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No, Really: It’s Still Too Early to Judge Senate Races

“The GOP needs to gain three or four seats to win control (depending on which party controls the White House), and already five Democratic-held Senate seats are no better than toss-ups. The Democratic outlook would improve markedly if the party could swipe a couple of Republican seats next year, but with only 10 GOP Senate seats up, there are few opportunities.”

Just a little more than two years ago, that is how I began my assessment of the Senate battlefield in the Aug. 1, 2011, edition of the Rothenberg Political Report ($).

“For now,” I continued, “Republicans are putting enough Democratic seats into play to put control of the Senate in doubt in next year’s elections.”

Of course, the roof ultimately fell in on GOP hopes of taking back the Senate last cycle. Instead of gaining seats, the party suffered a net loss of two seats.

Once again this cycle, the Senate is broadly “in play,” as five Democratic seats are no better than tossups and there are few Democratic takeover opportunities of GOP-held seats. But that is where this year’s political version of Groundhog Day stops.

This time, Republicans need to net six seats (out of 20 Democratic seats) to win the majority, not just three or four (out of 23 Democratic seats up for election).

It will be tempting, but a mistake, for some Democratic operatives and talking heads to conclude that because Republicans booted away their opportunity in 2012, they are automatically destined to do the same thing next year.

But it will also be tempting, and a mistake, to conclude that because Republicans blew a similar opportunity in 2012, there is no way they will do the same thing again.

In fact, you can look at all the historical data you’d like — and chew over the candidates now running — and yet not know what the political playing field will be in the fall of 2014. This was the state of play in early August 2011:

  • Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, was presumed to be running for re-election. She didn’t, and instead of holding the seat, Republicans lost it to Angus King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats. (Check out a must-see timeline Roll Call put together for Senate candidate recruiting in 2011-2012, as well as a good piece on Senate recruiting this cycle.)
  • In North Dakota, Sen. Kent Conrad had already announced his retirement, but Democrats didn’t yet have a strong candidate who could hold his seat. Heidi Heitkamp didn’t get in the contest until November, and while she obviously was a much stronger candidate than anyone else who had been mentioned, she certainly wasn’t a slam dunk for the seat.
  • In Indiana, Richard Mourdock had already announced his primary challenge to veteran Sen. Richard G. Lugar by the summer of 2011, but nobody knew whether the then-state treasurer would raise enough money to be competitive. And even if he did win the nomination, few dispassionate observers believed that Mourdock, a statewide elected official, would suffer a self-inflicted political wound and lose to Democrat Joe Donnelly in the general election.
  • In Missouri, nobody of any consequence thought that then-Rep. Todd Akin would be the Republican nominee, or that even if he did win the primary he would run such a foolish campaign. At this point in 2011, Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill looked like toast.

Plenty of other surprises happened during the fight for the Senate in 2012, including a spillover from the presidential race. But the point should be clear: Many things could happen between now and next fall to change the arithmetic in the fight for Senate control.

It’s worth noting, however, that of the 16 Senate contests rated as competitive by the Rothenberg Political Report (that is, not safe) in August 2011, the GOP eventually won only two: Arizona and Nebraska. Both states went for Romney and for the Republican Senate nominee (Deb Fischer in Nebraska and Jeff Flake in Arizona).

But five other states that went for Romney elected or re-elected Democrats to the Senate: Indiana (Donnelly), Missouri (McCaskill), Montana (Jon Tester), North Dakota (Heitkamp) and West Virginia (Joe Manchin III). Republicans did not win a single Senate race last cycle in a state carried by Barack Obama.

So, the fact that the landscape of 2014 should favor the GOP because Democrats are defending so many red-state seats certainly doesn’t guarantee Republican Senate gains any more than it did in 2012. But the midterm dynamic and turnout issues could change everything next year, producing an outcome that looks nothing like what happened in 2012.

We simply don’t yet know how the cycle will unfold.

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