrat Jon Tester over Republican challenger Denny Rehberg, and North Dakota Democrat Heidi Heitkamp over Republican Rick Berg.

Nevada is also too close to call, but incumbent Republican Dean Heller is leading Democratic challenger Shelley Berkley.

In other words, the Democrats’ worst case for the Senate’s next term is the same 53-47 majority they have now. The Democrats’ best case scenario would be to win all three outstanding races, for a 56-44 majority – but realistically, Democrats can hope to hold Montana and North Dakota, lose Nevada, and take a 55-45 majority in the next Senate.

All three Democratic pick-ups are seats currently held by moderate Republicans: Angus King instead of Olympia Snowe in Maine, Elizabeth Warren instead of Scott Brown in Massachusetts, and Joe Donnelly instead of Richard Lugar in Indiana. This will reduce the substantive impact of the Democratic pick-ups – bigger impacts would have come if Richard Carmona had replaced Jon Kyl in Arizona, or Shelley Berkley had beaten Dean Heller, for instance.  Conversely, Ben Nelson’s replacement by Deb Fisher is likely to have modest impact, since Nelson is probably the most conservative Democrat in the current Senate.

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