Senate Control Looking Like a Close Call

By Charlie Cook

March 6, 2012

Republican strategists and the GOP establishment weren’t breathing that much easier last Wednesday, the day after Mitt Romney’s presidential primary victories in Arizona and Michigan, than they had been the day before. But at least they were breathing. Many had been holding their breath after Rick Santorum’s wins in Colorado, Minnesota, and Missouri on Feb. 7. (Of course, holding your breath might be better than being apoplectic, which is what they were after Newt Gingrich’s 13-point victory in South Carolina.) It’s not that party pragmatists have any particular affection for Romney, but they have grown increasingly concerned about the GOP’s prospects in November from top to bottom. They see a Santorum nomination as distinctly unhelpful and a Gingrich nomination as an outright disaster. Now, a Romney nomination is once again a lot more likely than not. This race, though, seemed destined to go much longer than many of us expected.

It’s hard to get a good reading of the political climate. We are a little more than eight months away from the election. It’s fair to say that the Democratic Party and the generic “Democrats in Congress” have bad numbers in the national polls. For the Republican Party and “Republicans in Congress,” however, the numbers are even worse. Whether the gap between the two is widening is open to dispute. Recent polling by Stan Greenberg’s firm, Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, for both the Democracy Corps and the Women’s Voices Women Vote Action Fund suggests that the “Republican brand is in deep trouble.” Greenberg’s polling shows that Democrats saw a drop in their numbers over the course of much of last year, but, unlike the GOP, they have recovered somewhat during the past three months.

Looking at the Gallup Organization’s two February surveys that tested voters’ favorable and unfavorable attitudes toward the parties (the question wasn’t asked in January), the Republican Party averaged a 42.5 percent favorable and 51.5 percent unfavorable rating, a net minus 9 points. In the three 2011 surveys that featured the question, taken in January, April, and September, the average was 44.7 percent favorable and 47.7 percent unfavorable, a net minus 3 points. On a net basis, the GOP brand has dropped 6 points from last year.

Conversely, in the two February surveys, the Democratic Party averaged a 48 percent favorable and 47 percent unfavorable rating, a net plus 1 point. Its average in the three 2011 surveys was 44 percent favorable, 50.3 percent unfavorable, a net minus 6.3 points. The Democratic brand has improved 7.3 points since last year.

Generic congressional ballot-test measurements are all over the map, ranging from a wash to an 11-point advantage for Democrats. For some reason, the question always seems to skew 3 or 4 points in favor of Democrats. The likely election outcome is still a net loss of House seats for Republicans; but predictions of a 25-seat net shift in favor of the Democrats, which would give them control of the chamber, still seem farfetched to me.

My sense is that some headwinds have developed for Republicans in Congress, caused by overheated rhetoric on the presidential campaign trail coupled with actions at the congressional, gubernatorial, and state legislative levels. The velocity and effects of those headwinds are impossible to know at this point. The surprise retirement announcement by Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, is sure to give GOP strategists some heartburn (though, no doubt, some tea partiers are saying “good riddance”). It takes a seat that was very likely to remain in the Republican column and potentially shifts it to the tilting-Democratic column. Maine is the 12th-most-Democratic state in terms of party identification, as measured by Gallup last year.

My personal view had been that the most likely Senate outcome in November would be somewhere between a Republican gain of three seats, turning the chamber’s current makeup of 53 Democrats and 47 Republicans into a 50-50 proposition (with the majority resting on the outcome of the presidential race) and a six-seat net gain for the GOP, flipping the Senate to 53 Republicans and 47 Democrats. The most likely outcome seemed to be a Republican gain of four or five. In recent weeks, my gut has told me that I should drop the possibility of a six-seat gain and just say a gain of three to five seats for the GOP. With Snowe’s seat in Maine now in play, that seems very prudent. The only question is whether to drop the floor to two seats, saying two to five, compared with my three-to-six view in past weeks.

The magnitude of the GOP gain will hinge on the outcomes in about four states, with each party currently holding two of the seats. Democratic incumbent Jon Tester in Montana and the Democratic open seat in Virginia are likely to go wire-to-wire in the Toss-Up column. Scott Brown’s seat in Massachusetts and appointed Sen. Dean Heller’s seat in Nevada for the GOP are also Toss-Ups. To be sure, other seats fall into the Toss-Up column: namely, open Democratic seats in Hawaii, New Mexico, and Wisconsin. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., is also an extremely vulnerable incumbent, albeit with an underwhelming trio of opponents.

The bottom line is not whether Democrats will lose Senate seats and Republicans will gain them, but how many. Democrats have 23 seats up (read “at risk”) and the GOP has just 10. Democrats have to deal with seven open seats to just three for the GOP. Democrats have 11 seats in danger, and Republicans have just three. Can the GOP get the three seats it needs with a White House victory, or four seats with a loss? That is a closer call than it seemed a couple of months ago.

By Charlie Cook

March 6, 2012